I felt sad about the crusts. Four of us ordered three pizzas at Bungalow, the brewpub recently opened by the formerly nomadic Middle Brow Beer Company. By the time we'd hit the wall, they sat discarded in front of us like a pile of firewood—if firewood was chewy and toasty with a dark, tangy interior structure that embodies the life-affirming powers of good bread.
They were too good to waste. As we drained our last round it was decided the crusts were going home. That was until a server deposited a dish of marinara on the table, and another packed with cheeselike cultured butter. It was as if we hadn't just crushed two-thirds of the menu, food and drink. Another round of cider was ordered, and we fell on the crusts like dogs.
Nothing kicks awake the slumbering inner bromand like the promise of pizza and beer. It was probably on the menu at your first unchaperoned party, offering your first taste of freedom with bad decisions—a pairing you've probably chased ever since.
You might find it again at Bungalow, an airy, naturally lit space in a former camera shop, with shelves of dark bread by the door, a counter facing a blazing 675-degree PizzaMaster oven, and tables and chairs set under a looming pyramid of 300-gallon foeders—the oak wood barrels that will age and ferment some of the brewery's experiments.
The pizza comes from Jess Galli, a baker returned to Chicago from San Francisco's The Mill and Josey Baker Bread, and chef-about-town Mickey Neely (Scofflaw, the Moonlighter, Dusek's, Longman & Eagle), who recruited Galli in the days when he and Middle Brow cofounder Pete Ternes were first plotting the direction the brewery's food would take.
Galli makes her pizza crust sound like a happy accident: "I didn't know what I was doing," she says when she developed the recipe. It's built on 75 percent stone-ground red wheat flour from Wisconsin, activated with a sourdough starter, and fermented for four days before it's tossed into pies and baked in the oven. She's used to working with that kind of whole-grain flour—it was the refined 00 pizza flour that threw her. In the days since I've last eaten these pizzas, I haven't thought much about anything else but the tanginess that's infused in their fluffy crumb.
They come out of the oven with blistered, highly risen crusts ringing a gradually softening, somewhat Neapolitan center. Neely is responsible for what goes on top. At the moment he's making the most of the end of the winter's squash, pureeing roasted butternut bottoms and toasted seeds with a bit of mirin, the understory for arugula, mozzarella, and orange-squash shavings that are tiled on top with an intensely herbal sage salsa verde. He purees thyme-roasted cremini mushrooms with cream for a saucy, salty bottom for fontina, caramelized onions, and oyster mushrooms. Even the standard margherita has an assertive herbal aromatic punch to match these robust pies, with the scent of minced basil riding noseward on its ambient heat. There's a vegan pie with potatoes and herbs and one bearing housemade sausage and castelvetrano olives, but the current lineup will change with the seasons.
Neely also provides some vegetable balance with a couple of salads, including a dark mountain of red oak leaf lettuce, cara cara orange, and fennel under a snowy shower of rasped parmesan; and a surprisingly colorful take on the normally murky Egyptian fava mash ful, featuring green legumes that have been pureed, bedecked with slices of purple beet-pickled eggs, crisp candy-striped chioggia beets, and ruby-red carrots.
He's also pickled the vegetables and whipped the fluffy mortadella that accompany the table bread. Who pays $12 for bread service at a pizza joint? You're a fool if you don't. Galli's dark country bread has a slightly moist, almost cakey, sour interior that compels you to tear it to pieces and force it into your mouth as if a meaner inmate might snatch it away from you.
The pizza is available at lunch and dinner but it's in the morning when this bread takes the stage, toasted and topped with cinnamon, sugar, and grains of paradise, or smeared with housemade ricotta and prickly pear jelly. Galli's other breads are featured here too: toasted whole grain blanketed with things like pecan butter or turmeric milk jam; sprouted German rye with herbed cream cheese. As she did at her previous job, Galli is using local, non-GMO bread flour, most of it from Wisconsin's Lonesome Stone Mill, which collects and mills grains from a variety of small farmers. The spreads are nice but the best way to approach these extraordinary loaves is also the simplest: slathered with the the funky butter Neely cultures from buttermilk reserved from his previous batch. (To sample what else Galli and Neely can come up with, check out the monthly morning ambient music series Deep Breakfast at Sleeping Village).
There's coffee to go with your toast in the morning, but the rest of the day is given to Middle Brow's beers (and a few guest taps). Middle Brow is frequently described in the beer press as an "experimental" brewery. At the moment, that's reflected in a well-rounded curation of styles, from its signature Bungalow lager, to Robyn, a citrusy saison; the spicy Belgian-style White Light; and a funky, only slightly acidic, wild-yeast-fermented spelt beer, Check the Charts. This last one will remind you that this brewpub is a happy convergence of carbohydrates that, after a few rounds, will move you to fuck it all and wantonly push butter-smeared crusts into your mouthole, long after reason tells you to stop. v