Pies topped with crab, lechon kawali, and greens with (vegan) garlic sauce.

The little one-bedroom house looked promising in the listing photos, but when Lee Kindell made his way to this block of West Seattle, just off the Alaska Junction, he got the full picture: A 1950 cottage huddled, improbable and mouselike, between a pair of newer mid-rises. Kindell was 15 years removed from any sort of restaurant job; the house was very much a residence, absent of niceties like ranges, hoods, or commercial ovens. He took one look and called his wife, Nancy Gambin, with the obvious conclusion: This was a pizza place waiting to happen.

Lee Kindell and Nancy Gambin turned a holdout cottage into a destination for pizza and soft serve in custom "motocones."

Moto opened for takeout in February, selling 6-by-9-inch Detroit-style pizza. The Seattle sport of hovering online to order coveted comfort food might as well have its own rec league at this point, but Moto’s pies sell out with the ferocity of salt before a snowstorm. That’s partly because Kindell mixes his dough by hand, a process that yields Jedi-level dough structure, but a scant 120 pies a night. “I might end up having to swallow my pride and go to a mixer,” he allows. “I’m wrestling with that right now.”

Today, the house is painted a matte black, with strings of lights illuminating the picket-fenced front garden in a ravine of brick. It’s a fairy tale gone noir, but with soft serve and joyful children in place of crime and dark plot twists. Kindell’s first act, once he got the keys, was to buy a bunch of reusable balloons—the sturdy kind that wave at car dealerships. He clambered onto the cottage’s roof and tethered them to the stubby brick chimney. The nod to the movie Up isn’t exactly subtle, but it’s earned. Moto offers its own escapist fantasy, but the real magic is the pizza.

 

Kindell’s aversion to mass assembly is the only un-Detroit thing about his pizzamaking. Moto’s pan pies begin with a 100-year-old sourdough starter named Betty (also the name of Kindell’s motorcycle). High-hydration dough keeps thick crusts tender. He blends his own cheese, with hard-to-source Wisconsin brick in a starring role, critical for that buttery authenticity of the Upper Midwest. Steel baking pans, their walls high and hot, melt the cheese around the edges until it bubbles and darkens into a sort of reverse force field—a crunchy perimeter that invites voracious attacks. Meanwhile, oils from that cheese blend migrate toward the base of the hot steel pan, crisping the bottom of each pie ever so gently. 

All this effort means even basic cheese and pepperoni pies justify a trip to West Seattle, bridge or no. But the best things happen when Kindell draws on his Northwest origins. After a lifetime crabbing in Washington waters, he got to thinking—what if you made a pizza…out of a crab roll? A feathery heap of dungeness and a touch of lemon give that delicate meat an edge over all that melty Wisconsin cheese. Kindell vows the dill is just a stand-in until he can forage sea beans.

To continue the Pixar callouts, you’d think all this perfectionism would come from an Antoine Ego–style pedant. Instead it bursts from a self-taught pizza superfan who seems perpetually thrilled he gets to make it for a living. Kindell’s pizza obsession lingered after long ago stints working a wood-fire oven at the farmers market. He dragged his wife to far-flung New York boroughs, ventured to Italy—he even followed the chefs who competed in the international pizzamaking championships. One year, a Detroit pie took third place. Kindell, by now a bit of a scholar on this topic, was floored. “I had no idea what this pizza was.” Six years later, pan pizza still enthralls him: “It’s pretty precise, but you can express yourself a lot.”

Bay leaves from a neighborhood bush help flavor the top selling Mr. Pig. Dungeness crab (right) tops Moto's second-best seller.

Dressed in black, with a bandana twisted around his shaved head, Moto’s pizza boss could pass for a character actor with an IMDB history of roles like “tough guy in bar.” But watch his joyful banter with a young visitor about his Iron Man T-shirt and you realize the Disney soundtrack that pours from the cottage on warm evenings isn’t just for the kids.

Moto’s top seller, Mr. Pig, stars lechon kawali, the Filipino fried pork belly of Kindell’s Bremerton childhood. He doctors chimichurri with pineapple and calamansi and squiggles that green sauce across the top. Kindell fusses over the flourishes of tomato sauce and balsamic vinegar adorning the vegetarian "Root" pie just as much as he did the actual flavors—a smart combo of black olives, foraged mushrooms, and surprise pickled walnut. “It’s art to me,” he says, and another reason Moto’s hands-on creations remain limited. Art of the nonedible variety rings Moto’s interior. The former living room, now painted white, sports energetic black line drawings (animals, pizza slogans, more than one Up reference) and frenetic drips of neon.

Lee Kindell in his prep area, dubbed the "dough-jo."

Detroit-style pie—itself adapted from Sicilian forebears—has caught the nation’s attention of late. Kindell’s creations join a filling parade of local riffs: limited-production rectangles at Sunny Hill, the Sunday special at Cornelly, a gleeful Chicago-Detroit hybrid at Breezy Town. Those who know might geek out on the Maillard reaction Kindell achieves with those hot steel pans, or the conveyor belt oven that ensures temperatures as consistent as a military drill. But savoring this pizza for its technical achievements is like cranking up some Motown just to enjoy the chord changes.

Moto’s pizza can be elusive, but the soft serve machine up front welcomes last-minute visits. Kindell and Gambin made room in their DIY budget for a hard-to-find device that pipes your flavors of choice onto the swirled edges of ordinary vanilla soft serve. Kindell presents these in “motocones,” a length of Transylvanian-style chimney cake that might reveal his mad scientist tendencies even more clearly than his pizza. His adaptation of the sixteenth-century recipe wraps eggy choux dough around a rolling pin and suspends it, like a dessert rotisserie, to bake. Thick slices suggest cinnamon dusted cuff bracelets with a pleasantly doughy center. A display case in the front room glitters with coconut or Fruity Pebbles or chopped-up gummy bear affixed to the motocone rims, like a round of gonzo ’90s-era martinis.

Before the pandemic, Kindell and Gambin owned a travelers hostel in Belltown. When their livelihood screeched to a halt, the couple decided to chase a dream that felt tenuous, even in the most robust of times. But you don’t have to love happy endings to concede: A holdout cottage filled with street art, soft serve, and some of the city’s most remarkable pizza is better than any Pixar movie.


Maillard Reaction

The official and very scientific term for the chemical reaction that browns food into a more craveable version of itself—seared steak, toasted marshmallows, and crispy, blackened cheese.

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