Quick Take:

New pop-up Pizza Bones wants its customers to eat the whole pie. Chef Desmond Schneider and owner Jacob Wilkens have created a dough recipe that’s inspired by Neapolitan pizza, but with more structure and large, pillowy bubbles, and topped with seasonal, farmers market-sourced ingredients. Their successful pop-ups have increased from monthly to weekly at Madson Wines on the Westside in Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz is a pizza town. There are dozens of restaurants, slice joints and pop-ups throughout the county serving everything from unfussy pizza-parlor pies to regional styles from Detroit and New York made with passion and pride. With this much pizza available at your fingertips, it can be difficult to distinguish between a decent slice and an exceptional one.

But at Pizza Bones, a new pop-up from chef Desmond Schneider and owner Jacob Wilkens, it’s clear from the moment the beautifully blistered, thin-crust pie slides onto the table that what you’re about to bite into is going to blow your socks off.

The crust itself packs enormous flavor, with a crisp bottom and giant, heat-kissed bubbles around the edges finished with a flurry of Parmesan. It’s not something you’d want to leave behind on the plate — and that’s the idea, says Wilkens.

“In my family, ‘pizza bones’ was the name for the crust pieces that are leftover if the crust is too dry, or you want to plow through as much pizza as possible so you leave the crust,” says Wilkens. The pop-up’s Instagram handle, @nopizzabones, is a message to followers that its pizzas are good to the end.

Schneider and Wilkens launched Pizza Bones this spring and quickly gained a following at their monthly pop-ups at Madson Winery on Santa Cruz’s Westside. A couple years earlier, the two met while Schneider was the chef de cuisine at Alderwood Santa Cruz and Wilkens was a customer on the other side of the chef’s counter. They bonded over their shared Midwest backgrounds and love of punk music, and decided to go into business together.

Soon, they were selling out at 60 pizzas a day, then 80. Now, Pizza Bones pop-ups are increasing in frequency from monthly to weekly, every Monday evening at Madson from 4 to 8 p.m. or sell-out.

Pizza Bones pops up every Mondays at Madson Wines on Santa Cruz's Westside.
Pizza Bones has been popping up on Mondays at Madson Wines on Santa Cruz’s Westside. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

“The real thing that makes it special is the dough,” says Wilkens. Schneider and Wilkens call their pies “Neapolitan-ish,” because while their recipe is inspired by Italian dough and uses high-quality flour milled from heirloom wheat and imported from Naples, Italy, their process breaks from traditional methods. The three-day process starts with a poolish — a fluid mixture of flour, water, yeast and honey — to create a dough with high hydration. This leads to a crispier crust and large, pillowy bubbles. “We don’t follow the proofing method or fermentation rules of traditional Neapolitan pizza,” explains Schneider. “We use what works for us in our environment to create the flavor and style that we like.”

The result is a pie that has a thin crust cooked within seconds in a super-hot oven á la traditional pizza from Naples, but with enough structure to support a generous amount of toppings.

  • Pizza Bones owner Jacob Wilkens.
  • Chef Desmond Schneider prepares the dough at a Pizza Bones pop-up at Madson Wines.

While Neapolitan pizzas might be dotted with fresh mozzarella and a schmear of tomato sauce, Pizza Bones pies are loaded with seasonal, locally sourced ingredients and plenty of cheese. The long threads of melted mozzarella as you pull a bite away would make a Ninja Turtle’s eyes bulge — you don’t see that in Italy.

Schneider’s toppings are strictly American, too, or more specifically Santa Cruzan, since most are sourced from nearby farms and farmers markets. On a recent visit, a salty-sweet-spicy Figgy Piggy ($26) pie was topped with Jimmy Nardello peppers, fresh figs, thick-cut pork belly and Calabrian chili hot honey; a veggie-focused Garden Delight ($25) had walnut-basil pesto, thinly sliced zucchini, sweet sungold tomatoes and kalamata olives, and finished with a sweet pepper vinaigrette.

The Maitake Blanco ($28), a mushroom pizza, looked deceptively simple but packed huge flavor with a classic French soubise sauce with butter, onions and cream, and fragrant, smoky mushrooms crowned with fresh, peppery arugula dressed with lemon juice.

“Everything that California has to offer, especially in this area, is just phenomenal, and to have pizza as the vehicle to showcase that and my culinary point of view is super fun. And it’s fun to collaborate with somebody like Jake and form such a great friendship along the way,” says Schneider.

But Schneider and Wilkens also create nods to the classics. Says Wilkens: “We look to Mother Nature to give us inspiration, but I do some traditional stuff from the Midwest like supreme pizza with just sausage, red onion and green peppers. But with a twist — how do we layer it or how do we present it?” The Zesty Pepperoni ($23), a classic pepperoni pizza, is their most popular pizza.

There are plans to eventually do more. Both Schneider and Wilkens are focusing full-time on their pop-ups and catering events and hope to find a brick-and-mortar location for Pizza Bones one day. Says Schneider, “Pizza Bones stemmed so naturally and came from a place of pure fun, and wanting to make good food and connect with the community.”

More info on Instagram at @nopizzabones and madsonwines.com.

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Lily Belli is the food and drink correspondent at Lookout Santa Cruz. Over the past 15 years since she made Santa Cruz her home, Lily has fallen deeply in love with its rich food culture, vibrant agriculture...