A basement bar a stone’s throw from the austere Kyoto Imperial Palace might seem like an unlikely place to “make pizza fun again.”
American Daniel McNellie is clearly in on the joke, referencing the campaign slogan of U.S. President Donald Trump, but, like all jokes, there’s a kernel of truth in McNellie’s plan.
Take note — he didn’t say “make pizza great again.”
For the past two months, McNellie, 38, has been transforming an empty basement into a cozy, bijou pizzeria and bar. Its walls are lined with a lifetime of pop culture memorabilia: books, records and B-movie posters such as “Infra-Man,” “BMX Bandits” and “California Girls.” One entire shelf is an homage to Freddy Krueger, the cult character from “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, McNellie decided to call his new venture Pop! Pizza.
While Kyoto is not short on good pizzerias, with Pop! Pizza, McNellie hopes to go down a different route.
“There’s a lot of really good pizza shops in Kyoto,” he says. “However they’re almost all Neapolitan-style pizza or some sort of craft pizza, which I’m not knocking, because those are delicious, and more power to anyone who can do their own thing and be successful.
“But I sometimes feel like I’m eating pizza in a museum. And some people dig that, but personally I want to eat a huge, delicious pizza, listen to Sparks or the Ramones, drink a beer, see a live show or watch some awesome dumb movie and enjoy it with like-minded people.”
Inspired by his upbringing in western Pennsylvania, McNellie says he’s not so much trying to emulate the taste of American-style pizza as share the overall experience those pizzerias offer: awesome pizza, beer, movies and music. McNellie recalls that, despite the limited cultural scene of his home region — or because of it — pizzerias offered a cultural escape.
In keeping with American tradition, Pop! will sell pizza by the slice — from an 18-inch pie — as well as whole pizzas. And, in order to keep the pizza’s taste authentic, after much sleuthing, McNellie managed to find a supplier for U.S. whole-milk mozzarella.
Pop!’s menu is full of pizza classics: margherita, pepperoni, cheese and mushroom. But McNellie also promises to change the menu up with offerings such as taco pizza, chicken tikka masala, and sauteed mushrooms and carmelized onions.
There will be music, too, from both the speakers and the stage. Customers can expect a wide variety of genres, not just from McNellie’s immense collection, but also from McNellie’s himself: For the past 10 years, McNellie has run Secret Mission Records, a label that puts out a range of punk, garage and powerpop, mostly from Japanese bands touring in the U.S. and Europe.
McNellie relied on this community of musician friends to help him with the heavy lifting — as well as pizza tasting — as he transformed the “skeleton” basement into a unique space.
On a recent visit to Pop! before it opens on Dec. 28, McNellie was putting some of the finishing touches to the pizzeria. Balls of pizza dough were sitting out their 72-hour proofing time, so McNellie fired up the projector and introduced me to “Wakaliwood,” a film studio in Kampala, Uganda, which churns out action films on $200 budgets, and “Miami Connection,” an action movie from the 1980s that arguably made B-movies great again.
“I hope Pop! is really just a fun place for everyone,” says McNellie. “Earth can sometimes be a dark, scary, mean, toilet of a planet, but in the end, people are generally good, so I just wanted to create a fun place where people can escape and enjoy themselves.”
Pop! Pizza opens Dec. 28; Kawaramachi Kojinguchi Building B1, Higashisakuracho 21-11, Kamigyo-ku, Kyoto 602-0858; 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.-late; facebook.com/PopPizzaKyoto