PhinneyWood is full of wonderful people and great places that we all wish we knew more about. Resident Kevin Kozel periodically digs deeper to let us know more in a column we like to call … Hi Neighbor!
A year ago PhinneyWood added one of the city’s most anticipated restaurants when Windy City Pie opened in the old Phinney Market location. Specializing in Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, Windy City brings their well-reviewed pies to a region that has long lacked options in the style. A year later, crowds still can’t get enough of the delicious caramelized cheese edge. Owner Dave Lichterman tells us more about his pizza’s meteoric rise, and why this cult favorite pie is one everyone should try at least once.
Kevin Kozel (KK): How long has Windy City Pie been open in this location now?
Dave Lichterman (DL): We moved here from Interbay on January 1st, 2019. We opened for takeout on January 14th and then we officially opened for dine-in on April 4th. This is our first time having a “brick and mortar” and we’re happy to be in the neighborhood.
KK: And this is the first proper dining space you’ve had, right?
DL: This is our fourth iteration. It started off in my condo… which it turns out, isn’t totally legal. Then it moved to a commissary kitchen in SoDo. From there, it moved to a distillery in Interbay before finally landing in Phinney Ridge. All previous locations were either a “hole-in-the-wall” or even an undisclosed location instead of an actual restaurant. Long story short, yes, this is our very first full dining experience.
KK: I remember you started out as kind of a secret. You had to order a day in advance and it would be delivered to you, or something along those lines?
DL: I started making pizza for people I didn’t already know back in August of 2015. Before that, the only reviews I had were friends telling me my pizza was great and I should open a restaurant, which sounded like a terrible idea! Those are well-known money pits. I needed to see if there was some demand for this product, so I opened as basically a website, or “ghost restaurant” as they’re now called. The requirement was that you had to order a day in advance, delivery only, and it had to be somewhere within city limits.
KK: How has social media impacted Windy City?
DL: I used to do a lot of concert photography for KEXP and they had an intern luncheon one day. I told them I would cater it for them, so I made 12 pizzas in my house and brought them over. They posted it on social medial and all of a sudden people wanted to know where they could get Chicago-style pizza in Seattle. The biggest break came when I was defending the pizza style to food blogger, and soon-to-be James Beard award winner, J. Kenji López-Alt. He was saying there’s no good deep-dish pizza and tried his hand at a recipe. I responded by telling him he was doing various things wrong and piqued his interest in how I might know such a thing. He visited me in the SoDo commissary. I was terrified he wouldn’t like it. Thankfully for my sanity, he tried it and posted to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter that it was the best deep-dish he’s had anywhere, including in Chicago.
KK: This has all happened pretty quickly. You don’t have any professional cooking or restaurant experience. Did you even have any idea how to start a restaurant?
DL: I had no professional experience to speak of, just a lot of practice at making something and honing that recipe over the course of 10 years. I’m a computer engineer by education, so I didn’t know how to outfit a commercial kitchen or scale up food preparation. I could only do so much as one guy. Hiring people that knew the answers to these questions or were willing to learn with me was key. A lot of my staff have followed me for years now, from one iteration of Windy City Pie to the next, and I wouldn’t have been able to make all those moves were it not for their help. Moreover, the transition from Interbay to Phinney Ridge took a lot longer than anticipated, there was some downtime, and that’s hard for anyone working an hourly position in this city to survive. I did my best to keep everyone busy and gainfully employed, but my crew took a big risk on me and my crazy pizza dream. I’m forever grateful to them for that.
KK: How is the location treating you so far?
DL: The neighborhood has been very welcoming. Too welcoming at the start, to where we just didn’t have the space or flow in the space to keep up. We’ve gotten our sea legs at this point, largely thanks to Amanda Jensen, my right hand, who has loads more experience in running a full-service restaurant than I do. It took some work to convert this space and make it more of our own, but it’s a beautiful space. We wanted to make it more of an art deco, Chicago World’s Fair vibe. It’s been a labor of love creating an homage to Chicago without making it all about sports.
KK: A lot of people have very strong opinions about pizza, and Chicago deep-dish is no exception. Where do you sit on the “pizza wars”?
DL: I don’t really care about the “is it pizza/is it not” debate. It’s food; did you like it? There are thicker styles of pizza in New York and Italy. There’s so much variety in pizza, and there’s excellent implementations of most of those varieties. Check out the first episode of David Chang’s “Ugly Delicious” on Netflix for an example of that variety. Even in Chicago there are at least four different styles of pizza, three of which I’d classify as deep-dish. It’s just, did you enjoy the pizza?
KK: What are your recommendations for first time visitors?
DL: Start with one of the specialty pies, we know those are good combinations and a good amount of stuff. Everyone has different tastes, but we’d also be happy to help you build your own. Just let us guide you through the process. We want you to have a delicious pizza and keep coming back.
KK:What does the future hold for Windy City Pie?
DL: I’m always looking towards new things and I love cooking. The idea is to see where things take us, not necessarily decide the direction we’re going. Right now I’m working on incorporating software I’m writing to make restaurant operations run even smoother, with the hope to add delivery this year.
Visit Windy City Pie at 5918 Phinney Ave N, or order online at www.windycitypie.com. It is recommended that you order in advance, even for dine-in, as Chicago-style pizzas do take time to properly bake.
Any person, place, or thing you want to know more about in our neighborhood? Feel free to drop us a line or leave a comment and we’ll look into making it a future feature on Hi Neighbor!
Photo by Kevin Kozel of Dave Lichterman and Amanda Jensen (edited 1/27/20)