Brendan Sodikoff is the man with the golden touch. The owner of Hogsalt Hospitality fed Chicago’s modern doughnut revolution with Doughnut Vault. He reinvented the Chicago steakhouse at Bavette’s. He dolled up the old-school diner at Au Cheval and built a better noodle bowl at High Five Ramen. The silky smoked chicken leg served at Green Street Smoked Meats, his glittery warehouse barbecue joint in the West Loop, is one of the very best things I ate this year. Given his track record, the fantasies of what magic he might conjure when he finally set his sights on pizza were almost unfathomable. With the launch of Roxie’s by the Slice in Wicker Park last month, I no longer had to imagine.
The scene: The interior of Roxie’s looks like a Jersey pizza parlor, a speakeasy, a bodega and a metalworking warehouse all got swept up into a big tornado, with the best parts of each landing carefully curated on a triangle-shaped patch of asphalt in Wicker Park. Which is to say, like most of the Hogsalt restaurants, it draws on established conventions to form a whole that, while not attributable to a singular style or era, somehow manages to be familiar, comforting and inspiring. Tiny lamps strewn about the place, bulbous tabletop candle holders filled with flickering LEDs and wooden chairs with bent wood backs are vintage pizza-parlor kitsch. The Virgin Mary candle in the corner looks like it was ripped off from the narthex of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The wall-mounted shelves holding restaurant supplies such as canned tomatoes, trays of deli paper and bags of flour were charming, until my eyes landed on a multi-pack of Pam cooking spray. Unlike cans of imported Italian tomatoes, Pam is never sexy and a little too real to ever really be cool. WTF, cooking spray? On the other hand, an old-school Frigidaire holding a smattering of drinks including blood orange soda and Mexican Coke ($3 for each) is as cool as it gets. Sodikoff found the fridge in a local Craiglist ad. “I don’t think anyone knows to fix [it] if it breaks, so [it] may be short-lived, but who knows. Must be 50 years old and still running, so [it] could outlive us all,” Sodikoff said.
The crust: The dough, which is hand-turned and slow-fermented over 24 hours, is as curated as the atmosphere. The goal here is a crisp bottom and a chewy, puffy edge, which is achieved when the dough is baked off in the restaurant’s stone hearth-bottomed deck ovens. Cheese pies are baked once ahead of time and then baked again after toppings are added to order. The second bake creates a superb and universal crispness; there is none of that Sbarro-like slice saggery going on here. While the size of the slices are inspired by the foldable ones you might find in Brooklyn or the Bronx, Sodikoff’s goal was to create a pizza crust characteristic of “the great pizza shops worldwide.” The very best pizza crusts are full of airy bubbles, have a satisfying chew and are reminiscent of artisan-baked bread; the crust at Roxie’s is halfway there. It’s solid and the edge has a lot of those characteristics, but that crisp underbelly is almost too crisp and similar to a well-baked franchise pie.
The sauce: There are two choices of sauce, red or white. The red sauce features milled tomatoes, garlic, basil, chili, salt and a few other seasonings. It adds nice acidity to the slice, but it also gets a little lost amid the dough, cheese and toppings. I felt both of the red sauce-topped slices I tried could have used a touch more sauce. And, except for an overt garlickiness, I would have sworn the white sauce (made with parmesan, garlic, chili, cream and ricotta) wasn’t there at all on another slice I tried. I took a series of slow, careful bites and tried to parse an extra creaminess under the cheese and toppings, but it tasted like it had all baked away.
The toppings: These slices are huge. One will probably fill you up; two will for sure if you’re especially hungry. Slices start at $4.50 for cheese, while extra toppings are $1 extra apiece. The toppings list is short: pepperoni, prosciutto, sweet peppers, arugula, mushrooms, anchovies, soppressata and olives. Your best bet is to add no more than one or two toppings, as each of the individual ingredients are strong on their own. The button mushrooms are rendered down into inky black half moons that are seasoned with fruity olive oil and woodsy thyme. The pepperoni is thick and spicy and reminds me of the great pepperoni I once had at the legendary Di Fara Pizza in Midwood, Brooklyn. The salty, garlicky delicate pink curls of soppressata are sliced to order on a vintage-looking (it’s new) hand-cranked manual slicer. The very best ingredient is a spicy, tangy sweet cherry pepper that pairs well with the soppressata and lightens the otherwise rich pizza.
The bottom line: The pizza is exactly what Sodikoff told me he was going for: “I love that we’re not shooting for culinary individuality or some gastronomic statement,” he said. “This spot is about a good slice of pizza made and served by good people. Opening this is saying that a commitment to simplicity is a good thing.” That said, it’s a very good slice served in a great room to wind down a night of debauchery. If I was drinking in Wicker Park or Bucktown and I did not want a Big Star taco or a Flash Taco burrito at the end of the night, I’d definitely reach for a slice of Roxie’s (open 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Tuesday-Saturday). On the other hand, I don’t find myself craving Roxie’s slices in the way that I do the caramelized cheese-crusted Pequod’s pizzas or artisan-style crusts at Spacca Napoli. If I’m planning ahead for my pizza, I’m going to those spots because those pies stir my soul in a way that Roxie’s just doesn’t.
Pizza review: Roxie’s by the Slice
1732 N. Milwaukee Ave. 773-987-6543