“Doing cool stuff illegally is definitely part of my history.”
That’s what Zack Roach tells me in his back yard, on a Monday evening. Pittsburgh’s humid summer is in full swing, and we’re sitting in backyard chairs from a mismatched, outdoor furniture set. The “history” he’s referring to includes allegedly fighting his first house fire underage at 17. Both Zack and his girlfriend Stephanie Duffield grew up in rural, western PA, and have a smorgasbord of career fields, certifications and professional experiences to their names, some they describe as good and others bad. Their latest foray into semi-illegal, underground pizza-making doesn’t seem to be inspired by their current positions either. Zack manages a trivia company and Stephanie manages a Pinball cafe in nearby Lawrenceville.
Paladar, the name of their weekly back yard pizza shop, had humble beginnings as just a way to meet the neighbors. The couple streams “Bad Movie Tuesday” on their Twitch channel, and they started making pizzas for each Tuesday night.
“These pizzas started coming out really good, all of a sudden,” says Zack. “We were like ‘Damn! This is some good pizza!'”
Stephanie adds, “Well, we thought it was good pizza, so we started wondering if others thought it was good pizza. And what better way to try?”
They started having back yard pizza parties every Monday. “We didn’t put anything online,” Stephanie says. “We just hung signs … word of mouth, Nextdoor…”
“We wanted to try to make a suggested donation very affordable for the entire neighborhood. Like who can’t come and give 5 bucks for a cheese pizza? You get a whole meal. It’s a very filling pie,” says Zack. “We made like 30 doughs, and I think we sold like six pizzas the first week.”
Word didn’t spread to me, a fellow resident of Zack and Stephanie’s neighborhood at the time, until a few months into their weekly venture. My brother told me he saw people selling pizzas out of their garage during his bike ride, and he was going to go try one. I remember being puzzled and asking him a few questions. My brother is what many people describe as a “germaphobe,” and the fact that he was willing to try some backdoor pizza salesman’s pies was out of character. “Let me know how it is,” I told him.
The review came in, and it turned out both the pizza and service were awesome. I went a few times with Maura before asking to interview Zack and Stephanie, and they were happy to do so.
“Justin just told me to park, and walk down [redacted street name]. I’m wondering if I’m even walking the right way,” I explain to Zack and Stephanie.
Zack immediately replies, “Right? You feel like you’re gonna get murdered, it’s a really gross alley … you keep going and then all of a sudden there’s a covered place for you to sit, a big yard full of people…”
“Now we’re starting to look at like, what is the Kickstarter route to go? There’s other restaurants like Apteka and Baby Loves Tacos that have gone this route as well, that have been underground restaurants that pop up and they open brick-and-mortars because of it.” – Zack
My own experience with their pizzas reminds me of the world of home brewing, where brewers can afford to be wildly experimental with ingredients, hop volumes and fermentation. Since they’re only making small batches at a time, and have the chance to greatly refine recipes without significant commercial and monetary consequence, home brewers are the ones making the best beers in the world. Paladar’s pies are among the absolute best homemade pizzas I’ve ever had, with better ingredients than nearly any pizza restaurant I’ve been to. Their stuffed crust was one of the most deliciously indulgent ways cheese has ever been offered to me. The whole pizza was gourmet, but simultaneously devourable in the “watch-sports-drink-beer” kind of way. Paladar is whole-heartedly Pittsburgh: neighborhood driven, filling, authentic and, in the best yinzer way, dive-y.
“The word Paladar actually comes from Cuba and it means ‘from one’s home’,” explains Stephanie. “We want you to understand that we love to do this. We want to impress you, but we do live here!”
Watch the video below for additional quotes and a behind-the-scenes look into their ingredients and process, as well as more photos of Paladar‘s location, kitchen and pizzas.
Special thanks to Matt Carulli for providing the photos of Apteka in the above video.
Update 1/10/20: Zack and Stephanie reached out to me after the publication of this article. Due to the sale of the property they were renting, they had to move to a different Pittsburgh neighborhood, which doesn’t have a back yard. They’re still making pizzas, and are still looking at ways to start selling it again.