Friday, July 19, 2024

Speak Cheezy’s kinda-New Haven, sorta-cold cheese pie is one of the best in the Long Beach pizza scene

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When it comes to the Long Beach pizza scene, there are few pizzaiolos as willing to experiment with style (and succeed in said experimentation) than Chef Jason Winters of Speak Cheezy. His Belmont Heights pizzeria has rightfully earned accolades, including the recent nod from the Washington Post as one of the best pizzerias in the nation.

From Detroit-style—something we rightfully included on our best dishes of 2023 list—to Sicilian to his classic take on sourdough to his deeply communal collaborations, Winters has not been afraid to not only show off his taste’n’talent but his desire to make the Long Beach pizza scene something worthy of calling a beast of its own.

And his take on a classic cheese pie—partially cold cheese pizza-inspired, partially New Haven-style—is one of the best veers his pizzeria has taken in a time when that very pizzeria has opted to experiment heavily with success.

“I am always drawn to simplicity,” Winters said. “Always.”

Enter “The Heightz,” a playful ode toward both the Belmont Heights location of Speak Cheezy and the Heights of New York City and, more importantly, an ode toward the mighty cheese pizza, one that is meant to be devoured directly out of the box as soon as you get it.

Where does this cold cheese pizza come in—and it’s in the world of Long Beach pizza? Wellll…

There have long been cold cheese warriors in the pizza world—including some places straight up having cold cheese at the self-serve bar for patrons to add, something Winters said his son Michah will “always add after grabbing a plain cheese slice.”

Herein lies one of Winters’s biggest inspiration, with acknowledging that “the first pizza to always disappear at any party is the plain cheese. And after my recent trip to New York, I knew I wanted to create a pie that had to live on the menu forever—something that isn’t trendy but worthy of a permanent space.”

Yes, yes there is a cold cheese pizza—an iconoclast if there ever was one in the pizza world: embracing the audacity of chilled cheese with the sublime heat of a hot pizza slice, this New York tradition transcends the boundaries of conventional pizza appreciation.

Now, there are hardcore cold cheese pizzas—topped with absurd amounts of chilled cheese—but the base of this pizza is quite simple in its history: A kid in the 1980s, likely intoxicated but somehow expressing some inebriated prescient wonder, asked the owner of Tino’s Pizza—located at the back of the Black Oak Tavern in Oneota, New York—to put some cold cheese on his slice so he doesn’t burn the roof of his mouth.

Is that what Jason does? Yes… And no.

Post-oven, Winters adds another little dousing of that feathered mozzarella that, after even just a minute, isn’t necessarily cold cheese at its purest but a nice, room temperature-d out dollop of cream and salt that is dangerously devour-able.

“I think we’ve arrived at something like a neo-New York thin slice—foldable without the flop, no puff and flat but also delicate,” Winters said.

This is California—what the hell is New Haven-style pizza?

Ah, New Haven pizza, lovingly called apizza. Yes, “apizza,” which strangely makes sense for Connecticut. It’s that glorious concoction that’s not just a meal but a community’s undying love for what they largely consider the perfect pie and something Elm City—the state’s second largest city—can truly call their own.

In the pizza world, New Haven-style pizza is no joke, both loved and often, failingly imitated. It is the creation of Italian immigrants that, attempting to reflect the famed Napolitano-style of their ancestors, pivoted on pizza style: Come 1925, at the corner of Wooster and Olive Street in Elm City, Amalfi immigrant Frank Pepe fired up his coal oven and tossed the first dough that would evolve into the renowned “White Clam Pizza.” A master of simplicity, Pepe embraced the philosophy that less is more: a thin, crisp crust topped with fresh clams, garlic, olive oil, and a sprinkle of oregano.

Soon to follow: Modern Apizza in 1934, Sally’s Apizza in 1938… “Apizza” was officially a thing.

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Of course, talking about the style birthed in Connecticut and creating it are two different beasts: And Winters has learned that in order to mimic that “crispy, no flop” slice, the style of New Haven was where to look and attempt to recreate.

This meant creating a dough that could bake longer—bye, bye, puffy crust—and that meant punching the dough, stretching the dough, perforating the dough… Heavily.

And it also meant somehow generously saucing the pizza—without too much weight—and cheesing the pizza—again: without too much weight—to the point where the sauce and cheese miraculously meld.

“And while I know some don’t appreciate it, I like a little burn on the edges and bubbles,” Winters said. “It’s a nice bit of char to what is basically a full-on melding of dough, sauce, and cheese.”

And with it, Speak Cheezy has created a proper cheese pizza for Long Beach—and the world—to dream about on the daily. Oh, and eat it out of the box—wanna reemphasize that.

Speak Cheezy is located at 3950 E. 4th St.

Brian Addison
Brian Addison
Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 25 nominations and three additional wins. In 2019, he was awarded the Food/Culture Critic of the Year across any platform at the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards.

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