Friday, December 19, 2014

Pizza Genius: Norma's Pizza, Roots Country Market, Manheim PA

I love Lancaster County, Pa. Home to large settlements of Amish and Mennonite farmers, the beautiful rolling countryside draws tourists from great distances. It's common to see the Amish horse-drawn buggies on the roads there, as well as the school kids on foot or scooters, dressed in black. 
I made this one! Click any pic to enlarge

My home in West Chester PA is close enough for regular visits, and my biggest reason to trek westward on Route 30 is the great quality and variety of produce and other farm products at roadside stands and farm markets.
Roots Country Market

However, I've grown a bit weary of the meat-and-potatoes overload "Amish style" food in the popular tourist restaurants. The approach seems to be "We will serve nothing green, and if it ever was green, we'll cook the green out of it." Lancaster County is not an epicure's destination, and hence truly one of the last places I'd expect to find top shelf pizza.

But for several years, on Facebook pizza groups and and at, I kept seeing pictures and posts from Norma Knepp, described as a "pizza obsessive" who took a keen interest in making pizza and set out to learn all that she could.

I found that she has her own pizza shop, a narrow stand in a huge farm market -- the Roots Country Market in Manheim, which is open only on Tuesdays. When I got the opportunity to have a free Tuesday, visiting Norma's Pizza became a priority.

The Roots Country Market is enormous, at least by "farm market" standards. It is a wonderful throwback kind of place, with long narrow corridors featuring an eclectic mix of vendors. One stall is the vacuum repair guy, the next stall is the coin dealer, then an Amish pastry seller, then a butcher, then the junk store with $3 tools, then the wood carver, then the candy store, and so on. It shares much in common with the long-defunct Pennsauken Mart, and with the Columbus (NJ) Farmers Market, and the Booth's Corner (Boothwyn, PA) Farmer's Market.
The Dough-Li Lama, Norma Knepp

Grand-daughter Drea

I met up with Norma about 11am, just before the lunchtime traffic began to swell.  It was a rainy day and relatively slow, but Norma, with the superb assistance of her granddaughter Drea, was selling pizza (whole and by the slice) as fast as she could make them in her 2-deck gas oven. 

Drea gets special props not only for her pizza skills (which Norma documented on Facebook) but also her smoothly efficient handling of customers while Norma and I chatted about pizza making.
Boardwalk pizza, dressed before baking

Norma is a genuine pizza scientist, and one of her market pals rightly dubbed her the "Dough-Li Lama" for her genius. She has done her homework, studied the experts, and experimented with all the key variables that can make or break a pizza dough: flour type, moisture level, timing of additional ingredients beyond the flour and water, adding malt, rise time, rise temperature. 
A pepperoni boardwalk pie

I learned so much in just a few hours, and I'm hopeful to mimic the wonderful elasticity of her dough the next time I attempt pizza at home.

Norma's mainstay pizza is her thin-crust "Boardwalk Style." The thin and crisp-but-chewy, foldable crust might also be classified as New York style. 

For the first hour or so, I watched Norma make pies. She pats each dough ball with flour, flattens it out with her fingers, then stretches (and sometimes, tosses) the dough into a lovely thin 18" disc.  She applies half the cheese (she experiments, but her base cheese is a white cheddar). Next goes on the sauce (uncooked) in a swirl pattern that mimics Mack's (of the South Jersey shore) and also used at the Grotto pizza chain in Delaware. Finally, the rest of the cheese goes on with any toppings.
Detroit style slices

Norma also makes a Detroit style pizza - something I've never tried.  She uses 9 ounces of dough (different from the dough for her Boardwalk pies; this one has more than 75% hydration) which she presses into a deep rectangular pan.  The cheese goes on, then the sauce in two rows (this smaller pie is cut into just 4 lovely square slices).
Detroit pie, right out of the oven

Because it was lunchtime, I was able to sample slices as pies came out of her oven, fresh and hot.  I waited for a Detroit style slice with pepperoni. Norma uses a spicy pepperoni from Citterio, and it adds a lot of flavor to her pies. A Detroit style pizza is thick and pan baked, but it is not much like Chicago deep dish. It is more akin to a Sicilian-style, but it is improved greatly because the cheese is deliberately spread beyond the borders of the crust, so that each piece gets a crispy edge of wonderfully browned and caramelized cheese.

This was a wonderful slice of pizza, and the only pan-baked rival that comes close is the square pies at Di Fara in Brooklyn.  I'd gladly wait an hour to get a $5 slice at DiFara, but why not spend $2.25 and get a slice with no waiting at Norma's? 
Boardwalk pie with sausage

Soon after, I tried a slice of the Boardwalk pie. You can get a broad hint of how spectacular your slice is going to be when you hear the crust crunching under the big blade as she slices the pie. She makes a huge 18" pie (which doesn't quite fit in a full-size pizza box), and then cuts it into six gigantic slices that sell for $2.00 (plain cheese).  How good can a two-buck slice be?

Perfect hole structure

It can be awesome, indeed. The thin, light, crisp, foldable crust brought to mind the great old school pizza I had at Pizza Brain in Philly, Ramagi in Brooklyn, and Wiseguy NY Pizza in Washington DC. And the hole structure in the cornicione was without peer - this crunchy handle is upper echelon by any measure.

I have the decadent habit of adding salt to pizza, but Norma's home-made sauce (she adds garlic, basil, and oregano) and cheddar cheese made the slice so fully flavored that it needed no extra seasoning. 
My work with the dough

Norma also gave me the chance to make a pie. When I make pizza at home, I struggle to get the dough to be sufficiently elastic for hand-stretching. I usually end up using a rolling pin, which destroys the hole structure.  Here, I felt like a genuine pizzaiolo when working with this pliant dough. I didn't stretch it quite so expertly as Norma; my pie came out a little thicker and not quite the full 18". I followed her sauce and cheese assembly method, put it into the oven, and even turned the pie during its ~6 minute bake.  It must have been a success, because no customer complained about the six slices she sold from that pie.
Norma with the pie I made

Norma also makes a sausage pizza, and she uses fresh Italian sausage that she buys right there in the Roots Country Market. It goes on the pie raw in rough chunks, the way that all the best pie makers do it. I took home a sausage pie for the family and we were unanimous in our love for this pie as we scrambled for the last slices.
Detroit style veggie slices

Great Jersey shore pizza and authentic Detroit style pie at a farm market in Lancaster? I had to experience to believe it. This is not just good pizza - it is wonderful pizza with all these other good aspects: low prices; terrific produce and other great things to buy from other vendors at Roots; Norma's encyclopedic dough knowledge and willingness to share it.
Detroit pies

I had a lot of terrific pizza experiences in 2014, but this one easily tops the list. I can't think of a better way to spend a Tuesday.

Norma's Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


  1. Norma not only is well educated in pizza, she is the greatest pizza salesperson. She has a keen memory and a good friend. She researches other pizza parlors and shares their pictures on Facebook.

  2. Thanks so much Pizza Quixote for the good review!

  3. wonderful pizza. i must have walked past that stand 20 times and always said to myself wow that looks good, but to early in the day for me. i wont ever say that again thats for sure. best pizza ive eaten