The sign on the door to Gorilla Pies reads “Osher not kosher,” but that doesn’t mean the San Fernando Valley pizza shop doesn’t have deep Jewish roots. In fact, the only thing more tightly tied to the hip Los Angeles-area eatery than its Jewish heritage might be its connection to the Steel City.
Ben Osher owns Gorilla Pies with his brother Jake and is the creator of what he calls “Pittsburgh-style” pizza.
“The most specific thing I can point to is my use of half provolone and half mozzarella,” Osher said, explaining what he calls Pittsburgh-style. “That is definitely one thing Pittsburgh does that not everyone else does.”
As an example, Osher cites Mineo’s Pizza House, with shops in the heart of Squirrel Hill, Mt. Lebanon and Allison Park.
“You need a napkin to dab the grease off the top before you eat it,” Osher said. “It’s the overwhelming amount of provolone cheese that actually breaks when it cooks that give off that grease because mozzarella doesn’t do that.”
Gorilla Pies even serves an off-the-menu secret pie that features French fries.
“Out of respect, I lovingly call it the Primanti,” he said.
Osher has the culinary credibility one hopes to find in a chef. He was a sous chef at Nobu in Los Angeles and Moscow and an executive chef at Mama Shelter in Hollywood.
Despite the high-end background, Osher’s roots go back to Pittsburgh, where he worked the less glamorous parts of the food service industry.
“I worked at Gullifty’s when I was 15-and-a-half. That was my first dishwashing job, my first job in the industry. Then I worked at Boston Market, a stone’s throw away to the Blockbuster in Squirrel Hill. Then, one of my mom’s friends had a friend that was a buddy of Tom [Baron], the owner of the Big Burrito Group.”
The connection helped Osher secure a job at the Vertigo Bar, a gastropub in Shadyside that was open for less than a year but gave him his first taste of working with a woodburning pizza oven. That was Osher’s only experience making pizza before Gorilla Pies.
This early blue-collar work, familiar to most teens trying to make their way into the food industry, was intertwined with his life as a typical teenager growing up in Squirrel Hill, where his family relocated to from California when he was 11.
“I started seventh grade in Reizenstein Middle School. Went to Allderdice. The Jewish Community Center was the center of our universe as kids. That was just kind of everything,” he said.
The future restaurateur became a bar mitzvah at Temple Sinai, but his parents eventually became members of Dor Hadash.
Osher’s JCC connections run deep. He played basketball at the center and coached in its youth clinic.
“It all started with junior high night before we had anything else to do,” he said. “Going out on the town was junior high night at the JCC. I also participated in some plays. In L.A. as a young man, I saw what the JCC was there, and in Pittsburgh it was really different. The term ‘community center’ doesn’t always mean community center, but it does in Pittsburgh,” he said. “It was an absolute hub of community.”
Citing a now-familiar theme, Osher said he was laid off because of the pandemic and decided to take a gamble on himself.
“At 43, I have a number of ideas of the kind of restaurants I’d like to start but, as a creative person, finding my voice was the toughest thing,” he said.
He eventually settled on the idea of a pop-up pizzeria where he made the pies in his own oven. His brother Jake, a DJ and social media influencer who won a $250,000 prize on a VH1 competition show called “Master of the Mix,” helped sample the new signature pies and deliver them.
The pop-up business was getting a lot of orders and rave reviews — until someone filed a complaint with the health department that Osher was running a business out of his apartment. That complaint pushed him to start a business with his brother as a partner.
Gorilla Pies became more of a family affair when the pair’s father found a location for the new restaurant on a site called sellingrestaurants.com. The spot was the former home of a kosher restaurant and next door to a kosher bakery — hence the “Osher not kosher” sign on the door to dissuade customers from coming in looking for kosher food.
That doesn’t mean that Gorilla Pies has shed its Jewish ties. The restaurant features a picture of Osher’s family from the 1920s in Toledo, Ohio, around a table featuring apples for Rosh Hashanah. The pizzeria even has a pizza called “The Rabbi,” a decidedly non-kosher take on a Reuben.
The restaurant’s logo pays homage to Pittsburgh, featuring a gorilla wearing a hat with a “P” on the front — a tribute to the Pirates.
And while he says the kosher consumer might have trouble understanding his take on pizza, Osher wants there to be no confusion about one thing.
“This is a proud Jewish business,” he stated emphatically. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.