&pizza’s Michael Lastoria Hears You, Cambridge

After seven community hearings, the dual-concept Milk &pizza with chef Christina Tosi needs more public approval to proceed in Harvard Square.

Michael Lastoria of &Pizza and Milk Bar creator Christina Tosi

Michael Lastoria of &Pizza and Milk Bar creator Christina Tosi. / Photo by Kaz Sasahara

Michael Lastoria’s pizza shop just cleared the hurdle of its seventh public hearing in Cambridge, but the &pizza cofounder and CEO isn’t high-fiving anyone yet, he says. He still needs the approval of the Cambridge Zoning Board of Appeals, a body which has already once nixed his company’s plans to put a fast-casual pizzeria on a prominent corner of Harvard Square.

After &pizza joined forces with chef Christina Tosi of New York City’s famous Milk Bar on a co-concept, dubbed (and stylized as) milk &pizza, and changed the exterior look of the project, the Planning Board OK’d Lastoria’s proposal this week, the Cambridge Day reports.

“We’re happy and pleased with outcome, but we’re also focused on next BZA hearing, and preparing intensely to ensure we put our best foot forward,” Lastoria says.

&pizza has 22 outposts in greater D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, Philadelphia, and New York City, as well as several others in the works. Pending ZBA approval and necessary local permitting, the Harvard Square location would be the company’s first in Massachusetts, and likely its 29th or 30th store. Lastoria says every jurisdiction is different, and acknowledges the process in Cambridge has been particularly tough.

“But that’s also because there are many very passionate Cambridge residents, and this is a very important corner for them in their community,” he says. “We’re [being] thoughtful on making sure we’re getting all the information required to show to Cambridge that we do want to be a good neighbor, and we care immensely about building a long-term, sustainable business here.”

“Sweetening the deal” puns aside, bringing Milk Bar on as a full-fledged partner is a direct result of hearing the community’s dissent, Lastoria says. &pizza has been working with Tosi for about a year on an exclusive Cereal Milk cream soda flavor for its &soda product line, and a Cereal Milk cream soda cookie, which are both available at all &pizza locations. That’s why Milk Bar was brought up during an April hearing, as has been reported.

But those collaborations are part of &pizza’s “Little Giants” program, “partnerships with small, like-minded brands doing big things in their community,” Lastoria explains. All shops also carry Luke’s Lobster shrimp, Mike’s Hot Honey, and other regional products.

Milk &pizza “is very differ than anything we’ve done before. This is actually finding a co-tenant,” he says.

After he understood the community would not accept just a pizza shop, Lastoria’s first call was to Tosi, he says. The opposition was “saying they’re looking to have a more small, boutique retail look and feel, a sort of throwback to the bookstores and coffee shops [of the square],” he explains. The goal is to partner with a company that would not only diversify the offerings, but also add color to the aesthetic, he says.

The &pizza business model—an assembly line setup with interesting, fresh ingredients, and quick-cooking technology, sort of like a Sweetgreen for ’za—is flexible in terms of what it needs for space, Lastoria says. So, breaking up the former Tory Row and Crimson Corner spaces into two, distinct counters, with their own kitchens and prep areas (Milk Bar will offer its full bakery and dessert lines), plus communal seating, is not hard for them to finagle, he says. Milk &pizza will be like a mini food hall, Lastoria says.

Honestly, though, why not just ditch Harvard Square? Why not look into opening the &pizza he set out to open here in a developing neighborhood, like the Seaport?

Lastoria says &pizza has been seriously searching in and around Boston for a while, and is dead-set on the historic ’hood for its combination of longtime residents, students, and tourists.

“All three of those things generally result in the right mix of guests that will drive business forward and allow us to have an existence there for a very long time,” he says.

Plus, the solution to team up with Milk Bar is a win for both companies and consumers, Lastoria says.

“By breaking it up to offer more than pizza, and drive more dine-in occasions as a result of having a pizza shop on one side and a dessert partner on other side of the space, this partnership is incredibly unique,” he says.

And while they’re not as vocal, he says he’s heard from people who are excited about it. But he’s also heard from many dissenters—and he gets it.

“There is certainly opposition, but I think the opposition is more about the changing of what the square was to what it’s going to be,” Lastoria says. “We always try to listen. Part of the reason why this process is so lengthy is that we really are trying to build a pizza shop and dessert/bakery in a way that really adds value to the square. We are not sitting here high-fiving if we get any win throughout this process, because we want everybody to win. If we have the opportunity to open our doors, I think people will be really excited about what we bring to the table.”

The next ZBA hearing is scheduled for August 10.

Milk &pizza, planning to open at 1394 Massachusetts Ave., Harvard Square, Cambridge, milkbarstore.comandpizza.com.