You’ve Got to Check Out Companion Pizza

The pizza pop-up serves creative “Neopolitan-ish” pies most Sundays at Oakley Wines.

Pizza is so informal and inviting—versatile enough to meet most people where they are and very familiar—that a hearty pie can sometimes get written off as a more pedestrian dining choice.

Chef Matt Owens doesn’t care about that. He just loves eating pizza and, at his Companion Pizza pop-up (where he’s served up gourmet pizzas since June), he shares his love of a good pie most Sundays via a residency at Oakley Wines.

“I think pizza is really one of the great connectors in food,” he says. “As a kid, I can remember being really excited to try the stuffed crust pizza when that came out.”

Owens has always loved food and cooking, a love that carried him to Vermont’s New England Culinary Institute to learn more about his passion. He eventually landed the job of executive chef at central Ohio’s then-new Harvest Pizzeria, where he developed menus and created the restaurant’s distinctive pizzas. He left Harvest for a job with Thunderdome Restaurant Group as the director of culinary training and development. Then, during the pandemic, he went to work as the Findlay Kitchen incubator manager, helping entrepreneurs from predominantly underserved communities start food businesses. Today, he works as an independent restaurant consultant, helping area restaurants get up and going. It’s a definite career success story, but recently he found himself missing the simple act of cooking for others.

“I really kind of got that itch back,” Owens explains. “I love pizza and had been making a lot of pizza at home. I bought a home pizza oven, and the idea for Companion just kind of sprung out of there. I didn’t feel that the pizza I like to eat really existed in Cincinnati.”

The kind of pizza he likes the most is what he calls “Neapolitan-ish,” crispy and chewy with bubbling crust and leopard spotting on the bottom.

“I do take a lot of inspiration from the traditional Neapolitan method, but I’ve developed my own slow dough process where I cold ferment the dough for 72 hours,” he says. “It allows the yeast a lot more time to develop a more complex flavor within the dough for what I’d call our signature crisp and chewy dough structure. I’m really just making the kind of pizza I like to eat at home.”

Owens puts his culinary creativity to work atop this finely tuned dough, serving up a rotating menu of varieties that showcase his love of flavor.

“We’re really working through our ideas, coming up with creative flavors that I think are unique and interesting and rather different,” he says. “I try to think of them as wholly composed dishes rather than just a collection of toppings. I try to balance all the flavor elements so there’s sweet and salty and bitter and umami and spicy—all of those things together.”

Owens estimates Companion has developed about 18 pizzas so far and highlights a few personal favorites, including the Bloody Mary (house vodka sauce, cornichons, pepperoncinis, Castelvetrano olives, candied bacon, celery seed on the crust), Butternut Squash pizza (hazelnut salsa maca made of fried chile peppers, hazelnuts, peanuts, sesame seeds, pepitas, capers, shallots and garlic, with a cilantro salsa verde) and Lemon Ricotta pizza (Meyer lemon cream sauce, capers, Calabrian chilis and scallions, studded with ricotta rosettes).

The Companion pop-up also offers non-pizza menu items like salads and creative small plates. And of course, the menu goes perfectly with the many wines at Oakley Wines, where bartenders can help diners find a pie’s perfect pairing. “I really feel like pizza and wine are natural companions. That’s where the name came from.”

And while Owens loves eating pizza, he’s also really excited to showcase his stunning Companion creations, too, posting photos for the pop-up’s Instagram following throughout the week to get diners excited for the Sunday showing. “It’s an interesting way to operate a business,” he says. “We have an opportunity to come up with new pizzas every week. Then we take pictures of them and try to promote what we’re doing each week, too. Doing a pop-up has given us an opportunity to do that.”

(Owens was able to leverage his social media following recently for a fundraiser, too, donating sales from a pineapple pizza to help victims of the Maui fires.)

While he has only good things to say about the pop-up and Companion’s hosts—Stephanie and Dave Webster, the owners of Oakley Wines—the chef is keen on one day opening a dedicated brick-and-mortar spot. But that’s down the road. For now, he’s just really enjoying making pizza he likes to eat.

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