Before the pandemic, Hardena, the Indonesian restaurant in Philadelphia run by sisters Diana and Maylia Widjojo, served plates inspired by the elaborate Indonesian meals known as rijsttafel. Focused on variety, they'd cover a large round dish with a banana leaf and top it with an assortment of food: satay, vegetables, sambal, and more, with a mound of rice at its center. Rijsttafel means "rice table" in Dutch, a relic of colonialism in Indonesia.
Though diners often asked for the rijsttafel plate to-go, Diana Widjojo resisted: It was all about the experience of eating in the restaurant, where a bowl of water with lime would follow the meal if one chose to eat with their hands. But during the city's indoor dining shutdown from March to September, Widjojo was looking for a way to bring Hardena to more people. "Pizza is my go-to thing; I work late, and it's the only thing that's available at night," she said. "I was eating pizza [one night in March] and I was looking at the box, and I was like, Oh shit, I can do it in here."
In June, Hardena launched the rijsttafel plate as the "Not Pizza" box. Instead of a hot, cheesy pizza, Hardena's boxes hold a variety of Indonesian food that changes daily depending on what's at the market, arranged with an artful eye on a banana leaf. "I don't leave any empty space," Widjojo said. "There could be almost 18 different things in there, not including the rice." The restaurant opens pre-orders for the boxes on Instagram on Mondays, and they sell out every week.
"With the pandemic going on, I figured that this was a creative way to get people to try our food and try something new, or experience something a little bit different," she said.
With continued restrictions and concers about indoor dining, restaurants and pop-ups across the country have pivoted to sharing their food in new formats, whether that's by adopting take-out for the first time, selling groceries and meal kits, or using Instagram as a marketplace for small-scale, artisanal baked goods. Getting by in the age of COVID-19 is about getting creative, and the classic pizza box, perhaps owing to its spacious format, is experiencing an unexpected second life as a container for feasts that often have nothing to do with pizza.
After coffee shop manager Erika Costa hosted a kamayan dinner—the increasingly popular format of large and varied Filipino meals eaten by hand—late last year, she planned to do another one this March. Obviously, that couldn't happen. So last month, she started to use the pizza-box format to bring kamayan-style dining to homes in Brooklyn, launching a new side project called The Kamayan Box.
Since the pandemic started, a number of pop-ups have been offering full, curated meals to eat at home—like the Malaysian omakase from Boston's Sekali, which contains an assortment of small containers of sauces, sides, and mains. But the pizza-box format can offer cooks like Costa and the Widjojo sisters a little more control over how people enjoy their food, elevating a take-out meal to an experience. In the kamayan boxes she offered this month, Costa arranged an assortment of savory main dishes, vegetables, flowers, and tiny Filipino flags—all served on a banana leaf, with its sweet herbal scent and tropical appearance. "Kamayan [is] supposed to be laid out, and the food is everywhere, and it looks pretty. […] I feel like it's more authentic that way. When you open it up, you're like, Whoa, that's a lot of food."
The options of variety boxes like these are growing. Also in Philadelphia, Pizza Plus offers a weekly snack box that holds not just a cheese pie but also burgers, chicken tenders, fries, onion rings, and dips in each corner, like every stoner's wet dream. In the Bay Area, the Fish and Bonez pop-up fills pizza boxes with charcuterie or vegan snacks. And with events—along with last year's trend of grazing tables—mostly off-limits, sellers of smaller-format "grazing boxes" are popping up all over the country.
In April, Loryn Purvis launched Orange County's Picnic Artisanal Grazing after the cooking school where she taught closed temporarily due to COVID-19. Filled with cheese, charcuterie, nuts, fruit, and more, her grazing boxes—which, to be specific, are sold in shallow bakery boxes and not pizza boxes—are popular with people who want to eat outside or have a special time at home. "I think right now people are just looking for something fun," she said. Plus, with flowers, lots of colors, and sprigs of herbs, her boxes are Instagram bait.
Purvis said her most in-demand option so far has been the ten-inch picnic box that feeds two to four people, though she also sells one-person boxes. Sometimes, she said, people will purchase the latter for outdoor events to avoid the possibility of cross-contamination: Instead of grazing at communal buffets, attendees can just grab a personal grazing box and add it to their meal. For that reason, even as establishments start to re-open, Purvis thinks boxes like hers will have lasting appeal. "People are a little hesitant to share finger foods," she said.
While gathering in a restaurant will always have its own charm, pizza boxes make the take-out experience more special. They can also function to introduce diners to new restaurants and eating formats, even if they're just dining at home; according to Widjojo, many people who've ordered the "Not Pizza" box haven't eaten at Hardena. Opening a pizza box has always been exciting, but now, it's even more so.
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