Chicago may not need another summer food festival, but this year it’s getting one anyway, courtesy of Steve Dolinsky, “The Food Guy” on NBC 5 and a pizza expert who has written two books on the subject. The Pizza City Fest will debut on July 23-24 at the Plumber’s Union Hall in the West Loop and will feature 39 different pizza-makers from all over Chicago, plus one from Nashville, and special guests from around the country who will discuss the history and technique of pizza-making.
“I just really wanted to do something that celebrated Chicago pizzerias,” Dolinsky says. “It’s not a competition, and we’re not going to name the best fill-in-the-blank pizza. Obviously they’re not all going to be here.”
Chicago has had pizza festivals before, but Dolinsky promises that the Pizza City Fest will be different. For one thing, all the pizzas will be freshly made instead of reheated on the premises. Dolinsky personally will only eat pizza straight out of the oven: he feels so strongly about this that he never orders delivery. For a long time, he thought a festival with freshly baked pizza would be impossible, but then about a year ago, he saw video from a festival in the Bronx in New York City that had ovens out on the street.
After a little digging, Dolinsky discovered that the MPM Food Equipment Group, which sells the PizzaMaster electric oven, was based in suburban Wheeling. The PizzaMaster, which goes up to 932 degrees Fahrenheit, can cook every style of pizza, even Neapolitan, which requires an extremely hot oven for its blistered crust.
There will be nine ovens operating at Pizza City Fest, each devoted to one style of pizza — tavern style, deep dish, Sicilian, Neapolitan, New York style, Detroit, Roman, stuffed, and artisan — plus one more oven in the VIP section. Two pizzerias will share each two-deck oven on each day of the festival.
“It’s a major all-star lineup,” Dolinksy says. “There’s not a dud in this group.” Participants range from old-timers like Lou Malnati’s and Nancy’s to newcomers like Pizza Fried Chicken Ice Cream, Five Squared, and Paulie Gee’s, and, in the VIP section, small-batch pizza makers like Professor Pizza and Spacca Napoli. Dolinsky, who understands that Chicagoans are particularly devoted to their neighborhood pizzerias, envisions this as a chance for festival-goers to try pizzas they’ve never had before, for North Siders to sample Vito & Nick’s, say, or South Siders to experience Pat’s.
Dolinsky also wanted to include pizza from outside Chicago, so he invited St. Vito Focacciera from Nashville. “It’s really special,” he says. “There’s nothing like it in Chicago.”
Each pizzeria will have a chance to visit the MPM Test Kitchen in Wheeling to test out the oven before the festival. All the festival logistics will be handled by StarEvents, which also runs Taste of Randolph Street and Andersonville Midsommarfest.
Besides eating, there will also be talking, in the form of panel discussions about the art and culture of pizza, featuring celebrity guests (from the pizza world, anyway) like Chris Bianco (Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix), Tony Gemignani (Tony’s in San Francisco), Laura Meyer (Capo’s in San Francisco), and Francisco Migoya (author of the tome Modernist Pizza). There will also be a discussion about the origins of deep dish between Marc Malnati and pizza historian Peter Regas. There will not, however, be any lessons on how to toss pizza dough. Dolinsky dismisses this as “a New York thing, all for show,” and adds that most people who make pizza at home won’t have space in their ovens for an 18-inch pie anyway.
Early bird tickets went on sale this morning, $49 for one-day general admission, $79 for both days, and $99 for one-day VIP, which includes access to the VIP pizzas, all the panels, and free beer and wine and gelato. (The early bird two-day VIP tickets have already sold out.) On March 15, regular pricing will kick in, approximately $10 more than early bird. If all goes well, Dolinsky anticipates 2,000 attendees each day and that the festival will become an annual event.
“I want people to think about Chicago as a pizza destination, not a punchline,” he says. “It’s been an uphill battle for the past four or five years. It all stemmed from that Jon Stewart rant [against deep dish]. It’s so much more than being reduced to a punchline.”