The Music, Mavens, and Pizza Preoccupation That Inspired Stoked
Here’s what led Letters to Cleo’s Scott Riebling to leave music for a food truck.
In the fourth season of NBC’s Parks and Recreation, Leslie Knope’s (Amy Poehler) boyfriend Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott) finds himself unemployed and depressed. While shooting the world’s worst claymation movie and baking low-cal calzones, Ben could be seen bumming around in a concert T-shirt from the ’90s alternative rock band, Letters to Cleo. That brief shot set off a firestorm on Twitter, making the band a trending topic despite being defunct for almost a decade. Now there’s even a blog and a Twitter account dedicated to the sight of Adam Scott wearing a iron-on shirt with Letters to Cleo’s debut album “Aurora Gory Alice.”
So what did happen to the band?
Well, bassist Scott Riebling went on to play for bands like Weezer as well as becoming a successful record engineer for Fall Out Boy, The Von Bondies, and We The Kings. What most people don’t know is that also harbored a serious love of pizza.
The guy who casually started making pizzas for bandmates—and also because of yearning for pizza from his hometown of Pittsburgh—eventually turned his hobby into an obsession. Soon he was blogging on industry insider websites and sharing his insights with chefs at some of the most respected pizzerias in the world. I caught up Riebling and Stoked Wood Fired Pizza Co. co-owner Toirm Miller to discuss his legendary Back Bay pizza parties and his dramatic career change (including, but not limited to, catering the Miley Cyrus after-party in April). Boston’s newest food truck owner is about to hit the streets with a 6,000-pound pizza oven and a menu that’s been in the making for more than 20 years.
Oh, and that Parks and Rec placement wasn’t a happy accident. Turns out the show’s co-creator Michael Schur was a huge Cleo fan.
Let’s start at the beginning. How did this all come about?
Scott: I moved here from Pittsburgh to go to Berklee College of Music and I was a little bummed out because I couldn’t find pizza that was like what I grew up with, which was more New York-style. I was finding all these white cheddar cheese pizzas—which is a Greek thing—and pizza cooked in pans. It got me started on this kick of making my own pizza from scratch. I was 18 when I started, and it was mainly to feed my roommates and the guys in my band. We were poor college kids, and it was just a fun hobby. I just kept going with it and starting about 10 years ago, I starting getting calls from people who owned pizzerias who were asking me to help them come up with better recipes. Or sometimes they would call and ask me what sort of oven they should buy or what kind of mixer they should buy to achieve a certain texture.
How did they even think to contact you?
Scott: Those people found me from some writing I did online for a website called pizzamaking.com. It’s a really large community of professionals and people that are serious about their hobby. Anyway, I started writing and answering questions about pizza-making. Next thing I knew, people were calling me to teach them how to make pizza. All of a sudden I started seeing places that I’d given my recipe to on Diner, Drive-Ins, and Dives and getting Zagat’s No. 1 rating in their particular city. It started to feel like it was something I needed to do for myself. That’s where Toirm came in. He’s been a friend of mine for many, many years and has been eating my pizza for 12 years. He came to me and said, “let’s do a truck in Boston.” At first I was a little scared. Getting into the restaurant business full-time is always a gamble. But I think I’ve done the right thing because we’re getting an amazing response already from everyone who’s been sampling the pizza.
What pizzerias were you giving advice to that have gone onto that kind of national exposure?
Scott: I don’t know if I should say. I kind of feel bad because the one that went on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives told Guy Fieri they learned to make pizza from their grandfather in Italy. The one in Detroit got the No. 1 rated restaurant on Zagat’s. Not just pizzeria, No. 1 restaurant. You can probably figure that one out without me giving a name [it’s Supino Pizzeria]. There’s a place in Boston, too, that’s now the No. 1 rated pizzeria on Yelp. I don’t want to start a war.
So you started making pizza when you were 18?
Yeah, and I’m 43 now. I’ve been doing it forever. I was in this band, Letters to Cleo, and it was this amazing opportunity because everyone in that band was a giant foodie. Kay’s [Hanley] an amazing chef, Michael [Eisenstein] is an amazing chef, Stacy Jones has amazing taste in food. Basically, we just cruised around the country on a tour bus—mind you, this was before the internet so it was much more challenging—but every town we went to I would go right to the concierge at the hotel or the club owner and ask, “where’s the best barbecue, or the best pizza, or the best wings?” It really started this fun thing with the band where we were constantly seeking out the cool food in whatever city we were in.
It was great for me to figure how different chefs did things in certain regions of the U.S. In Ohio they blend smoked provolone in the cheese on their pizza; in Chicago everyone thinks about deep dish, but they have this amazing thin-and-crispy they cut into little squares called a “party cut“; Detroit has the amazing Buddy’s and Shield’s that both do Sicilian-style pizza. We started discovering all these cool regional styles of pizza and it really opened my mind.
How did those experiences on the road influence your own pizza?
Scott: When I got deep into pizza-making, I realized that I wanted to make fast pizza. I saw the coal ovens in New York that can churn out a pizza in four minutes. I had always done a 10-minute pizza. Then I discovered that the pizza in Naples is cooked in one minute. Of course, I dragged my wife there. I went to Naples where pizza was invented hundreds of years ago. They found pizza in the ovens of Pompeii—so, around 79 A.D. Granted, they were doing lard and pepper on top of the dough at that point. It wasn’t what we think of as pizza, but it was pizza. It’s basically the same oven that we have in our truck. It has the same material and same volcanic rock floor.
When I got to Naples, that’s when it all aligned for me. I realized that I really liked the Neapolitan-style because it’s got all these amazing fresh flavors. You really taste the tomato in a way you can’t when it’s been cooked for 10 minutes. The cheese tastes way different when it’s flash-cooked like that. But I really missed some of the things from the New York-style pizza. The cooking process is slower, so you get a little more depth of flavor. What I realized was that I wanted to combine the two styles: the New York/New Haven coal oven-style with the Neapolitan-style. That’s where we are right now, which we hope is the best of both worlds. My dough technique is 100 percent Neapolitan, but I like just a commercial-aged mozzarella. It looks more Neapolitan, but it’s really a combination of both.
Are there any pizza makers that have attempted that combination?
Scott: It’s a three-minute pizza, which is the speed that Chris Bianco does his pizza in Phoenix. He’s been a huge influence on me. I was making a record in L.A., and I drove the six hours to Phoenix to try his pizza. When I got there the pizzeria was closing. I’m so glad I said something—I felt like such a whiny kid— but I told the hostess, “oh, I just drove here all the way from California. Is there anything you threw away. I’ll take it.” Chris was in earshot and he said he make us a pizza, no problem. He came over and sat with me and asked if it was worth the drive. Of course, the pizza was amazing. That guy is a pizza artist!
We started talking, and it turned out Chris Bianco was a huge Letters to Cleo fan and had gone to every show in Arizona. It was amazing to find someone like that who just cares so much about the ingredients. He won’t use anything but the absolute best. He doesn’t care how much he has to charge. We’re trying to bring that philosophy to my pizza. We’re sourcing ingredients that are a lot more expensive than other people are using, but we’re trying to keep our prices down because we’re a truck.
Can you tell us what the menu is going to look like?
We’re doing individual pizzas that are 10-11 inches. I think it’s going to be the perfect size for most people. We’d rather take it slow and keep the quality really high. At first it’s going to be a very simple menu but it’s going to expand down the road.
Stoked Wood Fired Pizza Co. Menu
- Marinara – tomato sauce, oregano, infused olive oil, sea salt, garlic ($6)
- Margherita – tomato sauce, mozzarella, pecorino romano, olive oil ($8)
- Pepperoni – tomato sauce, mozzarella, pecorino romano, artisan pepperoni ($9)
- Roasted Mushroom – mozzarella, pecorino romano, seasoned mushrooms with a hint of roasted garlic, truffle oil (optional) ($9)
- Buffalo chicken – mozzarella, pecorino romano, fire braised chicken, buffalo sauce, fresh garlic, gorgonzola dolce imported from Italy ($9)
- +Vegan cheese option (additional charge)
Rainy Day Specials: New Haven-style White Clam, Grandma-style Sicilian, Chicago-style “party cut”
Obviously, your oven is a big part of what you’re doing. You even made a YouTube video lauding its capabilities. Could you tell us a little about it?
Scott: The oven is a lot like Chris Bianco’s oven. It has a five-foot internal diameter and it’s able to do a Neapolitan pizza in one minute. When we got it, I wasn’t super happy with how the bottoms were cooking. They were cooking way too fast. So, just last week we ripped the floor out of it. Toirm, thank god is skinny! I’m not, so Toirm was in there ripping out the oven floor. Afterward, some spots were still too warm so we ended up having to find a mason. I was sitting down at a brickyard looking for a small mason that could fit in our oven. Now we have a new floor and I’m finally happy with the oven. I’m real happy now that it’s been modified. Look, I’m a freak, I started off cooking pizza by tricking out my oven. I rewired my oven so I could open the door and could cook on the cleaning cycle.
Toirm: When I first met Scott he was having these legendary pizza parties in his Back Bay apartment. We called the place the dungeon. It was this tiny little place on Beacon Street. You’d go in there and it would be about a thousand degrees because he had his oven on the cleaning cycle. It was the best pizza I ever had, and I think I’ve had some great pizza in my life.
Scott: When I finally bought a house I got a really fancy Bosch oven and I was all excited about it. But my cheap Maytag set on the cleaning cycle, in my basement apartment in Boston, was the second best oven I’ve ever worked with. I blew three of them out. Thank god the landlord was a good friend of mine. Every two years I’d have to go to him and ask for a new stove. I told him, “yeah, these things must be cheap because they keep breaking.” But I was just blowing them out. He’s going to see this article and say, “Damn, now I see what was going on.”
Toirm: Scott is a mad scientist with his pizza. He’s obsessed and he has been since he started. I was just crazy enough to suggest putting a wood-burning oven into a truck. I didn’t know exactly how it was going to work, but I knew we could make it happen. I lit the fire under his butt, so to speak.
Scott: He did! I never would have made the switch from producer to pizza if it wasn’t because of him. I was too much of a pussy to do it.
SCOTT RIEBLING & TOIRM MILLER’S PIZZA-MAKING JAMS
As a bonus, Reibling and Miller have curated a playlist of their favorite pizza-making tunes. Who knew that the best way to knead dough was to Elliott Smith, Spoon, and Arcade Fire?