Bite Cafe closes af­ter 28 years to make way for pizze­ria

Chicago Sun-Times - - TASTE - BY ASHOK SELVAM Eater Chicago Orig­i­nally pub­lished on

For 28 years, Bite Cafe was the ideal ca­sual com­pan­ion to Empty Bot­tle, the leg­endary Ukrainian Vil­lage con­cert venue. The restau­rant pushed the bound­aries of a tra­di­tional diner with food more am­bi­tious than what cus­tomers would ex­pect from a typ­i­cal greasy spoon. This was all done while giv­ing the neigh­bor­hood a place to hang out, a chill spot to meet up be­fore a show at the Bot­tle.

No one is sure when live mu­sic will re­turn to Chicago in the age of the novel coro­n­avirus. Health ex­perts are en­cour­ag­ing out­door din­ing ver­sus din­ing rooms, and if folks want to dine in­doors, doc­tors are say­ing that they should limit their time. Diner cul­ture, where friends spend hours to­gether sip­ping cof­fee and eat­ing ba­con, is wan­ing. Bite Cafe, closed since mid-March with­out car­ry­out, was at a cross­roads.

Bruce Finkel­man, the owner of Empty Bot­tle and Bite Cafe — both fall un­der his 16” on Cen­ter um­brella (Thalia Hall, Re­vival Food Hall)— fig­ured it was time for a change. Pizze­rias do well with car­ry­out and de­liv­ery, so he be­gan mak­ing plans to switch op­er­a­tions. Late this summer, Bite Cafe will be­come Pizza Friendly Pizza. The name’s a riff on the say­ing on the Empty Bot­tle’s brown awning: “Mu­sic Friendly Danc­ing.”

Finkel­man’s brought in a heavy gun to cre­ate the pizza for the restau­rant. Noah San­doval is the chef be­hind Ori­ole, the Miche­lin-starred restau­rant in the West Loop. Ori­ole, a fine din­ing tast­ing menu restau­rant, neigh­bors 16” on Cen­ter’s MONEYGUN/Saint Lou’s As­sem­bly. So Finkel­man and San­doval know each other, and ex­change texts about mu­sic. San­doval is from Rich­mond, Vir­ginia and is heav­ily in­flu­enced by the D.C. mu­sic scene. The na­tion’s cap­i­tal has a fa­mous hard­core punk scene with bands like Fugazi and Shud­der to Think. San­doval was set to see another D.C. band, the Make-Up. But the March 7 show at the Bot­tle was can­celled. While lament­ing the can­cel­la­tion, San­doval and Finkel­man hatched plans for the pizze­ria.

Un­like Ori­ole’s fancy plates, San­doval en­vi­sions Pizza Friendly Pizza’s pies to be sim­ple, us­ing fresh in­gre­di­ents. Pies will be square-cut and Si­cil­ian style. San­doval doesn’t want to com­pro­mise qual­ity.

“I don’t want to put out an OK Si­cil­ian pizza. I can’t do that,” he says. “I can’t put out an OK tast­ing menu. I can’t do that.”

San­doval says he’s been talk­ing with some of the world’s best pizza mak­ers and get­ting their help while per­fect­ing his recipes. The pizza com­mu­nity has been very open, San­doval says: Some chefs are very guarded about their recipes, they won’t even di­vulge what goes in their vinai­grettes. They’ll also have a some se­lec­tion of sand­wiches.

D.C. punk rock hero Ian Mack­aye founded Dischord Records and also played in Fugazi and Mi­nor Threat. Mack­aye is fa­mously ve­gan. Bite Cafe of­fered a va­ri­ety of meat-free dishes well be­fore Chicago’s restau­rants re­al­ized ve­g­ans and veg­e­tar­i­ans needed more than a to­ken pasta op­tion. Pizza Friendly Pizza will have meat-free slices and full pies.

Bite was a part of the com­mu­nity, and Finkel­man says he wants the pizze­ria to con­tinue to fill that need for an in­clu­sive and af­ford­able restau­rant. Mu­sic is still the tie that binds. . Pizza Friendly Pizza, 1038 N. West­ern Av­enue, planned for a summer open­ing.


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