An individual’s pizza philosophy, much like the physical pies themselves, can come in all shapes and sizes. What should the restaurant be? A temple or a neighborhood dive? Should pies reflect purity of a particular school or be an expression of an owner’s je ne sais quoi? More so than any other strand of restaurant, pizza places tend to show forth the vision and personal quirks of their owners.
Seoul is blessed to have a number of excellent pizza restaurants, mostly from the Napoli school, but also some faithfully representing NYC, and a small handful doing entirely their own thing. David Chang has semi-joked about making a Korean Pizza Kitchen chain to represent the quirks and possibilities of Korean-style pizza (toppings ranging from galbi to sweet potato). Seoul City’s love of pizza is real, and there is a spectrum here to be found and appreciated.
Pizzeria Hokey Pokey opened earlier this year down in the bowels of Seocho-gu. Great for folks on the southside of South River, but for a Mapo-gu guy like myself, a bit of a trek. One draw to the area, however, is Seoul Arts Center, home to the Seoul Philharmonic. After a stint watching the beloved Japanese comedy/drama, Nodame Cantabile, JY and myself decided to invest some time and (actually not very much) money in becoming the riff-raff who sit in the cheap seats. After a revving performance there recently and a short walk through a quiet area of musical instrument and sheet music stores, we found our way to the doors of Hokey Pokey.
The space is an assuming white with light wood tables and lots of healthy greenery. Welcoming to Instagrammers and echoing the modern Seoul aesthetic of airy spaces that appeal to Influencers. Fake moss grows on the exposed pipes above. A fairly excellent cookbook collection also hovers overhead like ideas ready to be pulled from the ether. Titles from Chris Bianco, Sean Brock, Edward Lee, Alice Waters, David Chang all demonstrate an appreciation and curiosity on the part of the owner for the wider culinary world. A large magnetic black signage neatly displays the basic menu and a quote: “People disappoint. Pizza is eternal.”
If Hokey Pokey has a modus operandi, it’s the above statement of intent. The owner is clearly a pizza craftsman and cares about getting all the details “right”, even though he likely knows such a goal is impossible. The space, while pleasant enough, is mostly there to facilitate the enjoyment of the food and drink. There’s is an extensive, well-considered beer and wine menu. And contrary to a lot of places in the city chasing profit margins on their alcohol sales, there is, mercifully, a reasonably priced domestic, non-“craft” beer for 5,000 won. However, the owner seems to closely consider the choices and pay attention to new offerings from beer & wine distributors. Hokey Pokey was the first restaurant to my knowledge to carry my favorite back-home brewery, Westbrook, from Charleston, SC. There are thoughtful sodas, too, and excellently fizzy Gerolsteiner and Singa seltzer waters.
The pies themselves are stated to be 16″ and while that may be true, they seem much larger than that. A slice is slightly smaller than a typical NY slice would be but much larger than a Neopolitan slice. The crust is firm, trustworthy against gravity, but with dueling textures. The bottom crunches nicely when bitten yet provides that moist, slightly doughy chew from the top side. There is a significant char to the bottom of the pizza due to type of flour being used. Imported from the US, it’s supposed to give the crust a more sourdough-like redolence. The tomato sauce is bright, a touch sweet, and spiced with Sicilian oregano, a taste that will linger pleasantly after the meal.
You can do half-and-half pies for a small fee. That’s the recommended plan of action. Most pizzas are between 30-35,000 won but worth all of it. The sausage is made in-house, either sweet-and-spicy fennel or chorizo. They come in dense, chewy little knots atop the circular pies. The newest pie, called “Kaboooom!”, has been my favorite so far with fennel sausage, red onions, fresh basil, hot red pepper, and breadcrumbs. The Pig & Olive is a pleasant grease bomb of chorizo and black olives. The White Jalapeno is a white pie that will clear your sinuses with sizable, seed-in jalapeno slices and that addictive fennel sausage. There is also a blue cheese-and-shiitake pie that would be an interesting to the meatier options. Be sure to get a cup of Green Goddess dip for the crust, not that it needs it, but what doesn’t Green Goddess make better? If you want buffalo wings or a Caesar salad, you can do that too, but I recommend saving all your stomach real estate for the pizza.
Hokey Pokey’s Instragram profile states blithely, “Just pizza”. While the wine and beer selection would make for a decent enough bar alone, it’s hard to argue with that statement. The owner, usually lightly dusted in flour, will sometimes shyly come to take your order. The interaction will be brief and perfunctory. After all, there is pizza to be made.