2018-03-01 / Dishing

A Local Slice of heaven

Sourcing is key for Pizza Heaven’s Tom Gibson
Michele Marchetti | Photos by Matt Fern

The first thing I notice inside the Penns Valley pizza shop on Streamside Place is the large chalkboard. The words Meatballs, Beef and Sausage may catch the eye of a lunch crowd, but it’s the description before those words that has caught my attention: Local.

While we have plenty of farm sources in Central PA, local meat is less pervasive on the menu.

“It’s just a choice,” says Tom Gibson, owner of Pizza Heaven, which has been in its current Spring Mills location for nearly two years. By offering a product — in this case a piece of pizza topped with local meat — that’s just a little bit more expensive, more money stays in his community. “It’s a revolving giving cycle that really needs to take place.”

Gibson is also motivated by health: his own, his family’s and his community’s. Make no mistake: Pizza Heaven serves plenty of meals that amount to bread, cheese and pepperoni. But a driving mission is to provide the community a low-cost way to eat fast food that’s really slow food in disguise.

You won’t find Sysco parked outside. Gibson makes all his sauces and soups from scratch and sources from a family-owned food supplier out of Pittsburgh. When I showed up one afternoon and asked for a meatball sandwich, Gibson balked. He served 30 a day at a former location, inside an office building out on Science Park. But in the current location, the local beef meatballs go in the soup or on the pizzas.

“I refuse to use a microwave,” he said. “If you want a meatball sandwich, it’ll take 15-20 minutes.”
Waiting for my meatball sandwich, I take in the touches that have transformed this fast-food business into a community dining room: the Connect Four game at the bar, the repurposed wire baskets adorning light fixtures and the “Kids Make Your Own Pizza” on the menu. Behind the bar is a kegerator filled with Mount NitaNee Kombucha, owned by Penns Valley resident Joan Karp. Karp’s son works at the pizza shop; the kombucha is complimentary with your purchase and yet another indication that the heart of this business is the community in which it serves.

It’s a revolving giving cycle that really needs to take place.”

Gibson moved his pizza operation into the current Penns Valley location two years ago. About that food truck you may have noticed parked on the side of Route 45? It’s for sale. “It took a lot of money just to get it on the road. I put it off for a year and the next year I started doing this,” he says, motioning at the restaurant that used to be, oddly enough, a manufacturing business that made hospital-grade needles.

A Penn State graduate, Altoona-native and 20-year veteran of the food-service industry, Gibson learned to toss pizza at age 18. In 2011, he opened the first iteration of Pizza Heaven on North Atherton near the former Blockbuster. (At the time, my son was on a gluten-free diet and Gibson’s pizza shop made arguably the best gluten-free pie in town.)

Gibson relishes the idea of offering his customers choices. For those with a more adventurous culinary spirit, he offers the “Blind Faith” pizza. Voice minimal exceptions, the menu implores. Tell him what you don’t want and he’ll create something at random. It’s different every time; a recent blind-faith pizza is the Pesto Chicken (see recipe below).

In the summer, local, seasonal ingredients appeal to patrons who are “slightly health conscious” or interested in something that transcends what’s coming out of the kitchen of your typical pizza shop.

Gibson wishes he was further along on his local-food goals, but is realistic about the challenges. Chasing down a 50-pound bag of onions from an Amish farmer who won’t use modern communication takes a lot of time — and the value of that time is questionable when you come home empty-handed.

“It’s so easy to get crap food,” Gibson says. “But the work it takes to get good food is a little more difficult.”

His hope is that as more people learn about his mission, he’ll make the kind of fruitful community connections that will lead to a menu that is more reflective of the restaurant’s agricultural backdrop.

What does that menu look like? Think lasagna with gluten-free noodles and fresh, seasonal vegetables and local cheese, more seasonal soups and year-round salads with local greens — whether it’s tomato caprese salads in the summer, field greens in the spring or local spinach salads in the winter.

At least until spring, those looking for local will have to settle for the local meat in their soup or on their pizza — or, if you’re really lucky, one of those meatball sandwiches. (You’ve been warned: It isn’t on the menu.)

Served in a red plastic basket with potato chips, it’s 100 percent comfort food. But it also has a story: the bun is homemade, the sauce is from scratch and the meatballs are made with meat from Bierly’s Meat Market and once received the approval from a Sicilian meatball connoisseur, the father of the proprietor of another pizza shop where Gibson once worked.

When you’re a small business owner, not to mention one with four young children, those details get boiled down to one word on a chalkboard. But the demand for local food is only growing, and there’s a lot of room on that chalkboard.

So, just like I waited for my meatball sandwich, I’ll wait for the Blind Faith farmers-market pizza.
As for toppings, here’s what I don’t want: Anything that isn’t local. •SCM

½ c. extra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp. minced fresh garlic
2 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
½ tsp. dried oregano
¼ tsp. red pepper flakes
½ tsp. dried parsley
Mix all ingredients together, spread on stretched pizza dough. Top with diced grilled chicken, spinach, fresh mozzarella, feta, basil and a drizzle of pesto.

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