Walk into The Treehouse on Stanford University's campus, and you might witness a disc of dough flying through the air and spinning like a basketball on the finger of World Pizza Champions team member Matt Driscoll. Opening his first brick-and-mortar pizzeria is the latest stop on a pizza-making journey that has included stints at Domino's, opening a food truck with Google's help and serving pineapple on a pie at an international pizza competition.
The Pizza Series is the latest addition to Stanford's dining options and initially started as an Instagram feed where Driscoll would share his pizza creations. When the pandemic derailed his plans to open a food truck, he turned The Pizza Series into a pop-up based in Scotts Valley. Now, the competitive pizzaiolo is serving New York-style pizzas with creative topping combinations and crispy but airy Detroit-style square pies on the Peninsula.
Then 19 years old, Driscoll took his first job in the pizza industry at an Aptos Domino's in 1997. While this experience laid a foundation for his eventual career, Driscoll moved onto exploring other industries like construction and music. He even formed a record label named S.A.F. Records, which he still leads.
"Pizza kept finding me," Driscoll says. In 2004, a car crashed into Driscoll's home, and he scrambled outside in a panic. Although the two had hardly ever spoken, Driscoll's neighbor invited him in and the conversation eventually turned to pizza, as Driscoll's neighbor had taken over Aptos' Straw Hat Pizza and was looking for cooks. Driscoll accepted an offer to work there and fell in love with pizza when given control over the dough recipe and even the eatery's decor. "It was almost like I was running my own restaurant," Driscoll says. The duo eventually shed the franchise label and rebranded as Brando's Pizzeria.
When Brando's closed down, Driscoll moved to Pizza My Heart, learning to manage a high volume of orders and learning how to toss dough by hand. Three years later, in 2009, he opened the pizza station at Whole Foods' Santa Cruz location, a job that would enter him into the world of competitive pizza-making.
Pizza competitions generally take place at international trade shows and events and serve as a way to promote the pizza industry. While competitions include events judging taste and presentation, they also incorporate unexpected categories like pizza box folding and dough acrobatics. Harnessing tough, salt-rich doughs free of yeast, dough acrobatics competitors perform elaborate tricks that go far beyond the up-and-down tosses one might witness at a pizzeria.
Whole Foods Market sponsored Driscoll's participation at these competitions, including the International Pizza Challenge in Las Vegas. Driscoll, who learned to toss dough by flinging kitchen towels around, developed choreographed, four-minute routines and practiced tricks including shoulder rolls, where the disc of dough spins down one arm, across his back and into his other hand, and tosses that launch the dough 15 feet into the air. (Visit the Peninsula Foodist's Instagram account for a video of Driscoll in action.)
While dough acrobatics may have been Driscoll's signature event, he also competed in fastest box folding (he assembled five boxes in 18 seconds), largest dough stretch and the taste and visual-based categories. With access to Whole Foods' entire selection of specialty items, Driscoll experimented with countless cheeses and toppings, many of which can be seen in The Pizza Series' offerings.
One combo, which earned him third place in his region, was a raw vegetable pizza that incorporated paper-thin slices of cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes and carrots layered on top of goat cheese. It was then finished with pine nuts, prosciutto and balsamic glaze. Even when competing in the traditional category, which restricts competitors to two common toppings, Driscoll turned peppers into a medley sauteed with Calabrian sausage and finished just short of first place. He even served pineapple on a barbecue Hawaiian pizza and was surprised by the wary responses he received from some pizza purists.
Since 2018, Driscoll has been a part of Tony Gemignani's World Pizza Champions, an international team that serves as "ambassadors of pizza" through competitions and public events. Overall, Driscoll appreciates how competitions provide culinary inspiration from throughout the world (he's still amazed by a poke pizza topped with raw fish) and an opportunity to dive into dough science in order to make the most minute improvements in his recipes.
"It's not necessarily just winning competitions. It's who has the passion for the craft and demonstrates that love for pizza," he says.
After seven years at Whole Foods Market and opening pizza counters at stores throughout the Northern California region, Driscoll took another break from the industry with a year in construction. Still, he continued experimenting with pizza at home in Santa Cruz. He built up The Pizza Series Instagram account to chronicle his creations, and was surprised by its popularity (it now has over 12,000 followers). His most elaborate pizza was a breakfast pie with a sausage gravy stuffed crust that was topped with 15 eggs.
Holding onto his goal of running his own pizzeria, Driscoll applied for and was accepted into the Instrucktional food truck incubator program run by Google and Off the Grid. Driscoll, a Michigan native, pitched a concept centered around Detroit-style pizza, which has recently gained popularity across the country. Driscoll credits the late Shawn Randazzo, who showcased Detroit-style pizzas at competitions, with helping to popularize their thick, square-cut slices, crispy bottoms fried in oil, and caramelized cheese that extends to the edges of the pie. Often, toppings are placed with the cheese underneath the sauce.
Driscoll says that good Detroit-style pizza is all about fermentation and hydration levels and prefers a slightly airy dough that looks heavy but feels like a feather. "It's like picking up a grilled cheese sandwich," he says.
While The Pizza Series food truck was wrapped and branded in the spring of 2020, COVID-19 induced the cancellation of the Instrucktional program. Driscoll, who takes life's challenges in stride, quickly pivoted to launching The Pizza Series pop-up, serving both New York and Detroit-style pizzas in a Scotts Valley business park. "I don't overthink things too much ... The more fun you keep it, the more opportunities come knocking on your door," he says.
The pop-up caught the eye of restaurateur and retired real estate executive Ray Klein, who runs three restaurants on Stanford's campus and has developed notable eateries including Tartine Bakery. Originally seeking a consultant on Detroit-style pizza (Klein's The Treehouse was already serving pizza on campus), Klein befriended Driscoll and the two became business partners.
The Pizza Series has started serving its New York-style pizzas on Stanford's campus and had its grand opening with Detroit-style pizzas on Thursday, April 28. Customers can expect vegetarian and vegan choices among the slices and whole pies. Toppings include simpler choices like buffalo and barbecue chicken and veggie combos, and will eventually include The Pizza Series' more elaborate options like "The Hidden Forest" with spinach, sauteed mushrooms, roasted garlic and whipped ricotta cheese. Driscoll will then introduce his Detroit-style breakfast pizzas topped with runny yolks, cheese and bacon.
Set in the heart of campus where students can sit and enjoy their slices in front of the pizza ovens, Driscoll and his team can watch customers devour their creations. "Their faces and their happiness, their positivity towards everything we're doing is probably the greatest thing," he says.
The Pizza Series will also open a full restaurant in Scotts Valley soon.
Matt Driscoll isn't the only pizza competitor with a local restaurant: Lars and Cristina Aceves Smith of State of Mind Public House & Pizzeria and State of Mind Slice House just had strong finishes at the World Pizza Championship, earning recognition in the Pizza in Pala and Pizza Classica categories.
The Pizza Series, 459 Lagunita Drive, Stanford (inside The Treehouse); 650-723-4500, thepizzaseries.com. Instagram: @the_pizza_series. Open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day.
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This story was originally published on TheSixFifty.com, a sister publication of Palo Alto Online, covering what to eat, see and do in Silicon Valley.