Owners Mark Mebus and Ryan Moylan hope their food will appeal to vegans and meat eaters.
Philadelphia recently unveiled its latest vegan and vegetarian paradise, drawing a steady crowd of ecstatic veg-heads in the last few weeks who are ready to chow down on a few slices of vegan pizza.
On Sept. 30, Blackbird Pizzeria opened its doors, offering an all-vegan menu of various pizza and sandwich combinations. Located at 507 S. Sixth St., the new pizzeria has taken over Gianna’s old space, keeping a similar atmosphere of the original relaxed, low-priced pizza-style vibe.
Mark Mebus, previously a chef at locally renowned vegan restaurant Horizons and several other vegan restaurants in New York, launched the new pizzeria with partner Ryan Moylan.
“I really liked messing around with dough and enjoyed making pizza a lot, so I figured I should open a pizzeria,” Mebus said. “I wanted to own my own business, and I knew if I was doing my own business, I wanted to do something a little more casual and a little more of a pedestrian-friendly situation.”
“I think it’s bangin’,” said senior therapeutic recreation major Gretchen Simms, a vegan of seven years. “Every time I’ve been [to Blackbird], I’ve thought it was really awesome. And even though there may be places like that in the city that sell similar sandwiches, they have pizza by the slice, which you can’t really get at other places in a vegan form. There’s so many different kinds, too, that you can’t get at a nonvegan pizza place.”
The menu is simple, offering all the basics expected from a pizzeria, with standard meat options replaced by comparable plant-based forms. Daiya “cheese” stands in for the typical mozzarella, which, unlike most vegan cheeses, isn’t sourced from soy. Instead, Daiya is created from a mix of tapioca, casaba and arrowroot flour, along with a few other ingredients that are combined and given time to culture.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t personally care for soy cheese at all,” Mebus said. “At every other place that I worked, we really tried to shy away from using soy cheese all together because it really doesn’t taste all that good. I like that [Daiya is] not soy-based, [and] I know a lot of people have problems with soy, and this is much more allergy friendly.”
Mebus added that the creator of Daiya wasn’t a foodie, but was just an inventor who decided to tackle vegan cheese. This substitute for cheese is creamier than traditional melted mozzarella, almost resembling an alfredo sauce. Unlike many vegan cheeses, Daiya has no soy aftertaste, but instead adds a delightful element of creamy richness.
“I want it to be a pizza and sandwich place first, and a vegan place second,” Mebus said. “It’s not the kind of place where I only want it to be vegans and vegetarians. Obviously the morals of the place are really important to me, but I would hope that whoever comes in from the neighborhood, whether a meat-eater or not, would be able to enjoy the product.”
With a variety of food choices, Mebus has been able to attract a variety of people.
“I love going there being nonvegan, and I try to get all of my nonvegan friends to go,” said senior kinesiology major Crane Holmes, who frequented Blackbird so much he was offered a job. “You would never even know that the pizza you’re eating is vegan.”
Following a small transition period to vegetarianism, Mebus has been fully vegan for the past 12 years. Originally brought up in an all-American family eating pot roasts every Sunday, the Bucks County native’s music-listening habits initially prompted his decision to go meat- and dairy-free.
“Basically, I was into hardcore music, and a lot of the bands I was listening to at the time were talking about animal rights and things along those lines,” Mebus said. “And then some of my friends were also into [those areas]. I just started thinking about where food comes from and a couple of other topics dealing with animal rights, and that’s basically what got the ball rolling.”
Not long after going vegan, Mebus enrolled in a vegan culinary program offered in New York. From there, he went to work at Camel 79, a gourmet vegan restaurant in New York. A year later, Mebus moved to Philadelphia and landed a position in the kitchen of Horizons, but he then transferred again back to New York City to another high-end vegan restaurant, Blossoms.
“My background with Horizons and Blossoms is, you know, kind of with fancier restaurants, so I do kind of nerd out over ingredients and vegetables,” Mebus said. “For me personally, having a pepperoni slice is something I wouldn’t get. I’m more into using vegetables and experimenting with interesting applications. Those are things I’m a little more drawn to, but I want to make the place good for everyone.”
In addition to pizza, Mebus’ new restaurant offers a handful of sandwiches, including its newly famous seitan cheesesteak. Mebus’ version of the cheesesteak is dead on, providing a haven for any newly-turned vegan or vegetarian craving the greasy Philly classic. Exceptionally thinly sliced seitan is smothered with creamy vegan cheese and paired with fried onions, sautéed mushrooms and green bell peppers that spill out of the roll.
“The vegan seitan cheesesteaks are really good and definitely the bestseller,” Holmes said. “My favorite sandwich is the Tofu Cubano, however, and there are many people who come in daily for one and say it’s their favorite sandwich in the city.”
Mebus, whose favorite menu item is the Yukon Gold, topped with sliced potatoes, rosemary, sea salt and olive oil, keeps prices reasonable, selling pizza at $3 per slice or $15 per pie. Sandwiches are priced between $7 and $8 and are sure to send costumers home full, especially if they add on a basket of Blackbird’s hand-cut fries.
Blackbird Pizzeria is open 3-10 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday.
Grace Dickinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.