PMQ Pizza Magazine March 2021
The owner of Market Pizza works practical magic with wildly popular pizzas topped with venison, kangaroo and camel meat.
Not long after she took over Market Pizza, Jones-Holt launched her first fundraiser for Hunters Helping the Hungry, a nonprofit that allows hunters to donate venison to area food banks.
She went on to develop pizza recipes using meats ranging from wild boar, elk and pheasant to more exotic varieties, such as kangaroo and even camel.
There’s a witch running wild in Stockton, New Jersey, but don’t be afraid. Megan Jones-Holt, owner of Market Pizza, is one of the good witches, a fun-loving, pizza making Sabrina or Samantha who doesn’t have to wiggle her nose to conjure up magic in the kitchen.
Known affectionately around New Jersey as the “Pizza Witch,” Jones-Holt started casting spells of deliciousness in 2017, when she and her husband, Matt, bought Market Pizza—situated in a farmers market called Stockton Market—and quickly garnered attention for her artisanal specialty pies topped with wild-game meat like venison, boar and even kangaroo. And her annual fundraising partnership with a New Jersey nonprofit, Hunters Helping the Hungry (HHH), has elevated her profile as a gifted pizzaiola with a passion for feeding people in need, not to mention a knack for marketing her business in a crowded and competitive field.
“I use loose venison sausage, which is an easier profile to play with, especially if you have a meat that tends to be more gamy. The sausage cooks with seasonings that develop a solid base. Then it’s a matter of where you go with the rest of the ingredients.”— Megan Jones-Holt, Market Pizza
That “Pizza Witch” moniker alone is a marketing doozy—and she came by it honestly. “A former manager of the Stockton Market used to be my tester for the weekly specialty pizzas,” Jones-Holt recalls. “One Friday afternoon, I gave her a slice—I don’t recall which pizza it was—and she looked at me and said, ‘You’re a witch,’ a reference to how good the pizza creations were. I just took it and ran with it from that day on.”
Folks in Stockton have been equally mesmerized by Jones-Holt’s pizzas. She and her husband previously owned an event rentals company and had no pizzeria experience, but the New Orleans native had been fine-tuning her culinary wizardry at home all her life. Practically from the start, Jones-Holt drew from her NOLA foodie roots to craft pies that were unlike anything most New Jerseyites had ever tasted.
Working with a gas-fired EarthStone 120-PAG oven, she followed the previous Market Pizza owner’s recipes to a T early on. But, over time, she began to trust her own mojo. Not long after she took over Market Pizza, Jones-Holt launched her first fundraiser for HHH, a nonprofit that allows hunters to donate venison to area food banks. “A local hunter can take the deer to a certified butcher approved by the state health department,” she says. “The meat is typically ground and then frozen for distribution to the Norwescap Food Bank. It is then distributed to the local food pantries.”
As a member of the local Rotary Club, Jones-Holt was already friends with a co-founder of HHH, a fellow Rotarian. “Our clubs have always championed food insecurity in our county,” she says. “We would raise funds the traditional way—pancake breakfasts, soup cook-offs, etc. So when I bought Market Pizza, I thought this would be a good way to raise some money for HHH, not to mention attracting a specific audience—hunters and foodies looking to try new things.”
Wild venison, she says, is “a very lean meat…and can have a ‘gamy’ taste to it. The butcher cuts the venison with beef fat to give it more flavor.” For her first deer-meat special, she marinated the venison in extra-virgin olive oil infused with basil, oregano, tarragon, thyme, salt and pepper—“all good, basic herbs that one would put on ground beef.” She precooked the meat before adding it to the pizza, along with crushed tomatoes, thinly sliced red onions, jalapeños, Parmesan and fresh mozzarella. The venison was crumbled on top, then finished off with birch-smoked salt from Iceland and fresh, sweet basil.
Since that first fundraiser in January 2017, she has delved into more complex flavor profiles to great success. “I love playing with food combinations and really look to combine all the taste sensations—salty, spicy, sweet, sour and, at times, smoky, as with the venison pizza,” Jones-Holt says. “I use loose venison sausage, which is an easier profile to play with, especially if you have a meat that tends to be more gamy. The sausage cooks with seasonings that develop a solid base. Then it’s a matter of where you go with the rest of the ingredients. I used a tomato sauce, because most people who are a bit afraid to try venison will give it a shot if the rest of the items on the pizza are ones they’re used to.
Related: How to make a wild game pizza
“Once [the fundraiser] took off and we developed a following, I got more complex in the combinations,” she adds. “I mean, who would have ever thought about combining juniper berries with venison? Don’t ask me how that came about—I was just playing around. Of course, every time I make one of those pies, I want a gin and tonic!”
“Kangaroo is low in fat, so that in itself is a challenge to work with, since most of us Americans are used to a fattier meat. The key is to add some type of fat to counter it. Typically, a hearty cheese does the trick.” — Megan Jones-Holt, Market Pizza
From Kangaroo to Camel
Venison was just a warm-up for Jones-Holt. She went on to develop recipes using meats ranging from wild boar, elk and pheasant to more exotic varieties, such as kangaroo. “Kangaroo, like most wild-game meat, is low in fat, so that in itself is a challenge to work with, since most of us Americans are used to a fattier meat,” she says. “The key is to add some type of fat to counter it. Typically, a hearty cheese does the trick.
“They are all a challenge, which is why I love doing it,” she says. “Of course, what’s really fun is when I throw in something really weird, like camel, and it blows everyone’s mind. I love to travel, and most times I get ideas from places I have visited. One year, we went to Jordan, and the camel pizza was influenced by that trip. I used Middle Eastern spices and food combinations: cinnamon, cumin, paprika, cloves, honey, mint, feta, lemon. That was a huge hit.”
And every new wild-game pizza is a guaranteed media magnet. Jones-Holt has no problem with promoting her new specialty pizzas, writing her own press releases and shooting them off, along with photos, to newspapers and digital publications. She has been featured in New Jersey Monthly, Bucks County Herald, the Jersey Bites website and numerous other media outlets.
Media coverage ratchets up every January as Jones-Holt rolls out her latest wild-game pies for the HHH fundraisers. “Customers who have followed this event will drive over one hour just to buy the venison pizza,” she says. “They used to come and make an evening of it, but now (due to COVID-19), they order a bunch of vacuum-sealed pizzas to take home. And because [the promotion lasts for] a month, I have some of the same people come out numerous times. One guy has gotten this pizza three times in a weekend for four weeks in a row. It’s his all-time favorite pizza. This ‘addiction’ is what I call the Pizza Witch magic.”
The Pizza Witch Mystique
This year’s HHH fundraiser has been extended through February, a canny move considering that, as of press time, indoor dining in New Jersey is restricted to 25% capacity. Promoting unusual specialty pies creates fresh buzz and offsets the loss of dine-in business. For Mardi Gras season in early February, Jones-Holt offered a pizza featuring wild boar sausage with grits, red chili flakes, scallions, garlic, provolone and a bourbon/maple syrup drizzle, as well as an Alligator Andouille Jambalaya pie. “I’m also bringing back the Middle Eastern Camel pizza and an Elk Sausage With Pears pizza,” she says.
Interestingly, Jones-Holt helped Hunterdon County’s health department develop its protocols for farmers markets that continued operating after COVID-19 hit New Jersey. Since Stockton Market is a year-round facility, it was able to keep its doors open while many restaurants in the state had to temporarily close indoor dining. For Jones-Holt, that initially meant expanding from a Friday-to-Sunday schedule, to Tuesday through Sunday. “We tripled our advertising and marketing budget to get the word out that we were still open,” she says. “We had takeout-only and offered curbside delivery. After a month, I was toast, so we scaled back to Wednesday to Sunday.”
Being surrounded by regional growers means she has her pick of some of the finest and freshest local ingredients in the area. “Hunterdon County, New Jersey, and Bucks County, Pennsylvania, provide us with a wealth of local foods from the numerous farms and orchards within a 10- to 15-mile radius,” Jones-Holt says. “That includes anything from Jersey Fresh Tomatoes that we use to make our sauce or red gravy to eggs, potatoes, peppers, radishes, Brussels sprouts, ramps, mushrooms, cheese and my favorite ingredient, fruit. It’s fun seeing people’s reactions to fruit on a pizza. ‘Fruit? Really? No way!’ Then it’s, ‘OMG, I never would have thought of a pizza with pears, cranberries, blueberries or apples!’ Fruit like tomatoes, peppers and other veggies are colorful and pretty and photograph well, which means it sells.”
“Of course, what’s really fun is when I throw in something really weird, like camel, and it blows everyone’s mind.” — Megan Jones-Holt, Market Pizza
Market Pizza is a family business through and through, run by Jones-Holt and her husband, with their son and daughter-in-law as partners. Customers become part of the family, and Jones-Holt gives them a little sass now and then to keep the mood light and fun.
“People come in for great food, lousy advice or a bit of attitude, especially from the Pizza Witch,” she says. “Once in a while, a new customer walks up when I have my hands full of dough and asks me if I can take orders. My standard line is, ‘No, I don’t take orders. I only give them.’ [There’s also] a sign that reads, ‘Free Beer Tomorrow.’ People think it’s real. I tell them they misunderstood the sign. If they bring beer tomorrow, it’s free for me.”
But there’s no misunderstanding the appeal of the Pizza Witch theme. Even kids are enchanted, Jones-Holt says. “They love the mystique behind the Pizza Witch, who made them a pizza that they tell their parents is the best they’ve ever had. Over the years, they’ve drawn us pictures, given us thank-you and Christmas cards, and even brought their report cards or summer-camp achievement certificates to share with us. We are a part of their lives and so enjoy watching them grow up around us.”
Jones-Holt loves getting to know her customers, even though dine-in traffic remains limited. Market Pizza is a small, cozy, BYOB getaway for locals, with a liquor store next door and a craft brewery down the street. “Our customers like to sit at the pizza bar and chat,” she says. “At times, I feel like the bartender, hearing people’s problems, love triangles, etc.”
By Rick Hynum