By Charlie Pogacar

In the middle of the small Appalachian city of Staunton, Virginia, there’s a shack that serves up pizzas sure to pique any food lover’s interest. A Mortadella pie with black walnuts and burrata; A Broccolini pie with two different mozzarellas, pecorino, charred broccolini, pickled cherry pepper relish and cured egg yolks shaved over the top. 

The restaurant is fittingly called The Shack, and it hasn’t always served pizza. Founded in 2014 by James Beard Award nominated chef Ian Boden, the concept has gone through several iterations, including when it offered an acclaimed pre-fixed menu during, and after, the pandemic. 

It was only a little surprising, then, when the restaurant ushered in 10 years of success with a pivot toward handmade pizza, pasta and ice cream. There was reason in the madness: In order for Boden to open up a sister restaurant, Maude and the Bear, he passed off the reins of The Shack’s pizza program to his longtime sous chef, Michael Skipper.

Related: How Pizza Baby Is Fast Becoming One of the Most Unique Brands in the U.S.

The foundations of The Shack’s pizza pivot date back about seven years, when Skipper came down to Staunton to stage for Boden. One of the questions Boden likes to ask prospective employees is what their goals and aspirations are. When Boden asked Skipper that question, he encountered Skipper’s passion for pizza, reports the News Leader

Skipper’s passion for pizza started at an early age. Growing up, he would walk down to Nino’s and Sons, around the corner from his family’s home in Reading, Pennsylvania, with a crisp $5 bill in his hands. He’d grab a pair of slices and a Clover Farms Icy Tea and experience pure bliss. 

“That’s when I first ate by myself, out,” Skipper said. “Pizza, for me, is the meal that has always meant the most to me.” 

By 19 years old, Skipper was managing a Domino’s location, which he did for several years. As his culinary interests expanded, Skipper worked in kitchens in places like Moorefield, West Virginia, prior to his arrival at The Shack. When tasked with making staff meals at The Shack, Skipper would often turn to pizza. Not a pizza-making whiz at this point, those occasions allowed him to explore the space. Skipper further honed his pizza making skills at home after acquiring an Ooni oven. 

Boden took note. When it was time to turn his attention toward building Maude and the Bear, giving Skipper a chance to usher in a new chapter at The Shack felt like the move. It was time to let Skipper fulfill the dream he’d once shared with Boden, and that dream was pizza.

And so it was that in early 2024, The Shack removed one of its 10 dining room tables in order to install a Fiero pizza oven. The Shack has been serving up 12”, “rustic” pizzas ever since. Pizza shares the menu with handmade pasta dishes, a phenomenal-looking burger and handmade ice cream. It’s all a part of the Appalachian-inspired cuisine The Shack has always served—food that is meant to bring the small community together via locally sourced ingredients. To further enhance that, each pizza is finished with J.Q. Dickinson Sea Salt from West Virginia and cracked pepper. 

“It’s an intimate space,” Skipper said. “When you eat here, you have neighbors and it can turn into a great experience. Tables start interacting—it’s a small community here in Staunton—and that’s all part of the vibe.” 

The Shack’s dough underwent a rigorous creative process. Skipper credits Chris Luder, who possesses more of a baking background than Skipper, with helping dial in the formula, especially as it pertained to fermentation. The dough relies on two different ferments, including a poolish that sits for 16 hours on its own before being mixed with a sourdough starter.

Skipper and his team are especially proud of The Shack’s crust crumb.

Skipper and his team didn’t settle on 12” pizzas for any stylistic reason. In fact, the pizzas Skipper was initially making were larger than 12”, but once the Forza oven was put into place it was a little bit smaller than he’d once thought. He figured they’d need to be able to do at least two pizzas at once, side by side, and that dictated the 12” size. 

“We’re not shooting for Neapolitan-style pizza,” Skipper said. “I might look like that at first glance, but it’s something more rustic—we tried to ‘countr-i-fy’ it, if that’s a word. Having Chris and his baking background on hand was essential to getting the dough where it is now.” 

This collaboration is one of the things Skipper has enjoyed most about running the pizza program at The Shack. He also gets to take young cooks under his wing and train them to make really good pizza—something he has particularly enjoyed. It has put his years managing at Domino’s to good use, too. 

“That’s always been a big focus of what we do here,” Skipper said. “It’s fun to see those who haven’t made pizzas or cooked in a wood-fired oven pick it up and crush it—seeing people grow when you can help guide them to become better at whatever it is they want to do, it’s a really cool feeling.” 

It’s not lost on Skipper that this is something Boden once gave to him: a culinary education, and something to strive toward. He remembers 60-70 hour weeks at The Shack in a kitchen no larger than the one in your home, observing Boden blow people’s minds night in and night out.

“I was able to pull a ton of knowledge from that,” Skipper said. “My experience at The Shack has never been ‘this is it, this is done.’ It’s ‘this is it—what’s next?’ I want to carry that on here at The Shack. 

“When Chris and I were in here getting the dough dialed in, Ian gave us the room we needed to do what we needed to do,” Skipper said. “The pizza might be a new thing here at The Shack, but the continuous learning aspect is something that’s never going to change