Genuine Pizza and its James Beard Award-winning chef Michael Schwartz herald the Van Aken District as a food destination.
By Diana Simeon
Picture this: It’s a frigid Friday night in Shaker Heights and you’re hungry.
So, you and your plus one head over to the nearby Van Aken District and grab a table at Genuine Pizza, where you’re soon warmed by the fire roaring in the restaurant’s brick oven. You order a craft beer and a pizza – perhaps the seasonal special – while your plus one opts for the polenta fries followed by the pan-seared skirt steak and a glass of wine.
Sounds heavenly, right? It’s what Shaker residents have to look forward to when chef Michael Schwartz officially opens Genuine Pizza in the Van Aken District this summer.
Schwartz may be new to Cleveland, but in fact, he’s a big deal. He’ll be the third James Beard Award-winning chef to open a restaurant in Northeast Ohio, joining fellow honorees Jonathon Sawyer – who will also have a restaurant in the Van Aken District – and Michael Symon.
Harry’s Pizzeria – which is what Genuine Pizza was called before Schwartz changed the name in late 2017 – has been heralded as a top 25 pizzeria in the United States by Food & Wine magazine. Reviews of the restaurant gush with comments like: “The pizzas there are made with the most delicious dough and topped with amazing cheeses and ingredients like fig, arugula, prosciutto, spinach, and slow roasted pork” or “The pizza here is on point! I’ve tried two-thirds of the menu so far and I’m overly satisfied! I absolutely love the kale and pesto pizzas!”
And the list of kudos goes on for Schwartz, who has made his home in Miami for almost 25 years. Today, he owns several restaurants in the city, including his flagship restaurant – the one that clinched him the James Beard Award – the much-lauded Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink.
Schwartz grew up in Philadelphia and at age 15 got a job in a local restaurant, Dilullo’s. “It was really a special place,” recalls Schwartz. “It was this amazing northern Italian restaurant with amazing people who were passionate about what they did. That’s what stuck with me and what hooked me.”
Schwartz slowly worked his way up. “I was a sponge. I was there early and I stayed late and I did the work.” In 1986, he moved to Santa Monica, and landed a job at Chinois, the restaurant owned by famed chef Wolfgang Puck. Then it was off to New York City, where he was recruited by a former chef at Dilullo’s to be a sous chef at Andiamo. Two years later, he was head chef at a restaurant in Vail, where he stayed for three years.
Then Miami beckoned.
“At the time, my business partner and I both felt it would be a good idea to check out Miami,” says Schwartz. “This was the ‘90s, when the area was really catching on.”
Today, the Miami metro area is the fourth largest urban area in the United States. Miami itself has seen its population boom by almost 15 percent in the past decade.
Over the next several years, Schwartz and his partner opened seven restaurants around Miami, including the acclaimed Nemo in South Beach. But by the mid-2000s, Schwartz was ready to go it alone. The result: Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink, which he opened in Miami’s Design District in 2007. These days, the Design District is among the hippest neighborhoods in the city, but when Michael’s Genuine opened its doors, the area’s renaissance was still a few years away.
At Michael’s Genuine, Schwartz was finally able to call all the shots. That included showcasing the approach to fine dining he’d been cultivating over the years: using fresh, seasonal, and locally- and/or sustainably sourced ingredients in his dishes. This approach – often called farm-to-table, in which chefs work directly with farmers and other local purveyors – has become derigueur among fine-dining establishments in recent years. But in 2007, it was new to South Florida (and most other places too).
Indeed, Schwartz is widely credited with pioneering the farm-to-table movement in that region. “I made a career on establishing relationships with farmers and local purveyors and procurers,” he says.
That includes at Harry’s Pizzeria, which Schwartz opened in 2011. “I love pizza,” says Schwartz. “There was a restaurant in the neighborhood that was a pizzeria and it closed. I kept driving by and saying, ‘Hmm, we should do something there.’ It was really like a little snapshot of what we did at Michael’s Genuine – much smaller, much more focused, but the same idea; interesting ingredients, simplicity, sourcing, all those things that were important at Genuine became important at the pizzeria.”
Artisanal Pizza and More
The menu at Genuine Pizza favors fresh, creative ingredients, atop a cold-fermented dough crust that took Schwartz five years to perfect. There’s an award-winning Short Rib pizza, with gruyere, caramelized onion, and arugula. There’s also a Slow Roasted Pork pizza with fig, roasted onion, and fontina.
Schwartz uses only beef and pork provided by Niman Ranch, a network of 720 independent farmers committed to sustainable practices. There’s plenty for the more vegetarian-minded too, including a popular kale pizza, along with classics like Margherita, pesto, cheese, or mushroom.
A seasonal pie, which changes quarterly, tends to “reflect something that is local and seasonal,” says Schwartz. Recently, that was Brussels sprouts, caramelized onions, fontina, rosemary crema, and parmigiana cheese.
“We’re excited. We think it’s an opportunity to fill a niche there in our own little way.”
“You can go with people who do not want to eat pizza and they’ll be happy,” says Schwartz. That includes dishes like roasted eggplant and oven-roasted chicken, a variety of salads, and starters like meatballs in sauce, homemade focaccia, and marinated olives.
Finally, there’s the wine and beer list, which Schwartz characterizes as small but mighty. “The list might only be 15 or 17 selections, but we think they’re well thought through.” At the Van Aken District, that list will likely include some local Ohio brews, too.
Schwartz’s approach to his craft should make him feel right at home in Cleveland, where chefs like Sawyer, Doug Katz at fire food and drink, and others – including Karen Small at Flying Fig and Vishu Nath at Urban Farmer – have also focused on making seasonal, locally sourced ingredients a fi xture of their menus.
“I was really impressed with the scene that’s going in Cleveland, including the thoughtful sourcing,” says Schwartz.
He’s also friends with Jonathon Sawyer, who is curating the dining in the District. “He’s a friend and he’s a chef, and I think there are some sensibilities that are aligned with what we do,” says Schwartz. “We’re excited. We think it’s an opportunity to fill a niche there in our own little way.”
Originally published in Shaker Life, Winter 2018.