Born and raised in Fort Wayne, Chef Johnny Bojinoff has long been passionate about food and breadmaking. But he didn’t take pizza seriously until he got a job at an Italian bistro while studying at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in downtown Portland, OR, in 2002.
“Before that time, I never looked at the people who made as crafting something,” Bojinoff says. “I didn’t get into the science of it, even though I was doing fermentation with breadmaking. I looked at pizza as purely tasty, convenience food."
While learning to make artisan, wood-fired, Neapolitan-style pies, he developed a respect for the pizza craft, and began bringing his family’s Macedonian and Puerto Rican influences into the process to create his own recipes.
“What I love about pizza is that it’s personal,” Bojinoff says. “It’s unique, in some ways, to everyone who makes it. I can tell you what I do, but I can’t give you my hands. It’s all about the hands.”
Today, you can taste the work of his hands at Johnny OX Pizzeria inside Union Street Market at Electric Works, where you can order large, crispy 18-inch pies or pizza by the slice. And while you might assume it's New York-style by how it looks, Bojinoff says his pizza crust is actually more similar to what you'll find in New Jersey or Connecticut, where his mentors hail from.
We sat down with Bojinoff to learn more about his passion for pizza and what sets Johnny OX apart.
Give us a little background on you, and what you did before opening Johnny OX.
JB: I grew up in a family that loved to cook, and I have been cooking since I was 7-years-old. After I graduated from Northrop High School, I went into the Navy for seven years of active duty. After that, I lived on the West Coast for several years in San Diego and Los Angeles, where I started working for a contract catering company and getting my hands on quality ingredients.
When I moved back to Fort Wayne, I worked for several local restaurants: Oyster Bar, Sous chef for Catablu on Broadway and Executive Chef at Mallory's, a fine dining restaurant at the old Hall's Guest House hotel. But I always wanted to go to culinary school, which I did in 2002 at the Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, formerly known as the Western Culinary Institute, in downtown Portland, OR. Then, just before I started Johnny OX Pizzeria, I was the chef at Old Crown Coffee Roasters in Fort Wayne until COVID. I mainly made comfort, American-style regional cuisine, and threw in some Peruvian, Latin American and Puerto Rican influences.
My father ’s father was Puerto Rican, and I’ve always loved making Latin food with the lime, the garlic, the mint, the basil — all of those rich flavors. Over the years, I’ve standardized some of my recipes, and when I was laid off during the pandemic, I considered opening a Latin restaurant concept. That’s initially why I reached out to the team at Union Street Market. But when I saw the list of other vendors at the market, I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a pizza vendor, so I wanted to do a pizza concept instead. I had developed several pizza recipes over the years, too, so I had a lot to build on.
Tell us more about your passion for pizza in particular.
JB: I’ve been passionate about pizza since culinary school. While I was in school, I would always smell wood burning down the street from my apartment coming from an Italian bistro called La Prima Trattoria. Since I had already been making artisan bread, I went in to sell my bread-making skills, and the head chef hired me.
While I was learning the LaPrima way, one day the head chef asked how my pizza skills were. I said, “I don’t have any skills; I just like eating it.” But he told me I had to learn how to toss, stretch and spin, and he started teaching me intricacies of the different proteins, like Italian charcuterie-sausage making; various flours and their protein content; and the tomatoes – how you need to core and remove as many of the seeds as you can to make your sauce less bitter.
Once I started learning, I started reading books like, American Pie (Pizza Quest) by Peter Reinhart, who went from Italy to New York to the West Coast in search of the perfect slice. Reading this book, the soul of these pizzaiolos (pizza chefs) from around the world souls jumped inside me. I couldn’t put it down. Ever since then, I’ve been experimenting with pizza, coming up with recipes, bringing in my family influences and doing many hours of research and development.
Tell us about the meaning behind your name: Johnny OX Pizzeria.
JB: Johnny is my name, and the OX represents strength also my work ethic, but more importantly, my grandfather Chris Bojinoff's work ethic. He came to Ellis Island (and eventually Fort Wayne) from Macedonia, later joined the Army and made his home here. He raised my mom, her siblings and several of us grandkids; built a house here on Third St. with his bare hands and did all the yardwork, while feeding everyone. He was very strong, both physically and mentally. The strength he possessed inspires me still to this day.
I was told he came over from the old country with some of the Choka's, originally behind Coney Island on Main Street. He actually met my grandmother there, who, at one point, was a waitress next door. We used to go there every Friday night when I was kid for late-night dinners after swimming at the Downtown YMCA. My grandfather is the image in my mind when I see the ox on my logo, and most of my employees at Johnny OX are family members.
What sets your pizza apart?
JB: I consider Johnny OX to be artisan pizza, and for me, it's all about the fermented CRUST. I believe bread is the most important part of any pizza; it’s what’s most memorable. Anyone can put toppings on bread.
One of the biggest challenges I have is trying to help customers distinguish artisan pizza from convenience pizza. When you visit us at Electric Works, you’re getting a pizza that’s fresh out of a brick oven, cooked above 625 degrees. We’re grinding the pork to make sausage here in-house and fermenting the dough hours — or days — for maximum flavor.
We use high quality, non-GMO ingredients without anti-caking agents, fillers and cellulose. I try to choose vendors for each of my products who specialize in the one product they're producing, too — whether it’s tomatoes or pepperoni or whole-milk mozzarella cheese. (We’re one of the only places in town serving 100 percent whole-milk mozzarella cheese.) So there’s a lot of detail, care and intention that goes into our pizza, every step of the way.
Our pizza is also East Coast in its DNA, but specifically New Jersey or Connecticut-style. When people see big slices anywhere, they automatically assume it’s New-York pizza. But the hydration for our dough, flour protein content, time-temperature and overall scheme is more Jersey-Connecticut. One of my mentors at La Prima Trattoria in Portland was a transplant from New Jersey named Jeff Kennedy. To this day, we’ve had people who visit Johnny OX tell us: “I felt like I was back at the Jersey Shore when I tasted your pizza.” Pretty cool!
What made you want to locate at Electric Works, and how has it been going so far?
JB: When I first saw the plans for Electric Works, I was blown away. I knew it would be a challenge at the food hall with everyone here being locally owned and Fort Wayne being Fort Wayne. But I was excited to be part of the vision for Union Street Market from day one.
There have been some logistical challenges to figure out along the way. The hydration here changed when I got ventilation in my kitchen, and when the door is open on my side of the building, it affects the temperature and hydration of the dough, too. So there are a lot of moving pieces, but it’s been a good experience overall, and I love that we can provide a quality product that almost everyone can afford by the slice. We get a lot of high school students from the Amp Lab stopping by before or after class for a slice of pizza, and it’s fun to serve them.
If people visit you for the first time, any dishes or tips you’d recommend?
JB: Stop by for pizza by the slice any day from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and 4-6 p.m. We put different types of pizzas out each day, so it’s a great way to try things.
As far as menu recommendations go, the “I learned it in Oregon” with a white garlic-parmesan sauce is one of the first pies I came across that takes me back to the day I started making pizzas at La Prima Trattoria. The “Green Ox” is also close to home. I named the basil sauce after my daughter because she used to eat basil plain. We also have a special Peruvian green sauce that speaks to my family’s roots, and we use it on our chicken for pizzas, instead of a traditional BBQ sauce.
In addition to pizza, we also sell a popular vinaigrette salad, craft sodas and homemade desserts, like cookies and brownies. My brownie recipe is straight out of my culinary school syllabus. It’s delicious creamy cake brownie, and I cannot find another brownie to this day I love as much!
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