At Norma’s Pizza, during what I refer to as my annual Pizza Rumspringa,* I had one of the best pizza experiences of my life. Appropriately enough this took place in Pennsylvania Dutch Country, where the concept of rumspringa does not meet blank stares.
Not only did I eat some award-winning NY-style pizza—at a proper country market, of all places—I got to make my own pizza, and, best of all, hang out for a couple hours with one of the pizza world’s most curious, obsessive, and exacting minds, Ms. Norma Knepp.
It’s remarkable that Norma didn’t know a thing about pizza when she opened her stand at Roots Market in Manheim, Pennsylvania, in 2009. She was, at the time, trying to make ends meet by selling funnel cakes, ice cream, and lemonade in a different stall after her now-late husband, Albert, had a fall and couldn’t run the family caramel corn stand anymore. When funnel cakes weren’t doing the trick, she jumped at the chance to try pizza after the market management mentioned they’d like to add it to the food roster there.
With no prior experience making pizza, Norma turned to a local pizzeria owner who was set to help her—until he ended up in the hospital. It was then that she found Pizzamaking.com, which has a thriving community of amateur, pro-am, and professional pizza-makers on its message boards. The folks on the Pizzamaking forums helped Norma as she honed her recipe for the stand.
If you bother to poke around her post history there, you’ll see her steady evolution from student to master. But evident the entire time is her insatiable curiosity, which tends to take the form of pizza-cloning.
She seems to learn best by imitation, fiddling with variables until she re-creates a facsimile pie of whatever pizzeria has captured her imagination. When I visited, she helped walk me through stretching, cheesing, and saucing a knock-off of Johnny’s in Mount Vernon, New York.
To clone these pies, she’s gone as far as staking out target pizzerias, peeking in their trash bins to suss out ingredients by the discarded packaging. It’s not unusual for professional pizzamakers and other pizza weirdos to get late-night DMs or emails from Norma, asking impossibly obscure ingredient sourcing questions if she thinks you may have visited a pizzeria and observed something of note.
Norma’s not unlike the Borg in Star Trek, and I’ve lost track of all the styles and iconic pies she’s assimilated into her unimatrix of pizza knowledge over the years.
She’s certainly got New York–style down, having won that division in the 2016 Caputo Cup pizza competition. And that’s essentially what she makes as the default at her stand. She used to also offer Detroit style there but now makes a sort of hybrid Detroit–Sicilian in a round pan instead. I’ve seen her tackle bar-style, cracker crust, grandma style, Neapolitan, and even a chocolate-dough dessert pizza (inspired, presumably, by Tom Degrezia at Sofia Pizza Shoppe).
Her own style that she’s settled into is often pegged as “New York” by various news outlets, and it more or less is, but it takes some cues from the Jersey Shore boardwalk pizzas she loves, notably Mack’s in Wildwood, New Jersey. You can see it in the hint of a sauce spiral and taste it in her cheese blend, which includes a touch of cheddar.
After stretching her dough to 18 inches (46cm) in her tightly packed work space, she unhooks a pizza peel from below the counter, dusts it lightly with rice flour, and transfers the dough “skin” to it, adding the cheese first, then a loose swirl of sauce before turning around and launching the pizza into the small propane-fueled Bakers Pride oven directly behind her.
What comes out looks, smells, and tastes incredible. Especially after she hits the steaming pie with freshly grated Parm, a dusting of pecorino Romano, and basil snipped right off a plant growing on her countertop. The crust is crisp yet pliant, folding without cracking, and the sauce tastes at once fresh, bright and robust, since she blends a good quality canned tomato with a cooked-down herby tomato paste.
This is one deeply satisfying slice and one that I already know will make my 2019 8 Pizzas That Haunt My Dreams list. Just writing about it has me craving it.
And I’m lucky I was able to try it. Around this time last year, health issues forced Norma to close the stand—and it looked permanent. I couldn’t help but selfishly regret I’d let yet another lauded pizzeria disappear before I made time to try it. (I’ll always rue having missed out on Nick Lessins & Lydia Esparza’s Great Lake pizza in Chicago, Burt’s Place while Burt Katz was still with us [also in Chicago], and Pizzeria Beddia 1.0 in Philly.) I was happy, though, to see Norma get some doctor-prescribed rest, and then thrilled for her when she recuperated enough to reopen the stand—provided she had help.
Originally her longtime friend Steve (AKA “Ev” on Norma’s own blog) stepped in to help her lift heavy things and pitch in, but eventually her current assistant, Martin, took over. He now literally does the heavy lifting—moving flour bags, helping make the dough—along with a lot of the little non-making-of-the-pizza stuff that helps ease Norma’s work.
It’s great to see Norma back in the stand. When she originally announced her retirement, I worried not only primarily for her physical health but for her spirit. She clearly loves the pizza life, and I couldn’t imagine what a loss it was for her to have to step away.
If you’ve followed this deep into the story, there’s a good chance you might want to visit. This, then, is where I should note two major pieces of intel:
- Norma’s Pizza is only open Tuesdays, following the Tuesday-only schedule of Roots Country Market itself, where she’s located, and…
- Order ahead by at least a day if you want a whole pie. You can do so on Norma’s Facebook page, and I recommend it, since walk-up orders are limited to 4 slices each. Oh, and…
- The menu is limited to plain pies (aka ”cheese pizza”) and pepperoni pies. Norma’s one of those souls who believes great pizza doesn’t need much adornment. And while I’ve become more wide-ranging with my topping choices over the years, I think you’d be doing this fine pizza a disservice to load it up with more than the judicious amount of standard-issue lay-flat pepperoni that she uses.
I had DM’d Norma ahead of time, so she knew I was coming and that I was in the market for a whole plain pie.
“Anything special you want?”
“Nope. Just whatever you normally do.”
“You wanna make one?” she asked.
I’ve followed Norma on Instagram long enough to know that when people with a certain amount of pizza chops pay a visit to her—usually these are pro pizzamakers—she often asks them to make a cameo on the pizza peels. Part of it is Norma’s heartfelt hospitality, I’m sure, but I also wonder if it’s not a clever way for her to Tom Sawyer other people into doing her work.
I’d never really stretched a dough much bigger than the 12-inch (30.5cm) wood-fired pizzas I used to help make at Paulie Gee’s, or my own 12-inch bar pizzas at the Margot’s Pizza pop-ups. But I was able to “open” and stretch the dough just fine—if perhaps not as consistently thin as Norma does.
What you see pictured above is the first pizza I made with Norma, which more or less approximates her style. I made another one in the style of Johnny’s of Mt. Vernon (remember Norma’s love of cloning?), and then one of those round Sicilian–Detroit hybrids.
I was able to make so many pizzas with her because the market was unusually slow that day and Norma had time for it. (It was back-to-school in the area that week and extra hot—both keeping people away.) Stipulating that I took way too long to visit Norma at all, I’ll say I’m lucky I waited until this particular late-August Tuesday to visit.
But don’t you wait. If you can, check out Norma’s stand. You won’t regret it. If you’re within striking distance in the Northeast, I could see a nice fall trip over a lonnng weekend.**
Norma’s Pizza at Roots Country Market: 705 Graystone Road, Manheim PA 17545; 717-341-8940
* Most years my wife and daughter visit my in-laws out in California for a couple weeks. While they’re gone, I go out to eat at a bunch of pizzerias during my “temporary bachelorhood.” I’ve referred to it as my “pizza rumspringa.”
** The extra n’s in “lonnng weekend” make it a four-day weekend, which is kinda what you’d need to make a leisurely visit to Norma’s if you’re coming from, say, NYC or Boston, or anywhere more than a couple hours’ drive. Fortunately the area is well worth visiting, with a great food scene, plenty of history, and this great hiking trail I’ve loved since I was a kid visiting my Lancaster cousins. While I was at Norma’s, I ran into some local farmers, Alex & Gracie of The Field’s Edge Research Farm. They grow heirloom and hard-to-source vegetables in nearby Lititz for local and regional restaurants, and their run-down of the dining landscape made me want to visit again with more than a day to spare.