Kelsey Seo grew up on her father’s gooey pizza, which he brought home every night from his job at Pizza Hut in Seoul, Korea. At the time, every family member complained about eating his pizza, loaded with bulgogi and sweet potato puree, so much so that their freezer overflowed with unfinished leftovers. But after Kelsey moved from Seoul to New York City five years ago, she couldn’t find anything that tasted quite like her father’s creations and she soon began asking her Appa for a slice of home.
Fast forward to 2023, and her father now runs the kitchen at Appas Pizza, a Korean pizza parlor in the East Village. Opened earlier this month by chef Yong Seo and SungJin Park, and backed by Linda Wang of Ume Hospitality (behind Ume, a sushi spot in Williamsburg), this new pizza joint features standout bulgogi and kimchi bacon pies, loaded fries, Korean-style risotto, and a drink menu with strawberry milk and creative lattes.
While pizza has a storied history in Italy and New York, it’s still relatively new in Korea. When pizza first arrived, many considered it a luxury food reserved for special occasions. Now thirty years later, Korean pizza is beloved abroad. Chains in Seoul such as Mr. Pizza, Pizza Inn, and smaller artisanal shops have embraced pizza. Buoyed by novel toppings and mentions in popular K-dramas such as Reply 1988 and It’s Okay Not to be Okay — which features a famous pizza storefront in Seoul — people are finding different reasons to flock to Appas Pizza and Manhattan for a taste.
Having opened in late April, Appas Pizza, at 210 First Avenue, near 13th Street, is cranking out original pizza toppings and dishes in an oversaturated pizza market. The 10- or 14-inch pies are slightly smaller yet more pillowy and sweet than New York-style pizza, with a texture and flavor profile akin to their fast-food roots. Pies feature melted cheese sticks, a sweet potato puree known as “golden crust,” and meaty toppings such as bulgogi, sausage and shrimp, or barbecue chicken. One pie even features a base sauce with kimchi and thick-cut bacon, a popular combination similar to samgyeopsal or fatty pork belly and kimchi.
Before Appas, Manhattan didn’t have a dedicated Korean pizza parlor. Others in New York have attempted to spotlight this regional food. Take Mokja Chicken & Pizza in Astoria which lists sweet potato and spicy gochujang chicken pies or Pizza Maru in Bayside, a Korean pizza place with kalbi steak that permanently closed in 2020. But Appas Pizza stands out as a joint dedicated to Korean pizza by way of chef Yong’s Pizza Hut experience and personal recipes.
Kelsey’s father, chef Yong Seo has spent twenty years honing his craft. Seo joined the ranks at Pizza Hut in Itaewon, a chain that first opened in Korea in 1985. (Domino’s and Mr. Pizza followed suit in 1990.) While at Pizza Hut, he toiled through various roles. He first trained as a prep cook, taught pizza-making to other chefs, and eventually began managing franchises and designing the menu. In 2016, he left his pizza home of eighteen years and moved to the United States to support Kelsey and her studies.
Jenn Back, a food content creator known as @jennerous_eats, first visited Appas Pizza two weeks ago and was touched by Yong’s story and the service (she paid for her own meal). “The shrimp and sausage one was my favorite because it did remind me of when I was in Korea for five weeks,” Back says. “That’s a taste I miss.”
Opening Appas Pizza has not been without its share of obstacles. Not every team member was convinced that Appas Pizza was a good idea from the start. And just when the restaurant was about to open in October 2022, Yong had a stroke and was paralyzed for four months. The family was devastated and considered postponing the project, but with the support of his family, Yong returned to the kitchen.
It’s been only a few weeks since their opening, but Appas Pizza has already attracted a stream of customers from social media, word-of-mouth recommendations, and foot traffic from passersby curious about their buttery yellow, polka dot interior and blaring K-pop soundtrack.
Appas Pizza hopes to expand its menu including corn cheese and ramen pizza toppings, bingsu for hot summer days, and a lengthier drink menu. Eventually, they’ll offer delivery.
“I’m very happy that I brought my childhood here and I can share it with everyone in New York City,” says Kelsey. “It’s something that I never thought was going to happen.”
Jess Eng is a food and culture writer. She regularly contributes to The Washington Post, Epicurious, Resy, Atlas Obscura, and more, and has produced podcasts with the Southern Foodways Alliance. Follow her on Instagram @goudatalks.