Washington, D.C., native Conor Cudahy, 28, taught English for the Peace Corps in Malawi until the stint was cut short because of COVID. What to do next? The longtime pizza fan worked in various office settings back home in Washington, but a move to Boston — spurred by his girlfriend — inspired him to try something new.
He grew up loving pizza, especially after a family trip to Italy. As a teen, he often tried to riff on recipes from the classic “American Pie” by Peter Reinhart, which explores its many styles and techniques. COVID offered the chance to turn it into a career, first as a 3,000-pound roving oven that he transported to various breweries around the Boston area, using local ingredients with a Neapolitan flair. This month, he opened his first brick-and-mortar, LaLa’s Neapolitan-ish Pizza, at Time Out Market Boston. (LaLa is a family nickname for his mom, Laura.) His current favorite pizza: Molly’s Vice, with oregano, mozzarella, cremini mushrooms, bacon, and red onion.
When he’s not working, Cudahy is ensconced in Teele Square, where he walks to Davis Square to enjoy classic Thai food at Dakzen (and people-watch at The Burren). Just don’t serve him a cold breakfast sandwich.
What does “Neapolitan-ish” mean?
We call it Neapolitan-ish because the Neapolitan guidelines are pretty strict. They want you to use flour from Italy, they want you to use cheese from Italy, they want you to use your tomatoes from Italy. It’s kind of all geared around the export of Italian products. We call ourselves Neapolitan-ish because, while we’d like to stick to some of the recipes that they use there, we generally use local flour, local cheeses, local produce, to make it more of a New England feel.
For people who don’t know what a Neapolitan technique is: What does it mean? And where do you get your products? Can you name check any of the [items] that make your pizza super local?
Absolutely. So, what makes pizza Neapolitan, is it uses double-zero flour. It uses San Marzano tomatoes from the Naples area. It generally uses buffalo mozzarella, which is … mozzarella cheese made with buffalo milk, instead of cow milk. And it’s cooked in a wood-fired oven at a really high temperature.
We use flour from Hadley. The name of the mill that we use is Ground Up Grain. We use cheese from Calabro, which is a Connecticut-based company.
Tell me: Why pizza? Boston has a lot of pizza, so I want to know why your pizza is different.
I think it’s really just a focus on New England products. I think there are some people around doing that, but it’s really what we’re focused on. We’re focused on highlighting those really great New England cheese-makers and flour-makers. … We’re trying to make pizza fun and playful and interacting with our guests and answering questions and talking about the producers. … We do try to provide a customer experience that’s welcoming and [make] people want to come back and get more.
Take me back to the very beginning: When did you first know that you wanted to work in food?
I’ve kind of had a crazy six or seven years since I graduated from college! But food has always been a constant in my life. I got started in fifth or sixth grade, just with a kids’ cooking book. I remember there was a pizza recipe in there that I was kind of obsessed with. I was always trying to make it a little bit different or stray from the recipe a little bit.
What kind of really got me interested is a trip to Italy in eighth grade. Me, my parents, and my sister all went for two weeks and just traveled around. And I think just seeing the freshness of the ingredients, and then highlighting the ingredients that were grown locally within 100 miles of where the pizza was being made, was really something that captivated me and made me interested in pursuing that moving forward.
I also had this book called “American Pie” by Peter Reinhart. I read that book twice a month, every month, just trying to learn more about the different styles of pizza, how they’re made, and how they are differentiated by region. I always kind of thought, in high school, that it would just be something that was a hobby, I guess. After college, and after I did some time in the Peace Corps, it was always something that was on my mind, and always something that I was trying to perfect.
Once COVID came around, I had a little bit of extra time … so I started thinking about that a little bit more seriously and putting more time and effort into getting the business started.
After high school. I was recruited for swimming. And I went to William & Mary in Virginia in Williamsburg, Virginia, so I swam there, and I majored in government and supply chain analytics, of all things.
How did you get into professional cooking?
Well, it gets even crazier from there. So, after college, I worked for a year in management consulting, and I was working with the Department of Agriculture there. I was just unhappy with a desk job. I didn’t like that. So that’s when I joined the Peace Corps, in June 2018.
I was there until COVID came around. … In Malawi, I was just thinking about how I want[ed] to start my own business when I got back. I took extra time on the weekends and in the evenings to formulate the business plan. That’s when I bought the big wood-fired oven trailer, in May 2021. I just started off doing that on the weekend, kind of for fun, just a way to get out and learn how the food truck process works. Then I found Time Out [Market Boston].
Why did you choose to open there?
I thought Time Out [Market Boston] was a really good next step for us. The kitchen was all ready for us just to move in. We didn’t have to buy the oven; we didn’t have to buy much of the equipment. So it was a really good low-cost, low-risk way to get our first brick-and-mortar up and running. Besides that, I’d just come there as someone looking for good food for the last two years since I moved here. I really liked the vibe. I knew how busy it was during the week, and especially on the weekends and before Fenway games. I knew we would automatically have a fair amount of people coming and seeing our pizza and seeing our brand and seeing our logo.
Why Boston? What do you make of it as a food city?
I’m from D.C. And when I was in high school, D.C. had a really big food renaissance. There were restaurants popping up, really good local stuff being made, lots of different new places coming in.
I actually moved here because my girlfriend is from here, and she started law school in 2020. That’s why I moved up here originally, but I got really excited with the food [scene], because it kind of felt like D.C. when I was in high school. … It just seemed like there was a lot of new places doing interesting and cool stuff, lots of new pizza places doing interesting stuff, using local ingredients and in different techniques. I think the food scene is really exciting right now. It seems like it’s growing; it’s becoming a thing for people to do as a hobby, going out to eat and find[ing] new places.
What restaurants do you really enjoy here?
My personal favorite is Pammy’s. That was just one of the best meals I’ve had here. Field & Vine in Somerville, also. I just really love how they are hyper-local, using stuff from New England and using produce from here. For pizza, I think my favorite is Jinny’s in Newton. [They’re] doing similar stuff that we would like to be doing with the local food, local flour kind of philosophy.
What was the Peace Corps like?
It was incredible. It was just a great experience. Honestly, I was there for two years, in a remote village in the northern part of Malawi, tucked between Zambia and Tanzania. I was teaching English there and running a few clubs at the school I was placed at. The bonds I made there, with the other Peace Corps volunteers and the staff of Peace Corps, but especially with my community and my students and my neighbors, was really, really hard to leave so suddenly, with COVID. And I’m looking forward to getting back and seeing all my local friends there especially since I wasn’t able to say goodbye to everyone, because we were kind of rushed out.
How did it affect your worldview? What did you learn about the world? What would you want people to know?
I have always been like a big traveler. It kind of reinforced my idea that people around the world are more similar than you might think. I feel like a lot of people that haven’t traveled lot or people who haven’t been fortunate enough to move outside New England or outside of the US can look at a different country and say, “Oh, that’s so far away. They must be completely different.” … I think everyone has the same wants and needs, and they have the same life aspirations. People are similar. They generally want to talk to you and engage with you, as long as you have a chance to get to know each other.
OK. Let’s do some quick questions: Favorite food vice?
Cinnamon Toast Crunch.
What’s your culinary pet peeve? Do you have a food that you can’t stand?
Anything with cold eggs in it. Cold eggs freak me out. I don’t really know what has cold eggs, but, like, a breakfast sandwich that has been sitting out for an hour.
If you had to describe Time Out Market Boston in a few words, what would you say? How would you describe the vibe there?
Right now I’m here. I’m looking around. I’d say it’s festive. It’s just a happy place to come. Everyone here is coming to have fun. It’s open to everyone. You get people from out of town who are looking to experience a few different Boston-based local restaurants before they leave. You get people who have come 20 times since they’ve moved here. You get grandparents who are going out to a concert or something or going out to a museum. I say it’s just a place for everyone — a happy place for everyone to eat and be jolly.
What would you say is the most underrated style of food? What would you love to see more of in this city?
Based on my time in Malawi, I think that we’re really lacking some African food. I was in southeastern Africa, and I haven’t seen anything related to that, really. And it’s definitely food that I miss. So that’s definitely something that I would love to see more of.
What’s your favorite neighborhood hangout?
I love Dave’s Fresh Pasta. I love Dragon Pizza; it’s definitely one of my favorite pizza spots. For a more raucous time, I love going out to The Burren and just seeing all the college kids who are a bit inexperienced with drinking. And the last one is Dakzen, also in Davis. That’s a weekly indulgence for me.