New competitors have entered the all-out brawls for pizza and dessert supremacy on the corner of Brattle Street and Massachusetts Avenue. On Feb. 2, &pizza and Milk Bar opened in a shared space to the delight of the hundreds who attended. While the two establishments share a roof, they still leave different impressions.
&pizza takes its namesake — pizza — and adds a build-your-own approach to the mix. The D.C.-based chain makes pizza in an iterative process similar to that of Subway and Felipe’s. With the exception of shrimp, all additional toppings are free of charge. While this reviewer intended on ordering “the OG,” &pizza’s classic pizza, the topping bar was hard to resist. The resulting pizza had peppers, onions, grilled chicken, arugula, and olive oil added along with the usual cheese and tomato sauce. Even with low expectations (given the sheer amount of good pizza in Harvard Square), &pizza impressed with its options and flavors.
Without knowing much about &pizza before its opening, my fear was that it would be good, but not distinct. However, the individualistic and exploratory dynamics of the topping bar encourages the patron to construct a pizza exactly to their liking. This system comes at a cost — &pizza is not the place to grab a quick slice or even a few pies for your dorm — but it may pay off in an area already experiencing peak pizza. The store’s competition, however, is fierce. Pinocchio’s is a mainstay, Oggi Gourmet has experienced a renaissance since the opening of the Smith Center, Otto has devotees for its unique combinations, and Cambridge, 1. has cornered the upscale market. But it is unlikely that &pizza will go the way of Crazy Dough’s, which failed to adapt to a changing pizza environment. Its niche (along with the popularity of Milk Bar) may be enough for it to grab its slice of the pie in the fight for pizza popularity.
Moving to the other side of the venue, Milk Bar has a lot to live up to. New Yorkers know the establishment well. Originally founded as the back room of the East Village’s Momofuku Ssam Bar, the dessert shop has since expanded to other cities and has gained a cultish following. Its popularity was made clear by the lines outside, which did not subside much in its first few days of operation. Milk Bar’s smaller space serves to make it look full more easily, artificially boosting its popularity.
&pizza and Milk Bar take massively different approaches to food construction, which is ironic given the corporate synergy between the two partners. While &pizza may be saved by its ability to customize, many of Milk Bar’s items are sold pre-packaged. Those items, while expertly presented, seem mediocre. The establishment’s famous Crack Pie — based in brown sugar — did not justify its rich and buttery taste. The cereal milk soft serve was exactly as advertised, which leaves one to wonder why exactly someone would want to have soft serve that only tastes like cereal milk. The birthday cake truffles were very floury, although tasty enough to compensate. On the bright side, the compost cookie — containing butterscotch, chocolate chips, pretzels, and more — was superb, and easily the highlight of the “Greatest Hits” bundle.
This is not to say that Milk Bar serves objectively bad food. It is very much suited toward people who have nostalgia over cereal milk, people who are willing to shell out $50 or more for a cake, and people who are fine with sacrificing taste for aesthetic and Instagrammability. If you do not see yourself in one of those categories, some offerings — like the compost cookie — make Milk Bar still worth trying. But it may take more to bring patrons back for seconds.
&pizza and Milk Bar are like conjoined twins now, tied at the hip to each other’s successes. Their relationship is symbiotic: The attention surrounding Milk Bar will likely help boost &pizza’s bottom line. Moving into the future, this could help &pizza by increasing foot traffic, but it could also create a vibe that renders &pizza barren and second-rate. While the final answer will probably lie somewhere in between, there should be optimism about the shared space’s long-term prospects. The location is perfect for maximizing the number of students and general visitors on a daily basis. Both chains will likely inspire its fanatics to keep coming back for more. And the overall convenience of being able to get some solid pizza and dessert under the same roof will mask the fact that both establishments are in deeply competitive markets. While &pizza and Milk Bar are currently a house divided, that shared space may well be its blueprint for success.
— Staff writer Jack M. Schroeder can be reached at email@example.com.