A couple of One Off Hospitality vets have created a crust that can only be described on its own terms
By Mike Sula for Chicago Reader
There is no food more adaptable to the human requirement for joy than pizza. You can share it, hot and steaming, with your best friends, and it’s near guaranteed that before you’ve finished, you’ll all burst out laughing together for some reason or another. You can stumble out of bed in the middle of the night, sleepless from the ghosts moaning in your head, and the holy light of the refrigerator will spill upon a cold leftover slice on a paper plate, and for a few minutes those ghouls will be silenced, along with your hunger.
Even the endless and pedantic cross-country debates over which regional specialty is better (or worse) than all the rest are a form of sport, and therefore healthy and nonviolent expressions of competitive fun. No matter what the situation is, pizza improves it. And it’s for this reason the cliche “there’s no such thing as bad pizza” is in fact a universal truth that somehow got left off Moses’s tablets of stone.
I can’t even get bored writing about pizza, even though I’ve spent way too much time thinking about it not to have become slightly warped in my worldview. Sometimes there are other things to write about than the latest pizzeria. That’s why I held the trigger on Pizzeria Bebu for months after it opened in February. Even the alliance of two One Off Hospitality vets, Zach Smith (formerly of Nico Osteria as well as RPM) and chef Jeff Lutzow (formerly of the Publican and Nico Osteria), couldn’t lure me in sooner. Also, it’s in a neighborhood that challenges the sanity of anyone not used to living in this congested head cold of residential/retail overdevelopment. You need to take the Red Line or the #72 North Avenue bus to Pizzeria Bebu. Or ride your bike. Just don’t drive.
But the call of pizza, no matter what kind, is loud and long and compelling, and Pizzeria Bebu had to be held accountable. It’s a long, narrow, window-lit space, with tables just across and below the counter from the glassed-in station where Lutzow sculpts the dough and the gas-fired hell mouth that blisters the pies. Many seats, though low, offer in-your-face views of the pie-making action.
So what’s it gonna be? Neapolitan with a molten, doughy center? Detroit style with buttery caramelized corners, the Motor City’s answer to fine patisserie? A cheffy take on tavern-style cracker crust? Or worse yet, deep-dish?
None of those.
Lutzow has developed a crust that can only be described on its own terms, unlike the city’s prevailing pizza trends of the last decade or so. Its underskirt is uniformly crispy, the alchemy of heat and dough and toppings providing that granular strata of texture, from the undercarriage’s carbonized shadows of char to the crucial middle layer, where bread gives way to sauce in a pliable and tender transition. The cornicione shows the crumb structure of a great sourdough bread while remaining tender enough for one to tear off bite after bite. Like all good pizza, at its foundation it’s just good bread.
Having achieved this crustal feat, Lutzow conceived a similarly distinctive menu of specialty toppings, from the gleefully treif but breakfast-appropriate “bagel smuggler” (caramelized onions, pancetta, eggs, and everything-bagel spice) to the vegetable-laden “ratatouille,” with pattypan squash, zucchini, red pepper, and eggplant. More prosaic varieties built on red and white sauces are there for the traditionalists, and naturally you can build your own.
Ditherers will be glad to know that they can also order these pies half and half, which I’m sure to some conscripts in the Pizza Taliban is something worth fighting over. For my part, it was absorbing to observe how the diameter line of yolk, melted Gruyere, and ripples of prosciutto cotto on the Parisienne met and just barely mingled with a pickly giardiniera-mined red tide under the meatball-and-ricotta half.
Similarly, a misunderstood order on one occasion led to a provocative and irresistibly scarfable pie. Some fledglings at the table, uncorrupted by pizza theocracy, decided they wanted soppressata on top of their margherita. That’s what they got, along with a thin, hot sheen of Calabrian honey, which is how Bebu’s standard soppressata rolls.
While the menu focuses on pizzas, they can be supplemented with a handful of small plates and large salads. Romaine, pancetta, egg, olive, and avocado form a mountainous chopped salad. A Little Gem is loaded with fresh spring peas and favas. Oversize chunks of sweet red beet mingle with feta and nutty farro. Herbaceous meatballs wallow in powerfully umamic red sauce. Ratatouille is available also in its pure form—a luscious, dense stew of springtime.
For dessert: a classic skillet cookie, lavalike in its iron crucible. There’s also a delicate, unorthodox cannolo: a cylindrical pizzelle, austerely filled with barely a hint of sugar sweetening the ricotta and chocolate.
So yes, pizza is a champion relativist. It’s always inherently good relative to you not eating it. But Bebu’s rises above to join the thin ranks of the objectively good pizzas in town, a pie worth braving even one of the most traffic-choked areas of the city.