CHICAGO — Say it ain’t so, Papa Joe. The U.S. Pizza Museum south of the Loop, which gave Chicago a controversial claim to primacy over New York in the perhaps nonexistent pizza museum wars, is closing come October.
But the lively collection of artifacts and history won’t be going away permanently, emphasized founder Kendall Bruns. He’ll be going back to his pop-up roots, looking to mount freestanding special exhibitions now and again while he also keeps an eye out for another home, Bruns said.
“At some point, I’m going to do a pepperoni exhibit,” he said. “I don’t know what the right vehicle for that is.”
For people who’ve been thinking about visiting, now is the time. Bruns has been continually tweaking his 3,000-square-foot presentation, working to find the right historical base topped with everything from a wide-ranging pizza-box collection to a doll of the Domino’s Noid character to 1950s menus that have pepperoni nowhere on the ingredients list.
“I don’t know when the museum collection is going to be put on such spectacular display like this again,” he said. You want to see a box proving that McDonald’s gave pizza a shot? You want an explainer on all the different styles of pizza, or a reminder of the early national chains, such as Shakey’s? It’s all there, plus the requisite display of pizza-themed record albums.
So for now, the free museum that’s open Fridays through Sundays is very much a going concern.
A “Pizza in New Haven” exhibit looks at the pizza from the Connecticut city that is widely regarded as among the best in the country.
“It’s hard to explain to people how big a deal it is to have a picture of someone making a pizza from 1935,” Bruns said, looking at a New Haven shot of a baker sliding a half-tomato, half-anchovy pie into the coal-fired oven, newly mounted on one of his museum walls. You can find owners and restaurant shots, he said, but the actual crafting of the product was rarely documented.
The museum is in Chicago because Bruns, 41, did the work to collect the artifacts and to get it going. Trained as an artist and graphic designer, Bruns was also passionate about pizza and became increasingly so in adulthood.
He’d plan travels around pizza joints. He’d pick up memorabilia. And he began to think about opening a museum.
When he found out that Pizza Brain in Philadelphia had already established what Bruns acknowledges is the world’s first pizza museum, that took some pressure off.
He started with pop-up exhibits, the first coming in 2016. When the opportunity came to open last August in a newer development amid retail chains, he took it.
He points a visitor to the research he’s done into Chicago deep dish pizza, working to sort out the complicated and perhaps not widely known intertwining of the Pizzeria Uno and Lou Malnati’s stories.
And he’s pleased, too, to present Peter Regas’ research showing that, contrary to the widely repeated story of pizza in the U.S., there was a Neapolitan pizzeria in New York City before Gennaro Lombardi’s.
Bruns’ pizza museum was originally supposed to be open just for a few months. So being able to extend things for a year past the first closing date has been in one sense a bonus, he said.
“We’ve served thousands and thousands of people from all over,” he said.
He’s “really proud” of the fact that it has been a free museum, only suggesting that people make a donation. And he’s done well selling memorabilia, including T-shirts, pizza socks and books on the lore and making of pizza, he said.
But not being able to sell the food that the entire presentation makes people crave has cost him a revenue opportunity, he acknowledged. (On the other hand, Bruns said, he knows how hard it is to run a pizzeria, and he’s happily sent people to nearby pizza places.)
He’s pulling the plug on the current location largely because of finances, he said, without wanting to get into specifics. Although the museum is sponsored by the building owner in the form of a reduced rent, there is still rent to pay.
He looks forward to spending more time on research, to not having to worry, “‘Do we have enough pizza buttons in stock?'”
“Maybe the last event is going to be focused on a Chicago story,” he said.
If that comes, it will be before Oct. 13, the final day of the U.S. Pizza Museum. For now.
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