an aproned white man stands with his arms crossed in front of a butcher case
Publican Quality Meats butcher Rob Levitt Credit: Yijun Pan for Chicago Reader

Rob Levitt could’ve been the chef at the Publican. In the spring of 2019, after spending nearly a decade as the reigning craft butcher of Chicago, he was ready to exit the Butcher & Larder, the pioneering, initially independent meat shop he’d founded. Creative differences with new management at its home base Local Foods were showing him the door, and Paul Kahan of One Off Hospitality had opened an attractive new one at his beer, oyster, and pork emporium.

It seemed like a perfect fit, and it would have been glorious news to the old and enduring fans that had been dreaming of his cooking ever since he and his wife Allie exited their beloved Wicker Park restaurant Mado to open B&L. At the time, there was a convenient shorthand acronym circulating among Levitt stans to express disappointment in a restaurant meal—S.H.E.A.M.: Should Have Eaten at Mado.

It didn’t happen. Alternatively, Kahan offered him a better fit: the top spot at One Off’s adjacent Fulton Market butchery and cafe Publican Quality Meats.

In truth, Levitt never completely left the kitchen behind. Between breaking down pigs and stuffing sausage, B&L occasionally hosted family-style dinners showcasing the uncommon and unusual meats he was known for; and PQM hosts regional wine and product-driven dinners after hours here and there. But it feels like forever since folks could regularly eat through the simple, seasonal, broadly midwest-Mediterranean menus Levitt first made his name on.

That all changes early next month when One Off introduces PM at PQM, a casual after-hours cafe featuring a debut menu of plates that is at once hauntingly Mado-esque and evolved, coming from a chef who’s done a lot of eating, cooking, and living since 2010.

A few things you won’t eat from it are cheese and charcuterie boards. “We do that during the day, and we do it for catering,” he says. “And that’s fine. I stand behind everything we put on those boards. But I think going to a restaurant and getting a meat and cheese board is just a little bit boring—and this is coming from a guy who makes meat stuff.”

In some ways it’ll be an extension of PQM’s occasional, rare charcuterie dinner series when Levitt centers some of the most exceptional things he and sous chef Kyle Huff have produced. “I have this small handful of farms that raise really superlative pigs. They’re heritage breeds and they’re 100 percent pasture-raised, and there’s a real story behind these people and their animals. The idea behind these dinners was a showcase for the extra special stuff, like the mortadella that we put so much time into, or something like a culatello. I have one hanging in the curing room that’s going to be a year old in a couple of days. It’s just pork and salt, and you taste it and your head explodes.”

You’ll have to wait a few more months for that particular cranial eruption, but that creamy, lush mortadella, which he and Huff perfected over six months (with advisory emails from Levitt’s hero, former Chez Panisse chef Paul Bertolli), will be draped on the plate with a handful of gnocco fritto—crispy lard-enriched pillows of fried dough, with shaved parmesan and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.

There’s going to be a riff on the Gilda, the classic Basque pintxo of toothpick-speared anchovy, olive, and piparras pepper, subbing out the tiny fish for ribbons of pickled pork tongue; while La Pryor Farms’ dry-aged bottom round carpaccio will be plated with pickled, truffled dwarf peaches, and hard cow’s milk Piave Vecchio cheese. He’s making an agrodolce out of pickled pine nuts to be served with fresh ricotta, and a fermented apricot mostarda with mustard seeds to go with the Prairie Breeze aged cheddar he’s obsessed with.

This time Levitt has the deep resources of the One Off empire behind him. He’ll be serving Publican Quality Bread’s honey oat porridge sourdough with whipped (dairy) butter, and the “pork butter” he makes from rendered lard, seasoned with rosemary, garlic, chili, and citrus zest; and crispy, pressed focaccia with gooey robiola, topped with marinated summer squash, and cherry tomatoes. PQM’s signature ham and butter baguette is making the move to the night menu as well.

Levitt and Huff intended each of these plates to be legitimately shareable (and not only in name) and eaten with the food-friendly wines PQM sells by day—priced for retail, not standard restaurant markups. The soundtrack will be the hard bop and mid-60s, up-tempo jazz Levitt studied as a sax player before he discovered cooking.

Early in his career, Levitt staged at One Off’s late flagship Blackbird, and Avec, hoping to land a permanent spot. Even afterward, he continued to buttonhole Avec’s chef and Chicago cured meat pioneer Koren Grieveson for guidance on his first meat preservation projects. “I made it a point to try and make friends with her. And she was either gonna like me, or I was gonna annoy the hell out of her. I would stop by after I got out of work and bring her stuff that I made and say, ‘Can you please try this and tell me if it’s terrible, or on the right track?’ And she was totally into it. To me, it’s a full circle moment, because she was a major part of me learning how to do this stuff.”

Dinner service nightly starting in early September
Publican Quality Meats
825 W. Fulton Market

Levitt says people who’ve followed him from each retail spot ever since Mado closed continue to reminisce about special nights at the restaurant or particular dishes they remember—particularly Allie’s desserts. These days she’s working front of house at Avec, so sadly, her famous shortbread won’t be part of this comeback.

Levitt might take some requests, though.

“One of the things that is so cool about this project is that sometimes people bring up, ‘Man, I remember this one dish I had at Mado,’ and oftentimes it’s something I don’t even remember making. We’d do these dishes and often it was something fun, but when it was gone, it was gone. But this evening thing gives me an opportunity if someone comes and says, ‘Man, I remember that one dish was so good,’ maybe it’ll find its way on the menu at some point.”