I had an early afternoon meeting with a dealer in the Wicker Park/Bucktown neighborhood of Chicago and finished up around 1:30 or so. I hadn't had any lunch and I was thinking of getting something to eat. When I turned onto North Ave., I passed a place that has been in the back of my mind since I first had their pizza about three years ago - Piece Brewery and Pizzeria. (see map) I found a parking spot down the way on North and went inside to have lunch.
The first time I had a Piece pizza was when I was at Music Direct in Chicago and I had them order in some food for lunch for the staff. They got 8 large thin-crust pizzas with various toppings. I immediately liked the pizza and asked about the place. One of the guys at Music Direct said, "The place is owned by Rick Nielsen (the lead guitarist for the rock band Cheap Trick). It's great pizza." It certainly was. Ever since, I'd been wanting to get to Piece to try it out for myself.
It turns out that Rick Nielsen is only an active investor in the place. The main guy at Piece is Bill Jacobs. Jacobs is a native of New Haven, CT and came out to Chicago to visit friends over 30 years ago. He soon found that there was a dearth of good bagel places in the area - especially in downtown Chicago. Along with his brothers, Andy, the Jacobs brothers opened the Bagel Bakery in 1983. They were eventually joined in the business by their brothers Steve and Peter and they changed the name to Jacobs Bros Bagels. Over the next 16 years, the Jacobs brothers expanded to 20 different locations around the Chicago area before they sold out to Big Apple Bagels in 1999.
Pictured right - Bill Jacobs
Andy, Steve and Peter went off and did their own thing, but Bill Jacobs had an idea for a new pizza place in a city where pizza places were seemingly everywhere. But Chicago didn't have Jacobs' beloved New Haven-style pizza - a thin crust with garlic, red sauce, olive oil and parmesan (no mozzarella) cheese and generally served on cookie sheets. People told him that he was crazy and that a New Haven-style pizza wouldn't work in Chicago. But he went ahead with the idea anyway.
The other thing that Jacobs noticed was that Chicago didn't seem to have a lot of microbrews or brew pubs in the city. There were a couple - including Goose Island - but brewpubs were opening at a dizzying rate nationally, but not in Chicago. Jacobs enlisted the help of Jonathan Cutler, a Chicago native and graduate of Southern Illinois University and the Siebel Institute of Technology (where he learned the art of brewing beer). Cutler had worked on the packing line at the Leinenkugel facility in Milwaukee before going on to stints at Goose Island in Chicago and Sierra Nevada in California. When Cutler heard that a new brewpub was opening in Chicago, he contacted Bill Jacobs. After an hour long phone conversation, Jacobs hired Cutler to be his brewmaster at his new brewpub/pizza place.
Cutler had never commercially brewed beer before coming to Piece. Today, he brews 8 beers in rotation with at least six beers on tap at any time. He is a member of the Master Brewers Association and has won numerous medals in different beer categories at both the Great American Beer Fesitval in Denver and at the biennial World Beer Cup including the prestigious Small Brewpub and Brewmaster champion in 2006.
Jacobs enlisted the financial help of Rick Nielsen (and others) to get his venture off the ground and Piece Brewery and Pizzeria opened in July of 2001 in what was formerly the garage of a roofing company. Nielsen is far from a silent investor in the business - he actually came up with the concept for Piece's chocolate pizza dessert, an idea that he got when had traveled to Italy a few years ago. You'll sometimes see Nielsen in the place, even participating in the live band karaoke on Saturday nights.
In 2011, Piece was named "Independent Pizzeria of the Year" by Pizza Today magazine. The single Piece location had topped the $6 million mark in revenues the year before.
True to the New Haven-style pizza, Jacobs wanted a coal oven in which to cook his pizzas. But finding that it was going to be nearly impossible to replicate the oven from the legendary Sally's Apizza in New Haven, Jacobs opted for a gas-fired Middleby oven with rotating shelf racks to get that New Haven-style crisp, yet chewy thin crust texture.
It was well after the lunch rush when I walked into Piece. The well-lit dining room was helped by a natural skylight in the ceiling letting the daytime light into the center of the room. A long, curving bar was the most prominent feature of the room with a number of tables throughout the place. The stage for regular karaoke (Thursday nights) and live band karaoke is to the right as you walk in. A secondary dining room is on the other side of a wall that is adorned with Rick Nielsen/Cheap Trick memorabilia and pictures.
A young lady greeted me and told me that I could sit anywhere. I asked if I could get lunch at the bar and she said, "Sure!" I sat at the bar and was greeted by a lady who would be my server/bartender who handed me a menu. Looking over the beer list at Piece, in addition to the six beers they had on tap, they also had a number of regional microbrews to choose from. I ended up getting one of Piece's "Golden Arm" beers, a German-style Kolsch beer.
All the ingredients that they put on the pizzas at Piece are fresh. And there's some pretty eclectic toppings that you can get. They have pizzas that can be topped with clams in a white sauce (made famous by the legendary Frank Pepe's in New Haven), artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, sauteed mushrooms and even mashed potatoes. I understand that the mashed potato topping is one of the more popular ones at Piece. They have two sizes of pizza - a large 16" pizza and a smaller 12" pizza. They also feature salads, appetizers and sandwiches on the menu including a roasted turkey breast sandwich and an eggplant parmesan sandwich.
But I was going to get a pizza and I asked my server if I could get a 12" Italian sausage, pepperoni and sauteed mushroom pizza. She said, "Well, a 12" is pretty big. We do have a single serving small pizza that's about seven or eight inches big." She pointed it out on the lower part of the menu under lunch size pizzas. I said that would be perfect. I was thinking of getting it New Haven style with the parmesan cheese and no mozzarella, but I didn't feel adventurous on this trip. Besides, I think I will be back at some point and bring my wife. We can try a New Haven-style pizza then. I just got a traditional pizza with the red sauce.
About 15 minutes after I ordered the pizza, my server brought it out to me. When she sat it down in front of me, I said, "This is perfect! Exactly the size that I need!" I didn't want to stuff myself on a larger pizza in the middle of the day.
The pizza was cut into quarter triangles. It had a bubbly crust like a Neapolitan-style pizza with plentiful toppings. It wasn't slathered in mozzarella, but there was enough of the melted cheese to let you know it was there.
The first bite of the Piece pizza brought back the initial memories of the first time I'd had a slice a couple three years previously. Only this time it was better because it was fresh out of the oven. The red sauce was tangy and not too sweet. The sauteed mushrooms had a wonderful flavor as did the somewhat spicy Italian sausage and pepperoni. The crust - well, I couldn't really tell what it was made out of. I thought it may have been a cornmeal crust, which I don't care for - but will eat if it's forced upon me. It was crispy toward the outer edges and more limp toward the middle - especially if the toppings had laid on it long enough for the crust to get saturated. It was a very good pizza.
The Golden Arm Kolsch beer was also very good. I like a good Kolsch from time to time because I sometimes like a little less bitterness from a Pilsner-style beer. Kolsch beers are to Pilsner beers as what American Pale Ales are to India Pale Ales, it's a subdued bitterness on the tongue. It was great with the pizza.
Piece Brewery and Pizzeria has been wildly successful in its 13 years of existence. It's so popular that they do not take reservations on Friday or Saturday nights as the place can get pretty packed. And I can easily see why. First of all, it's a fun place, they have good service with great pizza and award winning beers. By the way, Bill Jacobs announced earlier this year that he had taken over the space next to Piece that used to house a salon and will be putting in a bagel store using the same recipes that they had in the Jacobs Bros. Bagel stores. Pizza and bagels are the only two things Jacobs knows. Well, and beer. I'm sure the bagel place will be as big of a hit as Piece is. (Picture courtesy DNA Info/Chicago.)