Pete Tolman's kitchen is more like a mad scientist's laboratory.
Since opening Iron Born Pizza at Smallman Galley in the Strip District last June, he's tweaked the ingredients at least three times.
"I researched in depth of what changes pizza dough and how to change it the way I needed it," he explains. "The recipe we use today probably took me a year to develop and change until I loved it. I tried probably six to eight different flours, different methods, yeasts, water percentages, to add oil/not to add oil."
The Detroit-style pies are made with 100-percent organic flour and two-day fermented dough cooked in cast-iron pans inside ovens lined with steel plates.
Pittsburghers are eating it up faster than Tolman and his 10-person crew can make it.
"We sell out of pizza at least one day per week since we've opened our doors," says the Kittanning native. "Last week we sold out every night Thursday to Sunday."
Tolman recommends coming early for dinner.
The breakneck pace is felt by all the chefs at Smallman Galley, a sort of testing ground for new restaurants in Pittsburgh.
Four pop-up eateries occupy the 6,000-square-foot space rent-free for 12 to 18 months. During that time, chefs get to design a menu, build a customer base and learn tricks of the trade. On Mondays, Smallman Galley is closed to the public for mentorship programs and training sessions on branding, management and other industry information.
Proceeds are split, with 30 percent going to Smallman Galley and 70 percent to the pop-ups, which they can use to pay staff and purchase ingredients and tools. The landlord foots the bill for all advertising, equipment and building upkeep and utility costs.
The concept was created in December 2015 by Ben Mantica and Tyler Benson, U.S. Navy lieutenants whose travels abroad allowed them to enjoy different cuisines. Benson says the sense of community created in the food halls of the Middle East and South East Asia intrigued them. The pair sees Smallman Galley as a social hub where patrons can enjoy high-quality food and drink and creative chefs have a chance to hone their skills while pursuing dreams of opening a brick-and-mortar business.
"The whole place is infused with a sense of being local. That's part of the advantage. We spend a lot of time thinking about how we can make the dining experience unique ... how do we keep it from becoming stale," Mantica explains. "Most restaurants don't last more than three years. Our concept is designed to last longer than that."
Jesse Barlass was part of Smallman Galley's first wave of restaurants. He moved from Los Angeles to serve as sous chef at Carota Café. Born into the restaurant business—his parents met while working at a Mexican cantina—Barlass has withstood the heat in busy kitchens and food trucks across the country.
"I move a lot," he explains. "I love being a cook because I can travel anywhere and have a job and experience the foods of the lands."
That diversity in dishes led him to open Colonia, which is Spanish for "colony," at Smallman Galley in June.
The pop-up is a medley of Latin American flavors that he describes as "simple, yet complicated." One specialty is the pupusa, a corn tortilla topped with fermented slaw, shaved jalepenos and whey salsa.
In addition to gourmet pizza and south-of-the-border fare, Smallman Galley patrons can expand their palates to include Hoa Le's Vietnamese Banh mi sandwiches at Banhmilicious and locally sourced burgers, pasta and salad made by Ryan Peters at Brunoise.
At the end of November, Mantica and Benson plan to open a second location on Pittsburgh's North Side. Federal Galley, which is part of a $100 million redevelopment of Nova Place, will incubate four aspiring restaurateurs, a full bar specializing in local brews and custom cocktails, indoor seating for 150 people and a beer garden that can hold up to 100 revelers, making it one of the largest outdoor eating spaces in town.
While operating four restaurants in the same building has its disadvantages—minimal storage and cramped food prep areas are the biggest complaints among tenants—the chefs agree that the minimal start-up costs, low-risk and unique experience makes it all worth it.
"I've had a great platform to meet other chefs, industry people, talk shop inside the Galley all day with my three chef friends and learn new techniques of cooking I would have never seen before the experience," Tolman says. "I hope I'm friends with Jesse, Hoa and Ryan for the rest of my life after this year."