For 28 years, Bite Cafe was the ideal casual companion to Empty Bottle, the legendary Ukrainian Village concert venue. The restaurant pushed the boundaries of a traditional diner with food more ambitious than what customers would expect from a typical greasy spoon. This was all done while giving the neighborhood a place to hang out, a chill spot to meet up before a show at the Bottle.
No one is sure when live music will return to Chicago in the age of the novel coronavirus. Health experts are encouraging outdoor dining versus dining rooms, and if folks want to dine indoors, doctors are saying that they should limit their time. Diner culture, where friends spend hours together sipping coffee and eating bacon, is waning. Bite Cafe, closed since mid-March without carryout, was at a crossroads.
Bruce Finkelman, the owner of Empty Bottle and Bite Cafe — both fall under his 16” on Center umbrella (Thalia Hall, Revival Food Hall)— figured it was time for a change. Pizzerias do well with carryout and delivery, so he began making plans to switch operations. Late this summer, Bite Cafe will become Pizza Friendly Pizza. The name’s a riff on the saying on the Empty Bottle’s brown awning: “Music Friendly Dancing.”
Finkelman’s brought in a heavy gun to create the pizza for the restaurant. Noah Sandoval is the chef behind Oriole, the Michelin-starred restaurant in the West Loop. Oriole, a fine dining tasting menu restaurant, neighbors 16” on Center’s MONEYGUN/Saint Lou’s Assembly. So Finkelman and Sandoval know each other, and exchange texts about music. Sandoval is from Richmond, Virginia and is heavily influenced by the D.C. music scene. The nation’s capital has a famous hardcore punk scene with bands like Fugazi and Shudder to Think. Sandoval was set to see another D.C. band, the Make-Up. But the March 7 show at the Bottle was cancelled. While lamenting the cancellation, Sandoval and Finkelman hatched plans for the pizzeria.
Unlike Oriole’s fancy plates, Sandoval envisions Pizza Friendly Pizza’s pies to be simple, using fresh ingredients. Pies will be square-cut and Sicilian style. Sandoval doesn’t want to compromise quality.
“I don’t want to put out an OK Sicilian pizza. I can’t do that,” he says. “I can’t put out an OK tasting menu. I can’t do that.”
Sandoval says he’s been talking with some of the world’s best pizza makers and getting their help while perfecting his recipes. The pizza community has been very open, Sandoval says: Some chefs are very guarded about their recipes, they won’t even divulge what goes in their vinaigrettes. They’ll also have a some selection of sandwiches.
D.C. punk rock hero Ian Mackaye founded Dischord Records and also played in Fugazi and Minor Threat. Mackaye is famously vegan. Bite Cafe offered a variety of meat-free dishes well before Chicago’s restaurants realized vegans and vegetarians needed more than a token pasta option. Mackaye once said that Chicago’s musicians “were the guys who smoke cigars and eat ribs.” Those Midwestern stereotypes are hard to break, but Pizza Friendly Pizza will have meat-free slices and full pies.
Bite was a part of the community, and Finkelman says he wants the pizzeria to continue to fill that need for an inclusive and affordable restaurant. Music is still the tie that binds. If Sandoval finds some time away from Oriole and Kumiko, he may even put together some music playlists for optimal pizza enjoyment.
Pizza Friendly Pizza, 1038 N. Western Avenue, planned for a summer opening.