Last week’s Lou Malnati’s deep-dish pop-up took over Toro with foot-long cheese pulls, delighting Chicago transplants and skeptical New Yorkers with pizza FOMO. But how did it come about? And how did Lou Malnati’s pizza heir and Toro partner Will Malnati and team pull it off?
“I was in Chicago for the Beard Awards,” chef Ken Oringer explained. “I told Will, ‘There must be thousands of Chicagoans in New York City who crave this pizza. Why don’t we do some type of pop-up?’”
Toro had been doing guest chef pop-ups over the past year, inviting friends like Rachael Ray (who connected Will with chef Oringer and Jamie Bissonnette of the original Toro in Boston) to cook, selling tickets for the events in the private dining room. Time and again the question arose: could they pull off a Lou Malnati’s pop-up? “It never went away,” explained Malnati. “So, one day I was like, ‘All right, all right, all right. Let’s see if we can really do this.”
Moving forward meant Will acting as middleman between the kitchen in New York and the Lou Malnati’s team in Chicago, figuring out what they had and what they’d need. Will may have spent years establishing restaurateur cred beyond pizza, but the Chicago native earned his pizza chops in the family business before studying at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, working in every restaurant. He even returned to Chicago after graduating to open a Lou Malnati’s before starting a career in hospitality in New York at EMM Group.
At Toro, they settled on a pop-up with two seatings of 50 people each and put a date on the calendar (May 30th). A blurb about the event was buried in an Eater post about Shake Shack chicken tenders, but the phone started ringing and Will said they received hundreds of emails daily. They sold 100 seats in 12 hours. Well-acquainted with New Yorkers’ antipathy to deep-dish (Will’s father Marc once delivered some to Jon Stewart after an epic casserole rant) Will was shocked noting, “It’s New York!”
They sold 100 seats in 12 hours. Well-acquainted with New Yorkers’ antipathy to deep-dish, Will was shocked noting, “It’s New York!”
With hundreds of people on a waiting list, they started calculating how many pies they could do, max. They settled on 300 people and moved the event to a full Toro takeover. Will’s father Marc and Pedro Berrera, the director of kitchen operations for all of Lou Malnati’s, planned to come.
There were still many details to figure out. How do you turn a tapas restaurant with a conventional oven into one that can make 300 deep-dish pies good enough to make Chicagoans proud? What Toro lacked in the dedicated industrial deck pizza ovens, the team hoped to make up using two convection ovens, something they’d never done. Mr. Berrera practiced and determined they could make 50 pizzas every 35 minutes.
But there was another problem: where to make the dough? They didn’t have the the right mixers. After striking out with several bakeries, they turned, of all places, to an icon of New York City’s pizza scene, the sliceria known for turning out its quintessential slice. Will’s friend Ian Lafkowitz is a partner of Joe’s Pizza who he said is helping Joe, Sr., with expansion efforts. “I asked, ‘Can you stomach the idea of us making deep-dish pizza dough in your commissary?’ He said, ‘It would be an honor.’”
Ovens? Check. Dough? Check. And the other ingredients?
They shipped 20 boxes of supplies: pans, flour, yeast, oregano, pepperoni, Romano, three cases of tomatoes, three cases of sliced mozzarella, 35 pounds of oil, and Battaglia sausage. The ultimate irony in a city whose water is cited as the key ingredient for great bagels and pizza? They shipped five gallons of Chicago municipal water.
They turned, of all places, to an icon of New York City’s pizza scene, the sliceria known for turning out its quintessential slice: Joe’s.
“They don’t trust the New York water,” Will said. “They’re saying. ‘We’re not saying that we’re doing a pop-up that’s Lou Malnati’s unless you’re making it exactly the way that we do in Chicago.’”
It’s a lesson they learned while opening in Arizona, their first out-of-state location (this year, Lou Malnati’s opened its 50th restaurant). They didn’t get the pizza right for weeks until they built a filtration system that mimicked the pH levels of the water from Chicago.
The ultimate irony in a city whose water is cited as the key ingredient for great bagels and pizza? They shipped five gallons of Chicago municipal water.
At the 6:30 pm seating, there were cans of Lou Malnati’s branded tomatoes at the host stand. The restaurant was jam-packed and buzzing. A $50 per person reservation netted a menu that included two PBRs per guest, a house salad with creamy Italian dressing, Iberico marinated olives, one 9-inch Malnati Chicago Classic pizza (sausage, extra cheese and tomato sauce on buttercrust) per two guests, followed by a rhubarb and lemon verbena Italian ice.
Pies arrived quickly, within 20 minutes.
So, given apparent demand, would they consider opening a New York City outpost of Lou Malnati’s? “Stuff like this is always going to shine a light on the possibility that we wouldn’t have necessarily have seen,” said Will before the event.
And will they be doing more deep-dish pop-ups at Toro?
“I think so,” he said. “Is it something we’ll do every week? No, but it’s something that I think, if all goes according to plan, it just makes sense to do it. Obviously, there’s the desire, so if we can do it at Toro, and it works, then, I think there will be more opportunities, for sure.”