I was talking to Jim Graziano, of the wonderful J.P. Graziano Italian grocery on Randolph Street, about the changes in the old wholesalers' district turned hot restaurant row, and he made the observation that there's kind of nothing to do there besides have a really fancy meal. (His own solution is to eventually have a little gelato window on his business for people walking around.) I've thought about that too: when people get on the waiting list for, say, breakfast at Little Goat, where do they go to kill 45 minutes in that area?
It's a great area to go have a 12-course tasting menu, but I'm not sure it's accommodating to many other forms of street life.
Well, two recent openings across the street from each other on Green (just a few doors south from Randolph proper) suggest that the area is finding its way toward a more normal and diverse nightlife. I attended PR events at both one night last week, and it turns out that the story of how the neighborhood is changing is embedded in the tale of two Neapolitan pizza joints, each of which embodies not just a style of pizza, but an entire lifestyle.
A decade or so ago, before Spacca Napoli hit town and started a pizza revolution, one of the closest things to Neapolitan pizza you could find here was at Follia, a chic Italian restaurant in what's now the Next space. How common has it become since then? Enough that there are now three within a single block. At Randolph and Green you have rock 'n' roll-decadence-themed Nellcôte, and at the Washington end of the same block, past Green Street Smoked Meats, you now have Parlor Pizza Bar, from the Stout Barrel House team, which opened Friday.
A former auto-body shop and its parking lot have been converted into a new building that looks old, containing a sports bar and patio with dozens of flatscreen TVs and, it seems at first glance, nearly as many glowing concrete wood-burning pizza ovens. One is dedicated entirely to carry out by the front entrance; two more stand against the back wall of the main room and, next spring or so, a fourth will inaugurate the rooftop patio. Next to them stands an Italian dough mixer which mimics the movements of a human kneading dough; you expect it to have white-gloved hands, like a device in a Disney cartoon. And it has an army of mostly Mexican pizza makers, all of whom looked slightly confused the night before opening, and all of whom will look like experts two weeks from now.
I spoke with chef Colin Beauvais about the pizza. In a lot of ways they follow the classic recipe for Neapolitan pie—they use finely refined 00 flour, retard the dough for at least 24 hours, and can bake a pizza in about two and a half minutes. But there are also some differences in their technique—they add some beer (Goose Island Sofie, to be precise) for flavor and also, he said, to be able to say they use a local ingredient. And they add a little olive oil to the dough, which has the effect, along with the oven time (a little long for Neapolitan style, which can be as little as 90 seconds), of making a pizza with a harder bottom crust. While there are some wacky combinations with punny names on the menu, item number two could hardly be a more typical example of Margherita toppings, but the oil in the crust (which in effect fries itself a little) definitely produces something crispier than the fluffy, chewy Neapolitan crust. Their belief is that this is what their audience wants, not a classic Neapolitan with a soft bottom and wet center.
They may be right: Parlor is, first and foremost, a sports bar. That may seem a little pedestrian so close to cutting-edge-concepty Randolph Street, but it's also probably just the normal, don't-have-to-think-too-hard-to-have-a-good-time place that a neighborhood needs at least one or two of. (Admittedly, there's only about a hundred more of them once you get a few blocks closer to the United Center.) Even Randolph Street Man cannot live on pig face and hipster ramen alone; sometimes he needs pizza, beer, and a Bulls game.
If Parlor Pizza Bar brings Randolph Street the familiar comforts of Lincoln Park, Soho House, almost exactly across the street on Green, seems like a completely different type of iconic imagery brought to three-dimensional life—I've never been somewhere that felt so much like a living fashion spread. A lobby perfectly capturing chicly derelict hipness was filled with beautiful people sitting at tables lit with actual candles. I had snarky doubts about Soho House when I reported on the announcement two years ago for another publication, finding the idea of an exclusive club aimed at creative professionals silly and the food choices (pizza and chicken) surprisingly lowbrow for the Randolph Street area, but I take it all back. Ten seconds into walking through the space, I understood it—and it's brilliant.
Basically, it's built on a fundamental observation about the world in the 21st century, which is that there are an awful lot of people doing their work in public, specifically at Starbucks. But Starbucks is basically just a plusher McDonald's. So Soho House gives you a much, much hipper place to sit with your MacBook and do whatever WiFi-based internet start-uppy thing you do. The $2,000 it costs to join isn't really that much for a place with a fitness club and the like if you're a frequent business traveler—several nights in equally hip hotels, basically—and need a home base with Internet access in cities from London to Mumbai. It'll be worth it for a lot of people. But you don't even need to shell that out; anyone can hang out in the lobby and just stay fueled with coffee, drinks, or some fancy-looking nosh, or go up the stairs and eat.
Upstairs there are two restaurants, each run, it turns out, by one of two brothers who came over from the London Soho House. Chicken Shop has sort of Latin-spiced rotisserie chicken and southernish sides, while Pizza East (the name comes from London—you don't have to puzzle out what it's east of) does what was described as being sort of like Neapolitan pizza, although at various points I also heard that it was supposed to be a "German sourdough" recipe, but that the brothers thought the Italian-style flour they got here was actually better than the German flour they use in London, and that it was, somehow, a "ciabatta" crust.
I have no idea what's supposed to be ciabatta-like about it, but it's pretty close to a regulation Neapolitan crust, save for a sprinkling of some seeds around the edge. Besides pizza, they also have an assortment of other Italian foods to nibble on, like meatballs, fried zucchini, and burrata.
The public area stops there; the rest of the building, including another dining area on the fifth floor, not to mention a gym and a posh screening room, is members only. Again, you can question whether such amenities are worth the price, but within 24 hours I'd talked to two different people who volunteered that they'd ponied up just to have a convenient place to work and network in the area, and one said she'd already gotten work just by being visible to people in her industry in the lobby. I have seen the future of office work, and it comes with pizza and chicken.