Bryan Cohen is changing the way you take your pie
You may not know him personally. You may not recognize him on the street. But just the same, if you’re a pizza lover in the 585, you have almost certainly eaten his pizza. Here, in the frenetic energy of the brisk business at his latest project, Pi Craft Fast Fired Pizza Kitchen on Marketplace Drive, I sat down with my friend Bryan Cohen to learn more about the man who has made pizza his life’s work.
“Well,” he says, in his typically understated tone, “I really got started at thirteen.”
Like all good stories about chefs, Cohen began working in the back as a dishwasher. The name of the restaurant was Frederico’s, and it stood near the corner of Jefferson and East Henrietta Roads. Friends of his family owned the restaurant, and he had, at a very young age, gotten a taste of the hospitality business that he would love for the rest of his life.
It was a life that would, after many years of experience, bring him back to his home in Henrietta to help the Develder Restaurant Group launch a wholly new concept in pizza (the flagship store is in Tonawanda, and the company also owns Livonia’s Ember Woodfire Grill). Pi Craft is a made-to-order pizza “fast casual” restaurant. It is a new path on the old crossroads between a forty-five minute wait for the good pizza or a factory-produced, bland simulacrum warmed up at home.
At Pi Craft, the dough is good enough to patent, and patent it they have. The sauces—which include spicy red, bechamel, and pesto, to name a few—are made fresh daily. The oven is wood-fired, and the result is hot, fresh, tender, and delicious no matter what your preference. You call the tune, deciding between a range of sauces, toppings and finishers like fresh whole basil or romano cheese. All of this is overseen by a cheery, genuinely talented group of pizza chefs.
Making excellent pizza while letting every customer who walks through the door invent his own pizza is no easy task. The pies come out perfectly cooked, every time. The staff knows what to recommend to the indecisive customer.
What makes it all tick is an inspiration that might strike some as remarkably familiar. “My wife and I just loved to eat out,” says Cohen, “so whatever flavors we liked at a restaurant, we just turned into pizza.” The result of that homely bit of genius is a suite of recipes Rochesterians know from…well, all over. They include Pesto di Olive, Brian’s chicken cheddar, the roman classic, and clams casino.
You may have had these pizzas or ones like them at the Pizza Cafe in Henrietta many years ago. Or perhaps you’ve tried them at Dragonfly on Park Ave? Brick Wood Fired Pizza in Brighton? Ember? ChaCha’s?
Regardless of where you’ve experienced his handiwork, Cohen is quick to credit others with his success. He says that working at Napa Wood Fired Pizza was where he really started to get his chops in the kitchen down, not as a pizza maker, but more broadly as a chef who plans and executes a night’s meals. In some places, he learned management; in others, he learned about food. Everywhere, he improved what he did.
All the learning and all the working brought him to this: a fast-growing force in local cuisine that already spans the Buffalo-Rochester divide but is looking to make more big moves in the near future. That may even include a new store in Rochester. Or two; Cohen would not elaborate.
Wherever and whenever that may be, it will result in a force of business knowledge and pizza knowledge converging on a street near you.
Tom Belknap is a writer, musician, and developer who lives and works in the Rochester area. His blog DragonFlyEye.net explores science and technology news in upstate New York.