Joshua and Stephanie Herskovitz, a brother and sister who grew up in Owings Mills (and both attended McDonogh School) opened Hersh’s Pizza and Drinks in 2011. Stephanie handles the front of the house, while Josh serves as chef. His first restaurant job was in 2001 as garde manger (making salads and other dishes) at Cindy Wolf’s Charleston restaurant.
Recently you’ve kind of minimized the emphasis on pizza in the restaurant’s name.
My sister moved from Brooklyn for us to open this. So many restaurants in New York are pizza places called “whatever, whatever eats and drinks,” or like Flour and Water in San Francisco – they have pizza but aren’t pigeonholed. I wanted to do something like that, with pizza as our inspiration. We make our own pasta and have other small plates and entrees we didn’t have when we opened. Yes, we downplay pizza in the name on social media and other public spaces to make sure people don’t think it’s all they can get here. But the wood oven is one of my best friends.
Did you go to restaurant school?
I went to University of Chicago and got useless degrees in sculpture and philosophy. I absolutely loved it. They do those silly rankings, and Johns Hopkins and Chicago were up there as the most boring schools in the country. If you’re bored living in Chicago, with all you have access to, you’re not really trying. I mean the food, the concerts we used to go to. I probably could have spent more time studying.
Did you use either of your degrees?
I got a lot of jobs in furniture shops, cause I knew how to use the tools. I started migrating toward using utilitarian materials: concrete, steel, wood. Don’t get me wrong, I love going to museums and galleries. But a lot of times, it’s like there’s a piece of art, and we draw a line around it and stand back from it. When I came back to Baltimore, I opened a furniture business. I was doing cabinetry.
How did you wind up opening a restaurant?
While I had that shop, I saw an ad in the City Paper. Charleston was looking for someone—the right candidate or they would train the right candidate. Among my few skills, I think, is being able to talk my way into situations. I wrote a plea on the back of the application, and two days later, I got a message from Cindy Wolf on my answering machine. It blew my mind.
You liked the job?
I remember that first Saturday night it felt like my one foot was stuck to the floor and I was just spinning in place.
They hired you even with no experience?
They said they’d train the right person. Now when somebody comes to me with one of the Foreman Wolf restaurants on their resume, I know they’ve got great training. We call it the Foreman Wolf institute. You can teach someone to cook, but you can’t teach attitude. You can’t teach someone to care about what they’re doing. When I see good attitude a huge green flag goes up for me. My sister and I wanted to open this place because we love having people to our house and entertaining. It’s like, you’re my guest here.
I’m sure your sculpture experience informs being a chef. You work with your hands, understand texture and how materials interact. Do you think philosophy also ties in?
For me it’s the research I do. We’re not strict Italian here, but I love doing my research. I love trying to recreate a specific time and place. Take soft shell crabs – they eat soft shells in Venice, smaller than our blue crabs. What they do is a little barbaric: they drown the crabs in egg. The crab soaks up the egg. So we’re in Maryland and can pay homage to what they do in Venice.
You create historical context.
What we put on the menu is informed by philosophy and history. I think they are intrinsically tied. It’s part of human history, understanding what we are and who we are and where we are. Look at Galileo. He called himself an astronomer. I think he was a philosopher trying to understand who we are in the universe.
When you opened Hersh’s down here in South Baltimore, you were a bit of an urban pioneer. How has the neighborhood changed?
The apartment building across the street was here, but the two down the block were not. Port Covington is getting ready to build; it’s right on the other side of the highway. They’re essentially building a new city over there, if it goes according to plan. We have a huge neon sign and I once thought we didn’t really need it, because when people came down here they were coming to Hersh’s. If all that development happens the sign will be great; people will see it when they’re driving by.
Are you worried about competition?
I told the developer I’d do anything I could to help entice people down here.
What’s on the menu this month?
Tomatoes. I exclusively buy them from Richfield Farms (in Manchester). I don’t know what he does, but his heirlooms are unreal. They’re so rich. We’re doing a separate tomato menu this year. The one dish I wait for all year is our heirloom tomato crostini. We make the focaccia here. It’s so light and airy in the middle, with some black pepper aioli, some olive oil and finishing salt. Talk about nostalgia. It takes me back to going to my dad’s mother’s house. She’s from Romania. We could barely understand each other, but I would always have a mayonnaise and tomato sandwich there. And that’s what I’m eating when I make the crostini.