When the D.C.-based fast-casual chain &pizza landed in NoMad in June, New Yorkers lined up to order their own, customized oblong pies for a little less than $11 each.
The &pizza at 15 W. 28th St. is not your typical New York slice joint — nor your fancy wood-fired oven operation. Customers can choose as many toppings as they like for the same price, then watch their thin-crust pie assembled by hand and baked in a conveyor belt-like oven that ejects their meal in less than two minutes.
How have pizza lovers navigated this uncharted territory?
They've reached for a native topping.
Mike's Hot Honey — the chili-infused honey invented by a former apprentice at the Brooklyn pizzeria Paulie Gee's — has emerged as a crowd-favorite ingredient at &pizza, co-founder Michael Lastoria said.
"I know that in our first week we went through four cases" — roughly 100 pounds — "of it, which is insane," said Lastoria, whose company puts an emphasis on partnering with small local businesses.
"American Honey is our top-selling pie," Lastoria added, referring to a composed pizza baked with spicy tomato sauce, mozzarella, pepperoni, arugula, red pepper flakes and goat cheese, then drizzled with Mike's Hot Honey.
Lastoria's first New York City shop (a second is slated to open in Astor Place in late September) sold roughly 1,000 American Honey pies in its first two weeks, 300 more than its second bestseller, a spokeswoman said.
"The savory elements of pizza, the cheese, the cured meats, pair really nicely with the sweetness of the honey," said Michael Kurtz, the apprentice pizzaiolo turned honey impresario.
"The heat hits you on the back of your palate. You taste the floral notes of the honey first, then the heat from the chili peppers kicks in," said Kurtz, 35, who discovered the flavor combination for himself as a college student studying Portuguese, traveling and eating pizza in Brazil.
For years, Kurtz refined his hot honey recipe as a hobby. He moved to New York to work in the music industry and started his off-hours pizzaiolo training at Paulie Gee's, a gourmet Greenpoint pizzeria, in 2010. There, Paulie, aka Paul Giannone, took a liking to Kurtz's topping and introduced it to such pies as the Hellboy and the Red Hot Cherry Jones.
Customers began asking about how to get their hands on a bottle of the spicy, sticky stuff.
"I'd be there at night, making pizzas, and people would come up and say, 'Hey, aren’t you the honey guy?' " Kurtz said. "I got a sense pretty early on that it was something people really loved."
He began bottling his product in the pizzeria kitchen, selling it from the bar, and driving around the city to make his own deliveries. Today, it's manufactured in a plant in Fords, New Jersey, and sold in markets like Eataly, Whole Foods and Fairway, where it typically retails for $9.99 per 12-ounce bottle. The salad chain Chop't uses the upstate wildflower honey infused with Brazilian chilies in its Hot Honey vinaigrette.
But &pizza director of new markets Rachel McLaughlin tried Mike's Hot Honey for the first time on pizza at Paulie Gee's, Kurtz said.
What's the next taste frontier for &pizza, after spicy sweetness?
It could be a pear, walnut and Gorgonzola dolce pie, Lastoria said. That's what a customer who identified himself as Jay requested when he walked into the New York shop on June 29.
"I took his information and sent [the idea] to our culinary team," Lastoria said. "I told him I was going to email him when we do our first cutting of it. He's going to come in and we're going to have him essentially sign off on it."