Professor Pizza Will Replace Roots in Old Town

Must read

The pizza game isn’t easy in Old Town, a neighborhood with a sizable number of transplants without any ties to Chicago’s pizza lore. This has allowed chains like Papa John’s and Domino’s to thrive in a town with plenty of local options.

With its unique Quad Cities thin crusts and special chef approved-toppings, Roots Handmade Pizza, 1610 N. Wells Street, entered the neighborhood in September 2019, and months into its debut the state’s COVID restrictions quickly altered operations: “We opened at a terrible time,” Fifty/50 Restaurant Group co-founder Greg Mohr says.

Adobo Grill was the previous tenant and relocated around the corner after a 2015 fire. Longtime Chicagoans may remember the Victorian home built in 1872. Its most famous tenant was That Steak Joynt, a restaurant that opened in 1962 and closed in 1997. The second floor was supposedly home to numerous seances with folks believing the space to be haunted. The building’s history includes surviving the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

But after four years, Roots didn’t click as much as Mohr and co-founder Scott Weiner wanted. Fifty/50 is also involved as the food and beverage provider for Second City, whose legendary comedy theater is next door. They needed to try something new, and that’s how Anthony Scardino got involved. Scardino is a veteran Chicago pizzaiolo known as Professor Pizza.

Sometime in March, Fifty/50 will close Roots Old Town. Fans of Quad Cities Pizza will still be able to get their fix of the thin pies that Mohr grew up eating (they’re cut into strips with puffy edges and a malty crust) at Roots Printer’s Row and the original in West Town. Scardino, who since 2023 has been operating out of Tetto, a rooftop bar in West Loop, will take over. Yes, Professor Pizza is now a full-blown restaurant.

“I think this is the most incremental pizza story in Chicago — we’re finally opening a brick and mortar,” says Scardino.

While crews spruce up the space, Professor Pizza will launch with carryout and delivery. The plan is to open the new restaurant in late April. Mohr reiterated that while the space doesn’t need a major renovation — the space won’t be closed to the public for a long duration — Morh doesn’t want folks to feel the only difference between Roots and the new restaurant is the menu: “The goal is to make sure this place, this space, is transformed into Professor Pizza — it’s his concept, his vision.”

The exterior of Roots Pizza.
Roots Old Town opened in 2019.
Barry Brecheisen/Eater Chicago

Having worked for Paulie Gee’s in Logan Square and Dough Bros. in River North, Scardino is proud of his pizzas. He’s a familiar figure on the pizza festival circuit, not that 2024 will necessarily be fruitful in that aspect. He’s been more interested in finding the right situation and partners to open a restaurant. His story is similar to Henry Cai’s at 3 Little Pigs (the two are friends and worked out of the same Humboldt Park ghost kitchen). Both pop-up shops have gone through multiple locations and flirted with signing leases. Cai continues to work from Molly’s Cupcakes’ kitchen in the South Loop.

Scardino is excited to show Chicagoans what he can do beyond pizza. He says the menu at Tetto is a “truncated version of where our passions truly lie and what we feel we can truly represent from a culinary standpoint.” They’re moving from a kitchen as big as a closet to a “dream kitchen.” The menu will be built out with pastas, sandwiches, and appetizers. Scardino isn’t ready to share details, but he’s excited. As a proud Italian American, he’s got several ideas.

For fans of Roots, cover your eyes — the pizzeria’s famed cheese sticks aren’t making the cut. Professor Pizza wants to be a truly different experience thanks to Scardino’s curiosity and research of various pizza styles from Chicago thin, New York, Detroit, and Grandma style. Part of the fun will be working with Fifty/50’s pastry chef Chris Texiera. The two speak the same language when it comes to bread and the fermentation process. The two are open to experimenting with doughs, which can provide delicious results. Scardino has already been experimenting with dough from deep-dish titan Gino’s East, using it for a special pizza made in a cast iron pan. Having a stable location will allow Scardino to offer more collaborations.

But back to the cheese sticks, Scardino says he has something brewing: “I have something on the menu that pays homage to them for sure,” he says.

Profesor Pizza will continue carry out and delivery out of the West Loop until further notice, he says. They’ll also have at least one more summer season outside at Tetto. He’s still evaluating his options.

Upstairs, Fifty/50’s rooftop bar — Utopian Tailgate — has been hibernating for the winter. The menus will remain separate. But the bigger news is a possible collaboration with Second City. Comedy fans might eventually have a chance to snag a slice of pizza before or during a show. The idea of a slice shop has been bantered about, but there’s nothing firm.

“It makes a lot of sense to me, certainly, but our first priority is making sure the restaurant itself is doing everything it needs to be doing,” Scardino says.

The professor describes comedy as one of his core passions. He’s spent a lot of effort in sending over pizzas to nationally touring comics when they’re in town, names like Sebastian Maniscalco, J.B. Smoove, and Kevin James. Moving close to downtown Chicago should open more opportunities to work with comic talent through Second City, down Wells Street at Zanies, or at United Center, Chicago Theater and other venues.

Scardino says he’s grown into the nickname; it was never his goal to turn the moniker into a brand. Mohr is struck by Scardino’s genuineness.

“This isn’t a made-up concept — this is him… it’s not an act,” Mohr says.

Professor Pizza, 1610 N. Wells Street, takeout to debut in late March or early April; dining room to open in late April

More articles

Latest article