Pizzeria Bebu started with a cook, a recipe for dough—and the desire to comfort people
FAMILY MEAL, THE FOOD PUT UP BEFORE SERVICE for staff to eat, is philosophically opposite to what restaurants serve—instead of premium ingredients and highfaluting cooking, it’s often odds and ends, bargain cuts, done in comforting and filling ways. It’s often used as a testing ground by cooks, no doubt, but at best it’s a rough approximation of what the restaurant will eventually serve.
Which makes Pizzeria Bebu quite possibly unique in Chicago, at least. Has anyone ever taken staff meal and served it straight to guests, indeed, built an entire restaurant out of it? I can’t think of one—places like Honey Butter Fried Chicken have grown out of the behind-the-scenes underground dining culture, for instance, but not from food made just for staff and never shown to the public at all. Pizzeria Bebu, tucked in a new condo high-rise a block or two over from the New City shopping center and the Arclight movie theaters at North and Clybourn, is probably the only one.
It all started when owner Zach Smith came to help open Nico Osteria for One Off Hospitality. He heard that a cook named Jeff Lutzow, who had come over from The Publican, made great pizzas for family meal.
“I opened with him one day a week,” Smith says. “And for several weeks if not months, I heard about his pizza from other people—’Have you had Jeff’s pizza yet?’ No, not yet. And I started sort of saying, Pizza? Today?”
“And finally, one day he said, ‘Okay, but don’t judge me, because I threw this together really last minute.’”
Smith got to try the pizza he had been waiting for. “And I was like, if this is last minute, I can only imagine what the pizza you really like is.”
WHEN I ASK SMITH WHY HE WANTED TO open a pizza parlor, he says, “It seemed like a logical way to comfort people. I think when you go out to dinner, the point is to rejuvenate yourself. To have something familiar as well as exciting.”
He continues, “When I was 5 years old I fell in love with the restaurant business, and I’ve known I wanted to do this my entire life. I’ve spent every summer and available vacation to work in the industry, in the kitchen and the way to the front of house. I thought I was going to be a chef, but a certain point you realize your talent only goes so far. The thing that wasn’t getting me to the next level was my lack of fulfillment, I want to have the interaction with the person who’s having the experience.”
He cooked at Blackbird, then worked for Lettuce Entertain You as a manager, closing Brasserie Jo and reopening the space as Paris Club—”I did Hub 51, RPM Italian, a lot of the marquee nightlife Lettuce restaurants.” He wanted to open his own place, but for a first restaurant, he wanted to do something more manageable, more accessible… and then he found Lutzow’s pizza.
Jeff Lutzow had been making pizzas from almost the beginning of his culinary career. “It really goes back to culinary school, and realizing, after the first couple of months, just how much money I was spending on mediocre pizza,” he says. “I started thinking about it and really, there’s not that much that goes into it—flour, salt, water and yeast, and a little bit of time. And you get pizza that’s vastly superior to anything you can buy. It just made more sense.”
And that’s how you wind up going down a rabbit hole as a cook. “It just went from going online, reading what other people are doing, and trying it out. I’ve always been interested in higher hydration doughs. If you get more hydration, you start to create more steam as it bakes. When you’re doing it in a home oven, you have to do it a lot longer, because you’re only baking at 500˚, if you’re lucky. So that allowed me to bake a lot longer without it coming out super-dry. And it’s the same thing here, where I can do about an eight minute bake at around 650˚.”
At Pizzeria Bebu, Lutzow does a 48-hour retard on the dough, which allows the glutens and the flavors to develop. “We mix it, take it out, immediately dough-ball it, and then it sits in the cooler for about two days before we use it.”
“It was the one staff meal I knew that I could consistently do and it wouldn’t be terrible,” he says. “When I started at Publican, staff meal was traditionally done by whoever worked the oyster station. Which meant you had to set up that station, work it all night, and you also had to put up two staff meals and feed people enough to actually make them happy. So it turned into more of a challenge, really, because how do you fire off twenty pizzas in a half hour, and feed everybody and still have time to open for dinner service?”
Finally, the day came that he made pizza for Zach Smith. “I made pizza for him at Nico, and he was like, you could totally build [a business] out of this. And I was like, yeah, okay, whatever.”
But Smith was serious about opening a place in the New City area. “I’ve lived in the neighborhood for almost 10 years. It has great restaurants like Alinea and Boka, but I saw a niche in the neighborhood for a family place, a neighborhood place. I found a great space—I didn’t want to have too big of a restaurant for my first one. It’s a long room, you can see everything.”
Lutzow was just doing his job at Nico, not giving much thought to Smith floating the idea of a pizza place built on his crust recipe. “And then a little bit later he was like, no, it’s actually going to happen,” he says, still looking a little surprised that it actually did. “Okay, cool. Let’s do it.”
“I GREW UP GOING TO VITO & NICK’S from Clark and Belmont,” Smith says. That’s almost 20 miles, and almost certainly at least an hour, each way for pizza. But his dad had grown up on the south side, and for him, great pizza was worth it. “There was always this adventure, and comfort, and sharing between people about pizza.”
Working in Chicago and around the country, he tried pizza all over, and he sees Lutzow’s crust, hand tossed and with a rolled up edge, as combining the best of many different styles. “It takes a little bit from many schools of thought on pizza, whether it’s a crispy New Haven pizza, or a New York slice, even a little Neapolitan. It was important to us that it be crispier than Neapolitan, and not wet. It has both crisp and chew.”
Pizza is, to him, the quintessential Chicago food. “No matter how fancy we get, we’re still working class people. I’ve lived in New York, I’ve lived in Colorado, there’s something great about the midwestern culture. So even though this isn’t Chicago pizza, it’s very Chicago in spirit, big bold flavor, a no-nonsense approach.” The name brings a little whimsy to it—it comes from a Sandra Boynton board book, in which a baby hippo talks about his Bee Bo—his belly button. Smith’s toddler nephew called it his Bee Bu, and so Pizzeria Bebu was named.
I ask them if any of the specific pizzas at Pizzeria Bebu had their origins in family meal. “Well, the ramp and romesco was a classic side dish that we used to serve at Publican during spring,” Lutzow says. “I just put it on a pizza—it’s good, and I feel like the flavors balance each other out, the sharp onion-garlic flavor and the sweeter romesco brings it together.”
Another one that came out of Lutzow’s home experiments was the clam pizza, an East Coast favorite little known in the midwest. “When I was making them at home, I would always make a clam pizza. The only difference was that I would add bacon,” he says. “Zach was very, ‘Are you sure you want to make a clam pizza? I’ve never had a clam pizza that was actually that good.’ And I was just, wait until you try it—”
“He made it,” Zach jumps in, “and I apologized for doubting it.”
“I’ll change anything else,” Lutzow says, “but the clam pizza stays.”
As the ramp pizza suggests, they plan on a certain amount of seasonality to the pizzas, using whatever’s in the markets from spring to fall; in the off-season, they plan on bringing in other flavors, like an Indian-spiced pizza with lamb. I ask if that’s gone over with the neighborhood, and Smith says it has. “It feels really nice to have been slowly sniffed out by the neighborhood. We’re okay now,” he says. (They opened in February.) They don’t deliver, but they’re about to get the street in front designated as a place to stop and pick up, a necessity in a neighborhood where free parking close by is a rarity.