CHICAGO — The pizza museum deserves to be in Chicago. “But deep dish isn’t pizza,” you might say. (You are wrong.) A pizza museum in Chicago is a pizza museum of inclusivity, and America could use a whole lot more of that right now. It’s also in the Midwest, making it accessible and proximate to other great, underrated styles of pizza: St. Louis, Detroit, Quad Cities. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is in Cleveland, after all.
The pizza museum deserves to be in New York. Pizza is New York. Inexpensive slices, folded over: If you know how to eat it, you’re in. If you don’t — knife and forking it has felled many a politician — you never belonged in the first place. There is a long history of pizza in New York, beginning in 1905 with Lombardi’s, which is acknowledged as the first pizzeria in America. It’s the culinary capital of America, and it takes its slices seriously.
The pizza museum in fact exists in both places, because there are two pizza museums. Each was founded by a dude who really, really likes pizza. They came up at the same time: The Chicago museum opened in August, and the New York one opens Oct. 13. They each have a display of pizza box designs, and they each end in a gift shop with cheesy pizza tchotchkes and shirts.
But content-wise, they’re about as different as deep dish is to a dollar slice, and equally reflective of their locations. The United States Pizza Museum in Chicago is Midwestern sensibility: a straightforward presentation of pizza artifacts and memorabilia through a wry, pop-cultural lens, with free admission. The Museum of Pizza in New York is style: immersive installations by artists, Instagrammable backdrops and a slice shop at the end, with $35 tickets that are selling swiftly.
And because of the two cities’ long-standing pizza rivalry, everyone assumes the two founders hate each other. In fact, they have a long-distance mutual respect.
“There’s lots of styles of pizza. Everyone has different opinions. That’s part of what’s great about it. But I opened this here because I live here,” said Kendall Bruns, the founder and director of the United States Pizza Museum. “There’s not like some council that was like, ‘Where should the pizza museum go? Let’s put it in Chicago.’”
The United States Pizza Museum is an odd but delightful place. It’s in Chicago’s South Loop neighborhood, in a mixed-use development sandwiched unexpectedly between an Ann Taylor Loft and a Victoria’s Secret. The museum, which comprises Bruns’s personal collection of artifacts, has bounced between festivals and pop-ups before, but this is its first semi-permanent space. It’s one big room packed with artifacts and display cases, with a small gift shop in the front. Tragically, it is not near any great pizzerias.
There’s no charge for tickets, Bruns said, because of “level-setting” — “I don’t want someone coming in here and thinking that it’s going to be the Museum of Science and Industry.” For now, he’s paying the rent via proceeds from the gift shop. Is that enough? “Probably not,” he acknowledged.
But it’s immediately clear that Bruns’s collection is a passion project, and it makes you want to root for him. The 40-year-old began collecting pizza memorabilia after reading a 2009 Alan Richman article in GQ about the best pizzerias in America. He set out to visit them, and began saving menus as mementos. The menu collection expanded to include pizza boxes. Then came pizza toys, such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures, and such marketing gimmicks as the Noid, a onetime Domino Pizza mascot. Posters from the film “Mystic Pizza” or the Garbage Pail Kids trading cards. Vintage menus from old-school Chicago pizza joints and chains such as Pizza Hut, bought in auctions. Coal from a Chicago coal-fired pizza oven. Pop culture figurines of Jeff Spicoli, the “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” character who ordered a pizza during history class, or the animatronic bears at Chuck E. Cheese.
It’s weird to collect all of this stuff, he acknowledges. Especially the items that some would think are ephemera, or trash: Pizza boxes, like the ones from McDonald’s short-lived experiment with pizza. (“Any McDonald’s pizza memorabilia is pretty rare,” says Bruns.)
The museum’s collection spans the history of pizza in the United States, but the ’80s and ’90s are disproportionately represented. Those were heady years for pizza culture, Bruns said, with pizza-themed toys (a Troll doll, a Smurf figurine), early video games (“Pizza Tycoon”) and apparel (an MTV pizza print shirt).
“Pizza really did cross this pop culture threshold” in those years, Bruns said. It’s when you began to see “licensed characters on pizza boxes, like E.T. on a Pizza Hut cup. All that stuff was happening in the ’80s because that’s what advertising was then.”
It’s a lot of nostalgia. But Bruns thinks it can be something more. By looking at items related to pizza throughout the decades, “You can see the design trends change,” which interests him as an art school graduate. “There’s so many ways you can approach the subject. It starts with a very basic simple thing that everyone kind of loves on some level. And then you can take it all these different directions.”
Back in New York, Kareem Rahma, 32, is gearing up to open the Museum of Pizza in Brooklyn on Oct. 13. It, too, will have a display of pizza boxes, and an educational, historical component. But the similarities end there: Rahma’s museum is a temple not to pizza history, but to contemporary pizza art, he says. The United States Pizza Museum is to the Museum of Science and Industry as the Museum of Pizza is to the Museum of Modern Art.
“We’ve given the artists almost carte blanche to make whatever they want to make,” Rahma said. “We’ve just provided this framework of pizza celebration as the kind of creative brief.”
The artist Adam Green, known for his band the Moldy Peaches, designed an installation called “Pizza Beach.” There will be a reading room of pizza-themed ‘zines, and an installation called “The Pizza Vortex,” by Signe Pierce and Emma Stern, described in a news release as “a fluorescent black-light room that plays with [the] collective conception of art history, pop culture, life on earth and existence amongst the cosmos.” The artist Shawna X’s installation, “Say Cheese,” explores the intersection between pizza and the beauty industry. And an educational exhibit about the history of pizza, created by a collective called Optical Animal, combines “the most cutting-edge digital hologram production with the old-school 16-millimeter slide carousel projectors to create an old-world-meets-new-world history of pizza,” Rahma said. The hologram will be a projection of Scott Weiner, known for his New York pizza tours, who will teach guests the history of pizza from its invention through the present day. And there will be pizza boxes from around the world — from Japan to Israel to Italy — from Weiner, who holds the Guinness World Record for the largest collection of them.
It will all be Instagram-friendly, similar to other recent attractions in New York, like the Color Factory and Museum of Ice Cream’s Pint Shop that draw droves eager to pay for a fun house of stylish photo ops. But Rahma said his museum will go deeper.
“I think for many of the exhibitions in our space, you might not necessarily have to be in the photo. . . . It’s not like we’re creating specific photo moments for people to go sit on and take pictures of,” he said. “But I think everything will inspire people to take their phones out.”
The exhibit will be hosted in the William Vale Hotel in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, through Oct. 28, though Rahma expects to extend it and, hopefully, find a permanent home for it. And he has thoughts on how to expand his brand, which has gotten buzz in New York for its risque American Apparel-esque ads. He’s mulling an online series that explores styles of pizza around the world, or launching a specialty brand of frozen pizza.
The experience culminates in an artistic take on a slice shop — “an immersive, very trippy kind of pizzeria,” he said. Each ticket includes one slice. Rahma isn’t ready to announce the local pizza shop he has partnered with, but he divulged an eyebrow-raising corporate sponsor for the attraction, which cost more than $1 million to produce: Hidden Valley Ranch. Rahma grew up in the Midwest, where people put ranch dressing on pizza — an option he’ll make available to those who dine in the museum.
Fire up the pizza outrage machine: It may prove to be a more controversial pizza take than deep dish vs. New York-style. It may make New Yorkers — is it even possible? — dial down their vitriol toward the United States Pizza Museum in Chicago, where there are plenty of homages to a style of pizza that some claim is a casserole, but where there is not a single drop of ranch dressing.
Rahma doesn’t care. “I’m excited to get this in front of New Yorkers,” he said. When it comes to pizza, “There’s no such thing as purity.”
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