[Photographs: Josh Conley]
With all due respect to Revolution, Half Acre, Pipeworks, 5 Rabbit, et al., brewmaster Jonathan Cutler was making award-winning brews when some of these guys were still sneaking thirty packs into their dorms. He’s like the Neil Young of Chicago brewmasters; sometimes we take him for granted, but we rest easier knowing that he’s still rocking in the beer world. Vetted, unfazed by the massive influx of trendy brewers to flood Chicago in the last five years, he’s won over twenty major awards for his reliably great beer, and he sells it right beside excellent New Haven style pizza at Piece Brewery and Pizzeria.
Now when I think of pizza and beer joints, I think of the 80s. I think of dimly-lit dining rooms with tall, private booths and hanging lamps. A sit-down Ms. Pac-man machine. Pitchers of soda for the kids, Bud and Bud Light on draft, a jukebox, a salad bar, dried oregano wafting in the air. So with this as my working definition of pizza and beer joint, Piece is pretty much the antithesis.
Housed in an old roofing company garage, the place is over 5000 square feet of cavernous space. Like a banana split, the place has something for everyone—great pizza, big communal tables in the middle, sports all over the place, high chairs for the kids, a long bar, a couple of lounging areas near the windows, daily specials, and live band karaoke on Saturday nights. And the cherry on top? The honest-to-goodness skylights overhead. Find me one person who doesn’t like skylights, seriously.
But on to the menu. Short and sweet, oddly enough, there are more desserts (five) than any other category, including salads, and sandwiches, and appetizers.
The Goat Cheese ($6.95) is a massive dollop of creamy cheese that parts a red sea of house marinara. Nothing fancy here, just great execution. The ratio of herbaceous cheese to sauce is weighted heavily to the former, but the thick, robust marinara gets its say-so as well. The lightly-toasted French bread slices glistening with butter are the perfect dipping utensils. A great starter.
The advantage of the short menu is, of course, it keeps the focus right where it should be—on the thin crust pizza. This crust is a sturdy version that stands up to its toppings and maintains a nice, elastic chew, yet finishes with a great, crispy crust. The crust doesn’t change, but you can get it one of three ways.
Plain is the handle they assign to the only place I know of serving “traditional New Haven style” pizza in Chicago. This is a pie made with tomato sauce, garlic, and parmesan. It’s unique, and easy to see why it survived the trip from the East Coast. That fresh garlic really cuts through everything, and the tomato sauce is so bright and lively, you don’t even miss the mozzarella. A little different, a lot worth it.
The Red is a more traditional tomato sauce and mozzarella pie, the Stones to the Beatles of the Plain. Everything is well-balanced, which you know from the fact that it satisfies, yet leaves you wanting just a bit more. The saltiness of the cheese and that flavor-rich tomato sauce come together in perfect harmony; some fresh basil added a nice sweetness to it. This belongs in the upper echelon of thin crusts in town.
The White pizza, as you might guess, is brushed with olive oil, then topped with garlic, mozzarella, and parmesan. The garlic has teeth on this one, though you can still taste the olive oil, and the cheeses of course work well together. Some fresh ricotta added a creamy layer and helped to offset the acidity of the banana peppers. If you’re a garlic lover, this is the ‘za for you.
I’m all for trying new places, new food, new beers. But in this newer age of barrel-aged/sour/experimental beermaking, I appreciate that Cutler keeps his taplist like an invite list—a handful of trusted regulars, a few old friends, and no strangers.
Neil Young said rust never sleeps. Neither does Piece. Sometimes you wonder what it’s been up to, then you realize it’s been there the whole time, rocking out, and it’s you who stepped away. Luckily, the door’s always open.
Piece Brewery and Pizzeria
Josh Conley is single-handedly trying to re-introduce the verb beget into the everyday lexicon. He traveled to Easter Island one Christmas out of sheer irony. He excises a hefty syntax, and shamelessly promotes the color orange. His wife begat him two small children that he regularly belittles HERE.