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Pizza, in its purest form, is dough, sauce, and cheese. It’s one of the simplest and most satisfying foods that exists. That’s not to say it’s easy to make well. Pizzaiolos in Naples, Italy have been mastering Neapolitan pies with their signature soupy centers since the 19th century. And while there are endless notable pizza regions all over the world, it’s undeniable that New York has long been a capital for the popular Italian dish.
I grew up in New York City, enjoying after-school slices and attending birthday parties fueled by boxes of pies. That was the late ’90s and early aughts, when good vegan food was much harder to come by than it is today. Vegan pizza? Near impossible. If you were dairy-free and in search of pizza, your options were slim. Some places might offer a marinara pie with just tomato sauce and no cheese — and maybe they’d let you add veggies as toppings. Still, the case at your corner slice shop was more likely to display a white pie than a red one.
Since then, vegan mozzarella replacements have flooded the market. Today, brands like Daiya, Violife, So Delicious, and Good Planet make plant-based mozzarella that aims to mimic the low-moisture shreds used to make pizza. Miyoko’s Creamery even sells a cashew-milk-based mozzarella in the shape of a ball, resembling an orb of fresh-made dairy mozzarella. But pizzaiolos, especially in a city like New York, tend to be particular about their ingredients. They won’t just put anything on their pizzas; a lot of plant-based mozzarellas they wouldn’t even bother trying.
Enter NUMU, a vegan cheese brand that’s starting to change the attitude towards — and availability of — dairy-free pizza by capturing the attention of lauded pizza makers in New York. NUMU isn’t for sale in grocery stores (yet), but you can find it on the menu at a growing number of pizzerias, including Paulie Gee’s, Screamers, and Scarr’s.
The Brooklyn-based company was founded in 2016 by Gunars Elmuts, a career DJ and hobbyist chef who went vegan in 2011. “What are the foods that you can have at four or five in the morning when you’re done with your eight-hour set, and you’re starving? You basically have one option, and it’s pizza,” he remembers. Elmuts could no longer frequent pizzerias after he stopped eating dairy, and he lost a lot of weight.
As he began to experiment with cooking vegan food at home, he realized there was an opportunity to make vegan pizza more accessible by creating a really good plant-based mozzarella. The key components to nail were behavior, texture, and flavor. It needed to act like milk-based mozzarella in the way it melted on top of sauce and dough, it needed to mimic the mouthfeel of the stretchy-gooey cheese on a classic slice, and it needed to taste good enough to satisfy converted vegans (and even non-vegans). Eventually, Elmuts landed on a product that uses coconut oil as its fat component and incorporates potato starch and non-GMO soybeans.
The pizzaiolo Paul Giannone, known by most as Paulie Gee, started serving NUMU as soon as he tried it. Elmuts remembers the day, five years ago, that he brought a sample to Giannone’s wood-fired pizzeria in Greenpoint, Brooklyn as a major turning point. In 2016, Paulie Gee’s was ahead of the curve in catering to vegans. They offered a whole menu of vegan pies, but none of them used a mozzarella replacement. “There were plenty of vegan pies we could make without having to use these vegan cheeses that we weren’t crazy about, by using different combinations of things,” Giannone says. “We also made our own cashew ricotta, which helped, that gave us a couple of pies.” Elmuts recalls that Giannone was skeptical at first, but when the NUMU-topped pizza came out of the oven, he ate not just one slice but two. “And he eats pizza all day every day, so for him to have two slices of it, that kind of validated everything,” he says.
NUMU worked for Giannone because it had similar characteristics to real mozzarella cheese, but most importantly because it tasted good. “You can come up with a cheese that melts the same way or whatever but it doesn’t taste right. What good is that?” he says. Paulie Gee’s uses NUMU on four wood-fired pizzas at their original location, including a “Grapeful Dead” pie with baby spinach, olive oil, and house-pickled red grape halves. NUMU is also a staple ingredient at Paulie Gee’s nearby slice shop, where you can get a vegan cheese slice and a vegan Sicilian slice with Beyond Meat sausage. Giannone says that having a vegan following prior to learning about NUMU is what motivated him to find a better quality mozzarella substitute to serve them. “It allowed us to grow our vegan menu even more,” he says.
Meanwhile, on Long Island, John Cesarano of King Umberto says that offering NUMU has introduced a new clientele to his family’s pizzeria, which has been in business since 1976. When vegans come in to eat, he uses it not only on pizzas but also on other dishes that rely on melted mozzarella, like eggplant parmesan. It was Giannone who first introduced him to the product. Cesarano liked the fact that NUMU was made in Brooklyn; that it was local. He says that although “the average person can still tell the difference, it’s the closest thing that you’re going to get to that texture, that look, that taste.” As a second-generation pizzaiolo, a core part of his pizza-making philosophy is to always be innovative to stay relevant. He recently debuted a new style of pizza, a hybrid of Naples and New York styles, using an outdoor gas oven they purchased to go with their expanded outdoor dining space. He also serves gluten-free pizza. “If you’re going to try to new dough formulas and if you want to try to make new pizzas, you also have to try to introduce new toppings as well,” Cesarano says. “Vegan cheese is still relatively new on in the pizza market, but if you want to stay on top of your game, you want to know what’s going on in the industry, and what’s trending, vegan cheese and the brand NUMU [are part of that].”
At Leo, a sourdough pizzeria in Williamsburg, Brooklyn that’s also known for its natural wine program, NUMU isn’t advertised, but it is available for those who ask. They already serve a marinara pie that’s just dough, tomatoes, garlic, and oregano, and it’s both deliciously simple and vegan. Still, some vegans will ask if they can do a dairy-free cheese pie, and that’s when they’ll break out the NUMU. Joey Scalabrino, the chef and owner, admits to being a purist, “but at the same time, I’m very sensitive to people’s allergies and sensitivities. I can barely process bread, and [making pizza] is my life, so I get it,” he says. He adds that if he were a vegan, he’d probably stick to the marinara pie instead of seeking out substitutes, and yet he also understands why for certain vegans, NUMU really hits the spot. “It’s a little bit of a visual and mouthfeel thing that people like. If you’re actually allergic to cheese, or you haven’t had it in so long, it must be nice to have that sensation,” he says, which is also why, as a business owner, it’s nice to have it on hand. For Scalabrino, even stocking NUMU is telling. When it comes to ingredients, “we’re pretty picky people,” he says.
Up until recently, NUMU was only available locally in New York, but now the company has partnered with more distributors to expand its reach. Cesarano says when he first tried NUMU, he would’ve had to go pick it up in Brooklyn, but now they’re able to order it to Long Island. Paulie Gee’s has been using it at their New Orleans location, and soon they’ll be offering vegan pizza made with NUMU at their slice shop outpost in Madison Square Garden, since the stadium’s distributors just started carrying it. Perhaps most notable, NUMU can now be found nationwide at Whole Food Market’s pizza bars. The company announced in September that they raised their Series A in financing led by Unovis and Clear Current Capital, two venture capital firms that are deeply embedded in the vegan food alternative market, having also invested in brands like Beyond Meat and Good Catch.
NUMU’s strategy of making cheese for pizzaiolos who then build customer demand is similar to the approach that Oatly took when they first came to markets like New York. Early adopters of oat milk might remember discovering it at their local coffee shops. I first learned of Oatly when a barista at Gimme Coffee suggested using it in my cappuccino in place of almond milk, insisting that it foamed better and tasted good. Soon enough, I was hooked. As Scalabrino puts it, for makers of vegan alternatives to put their product in the hands of experts “is a great forensic approach.”
From the get-go, Elmuts’ intent has been for NUMU to be served at the best pizzerias. “I thought that if we could do a proof of concept with some of the best places, that would give it some power,” he says. Some day, he posits, it could even be available at fast-food chains and dollar slice shops. I asked Elmuts if that’s what success looks like for NUMU. His answer? “My goal is for NUMU to be as ubiquitous as plant-based milks are at coffee shops in pizza shops.”