Anthony Dao is the chef behind Romeo, a wood-fired pizza pop-up that started out of his driveway in Northeast Seattle. Anthony began his culinary career in New York City, working in highly lauded kitchens in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Most recently, he’s expanded into the world of wine, working grape harvests in Australia and Oregon, and helped open the natural wine shop/bar, Petite Soif, in Beacon Hill. We’re super excited to be working with Anthony on some pizza recipes to pair with our boxes this season. We had the chance to ask him a few questions about how he got started with Romeo and what it's like starting a food concept during these uncertain times.
How’d you get started?
Anthony: I moved from Seattle to NYC in 2013 after leaving an unrewarding, overpaid corporate desk job with a half baked idea that I wanted to work in restaurants. My 5 years in New York were spent learning this craft on the job. Grinding out a work week at my respective restaurant while staging (staging is an unpaid internship when a cook or chef works briefly, for free) in different kitchens on my weekends, it was all very taxing but I felt like I had a lot of catching up to do. While most of my experience is in fine dining, it wasn’t until recently that I really started to think about cooking in much more modest and approachable terms.
Back in February, I had the chance to buy an old wood-fired pizza oven on a trailer from a friend. Without much of a real plan I took out a loan and bought it. A month later, immediately after Gov. Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” mandate, I was still having a difficult time wrapping my head around how to get a business off the ground while so many others in the industry were struggling to stay afloat. How/where could I be the least disruptive? After doing some recipe testing out of my garage and driveway, I realized there wasn’t a more ideal place. There are alot of young families in my neighborhood who, at the time, weren’t leaving their homes. Friends from all over town were also eager to support my little scrappy operation and would come all the way to Northeast Seattle for some take-out pies. Out of this small circle of the most gracious people and an even smaller driveway, Romeo was born.
How long have you been making pizza? Was this something that you started recently or have you been practicing all your life?
Anthony: Pizza sort of manifested itself as a progression after making sourdough loaves in my spare time. I’d fool around a lot with sheet tray pizzas and focaccia for staff meals. Sometimes I totally nailed it, sometimes it barely passed as food. The first time I actually fired up the oven was the first week of April. Outside of a few casual experiences prior to that, making pizza “professionally” is completely new to me.
Where did you learn sourdough pizza making technique?
Anthony: Some of it is self-taught, some of it is mentorship by my friend, Joey Scalabrino who is the chef/partner at recently opened, Leo in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He’s my go-to for all things naturally leavened. The first sourdough pizza I ever ate was in 2017 at Ops, Leo’s sibling-restaurant and I definitely had a moment, so to speak. Youtube, IG influencers, there’s a lot of great resources out there to learn from as far as dough knowledge is concerned, especially post-quarantine. Everyone’s a semi-professional, work-from-home baker these days.
As far as my topping approach goes, I shamelessly emulate Sarah Minnick of Lovely’s Fifty Fifty in Portland, OR. The way Sarah uses pizza as a medium to celebrate the bounty of local farms and dairies, to capture these specific moments in each season, it’s incredibly inspiring. Many pizza makers are super dogmatic about sourcing ingredients strictly from Italy or not using wild yeast in their dough. That fact of the matter is I’m a first generation Vietnamese-American making farmy AF, hippy pizzas out of my driveway. I try not to beat myself up over being inadequately “authentic”.
What kind of flour do you use?
Anthony: Currently, I use 100% Cairnspring Mills’ flour*. It’s been great to see that they’ve become more of a household name since the pandemic started. While every big box grocer was running out of flour (among many other things), I think people began to realize how fragile our supply chain really is. Their product is second to none but more importantly, they’re showing us how crucial it is that we support our small, local producers.
I also use quite a bit of their whole grain in my dough. It lends a more nuanced, interesting flavor and offers textures you otherwise wouldn’t experience with more traditional styles of pizza.
What does kinship mean to you in your life and what you are doing?
Anthony: What am I doing? That’s a question I frequently revisit as I think about what moving forward looks like. Much of that exploration is through the lens of Romeo, a business in its infancy but in actuality, it involves a lot of intrapersonal work, a lot of self reflection. It’s an incredibly precarious time in food. With the pandemic, BLM, and the social reckoning across all food-centric industries, who can help but wonder, “Where the hell do we go from here?”
I guess kinship for me is knowing that my fate is entangled with everyone else in this ever expanding community of people in food production and service. I’m on a search, along with many others, for pathways towards a more equitable and sustainable future for all of us in food. Romeo is just along for the ride.
*Carinspring Mills is located in Burlington, WA. They produce fresh, stone-milled flour from the wheat grown by their favorite local farmers.
We feel so lucky to know Anthony and we are so grateful for all of his sourdough pizza knowledge that he has shared with us. Be sure to support Romeo @pizza.romeo and follow along for alerts on when you can try Anthony's pizza!