It’s become the talk of Chicago and beyond: For the second year in a row, attendees are calling Pizza City Fest a disaster. Some even likened the pizza festival, curated by longtime Chicago TV personality Steve Dolinsky, to the debacle that was the Fyre Festival.
Hyperbole aside, the trouble began brewing before the first attendees on Saturday even set foot inside the Salt Shed as an electrical mishap sapped the power to the ovens, taking out 12 vendors. The power outage lasted until around 1 p.m., but beyond electricity, the attendees were waiting 30 minutes to an hour to pass through the gates. They were rewarded with more lines — up to an hour for the most popular pizzas — once they got inside. But it wasn’t a complete pizza desert. Forno Rosso brought its own mobile wood-burning oven and didn’t need electricity. They were sold out by 2 p.m.: “We were able to sit there and crank out pies,” owner Nick Nitti says. “We were in a fortunate situation.”
But given the long waits for the first half of Saturday, Nitti’s Neapolitan pies weren’t enough to sate angry pizza lovers wanting to sample deep dish, tavern, and other pies from more than 20 pizzerias. Attendees fumed, feeling like test subjects who paid $95 for general admission for 10 slices or $200 for VIP access and 14 slices: “This was a complete scam and awfully planned event,” one wrote on Instagram.
On the same thread, another wrote: “Lol, if you are going to charge bonkers prices you better be able to deliver.” Others accused the organizers of deleting comments. Over on Reddit, a user wrote: “Why does this sound like Fyre Festival pizza edition.”
This year, VIP members complained the loudest — they had spent an extra $100 for private lounge access and early entry to avoid the lines. Except there was little pizza until 1 p.m. when the ovens finally fired up, and then the VIP members had no choice but to descend from their second-floor private space and join the hour-long lines.
An attendee told Eater that Saturday was the worst food fest he attended and that he left early: “And that was with VIP. GA would have been horrendous.”
This isn’t the first year for Pizza City Fest’s troubles. Last year’s inaugural event was held at Plumber’s Union Hall in the West Loop, and a storm and lines ruined the experience for many on the first day. Like this year, the second-day experience went smoother. Throwing a festival in Chicago isn’t exactly easy. For both years, Dolinsky took to Instagram to offer VIP passes to angry ticket holders for the second day. And in both years, Dolinsky played defense saying his team worked long hours to fix problems. This year, he responded to a disappointed fan by writing, “From 3:30 - 6 p.m. we had a vastly improved experience.”
But that was after a number of frustrated folks had already braved lines and left without coming close to their pizza limit. A common Saturday complaint was the event was oversold.
Dolinsky sent out a media statement on Tuesday night and apologized to guests, pinning the problem on a generator that impacted six ovens: “We are doing everything in our power to make things right with affected guests and we are already focused and working on improving all processes moving forward,” part of the statement reads.
The pizza makers are also frustrated. Some say a lack of enough refrigeration forced them to throw out ingredients when the Chicago health inspectors came. One vendor had to toss out garlic-infused olive oil because inspectors were worried about botulism from the garlic. Vendors say the festival did not inform them when the inspectors arrived and that they learned from word of mouth.
To adjust for the long waits, Pizza Fest extended Saturday its operations by an hour from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. — the announcement from Dolinsky over the PA came without warning, catching vendors off-guard. Bonci’s Shakib Touhami says his pizzeria was shorthanded as his workers at the festival were scheduled to work at the restaurant on a busy Saturday night: “If you ask me next year, either I won’t do it, or I’ll do it Sunday,” Touhami says.
Dolinsky’s previous statement and another sent on Monday by the Salt Shed blamed a rented generator for the mishap. Salt Shed is managed by 16” on Center which is Bruce Finkelman’s hospitality group that includes Revival Food Hall, Dusek’s, Empty Bottle, and Pizza Friendly Pizza.
A faulty generator would explain why only some vendors were impacted. But four vendors told Eater Chicago it wasn’t purely an equipment malfunction. The venue didn’t have the proper electrical setup to accommodate pizza ovens for 12 vendors situated in the middle of the fest. The vendors said that while the provided ovens were in good shape, the power supply couldn’t convey enough energy for the ovens; it was wired for single-phase instead of the more powerful three-phase electric power setup. Vendors blamed Salt Shed’s management for their inexperience and folding under the pressure of needing to deal with large crowds in a timely fashion. One vendor challenged 16” on Center’s commitment to hospitality. The ovens should have been tested before the event: “You just can’t come and fuck up the most important, the most indispensable tool,” a pizza vendor said, requesting their name withheld, worried that Dolinsky would take away business. The vendor says the festival should have had a trial run, and that their pizzeria lost money on the event. They say they did this as a favor for Dolinsky.
“Steve has the Pizza City book, he has the Pizza City tour — he brings people to the restaurant for the tour,” they say. “Since we already have a relationship, I said, ‘Why not?’”
Not every vendor was unhappy. George Bumbaris of George’s Deep Dish in Uptown says his experience at the 2022 fest and attending the LA festival helped. He made about 200 pizzas or about 1,400 slices. He says there was plenty of pizza available but understands the disappointment if someone wanted to try a popular pizzeria without standing in the long lines. He was eager to be part of future festivals.
John Carruthers of Crust Fund Pizza collaborated with Manny’s Deli on Saturday. He was moved to a space with power, but he says he was getting anxious watching other vendors struggle without. “The festival vibes have been kind of off this summer,” he says.
“This is one of those good times to have amnesia.”
Dolinsky, whose portrait adorns restaurant walls across Chicago, first as ABC Chicago’s Hungry Hound, and in his current identity as NBC Chicago’s Food Guy, worked with Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism board, to pay for flights and lodging for influencers from Nashville and Canada to Pizza City Fest in order to generate interest outside of Chicago. He also brought the festival to L.A. Live in Los Angeles in April and is looking to expand to other cities like New York. (George’s Deep Dish’s Bumbaris attended the LA event to check out the event. He says the larger footprint there helped the event go smoothly.)
Which is all to say, that Dolinsky wields influence. On Sunday, Chicago food writer and critic Michael Nagrant wrote up a summary of Saturday’s events. He’s criticized Dolinsky for what he perceives as “pay to play” — with restaurants offering free meals or exclusive coverage in exchange for positive coverage.
The story brought the festival into the national spotlight, and its Instagram post prompted comments from celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern and likes by New Yorker writer Helen Rosner, a Chicago-area native; Chicago chef and Top Chef champion Joe Flamm of BLVD Steakhouse and Rose Mary.
Dolinsky, who also teaches journalism at Northwestern University, also drew the attention of Evanston resident Jim Romenesko, a veteran journalist who covered the media for years and earned a huge following for his blog which was once hosted by the Poynter Institute, also took a stand. In a comment under Nagrant’s Substack, he wrote “Sometimes people need to be smacked with a ‘hit job.’”
The post also triggered a back-and-forth between former Eater Chicago editor Ari Bendersky who critiqued Nagrant in a now-deleted post calling Nagrant’s piece a “shitty petty takedown.” Despite Bendersky writing that he attended the festival on Sunday and paid for his ticket, Nagrant responded in an Instagram story that called Bendersky “the biggest pay-for-play freeloader in town,” adding “So, of course, you’d defend [Dolinsky].”