Photo by Chris Kessler
Wading through a sea of couples, parents attempting to soothe fussy toddlers and small armies of hungry locals, we reach the hostess station, where a frazzled-looking person stands before a clipboard. The blasted clipboard. Line after line, name after name. She hands us a beeper and we dive back into the crowd, hoping we’ll resurface somewhere near the bar.
Welcome to Pizza Man. Your wait time is an hour and 15 minutes. Give or take. Most likely, take. The old Pizza Man, that cavernous dive on Oakland and North, this is not. The restaurant – whose roots shoot back to 1970, whose original location was destroyed by fire in 2010 – puts its old 55-seater to shame. After the blaze, coiffed, Hummer-driving founder Mike Amidzich went back and forth on the topic of reopening. There wasn’t much of the physical Pizza Man left, but Amidzich still had the recipes – for the thin- crust pies, ribs, escargot and loaf of onion rings, among others. Hooking up with investors helped. Getting the lease at 2597 N. Downer Ave. – onetime home to Lixx frozen custard – was crucial, too.
A couple of weeks into its summer rebirth, the restaurant was averaging 400 covers on weeknights and 600 on the weekend, the days racing by but memorialized in photos posted on Pizza Man’s Facebook and Twitter accounts (maintained by the Man’s own social media guru). The momentum leading up to the opening was pretty unreal. Twitter followers were treated almost daily to tantalizing messages about the new Pizza Man many months before it opened
(#PizzaManReturns). Messages that chronicled the building’s long renovation – which encompasses the old Lixx, as well as an adjacent storefront and several second-floor apartments – kept interest alive.
It’s worth noting that Rinka-Chung, the local architecture firm that designed the Moderne luxury condos in the Park East Corridor, performed the same job for the Pizza Man palace as well. In the spirit of the old grotto, the entrance to the restaurant was given a heavy door similar to its predecessor. The ground-level bar area uses reclaimed wood from three barns. The surrounding booths were constructed in the same barnwood vein. One physical item was retrieved from the ashes of the fire – the original bar. It’s now positioned on the second floor across from an open-air dining room surrounded by beams and exposed brick. That room leads to some of the best seats in the house – the 72 on the second-floor patio. Over the staircase is a massive chandelier made with scores of colored wine bottles.
Vino. The Pizza Man of yore was recognized by Wine Spectator for its list of (300-plus, at one count) California wines by the glass. Most of the collection was lost as a result of the fire. Amidzich has built it back up to 250-some choices (his estimate), and he plans to stop there because, he says, there isn’t enough storage space for more.
If there’s a sort of dream team behind the new Man, another person warrants mentioning – head chef Zak Baker, who spent a good seven years working in the trenches at Bartolotta Restaurant Group. The attention is a bit overwhelming, Baker acknowledges – when he first saw the lines outside the front door on opening night, he said it looked like “people waiting outside for Rolling Stones tickets.” But he thinks they can do more. At press time, the restaurant hadn’t started accepting carryout orders. The chef was ordering more racks to store the pizza crusts (made ahead of time) because they’d run out of space.
It takes a certain diner (a rabid fan?) to wait two hours for a table at Pizza Man. But the kitchen has been coming through in ways it hadn’t always during the restaurant’s modest incarnation. The menu is three-quarters Old Man, one-quarter New Chef. The French onion soup ($8), baked with a crusty topping of croutons and mozz and Swiss cheeses, will push more comfort buttons as the weather cools off. A loaf of battered onion strings ($7) is like turning a clump of crisp-salty delectable-ness into a little casserole, served with Parmesan dressing for dipping. I like to dip into the old days for my favorite starter – the classic escargot ($11) baked with garlic-parsley butter and served with warm garlic bread.
Despite selections like ribs and veal parmigiana (overcooked and very dry on a recent visit), the nightly orders are “skewing 85-90 percent” pizza, says Baker. No big surprise there. The near-constant passage of bubbling-hot pies through the room is all the advertising you need. Familiar thin-crust creations (12, 14 and 16 inches, $13-$24) like the Artichoke a la Mode (a creamy quilt of cheese, cream cheese, tomatoes and artichoke hearts) meet new inventions such as meatballs, giardiniera, Brussels sprouts and cream cheese. Cream cheese? It’s fantastic. It’s applied in small clumps that hold their shape in the oven. The foundation is the soda cracker-like crust.
Baker spent time working under Juan Urbieta at Ristorante Bartolotta, where pastas are thoughtfully prepared, the noodles al dente and the sauces exacting. He keeps it simple and bright with his bucatini tossed with a slightly spicy tomato, pancetta, onion and Romano cheese sauce ($15). It’s perhaps one-upped by another unassuming dish – the homey rigatoni in a vodka-tomato-cream with sausage and peas ($15). At this writing, Baker hadn’t mastered the old Pizza Man standby, wild boar ravioli, but he swears it is coming. As will carry-out and lunch service, somewhere down the line. These additions are dependent on volume.
A month into opening, the crowds hadn’t waned. They may actually help Downer Avenue’s other pizza joint, VIA, a half-block north. On a recent weeknight, diners who balked at the Man’s wait time walked to VIA, putting their wait list in effect. Mike Amidzich, wearing the perma-grin that the fire of three years ago had wiped away, couldn’t be happier. “It’s like giving a kid an electric train,” he says. Or, in current speak, an Xbox 360.