Piece Brewery & Pizzeria: A Taste of New Haven in Chicago

Daniel Zemans, our man in Chicago, checks in with another piece of intel on the Windy City pizza scene. Daniel also blogs about Chicagoland pizza with his friends on the Chicago Pizza Club blog. --The Mgmt.

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Piece Brewery & Pizzeria

1927 W North Avenue, Chicago IL 60622 (map); 773-772-4422
Getting There: Blue Line to North Avenue, walk north on Damen Ave. 1/4 block and go east on North Ave. for 1/2 block
Pizza Style: New Haven
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny: Chicago's only New Haven–style pizzeria has been rightfully packing in customers since opening in 2001
Price: $19.56 for a medium pizza with two toppings

In 1983, Bill Jacobs and his brother Andy, fresh out of college, saw the country was ready to embrace bagels. Andy knew from visiting friends in Chicago that my hometown had extremely limited bagel options, particularly downtown. And so it was that the Jacobs brothers moved to Chicago and opened their eponymous bagel shop. Over the next 15 years, Jacobs Bros. Bagels grew to a mini chain of about 20 stores and sold among the best bagels in town. In February 1999, the Jacobs boys cashed out and sold their name and bagel shops. Three years later, Bill Jacobs, a native of New Haven, Connecticut, opened Piece Brewery & Pizzeria.

Jacobs is admirably zealous in his belief that New Haven is home to the nation's best pizza. In 2000, a year and a half before he opened Piece, he wrote a letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune in response to that paper's story on the best pizzerias in Chicago. He went after Chicago's deep-dish, stuffed, and thin-crust pizza, saying that "praising a crust as 'buttery' and 'flaky' seems more appropriate for a croissant or a pear tart" and that he was not impressed with the "dimensionless crackerlike quality associated with many thin-crust pizzas here." He also referred to New York before saying that "no pizza I've found holds a candle to that served in New Haven." With tough words like that, Jacobs really had no choice other than to turn out top-notch pizzas. Fortunately for him and for the pizza-eating public, he does.

In the beginning, Jacobs drew on his own bread-making expertise from his years running bagel shops and also brought in a couple of friends to help. One, a high school buddy named Ray Peck, had spent years making pizzas at Sally's in New Haven (reviewed here on Slice). The other was a culinary school grad who also happened to be Jacobs's yoga instructor.

But it was not just good food that got Piece off the ground. As too many restaurateurs have discovered the hard way, more is often needed than high-quality eats, particularly when the challenge is to get off the ground in a self-defined uber-hip neighborhood like Wicker Park. To that end, having Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick fame on board as an active investor has been great for Piece's marketing efforts. Employing Tonya and Cara from The Real World: Chicago (the house for the show was across the street) also got Piece's name in the news.

But while the allure of a rock and roll legend and a couple of self-involved, self-destructive, semifamous twenty-somethings may be enough to get some people in the door, only the quality of the pizza would keep them coming back. Well, the pizza and the beer. Jacobs hired Jonathan Cutler from California's Sierra Nevada Brewery to run the restaurant's seven-barrel brewery that has won an impressive array of awards.

12092008PieceSausage.jpgPiece offers three different kinds of hand-formed oblong pizzas that are cooked at 600°F to 650°F degrees in a gas oven with rotating shelves. Jacobs considered installing a coal oven, but environmental concerns about coal as well as his access to high-quality ovens through his bagel business connections led to the installation of a gas oven.

The red pizzas come with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. White pizzas have mozzarella but replace the sauce with olive oil and garlic. And the plain pizza has tomato sauce but includes Parmesan and garlic in lieu of mozzarella. Because I went to Piece with the Chicago Pizza Club, I was able to try all three varieties.

12092008PieceUpskirt.jpgThe crust at Piece is outstanding. With some crisp and a lot of chew, the crust has enough substance in flavor and texture to handle whatever toppings one is inclined to put on including, presumably, the mashed potato topping, although my dining companions vetoed my effort to give that one a shot.

We went with two red pizzas, a white pizza and a garlic pizza. The sauce on the red pies was filled with very small pieces of tomato and had a light sweetness to it. There was enough sauce that I could taste it in every bite, and the light flavor allowed it complement the rest of the pizza well. The sausage (pictured above) had a much stronger garlic flavor than a fennel one. I'm a big proponent of fennel, but still found Piece's locally-made sausage to be very good - strong flavor and a nice fatty chew. The second red pizza had bacon and thin slices of onion that had a much more generous supply of toppings than the sausage pizza.

I also tried a white pizza with artichoke hearts, which came with a lot of garlic. I like garlic, and I really liked the white pizza, but those who are sticklers for balance on their pies might want to ask their servers to make sure the chef goes a little light on the garlic as it came close to overwhelming the pizza. Or just make sure there are extra toppings on the pizza to even things out. The Piece crust had no problem standing up to the abundance of garlic.

12092008PieceClam.jpgThe white clam pie was invented at Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven a little over 80 years ago. We opted to get the clams on a plain pizza instead of a white one, which considerably changed the dynamics of the traditional clam pie. I'm not a huge fan of clams on pizza, but if I were, I would have liked this pie. The sauce on the plain pizza was the same as that on the red pizza, with the difference between the two styles being that the red has mozzarella while the plain has parmesan. Like the other styles of pizza, this one featured an excellent crust and very nice balance.

12092008PieceChocolate%20Pizza.jpgAs good as the dinner pizzas were at Piece, the pie that I crave the most when I think of my last visit is the chocolate pizza. Rick Nielsen is no passive investor in Piece. He has helped out in some of
Piece's charitable work and he is responsible for the chocolate pizza. After discovering the concept while in Italy, he returned to Chicago and convinced Jacobs to add it to the menu. Nielsen contacted the pizzeria in Italy where he'd had the chocolate pizza and found out more about it. The result: Piece's outstanding crust smothered in Nutella and a little bit of mascarpone cheese. The sweet, chewy, gooey concoction is superb.

Nielsen has also been known to frequent the restaurant somewhat often and some lucky diners who have been there for live band karaoke have seen Nielsen take the stage when a singer opts to rock out with a little Cheap Trick. Piece has live band karaoke every Saturday night at 11 and regular karaoke every Thursday night at 10. In addition to aspiring singers, the bar at Piece attracts sports fans who drink the house-made beer while watching one of the restaurant's many flat screen televisions.

Today, more than seven years after opening, Piece is still doing so well that reservations are not accepted for groups under 10 and they take no reservations at all after 7 on Friday or 6 on Saturday. An exception to that rule is for New Year's Eve. If anyone is looking for a place in Chicago to combine the absurd tradition of New Years Eve with the completely awesome tradition of gorging on pizza, I highly recommend heading to Piece for their $80 all-the-beer-and-wine-you-can-drink and all-the-pizza-you-can-eat party.

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