When Pizza Friendly Pizza opened last year in the midst of a pandemic, the Sicilian-style pizza concept spearheaded by chef Noah Sandoval and 16" on Center managing partner Bruce Finkelman was thoroughly a product of the circumstances it was born into. Slices could be ordered and retrieved from a window set up in an alley behind neighboring music venue the Empty Bottle, allowing customers to eat at a handful of outdoor tables or take their orders home with them. Social distancing was encouraged, masks were required while ordering and the indoor dining room (formerly the home of Bite Cafe) was off-limits.
Nearly 16 months after Pizza Friendly Pizza first began slinging slices, the world has changed and the concept is adapting to the times. Diners are back inside of restaurants, the Empty Bottle is hosting shows almost nightly and the weather is getting a bit too cold for lining up to order from a window in an alley. Earlier this month, Pizza Friendly Pizza opened its dining room to guests for the first time, outfitted with tables, chairs, some vintage concert posters and a neon sign.
Sandoval is still steering the ship at Pizza Friendly Pizza, but Orlando, Florida transplant Josh Hoenig is now managing the kitchen from day-to-day and leading the rollout of new menu items. One of the first items he worked on is a traditional round pizza, made with the same dough as Pizza Friendly Pizza's Sicilian slices, but without the overnight proofing that results in an airy crust. Hoenig's pies are thin and crispy, with a bit of Neapolitan-style char from the oven and a chewy outer crust that's perfect for dipping. Currently, you can only snag a round pizza if you pre-order one on Wednesdays, but they may eventually join the regular menu.
"I saw they were hiring and messaged Noah on Instagram, staged the next day and took two weeks to settle my affairs in Florida and find a place to live in Chicago," Hoenig says about his path to Pizza Friendly Pizza. "I'm not a classically-trained chef, but that's why I was really excited to work with Noah. That kind of opportunity comes once in a lifetime."
In addition to thin-crust round pies, Hoenig has also launched a selection of stromboli which are sporadically available for dine-in customers. Stuffed with cheese and topping combos like mushroom miso; pepperoni and jalapeño; or pickled fennel and sausage, they're yet another way to enjoy Pizza Friendly Pizza's signature dough.
According to Finkelman, the menu at Pizza Friendly Pizza will continue to expand alongside the restaurant's hours. Cold cut Italian and chicken parmesan sandwiches that were on the concept's initial menu last summer are set to return as the slice shop begins operating on Mondays and Tuesdays (it's currently open Wednesday through Sunday). Finkelman is also excited about eventually offering brunch at Pizza Friendly Pizza, modeled after the Bite Cafe brunch that could be ordered in-house or at the Empty Bottle's bar next door. Later hours are also on the horizon, allowing attendees at Empty Bottle concerts to grab a slice or two after the headlining band leaves the stage.
"As long as we stay true to what Noah and I started over the pandemic, I think it gives Josh the creative license to go at it and try some stuff," Finkelman says, describing the approach to Pizza Friendly Pizza's evolution. Change is in the air at the Ukrainian Village pizzeria, and it smells like baking dough, melted cheese and crispy pepperoni.