It’s hard to believe that the winner of the prestigious Caputo Cup for best New York style pizza had no idea how to make pizza 7 years ago. Today, you can’t visit Norma Knepp’s stand at Root’s Market in Manheim, PA without waiting in line. So, how did Norma go from being a self-described pizza “newbie” to an award-winning pro? We visited her at her stand to find out.
Norma has a long history with food stands. She and her late husband originally started working at the caramel popcorn stand that her in-laws started in 1928. They eventually opened their own caramel popcorn stand at Green Dragon market, which is still in operation under different management. The Knepps also ran a concession trailer that traveled between Green Dragon, Root’s Market, and various fairs in their local area. They sold caramel popcorn, lemonade, cotton candy, and snow cones.
Norma’s husband wanted to go full time with their caramel popcorn stand, but she was wary of leaving her factory job and the benefits that came with it. After two years of contemplation, they finally took the risk and became a full-time business owners.
Over the years, Norma and her husband owned and operated various stands. Their main operations sold caramel popcorn and clear toy candy, which is a Pennsylvania Dutch treat.
When Root's needed a pizza stand, Norma asked the market manager if she could give it a shot, despite the fact that she’d never made pizza before. She says, “I made terrible mistakes at first, but I was determined to learn how to do it.” After plenty of experimenting, she taught herself to make the pizza that eventually won the Caputo Cup for best New York style slice. Today, 7 years since she opened her stand, Norma offers tips to pizza making beginners like she once was.
According to Norma, the first place to start if you want to learn to make pizza is the forums on pizzamaking.com. She says, “The pizza making forum is what really helped me learn how to make pizza, and it still does all the time.” On these forums, you can ask questions about any part of the pizza making process, and more experienced users will do their best to answer your questions. Norma notes that anyone is welcome on the forums, even “newbies."
According to Norma, dough is the key component of a good pizza. She believes that a pizza’s cheese, sauce, and toppings can be delicious, but if the dough isn’t right, it won’t be worth eating. Norma also notes that when you make your own dough, it’s essential to weigh out all of your ingredients. Dough preparation is a science, so weighing and measuring is always a major factor if you want to get it right.
Another great option for learning the basics is to begin with frozen, store-bought dough. This way, you can learn how to work with the dough without the more complicated step of preparing it from scratch.
Norma also told us that your pizza oven will greatly affect the finished product. “You have to know your oven,” she says. Even if you use the same ingredients and preparation method, your pizza could be entirely different depending on the oven you use.
Norma attended the Caputo Cup in 2015, which was the first year that this prestigious pizza competition was held in the United States instead of Italy. A good friend suggested she compete the following year, but Norma was apprehensive. “I [didn’t] think I could ever do that,” she says when asked about the experience. Eventually, she realized that she might never get this opportunity again and decided to go for it.
Norma describes how her hands were shaking during the competition, but despite her nerves, she ended up winning first place in her event, which was the New York style pizza. She beat out contestants from Italy, California, and even New York. Norma entered the competition for the experience, never expecting to win. “That was a surprise,” she says.
Ever since the Caputo Cup win, Norma’s Root’s Market stand has a line every week. She has been featured in a number of publications, including the book, Where to Eat Pizza Around the World by David Young.
So, what’s next for Norma now that she’s known as a pizza making celebrity? She’s considering entering the Caputo Cup again, but mostly, she’ll be at her Root’s Market stand preparing to sell her pizzas on Tuesdays. Her stand is so busy that she's having trouble filling orders, but she still makes time to experiment with different types of pizza.
If you’re interested in checking out all of Norma’s pizza experiments, you can find them on her social media pages as well as on the forums at pizzamaking.com.