PHILADELPHIA -- How much does Brian Dwyer love pizza?
Let us count the ways: He holds the Guinness World Record for largest collection of pizza memorabilia; he has a caricature of himself, eating pizza, tattooed on his back with the phrase "Totally saucesome!"; and he is the driving force behind Pizza Brain, which he describes as the nation's first pizza museum.
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The quirky but unassuming establishment that Dwyer just opened with three partners in Philadelphia is part art gallery, part eatery. It's a place to enjoy a slice or two of artisan pie while gawking at pizza-related photos, records, knickknacks and videos.
"We thought it was a funny idea, and we started doing some research," Dwyer said. "And when we discovered that nowhere on earth was there a physical place, a monument built to pizza, we said, `This is going to be huge."'
He was right: Hundreds of people turned out for the Sept. 7 grand opening of Pizza Brain, which occupies a pair of row house storefronts in the city's Fishtown neighborhood.
One wall is covered with framed pizza-related photos and magazine covers; another boasts dozens of vinyl records, like the soundtrack to "Mystic Pizza" and a holiday album from Domino's. Display boxes are scattered throughout the eclectic space -- including built into the floor -- to show off pizza-bearing figurines from Homer Simpson and Spider-Man to the Tasmanian Devil and Pillsbury Doughboy. A cluster of small TVs plays pizza-related shows, while a huge pizza mural surrounds the back patio.
Dwyer, 28, said he had a nominal assemblage of mementos a couple of years ago when friends decided to create an art exhibit called "Give Pizza Chance." Reaction was so positive that he continued collecting, becoming the world-recorder holder with 561 items in July 2011. He now owns a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles "Pizza Drop" arcade game and Star Trek Enterprise pizza cutter.
A few months later, Dwyer quit his supermarket job to work on Pizza Brain full time. He and his team bought the row houses and raised some dough online -- more than $16,500 -- through the crowd-funding website Kickstarter. Grass-roots publicity and social media created major local buzz.
Dwyer said he was caught completely off-guard by the overwhelming response. At the same time, he added that it's not surprising so many people identify with pizza, which he calls "the great equalizer" and "the only food synonymous with the word `party'."
"I think that's why pizza is so powerful -- it's inherently communal," Dwyer said. "Pizza is one of the few things that everyone can agree on."
But only a sliver of the ever-growing memorabilia collection is on view. Dwyer values curation over quantity and plans to rotate exhibit items at Pizza Brain, noting the beauty of the project is that it's not stagnant.
"I think, at the end of the day, it's this big art installation masquerading around as a pizza shop," Dwyer said.
Speaking of which, what about the pizza? The menu offers pies with an array of artisan ingredients and offbeat toppings, including beef brisket, pulled pork and meatloaf; one pizza made with Gruyere, mozzarella, caramelized onions and fresh thyme tastes like French onion soup.
On his first visit to the shop last week, customer Sean McGettrick said that while he'd heard talk about the fancy pies, he wanted to play it safe. He downed a plain slice garnished with basil leaves, gave it a thumbs-up and pledged to return.
As for the decor, McGettrick said, "obviously they can't have it all out at once. But it's nice what's out there ... As a pizza fan, I enjoyed it, especially the Ninja Turtles memorabilia."
And in case you're looking for dessert, Pizza Brain shares space with Little Baby's Ice Cream, a specialty purveyor of flavors like Earl Grey Sriracha, blueberry ginger and -- yes -- "pizza."