PA Pizza People: Norma Knepp of Norma’s Pizza at Root’s Country Market in Lancaster

As part of our Greens + Grains theme, we’re interviewing a series of local pizza makers. If you know someone who should be featured, hit us up at [email protected]

Inside Lancaster’s Root’s Market and Auction you’ll find small-animal auctions, homemade goodies, local fruits and veggies, vintage flair and totally crave-worthy pizza from Norma’s. The woman behind the pizza counter is quite a legend. You can find Norma Knepp at her stand every Tuesday — as anyone familiar with Root’s knows it’s only open on Tuesdays — carefully creating each pizza, one at a time.

Recently, we stopped by to study her process (and grab a few slices, naturally). She shapes the dough onto her wooden peel. Once she has the dough exactly right, she measures out the cheese. Each pizza gets the exact same amount of cheese — she has this down to a science. She tops the dough with a sprinkle of cheese. Yes, the first step is cheese. Then comes the sauce, drizzled onto the pizza in a perfect spiral. She even had us smell and examine her sauce (spoiler alert: it’s perfect.) And the final topping is the remainder of the cheese.

Yes, it sounds simple, but it can’t be understated how spectacular the result is! How does Knepp perfect her pizza game? We asked her a few questions to find out:

PA Eats: How long have you been making pizza at Roots?

Norma Knepp: I started making pizza at Root’s Market nine years ago in the beginning of April. I knew nothing about making pizza when I first opened my stand, and learned to make pizzas on and by experimenting a lot. My late husband and I had owned and operated the Caramel Corn stand for many years at Root’s and Green Dragon’s markets. We also made clear toy candy, cotton candy and brittles. That stand was in my husband’s family since 1928.

I eventually purchased the funnel cake stand at Root’s and sold funnel cakes, fresh-dipped ice cream, fresh-squeezed lemonade and other foods. I didn’t find a lot of success with that stand, so when I found out a stand would be available on the other side of market, I sold my funnel cake stand and purchased used equipment to build a pizza stand. And the rest is history!

Have you had any ups and downs at your stand?

I almost decided to sell the pizza stand. My stand wasn’t in the busier part of the market and I lost money for a number of years. Even the month before I went to the Caputo Cup in NYC, I was thinking about selling, as we were heading into the slower winter months. I tried all kinds of ways to get people back into my stand area without much luck. Of course I had a handful of regulars, but not enough to keep me going.

My Caputo Cup win in 2016 changed all of that, and I suddenly had an influx of people at my pizza stand. All of the media attention brought more customers and word-of-mouth brought even more customers. And then, after Frank Pinello, the host of The Pizza Show, decided to come and interview me as a part of his series, the customers never stopped.

How would you classify your style of pizza?

I used to experiment with many styles of pizzas in the stand but now only make two varieties: New York-style and round Sicilians. I still experiment at home because I feel like that’s important. No one will truly understand everything there is to know about making pizza.

I like to make a milk kefir for experimentation. I just let it sit out and it will ferment the milk, almost like a sour yogurt. Then you can use the fermented milk kefir to ferment anything: bread, pizza dough. You can make all kinds of salad dressings. I use the kefir during my experiments. I love the depth of flavor it creates. But I use yeast for my pizza stand dough.

What’s a challenge for you in making awesome pizza?

It isn’t really hard to make awesome pizza, but fermenting the dough for longer than a day helps. Also it is the balance of the toppings and how the sauce is made that makes pizzas taste better. One problem I have is because the market is not air-conditioned or heated on non-market days in the winter. Sometimes it is very cold at market in the winter when I go in to do many things to prepare everything for one day. Also a decent deck oven helps to make good pizza. Every pizza is a little bit different than the last. So many variables go into pizza.

Which is the most-ordered pizza on the menu?

The N.Y.-style pizzas are the most popular sellers. People come from all over to taste my pizzas.

What kind of pizza did you eat as a kid?

My favorite pizza when I was a child was Mack and Manco’s pizza on the boardwalk in Wildwood, New Jersey. My N.Y.-style is something like Mack’s, but a little different.

What’s a compliment you hear a lot about your pizza?

Customers say I have “destination pizza.”

What’s your “desert island” pizza?

I have many friends in the pizza world who make some of my favorite pizzas. My favorite pizza people are Walter and Judy who own Smiling With Hope Pizza in Reno, Nevada. Their N.Y.-style pizzeria has been rated in the top 100 restaurants and pizzerias in the U.S. the last two years. Walter’s N.Y.-style pizzas are still my favorite pizza, even though I have been all over trying the best pizzas. Locally, I’d choose Luca and Pizza Brain as my favorites.

What does pizza mean to you?

To have passion for pizza, you always want to learn more, but you’re never going to learn it all because there’s so much to learn. Every pizza is different. It’s like an art and a science, but something you’ll never be able to entirely figure out.

What’s the pizza ordering process at Root’s for newbies?

If you want a whole pizza, you can order the day before. If I don’t answer my phone, just leave a message and I’ll get back to you. If you order a whole pizza day-of, it’s not completely guaranteed. It’s a gamble if you don’t order in advance.

We highly recommend you order in advance if you’re looking to share. If you’re a selfish pizza lover – ain’t nothing wrong with that– stop in, grab a slice and let Norma know we sent you! You can also buy frozen dough to experiment with your own pizzas at home. Norma suggests you oil the dough balls and let it sit in the refrigerator for 2 days to rise.

You can find Norma’s Pizza at Root’s Country Market and Auction at 705 Graystone Dr. in Manheim; (717) 341-8940.

  • Photos: Mary Bigham