What exactly is Pittsburgh-style pizza? To hear chef Benjamin Osher describe it, it’s basically a state of mind: “Pittsburgh-style pizza, to me, it channels the ethos of a blue-collar life, about not being dainty. It’s over the top. Lots of ingredients, not a lot of rules.”
Osher is the mostly one-man-band behind Gorilla Pies, the upstart strip mall contender in the San Fernando Valley neighborhood of Valley Village. The restaurant, like so many others right now, came about in its own fortuitous way — a result of pandemic unemployment, at-home ingenuity, and a little hometown pride. And, as the last 18 months have almost statistically proved, there’s always money in pizza.
The best way to hear Osher’s personal pizza journey, the one that got him to this strip mall next to a kosher grocery store, is to actually go to Gorilla Pies. If there’s only one person inside slinging dough, there’s a good chance it’s him, though on busier weekends Osher’s small staff does have to reluctantly tell customers that while the man making every pizza is happy to chat, he does have a lot of tickets backing up on the rail.
So here’s the gist of it: Osher mostly grew up in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood east of downtown. It’s culturally mixed but with a heavy Jewish presence, and Osher (who is Jewish himself and of Russian descent) spent his teenage years hanging out with friends, washing dishes and doing occasional kitchen work in local restaurants, and eating daily slices at Aiello’s on Murray Ave. After attending college in Maryland, Osher and some friends started Beautiful Decay, a zine turned legit publication, which grew in prominence until running into the buzzsaw that was the 2008 financial crisis. Suddenly without work and with a lot of time on his hands, Osher turned to food.
“I started waking up every morning and reading the histories of various foods,” says Osher. “It was comforting for me. After about a week I thought ‘What the hell am I doing? I need a job.’”
In Los Angeles, Osher picked up a gig working as a receiver at Nobu on La Cienega, organizing walk-ins full of fresh produce and turning out inventive staff meals for the cooks and servers. He and then-Nobu line cook Miles Thompson would “bang out Reubens, do all kinds of wild shit” to keep themselves entertained. It was, Osher says, his first real kitchen training, and eventually led to daytime sous chef work. And then things got weird.
After three years cooking in Los Angeles, Osher accepted an offer to run the busy Nobu location in Moscow, Russia, owned by the contentious Agalarov oligarch family. It was “a super bizarre” two years, says Osher, living and cooking in Russia. “There’s no rule of law. You can’t expect that anything will get done. Like, you just park where you park, and in the morning either your car is there or it disappears.”
Eventually, Osher moved back to the States, landing as chef de cuisine at the celebrated Indian restaurant Junoon in New York City, and then at the upscale Christophe Harbour development at Saint Kitts in the Caribbean, working alongside his old friend Miles Thompson. They both found their way back to Los Angeles in time, with Thompson running Michael’s in Santa Monica and Osher bouncing around, making cooking some at places like Konbi but mostly making wholesale products and private cheffing. He was also perfecting his pizza. “When I was stretching dough, I would think about Joe Aiello [in Pittsburgh]”, says Osher. “He’s the vision. I want to recreate the magic of those high school years, hanging out at a pizza shop.”
Instead, the 2020 pandemic scuttled Osher’s job running the busy Mama Shelter in Hollywood, inadvertently opening the door to what is now Gorilla Pies. Home oven pizzas became Instagram sellers, and Valley Village became his customer base. “I used to take menus and leave them at my local coffee shop,” says Osher. “I’d put flyers on people’s cars, in their mailboxes. All of it.” The grassroots approach found soil, growing Gorilla Pies into a formidable Valley underground pop-up during the winter surge — until the health department found his building and started asking around. “Thankfully, my landlord totally stonewalled them,” says Osher, laughing.
Armed with a little cash and lots of promise, Osher found his current home, a former kosher bakery with just a slip of storefront peeking out from the large strip mall. “I saw the infrastructure here, I saw the rent,” he says. “It’s 10 minutes from my house, and I knew that I could continue to service my regulars.” Plus, the Squirrel Hill native says, “there’s just something about this being a specifically Jewish area. You feel it.”
Two months or so in, Gorilla Pies is indeed working. Osher laces each pizza with plenty of mozzarella to ensure an extra-cheesy result, and he isn’t afraid to load up his pies with lots of, well, whatever he wants. There’s pickled fennel on one pizza, pastrami and sauerkraut on another, plus the usual array of greens, Italian meats, and red sauce options. There are even meatballs (including a vegan take), wings, and some of the best cheesy bread — called monkey bars here — you can get anywhere in Los Angeles. He’s got that blue-collar pizza mentality, honed in Pittsburgh and planted in the Valley: Feed people good, and well, and watch them return. “To me, pizza is comfort,” says Osher. It’s got to happen within the crust, but everything else is fun. And no matter what, if you’re using good ingredients and putting love into it, everyone’s gonna eat it.”
Gorilla Pies is now open at 12417 Burbank Boulevard in Valley Village, with hours Wednesday and Thursday, 12 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 12 p.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday, 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. Order ahead via ChowNow.