Perched at the corner of Elm and Howe streets, Brick Oven lacks the national renown of Elm City stalwarts like Pepe’s or Sally’s or Modern. No matter: owner Kadir Catalbasoglu maintains he runs the best pizza place in town. Grease-skeined thin crust runs $2.50 a slice (large pies: $12.95). The fridges are full of beer and Coke and locally made Foxon Park soda. The interior of the restaurant, with its assortment of landscape paintings and heavy use of decorative logs, resembles the basement of a ski lodge in 1970s Wisconsin. For this no-frills vibe, Brick Oven has emerged as a popular late-night food destination for Yalies, who increasingly have come to cite a reason for their preference other than pizza or service: Catalbasoglu’s Instagram account.
Catalbasoglu, typically known to customers as just Kadir, opened Brick Oven in “late 1999, 2000,” he said in an on-site interview. The Instagram came much later: he only started posting (from @brickovenpizzanewhaven, a mouthful of a handle) last year. The account’s popularity among students has skyrocketed in recent months. As of publication, Catalbasoglu has 213 followers, and a typical post garners anywhere from two to 12 likes. “Everyone comes in and wants to be on it,” Catalbasoglu said.
Most of Catalbasoglu’s shots are simple. His posts frequently feature familiar food photography tropes: smooth mounds of dough; a fridge filed with beverages; aerial shots of oozy pies topped with weavings of onions and ham. Others feature that titular wood-burning oven, often in video form.
What distinguishes Brick Oven’s Instagram from mere menu pictography is its portraiture component. From behind the counter, Catalbasoglu takes pictures of his customers at the register; often, they pose with pizzas or containers of other takeout food. The result of all of these photos in juxtaposition recalls arty portrait blogs like Scott Shuman’s Sartorialist or Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York. But because the account ultimately exists as a form of marketing (rather than a creative project), its aesthetic is decidedly unaesthetic — which is why, of course, it’s become such a delight.
On Halloween, Catalbasoglu took pictures of smiling angels and zombies as they waited for their pies. Last December, he photographed a menorah in the restaurant window. He sometimes captions the photographs but often does not (some recent examples on a scale of most descriptive to most affectionate: “father and son,” “loyal customer from india [sic],” “old friend,” “favorite customer” and — not to be outdone — “my true favorite customer”). Sometimes, he shares pictures of his kids.
Jacob Riis became famous for his photographs of tenement-dwellers a century ago. He latched onto the recent invention of magnesium flash powder, which allowed him to illuminate dark boarding house interiors with a sudden burst of light. The subjects of his pictures are frozen in shock. Flash photography is new to them, and with mouths agape they are immortalized in the harsh white glow of magnesium.
Catalbasoglu has taken this unorthodox method and made it benevolent. Nobody expects a portrait project in a restaurant, but the absurdity of the ambush only adds to the fun. Consent is key. Nobody is uploaded against his or her will. As time has passed, the Instagram’s rising notoriety means that fewer are taken by surprise. “I’ve got friends who say, ‘Put me on, put me on,’” Catalbasoglu said. “That’s how we do it.” No magnesium flash powder needed.
All of these factors have given the Brick Oven Instagram account something of a cult following among students, particularly the nearby off-campus crowd, many of whom Catalbasoglu has featured. One friend even mentioned he belonged to an ongoing Facebook group chat with fellow Brick Oven devotees, who message one another to plan occasional jaunts.
Catalbasoglu seemed surprised when I told him I planned to write about his Instagram, and indeed, the success of an Instagram dedicated to Brick Oven is itself unexpected. But in the end, the pairing of pizza and photography makes sense. The perfect pie and perfect shot have much in common, Catalbasoglu said. “You got to look at it,” he said. “Artistic work.”