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Pizza with a Mission: Inside the Hot Philly Restaurant Fighting Recidivism

WHYY| Laura Benshoff: October 26, 2021

In mid-September, Philadelphia’s Down North Pizza won praise for being one of the best restaurants in the country from Bon Appétit Magazine and CBS Mornings.

Executive chef Michael Carter was featured prominently, dishing up Detroit-style pizza and talking about the restaurant’s mission to staff the operation with only formerly incarcerated people.

The next day, he said a parole agent called and asked him to come in.

“I haven’t been inside a parole office in over three years. My old agent is like, ‘Why is he here?’” said Carter.

The answer: The office had looked over his case and found a technical violation from 2017. Carter spent 12 years in and out of prison, starting at age 16, before becoming a successful chef. He uses his own personal testimony when urging employers to hire people who’ve been behind bars.

The call could have been a coincidence, but given his experience with the criminal justice system, Carter said it felt like an old pattern, one where past mistakes can derail efforts to thrive lawfully in society.

“The system is doing what it’s supposed to do,” he said. “It’s sucking us dry.”

Amid a square pie trend, Down North Pizza has dominated the field. In addition to Bon Appétit’s “Heads of the Table” list, the New York Times recently named Down North one of the 50 best restaurants in the country and Philadelphia Magazine has shouted out the Strawberry Mansion establishment as having the best square pie in the city.

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