Joe Edwardsen at Joe Squared

by Bonnie North

Why is the pizza square?


“Because the box is square, of course.” That’s the deadpanned answer I get from Joe Edwardsen, the owner of Joe Squared at the corner of Maryland and North Avenues.

Joe is one of the most easy-going, likable and all-round enjoyable guys you’ll ever come across. He’s sort of like what you’d expect in a Saturday Night Live portrayal of the Buddha—chuckling about life’s absurdities with a self-deprecating humor and dropping little wisdoms like an ancient sage, in spite of the fact that he’s only 28 years-old.

This makes sense when you learn that Joe didn’t start out in life with any intentions of becoming a master pizza-maker. In fact he was, and is, a philosopher, who graduated from Goucher College with a degree in the subject.

“I was originally planning to go on and become a philosophy professor, at least to give a try at it…” Joe says, “After graduation I headed over to Italy to study Italian so that I could translate my thesis into Italian, and eventually study under the phenomenologist Giorgio Agamben at the University of Verona.”

I made the error of asking exactly what was “phenomenology” and so quickly became buried in an avalanche of rarefied philosophical ramblings that my head was about to lift right off my shoulders. “Well, “ he said, “you have your phenomenon and your nomenon…” And I was lost right there, so Joe tried to explain: “Following after Husserl, it’s the study of the history of different noetic modes…” He could see I still wasn’t with him,  “Ah, it’s the study of understanding the systems of understanding.” Seeing that I was hopeless, he laughed good-naturedly and just said, “Anyway, that’s what I was studying, phenomenaology.” 

I thought I’d best stick to the topic of pizza and how Joe changed his plans and left Italy to come back stateside with a precious batch of 200 year-old sour dough starter, and open a pizza house instead.

“All through high school, all through college, I always cooked, read cookbooks. In fact, I did most of the family cooking probably from the age of 12-years-old on up.  My mom worked late and often didn’t have time to make a full meal. I was a very picky eater and wanted to make things that I liked—maybe I have an over-developed palette?”

Joe tried to land a cooking gig in Italy but, “Nobody was interested in actually paying a kid who couldn’t even speak Italian. So I did some unpaid work just to gather some skills.” He also picked up a batch of 200-year-old sour dough starter in a market in Florence and he had the smarts to carry it all the way back to the states when he started seriously running out of money.

Joe took a long apprenticeship at Tersiguel’s in Ellicot City. That was followed by a stint at Jennier’s as pastry chef. “That was fun. I learned how to make all the traditional French desserts. I didn’t have an opportunity to get crazy creative though. I could maybe make a different flavor crème anglais, that was about it.”

Joe got an offer to move down to Ze Mean Bean Café as sous chef and he stayed there for another year or so and
was feeling pretty certain by then that cooking was going to be his path. “I actually enrolled at the French Culinary Institute in New York but when I got up there and sat in on a bunch of classes—Well, everything they were teaching I already knew! I’d read it all; I’d done it all in practice. I said to myself ‘Hey I’m going to incur an awful lot of debt getting this degree that I’m not at all sure is really going to mean that much!’ I decided opening my own place was really the best investment, the best experience I could get.”

Joe Squared is a family business. “ My mom and my brothers are all involved. My dad helped me lay that tile in there. We tried on a lot of different ideas before we settled on what we’re doing here. In the end, we decided on pizza just because there was such a terrible lack of good pizza here.”

And of course, he still had that sour dough starter. “We keep it alive in the sink in a bucket. Every time a new Health Inspector comes around they freak at the sight of that thing sitting there in the sink just lava-ing over the bucket!” he chuckles, “They say ‘What is THAT? You’re not going to serve that are you?’ and I have to explain it all over again.”

In 2008 Joe gave the place a face-lift by opening up the front wall with huge windows and he invested in a massive 5,000 pound Earth Stone coal-fired pizza oven, the absolute be-all and end-all in gourmet pizza making.

Joe Squared is an important anchor point in the re-development of the North Avenue Arts District and what’s going on down there is a lot more than you’d ever expect in a typical pizza shop. “We wanted to make this a community space, to be part of re-building a neighborhood, not just building a restaurant.”

Sure enough, there’s a spirit to the place that’s unmistakably hip, intellectual, humourous and quirky. There’s music seven nights a week (everything from hip-hop and gospel, to blue grass and jazz—no cover charge either), a new display of local artwork every three weeks curated by Okan Arabacioglu, and usually a set of specials that are “thematically” tied to the art showing.  Like last month, when the art show was titled “Music is My Radar,” Joe was featuring: Isaac Hayes Chocolate Salty Wings, George Michael’s Sausage and Egg Pizza, and Bob Dylan’s Winey
Chicken Linguini, among other outrageously creative choices.

And yes, they do take out: “We’ll do whatever people want!” says Joe.

Joe Squared Pizza & Bar

133 W. North Ave


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