Meet The Makers: Pizza Shack

Love pizza? Maybe not so much as self-styled ‘passionate pizza fellow’, Matthew Smith, pizzaiolo and founder of Greenwich Market’s Pizza Shack. The Shack has been turning out some of London’s tastiest pizzas each weekend at the market since 2016. Just look for the queues of hungry regulars that form as soon as his ovens fire up!

A former fundraiser for charities like Greenpeace and Shelter, Matthew is bright, gregarious and full of youthful energy. As we chat, many other traders wander over for a quick word, and he’s as warm and engaging with us as he is with them, or his many regulars. Posing for photographs in front of his stall, he tucks a tea towel into his apron and jokes, ‘I actually look like a pizza chef, now that I have a towel. It’s all about the adornments!’

For Matthew, Greenwich Market’s greatest strength is its trading community. Only 26 when he first set out his stall here, he soon realised, ‘everyone has your back. The other traders, they all take care of you. It’s almost like growing up in a small village. Everyone knows your name; they bring you ideas; they want you to do well.’ They also socialise together: Matthew’s relishes regular Greenwich Market poker nights, hosted by different colleagues.

Once known as ‘Little Leaf’, Pizza Shack originally specialised in ‘plant-powered pizza’. But as Matthew, a vegan for nine years, began to allow himself small amounts of sustainable, good-quality meat, and as his confidence in the business grew, so did the menu. Now, Pizza Shack has meat-eaters covered too.

Vegetarians and vegans still have plenty of options, of course. Everything from the base to the cheese can still be made purely from plants. Matthew explains, ‘Because we were vegan for so long, our plant-based options are really high quality. We still get a lot of vegan customers.’

How did those vegan devotees feel about Pizza Shack’s addition of meat to the menu? ‘Anyone that was closely connected to us understood. They’ve seen how this economy has gone. You’ve got McDonald’s, KFC and Burger King ... people spend their money there. And the little vegan entrepreneurs suffered as a result.’

Catering to the omnivorous, Pizza Shack can stray further beyond the crowd-pleasing repertoire of Italian classics such as the margherita. One signature is the cheese – a touch of cheddar is mixed with the mozzarella for more ‘bite’. Another innovation unique to the Shack is the ‘Shakshuka’, a pizza that bridges the Mediterranean by combining the spices and eggs of North African shakshuka with a home-made, classically Italian tomato sugo.

Then there’s the ‘Woodland’ – a pizza bianco (tomato-free pizza) topped with potato, mushrooms, sausage and truffle oil that perhaps shouldn’t work, but actually tastes incredible! And special mention goes to Matthew’s personal favourite, the ‘Big Spicy’, on which American peperoni is given extra pep by jalapeños and South African piquanté peppers.

Matthew’s Dad, Iain Smith, was a personal inspiration in setting up Pizza Shack. A business owner himself, Iain runs an Italian womenswear outlet in the West Midlands. Intriguingly, he’s also the source of some ambiguity about Matthew’s roots. He laughs, ‘People always ask ‘Are you Italian?’ – because I have a pizza business. I say, ‘I don’t know – my Dad never knew where his Dad came from. So potentially, somewhere in the genes, there might be some Italian, trying to get out!’

What’s certain is Matthew’s satisfaction in producing a quality product, and in knowing it’s appreciated. One cherished interaction with a nine-year old fan of his food stays in his memory. The young lad and his little brother made a beeline for a busy Pizza Shack, happy anticipation written across their faces. They bought a classic margherita and were back ten minutes later, fighting the crowds again just to tell Matthew, ‘you never fail to satisfy!’

When it comes to this outstanding, dough-flinging operation, Matthew is clear: ‘I wanted to keep it simple, unpretentious and fun. Because ultimately the cuisine of pizza is all of those things.’ And that ethos extends to the staff: Matthew’s friend Daniel and other regulars. ‘It’s all about the people. They have to love pizza. And they need to know how to have fun, because that’s what we associate pizza with.’ Creative flair is important, too – little touches like pre-cooking their bacon with a little brown sugar for extra caramelised deliciousness.

The unique graphics that make Pizza Shack a stand-out stall are the work of another of Matthew’s friends – graphic designer Molly Clement. Molly has a unique talent for taking Matt’s design ideas and turning them into full-colour reality. The hot pink stall is plastered with fun and bizarre images: gorillas riding pizza cutters, palm trees fruiting hot slices and even a headless cartoon figure striding forward, take-away pizza in hand.

Beyond its established niche at Greenwich Market, you can find Pizza Shack pumping out pies for revellers at The Brockley Taproom, Thursday to Saturday evenings. Further next steps hopefully include fitting out a food truck, allowing Matthew to bring his food to summer festivals and tourist hot spots. ‘Cornwall would be amazing!’ (if somewhat daunting given the extreme seasonality of custom).

The pizza lovers of Greenwich Market have long since cast their vote in favour of Pizza Shack. Let’s hope the food van becomes a reality, and Matthew can bring his passion-powered pies to a wider cognoscenti. In the meantime, you’ll need to get yourself down to Greenwich Market on the weekend to see how good they truly are!

Interview by Hugh McNaughtan | Photos by Ed Simmons