Bad Johnny's mushroom and burrata pizza Credit: John Pragalz

On the day they met in Denver, Belle and the Beast got hitched and took off across the country. It was a wild ride, but they settled down quick—right here in Chicago—and began making beautiful pizzas together.

Belle, as a mobile, restaurant-sized, wood-fired, brick pizza oven, gets pretty hot—around 950 degrees F. The Beast, as a three-quarter-ton extended utility Yukon XL 2500 with monster tires, is usually pretty chill.

“Beast does all the hard work, constantly driving to all the biggest parties in town with Belle in tow,” according to John Pragalz of Bad Johnny’s Wood-Fired Pizza & Kitchen. “Belle, of course, gets all the attention, charming everyone with her warmth. Beast often has to wait for her in a parking lot until the party is over and she’s done entertaining the crowds. But they always reconnect at the end of the night and head home together happily.”

Pragalz has spent most of the last year making Roman-style pizzas in a regular gas-fired pizza oven at the Long Room. But in the summer he hitches Belle and the Beast together again and they hit the festival circuit—or on this June 12, Monday Night Foodball, the Reader’s weekly chef pop-up at Ludlow Liquors in Avondale.  

Belle and the Beast Credit: John Pragalz

Have you eaten one of these pizzas before, either inside or outside? You would remember. There’s nothing like them in town. Pragalz, who’s cooked all over Europe, New York, and Chicago, received his formative pizza training over a number of years, particularly at the late, great Co. in Manhattan, and later at Roberta’s in New York. He’s also spent a bit of time making pizza in its birthplace, Naples, Italy, and he’s spent a tremendous amount of time eating it in Rome.

Like Chicago, Rome has two pizza styles: al taglio, Bonci-style sheet-pan square slices, sold by weight; and pizza tonda, thin, crispy round pies, served in nearly every neighborhood trattoria in the city.

Pragalz specializes in a hybrid of the two, starting with al taglio-style high-hydration, long-fermented dough made from Janie’s Mill flour from downstate Ashkum, Illinois. He shapes it in rounds and spreads the toppings all the way to the edge, tonda-style, and then blasts it at 900 to 950 F, which causes the toppings to bake into the bread and the cornicione to blossom and blister like a Neapolitan pie.

“You bake it at high temperature, you seal all that moisture in there so it’s a chewy, light, moist type of breadlike crust,” he says. “You can have all that good stuff along with a puffy, fun bread bite, and not leave any crust behind.”

For Pragalz, everything begins and ends with the bread, a principle he internalized at Co., working under baker Jim Lahey (developer of the no-knead bread method). But Pragalz is just as scrupulous about what he lays on top of it. This Monday he’ll roll up to Ludlow with Belle and the Beast and start firing six of his greatest hits, like a veal meatball and stracciatella pie with chili and garlic, finished with a Sicilian olive oil that’s “liquid gold.”

Bad Johnny’s meatball and stracciatella Credit: John Pragalz

That liquid gold finds its way onto everything Pragalz makes, like his mushroom and burrata pizza (which usually doesn’t appear outside the Long Room). It features a mix of Four Star Mushrooms chestnut, cremini, and black pearl fungi, blanketed edge to edge along with rosemary, garlic, and chives, and strewn with gobs of quivering warm burrata. He bakes ricotta, fior de latte, and Wisconsin’s Alpine-style Hika Bay cheeses into another crust, covers it with Tempesta mortadella, and finishes with pistachios and Pecorino Romano.

He’ll pile fresh Spence Farm spinach atop lemon ricotta and smoked gouda and let it caramelize into the dough. Nodding toward Roberta’s renowned Bee Sting pies, he deploys warm, smoky chile de arbol and dark, savory buckwheat honey and then layers it with jumbo pepperoni. He’ll also sling an anchovy and olive pie with cherry tomatoes, capers, oregano, garlic, and more liquid gold—for the vegans, just ask him to hold the fishes.

This will be an epic patio pizza party the troubadours will sing of for ages. Belle’s warmth will beckon, Ludlow’s natural wines will flow, and none of these pizzas will suffer the indignities of a cardboard box.

It’s walk-in orders only—and no carryout—beginning at 5 PM at 2959 N. California in Avondale.

Meantime, just two more Foodballs to go before a new late summer schedule drops. Prime yourself for Tripping Billy’s greatest hits on June 19 and central Texican barbecue with Foodball vets Heffer BBQ on June 26.