On a Monday night last month, Pizza Boat set up in the parking lot at Bar Marco in the Strip District, where Neapolitan-style pies were cooked in a 3,000-pound, dome-shaped wood-burning oven on a trailer a few steps away from a tented kitchen.
They were the evening's No Menu Monday, the weekly event that features chefs from restaurants around the city as well as home cooks who offer a short menu of dishes for modest prices.
Pizza Boat landed in Pittsburgh this past summer, when Jeff Ryan and Matt Watson, former cooks at the well-regarded Roberta's Pizza in Brooklyn, N.Y., moved here to start their own business. Mr. Watson, 28, is originally from Grove City, and Mr. Ryan, 29, grew up in Robinson.
Wearing aprons, wool hats and layers under hoodies to stay warm, Mr. Watson worked the oven while Mr. Ryan prepped pies, handling dough lightly. Their "street pizzas," as they call them, measuring 6 to 8 inches across, are made with very fine "00" flour.
Inside Bar Marco, the hungry and the curious waited in line for seats. The night's selections included a pierogi version dressed with the innards of the city's favorite dumpling, homemade lamb sausage and feta pizza as well as a margherita pizza "with a hot genovetta option for you pepperoni types," they announced on Facebook.
Rather than open a brick-and-mortar restaurant, they're looking for a permanent location to park Pizza Boat during the warm weather, something like Bayardstown Social Club, the 5,000-square-foot empty lot in the Strip District with picnic tables, lawn chairs, twinkly lights and a fire pit set up by DeepLocal.
"We want to do something unconventional," said Mr. Ryan, "yet we'd like a permanent location because the trailer is really quite heavy to cart around." Both Mr. Ryan and Mr. Watson also work at Dinette in East Liberty.
Mr. Watson and Mr. Ryan, both of Friendship, are do-it-yourselfers inspired by a nationwide movement to set up businesses in an organic, unorthodox manner. Instead of working their way up the kitchen line and breaking off on their own while luring investors, their model is scruffier and more flexible.
They're not the only ones shaping their own path here. They're joined by a handful of young entrepreneurs eager to make a mark on a city that's open to creativity on a shoestring budget. They include Evan Wood, baker and bagel maker of the Pittsburgh Bagel Club; Jared Lordon of Allegheny City Smokehouse; and Asa Foster and Matt Katase, also known as The Brew Gentlemen, who will be opening a brewery and taproom in Braddock next year. Each business has built a following through special events, social media and word of mouth.
Evan Wood, 30, another alum of Roberta's in Brooklyn, moved to Lawrenceville in May 2012, when his wife took a new job here. He started as a freelance baker for Bluebird Kitchen, Downtown, making baguettes, ciabatta and sublime croissants, golden-brown and flaky with a buttery interior. He learned to bake in the bread program in Manhattan's French Culinary Institute (now International Culinary Institute).
With a child on the way, he took a tech job and bakes on the side. He began to play around with bagels in late July. "Pittsburgh doesn't have good bagels, so I decided to make them myself," he said. He focused on creating a crispy outside with a chewy interior that's not too dense.
Through trial and error, he developed his perfect bagel, but because the dough is so stiff, he had to make them by hand. "It would have broken the mixer."
Now he's making between 70 and 80 a week for friends and those who have signed up forPittsburgh Bagel Club via Twitter, a barter and swap with friends and those who have heard about his bagels. It takes eight hours over two days.
He continues to come up with new recipes. Just this past week he made "everything bagels" for the first time, incorporating garlic and onion inside, "so the stuff on top didn't burn."
Eventually, he would like to have a bakery "with a couple of really great products," such as bagels. "Maybe someone will offer me a bunch of money," he quipped. "I'd definitely sit down and talk."
Jared Lordon, 33, of Mount Washington is the sous-chef at Up Modern Kitchen in Shadyside, where he hosts "Up in Smoke" from 4 to 9 on Sunday nights, featuring smoked ribs, chicken and brisket and an array of sides.
He used to pair with Kelly Patton as the duo behind Allegheny City Smokehouse, a weekend affair that involved smoking meats overnight in a shed off a rental property in Marshall-Shadeland. They sold meats on Sundays.
Mr. Lordon and Mr. Patton had worked together at Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C., and had been back in the area for a few years. Mr. Lordon worked at NOLA in Market Square while Mr. Patton worked in sales when they came across the North Side property.
They started with bacon and kielbasa and moved to brisket, pork belly, shoulder, hams for special occasions and eventually novelties such as cheese and butter. Allegheny City Smokehouse moved from Sunday sales to events such as the Commonwealth Press Meat & Greet, where they debuted a smoked kielbasa sandwich with celery seed slaw on pumpernickel. They called it the Polish Hammer.
As the shed fell into disrepair, Mr. Patton bowed out of the business and Mr. Lordon switched to a smoker for his Sunday event. He is also in the early stages of talking with investors with intent to build a barbecue joint.
"We don't have a sit-down place with beer and barbecue," he said. "And we need one."
Asa Foster and Matt Katase, both 23, conceived their concept for a brewery as students at Carnegie Mellon University, where they built the brand as part of their entrepreneur classes.
"We were put in an interesting situation," said Mr. Foster, originally from Boston. "Long before we had anything to show for it, we had to publicize our plan sooner than optimal."
Since then, the duo has been honing recipes and working to open The Brew Gentlemen, a brewery and taproom in the former Harco Electric Supply building on Braddock Avenue in Braddock.
Since the Brew Gentlemen have come on the radar, beer geeks can sample wares at tastings scheduled at the brewery-in-progress as well as warm-weather events such as Tapped, the summer and fall beer garden pop-up hosted by Epic Development, a local economic development firm; Fukuda in Bloomfield; and Bar Marco.
At these events they debuted flagship brews such as the malt-centric, bittersweet General Braddock's IPA, an American red wheat called White Sky and Business Casual, a session beer. "We're also planning to experiment with one-offs and seasonal brews," said Mr. Foster, citing the Build and Destroy wheat stout, one of their newest creations.
The duo has been staying in the convent that's been converted into a boarding house down the street from the brewery, close enough to work on renovations. They plan to open by spring.
With their careers ahead of them, Mr. Foster and Mr. Katase are hungry for progress.
"Beer is only the beginning."
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.