2011 September: TAKING A BULL BY THE HORNS

This is the greatest pizza in the world.” That was the mantra that my dad, Dick, repeated to my three brothers and me as kids growing up in New Haven, Connecticut. Sally’s Apizza on Wooster Street was our place. Dick, a lifelong New Haven resident, ate there as a child going back to 1938 when Sally’s first opened its doors. And this is where it all started for me — my love for New Haven pizza and my desire to have it in Chicago, my home since 1983.

New Haven pizza earned its reputation from the Neapolitan-style pies baked in the hot brick ovens at Sally’s, Pepe’s and Modern Apizza, arguably the area’s holy trinity. At these places, hand-formed “pies”— or apizza, pronounced “ah-beetz” — are shoveled in and out of the ovens on long wooden peel boards. They are chewy and crisp, with just the right amount of bright fresh sauce, mozzarella (“mutz”) and toppings. Toppings are not piled on with a heavy hand, but added carefully and in a lighter quantity to enable the customer to taste and enjoy the wonderful fresh flavors. It’s addictive stuff. Slices from a large pizza are thin tapering triangles, different from the fat wedges you get in a New York slice. Every slice can and should be held in your hand, pinched in at the crust, and eaten with gusto, your other hand supporting the floppy point of the triangle. This is tasty, no-nonsense food eaten communally from an 18-inch by 26-inch metal pan lined with paper. A knife and fork is somewhat of a faux pas — unless you are the Queen of England.

Unlike in New York, New Haven pizza is sold only as a whole pizza, not by-the-slice.

While the majority of pies have the traditional red sauce and mozzarella, two styles of pizza are indigenous to New Haven: the plain pie and the white pie. The original pizza was the plain (or “tomato”) pie. This pizza comes with fresh tomato sauce, a little garlic and a smattering of good flavorful Parmesan. It does not have mozzarella. It’s a subtle, delicious classic that harkens back to the early days of New Haven pizza making, when a pizza, according to my dad, cost twenty five cents for a small at Sally’s.

The white pie, “Bianca” in New Haven, is light, moist and full of flavor, made with an olive-oil base, topped with mozzarella, Parmesan and toppings. The white clam pizza is also a New Haven classic, often using native New England clams.

 

In July of 2001 I opened Piece, my pizzeria/brewpub in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago. Life as a food industry entrepreneur was nothing new to me. Prior to Piece, my brothers Andy, Pete and I had developed a chain of bagel restaurants, Jacobs Bros. Bagels, from 1983-1999. Fresh out of college, we had moved to Chicago after identifying it as a market sorely in need of the great authentic bagels you find in the Northeast. Over the years, we never stopped craving New Haven pizza, searching for something similar but finding only the deep-dish style that Chicago had been known for. So after selling the bagel business, I seized the opportunity, putting together a business plan to bring New Haven pizza and outstanding micro-brewed beer (which we brew in-house) to Chicago. I wanted to fill the astounding void for top-notch thin-crust pizza, which was missing from this world-class city.

Naysayers everywhere chanted a new mantra to me: “You’re crazy!” Bring an East Coast thin-crust pizza to the very Midwest birthplace of deep-dish, and then call it New Haven style? But remember: I grew up eating the greatest pizza in the world. I knew in my heart that if I could serve a pie that came anywhere close to that, even die-hard deep-dish devotees would nod in approval.

With help from a childhood friend who was baking pizza in New Haven, combined with my bagel business background, we opened our doors to a warm reception. It certainly helped to have employed two girls from MTV’s “The Real World: Chicago,” whose house was fortuitously located across the street. The pizza was good, but frankly not as consistently good as it is today. And the beer has always been fantastic, thanks to our brilliant award-winning brewmaster Jonathan Cutler.

When we opened, our customers were curious about this pizza marketed as New Haven style. Unless you were from Connecticut or had some tie to the area, this New Haven pizza thing was completely foreign, never heard of. But we’ve been fortunate with the success of Piece, and today, thanks in no small measure to the foodies, their blogs and forums, the Travel Channel and the Food Network, New Haven pizza is rightfully recognized here. Chicagoans embrace it.

Today, between Piece and our adjacent delivery and take-out space, Piece Out, we sell an average of 3,600 hand-made pizzas each week. Sales continue to grow even as we hit our 10th year.

If you saw last month’s issue of Pizza Today, then you know the magazine named Piece the 2011 Independent Pizzeria of the Year. The question I’m sure you have is: “how did we do it?”

I think our success is tied to a number of factors. For one, we have remained focused on our core product. With the exception of a couple of salads and several appetizers, the menu is all about the pizza. No wings. No mozzarella sticks. Just hand-formed, made-to-order New Haven pizza. And beer.

Our location helps. People love the still-somewhat edgy and artsy Wicker Park neighborhood. And the premises themselves are impressive, situated within an old industrial bow-truss building with exposed wooden trusses and a thirty-five foot high open ceiling lined with skylights. It’s a great space with a really fun vibe.

Service is also key. Piece has trainers and training programs for every area of the operation. Our managers, servers, bartenders, bakers, dough makers, hosts and phone-order takers are the face of the company and the engine that makes the business run. Our staff retention is terrific. After 10 years of operation, we continue to employ members of our original staff.

While we do not spend much money on running print ads, we market actively at the point-of purchase on tables, banners, posters in bathrooms, and on pizza boxes. We are active on Twitter, Facebook and our Web site. Our marketing has a witty sensibility to it, and we keep the same tone in all of our materials. This approach, combined with the memorable Piece logo, has effectively built a well-respected and recognized brand in Chicago.

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