What do you get when you cross math references, an art gallery and wood-fired Neapolitan pizza? A place called Pi Gallery Bar in River North. Rising from the ashes of the now-defunct Gallery Bar, general manager Nick Martaus, beverage director Colin Haley and chef Donna Allers have teamed up to create a craft pizza- and cocktail-focused lounge. “Colin was here the whole time. I came in toward the end of Gallery Bar and Donna was a patron here and we struck up a conversation,” Martaus said. “I saw this opportunity to streamline things, to move the focus away from street food and small plates and create something that was fun and not pretentious,” Martaus said
The scene: Located on the second floor up a graffiti-painted stairwell, Pi has a secret, almost speakeasy-like feel. “Some people like to say they have an underground spot,” Haley said. “I guess that makes us an overground lounge.” The upstairs dining area has been transformed from the old graffiti-coated Gallery Bar space with the addition of a flickering wood-fired oven and a burnished reddish-orange coat of paint. The tabletops are handmade from cast resin by Martaus, who is also an artist; he used paint and compressed air to create swirling shapes and grids on the table surfaces. The gallery aspect remains, but Martaus says much of the art is changed from the old space. There is an attention-grabbing painting of a woman dropping her jeans to reveal the top of a thong. “I don’t want to speak too much for the artist, but she’s big in the LGBT community and she loves the female form,” Martaus said. “We knew it might be risque, but I’m always interested in things that create a dialogue.” When I visited, the crowd was light. I expect the second-floor location makes it tough for people to find; I also suspect as word spreads about the pizza, the crowd will build.
The crust: The pies here are a great example of what Neapolitan pizza should be: charred, blistered, puffy at the edges, crispy in the middle and smoky from the oak-burning oven. The dough is made from a combination of double-zero and high-gluten bread flour. The finely milled double-zero flour lays the groundwork for a thin and crispy base, while the bread flour helps create a satisfying chew.
The sauce: Even at the best pizza joints in Chicago, the sauce is still sometimes the weakest link. It’s often a simple mix of unseasoned crushed tomatoes, or it gets lost amidst a bevy of ingredients. At Pi, the red sauce is fiery, thick, well-seasoned and lustrous. Allers said she roasts San Marzano tomatoes in the oven “to pick up a little of that wood smoke and concentrate the flavor,” before mixing them with a blend of herbs, red chili flake and tomato puree. Allers also makes an awesome barbecue sauce with molasses, chipotle and a hint of soy sauce that’s a great alternative to all the cloying, artificial-tasting barbecue sauces you find on so many barbecue pizzas around town. There is also a cream sauce, which is subtle but blends nicely with the cheeses to create a rich base for a couple of the specialty pies on the menu.
The toppings: The basic margherita, aka The Wizard of Mozz ($15), features that spectacular red sauce, hand-torn basil leaves and fresh mozzarella. Allers’ decision to slice fresh tomato on top of the pizza is smart; it doubles the tomato flavor and adds a contrasting, almost meaty texture that sets it apart from your average margherita pie. She also uses the barbecue sauce as a base not for ubiquitous chicken, but for melting cubes of luscious pork belly in the Notorious P.I.G. pie ($18). “In the mornings, the wood-burning oven has some residual heat. It’s the perfect temperature for braising pork belly, so we cook it in there for a couple hours to pick up some of the wood smoke,” she said. There’s also sweet diced apple, red onion and a sharp blend of goat and ricotta cheese that echoes the delicious funk that emanates from pork belly to round out the pizza. The best combo, however, is the Oh, Dawn-a, a breakfast pizza ($17) smothered with cream sauce, sausage, gouda, fontina, crispy hash browns and a fried egg. It’s a hangover helper of the finest proportions, the glorious kind of accident that might happen if a Waffle House exploded and landed on Spacca Napoli. Even here, Allers’ makes another nice move by tossing on some roasted red pepper that has an acidity and sweetness that cuts through all the heavy cheese, potato and cream. Of the pie, Allers said, “Forever, people have been singing that Ritchie Valens song [‘Donna,’] and I had this idea for a breakfast pizza, so we changed the spelling up to reflect the morning theme.” The pies are cut into eight slices and are about 13 inches in circumference. Because they’re thin-crust, you’ll likely want a couple of pies for a party of two if you’re really hungry (and you’ll have some leftovers).
Other stuff: In addition to the pizza, there’s small selection of appetizers and salads with music-lyric inspired names such as, “So Fresh and So Green … Green.” As a Beastie Boys fan, I ordered up the “Let the Beet … mmm … DROP” ($9), a mix of spinach, goat cheese, charred yellow beets, ricotta and candied walnuts dressed with walnut vinaigrette. Not having the vocal chops of Adrock, MCA and Mike D, I sheepishly asked for “beet salad” instead of using the proper name. It was a little soggy and overdressed, but the candied walnuts were addictive. I searched through the piles of greens for the walnuts in the same way I rifle for the sweet peanuts in a box of Cracker Jack.
The drinks: The cocktail and beer lists are pretty solid. I especially dug a blood orange-flavored gose (a German-style unfiltered wheat beer) from Anderson Valley Brewing Company ($7). It was super sour and literally made me salivate for the pizzas to arrive. “I love sour beers,” said Martaus. “We want a dedicated tap line for them, because I don’t want that sour beer flavor transgressing into other beers.” Beverage director Haley oversees an inventive list of cocktails, including The Bourbon Babe ($15) featuring Prichard’s Double Chocolate Bourbon, housemade maple-black pepper syrup, plum bitters and a skewer of candied pork belly that was inspired by Vosges Haut Chocolat’s much-loved bacon chocolate bar. The whiskey had a cocoa nose and maple notes, which blended well with the spicy maple syrup, but I had a hard time picking out any plum flavor. The pork belly added a nice, smoky whiff before drinking.
The bottom line: Pi Gallery Bar succeeds at being the unpretentious cocktail and pizza experience its partners envisioned. With the art and handcrafted decor, it feels a bit like a funky coffee house, but one devoid of bearded dudes with thick glasses pontificating. Yeah, it’s got a weird name and an odd location, but it’s worth seeking out for the undeniably great pizza and solid drink list.
Pizza review: Pi Gallery Bar
738 N. Clark St., 2nd floor 312-285-2712