Chef Matt Wilde set out to create a new kind of pizza, but the neighborhood connection was unintentional
To be clear: There is no Bob at Bob’s Pizza. The chef’s name is Matt Wilde. And he never intended to make “Pilsen-style pizza.” It was just that, back in 2019, he found himself running a pizza restaurant that happened to be in Pilsen. Neither “Matt’s Pizza” nor “Matt Wilde-style pizza” sounded as good. At least in Wilde’s opinion.
But now that Bob’s Pizza has opened its fourth location in three years, a small slice-and-pie operation inside the Fulton Market bar Recess, Pilsen-style pizza has become its calling card.
A Pilsen-style pizza has triangular slices. Its crust is somewhere between New York and Neapolitan, crisp on the outside and airy in the middle and fortified by a cold ferment period of three or four days, aided by Old Style beer. There is a single modest layer of cheese, a custom blend of Swiss, Parmesan, and mozzarella. Nothing about it is particularly characteristic of Pilsen, formerly an enclave of Czech immigrants and now thoroughly and proudly Mexican. If Bob’s had opened in, say, Bronzeville or Sauganash, it would have been Bronzeville- or Sauganash-style pizza instead.
Wilde never intended to become a pizza chef. He’d trained in fine dining in the Twin Cities where he grew, though his first job in Chicago was at Joy District, the multistory bar and nightclub in River North. Through contacts in the city’s food community, he met Jeremiah Johnson, an architect and restaurant designer who had just lost a tenant in a building he owned on 21st Street in Pilsen, a branch of Gino’s East that hadn’t had much success in the neighborhood. Johnson felt it made financial sense to replace it with another pizza restaurant.
At first Wilde was reluctant. He had never made pizza before. He considered it “a pedestrian concept,” like burgers or hot dogs. He finally agreed to take on the job, after what he describes as much hemming and hawing, on the condition that he would have the freedom to make his own kind of pizza.
“I wanted to do something different,” he says. “Not Chicago-style, not New York-style, not New Haven. Not wood or coal fire. It had to have integrity. It had to be something special.”
Wilde experimented for nearly a year with different combinations of crust, cheese, and sauce. He’d heard of breweries that used beer or spent grain to ferment their pizza dough; once he started playing around, he decided he liked what the carbonation did to the texture. He tried many different beers, but finally settled on Old Style not because it was cheap, but because he wanted an American lager with a “beer” flavor, not the hoppy and more nuanced notes of craft beer. As a final touch, each pizza would receive a sprinkle of sea salt, cracked pepper, and fresh herbs as it came out of the oven.
His signature pie, the pickle pizza, however, came quickly. Wilde wanted something that was unavailable anywhere else in Chicago — a tall order in a city with such a large and varied pizza scene. Through Google, he learned that pickle pizza was a thing in New York. “I like pickles,” he says, “so I started playing around.” His first attempt was a base of garlic cream, followed by a layer of mortadella, a light dusting of cheese, and finally the pickles, laid out like slices of pepperoni. When it came out of the oven, it got a garnish of fresh dill. “It kind of hit me,” he says. “It was like, what did I just do? It was really good.”
Bob’s opened quietly in March 2019 with little advertising beyond a sign. Pilsen has been slowly gentrifying over the past decade — several upscale non-Mexican restaurants have opened on the main 18th Street strip in recent years, including HaiSous and S.K.Y. — and longtime residents are wary of outsiders, particularly those who claim to serve “Pilsen-style pizza.” Neighbors told Wilde that the Gino’s had failed because ownership had made ham-handed efforts to pander to what it considered local tastes: chorizo and poblanos. Pilsen has plenty of taquerias and tamale carts, they told Wilde; what they wanted was pepperoni and sausage. Wilde’s business partner Johnson, who had lived in the neighborhood for 20 years, advised him to take care of the customers and let the pizza speak for itself.
Wilde made sure he was at Bob’s every day and made a point of serving the customers personally, which wasn’t hard because the restaurant has only six tables. Because it was slightly off the beaten track, in a residential area four blocks from 18th Street, the first people who came in actually lived nearby, and weren’t tourists from other neighborhoods. News of Bob’s spread through word-of-mouth; the restaurant didn’t receive its first media review until nearly a year after opening when the Infatuation paid a visit and then began to feature pictures of Bob’s pies regularly in its Instagram feed and, Wilde says, started a social media campaign to make Pilsen-style pizza an officially recognized style.
“I can’t say enough about how supportive the neighborhood was,” Wilde says. “We wanted to let the neighborhood accept it before we pushed forward. We tried to navigate through gentrification carefully. It’s real and important.”
Since then, though, expansion has happened rapidly: Pizza delivery turned out to be pandemic-proof. A small, takeout-only Old Town location opened in June 2020, followed by a sit-down restaurant and bar in Evanston in March 2021, and Fulton Market earlier this month. Each new location served the same core pizzas and salads, but there are variations based on the size of the kitchen. Evanston, which is the largest, serves burgers and appetizers, while Fulton Market, since it’s located inside another bar, offers slices.
Wilde isn’t sure how much Bob’s will grow. “I told the people involved that if we expand, I want to do it in a way that’s never been done before,” he says. “I want to do it with integrity.” For him, this means maintaining the same quality he had at the beginning. “If you see 100 Bob’s,” he says, “I want all of them to be as great as Pilsen.”
Bob’s Pizza, four locations including 1659 W. 21st Street, open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.