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At Pizza Matta in Chicago, Jason Vincent Riffs on Childhood Memories

salad and pizza
Jaclyn Rivas|

Pizza and salad from Pizza Matta.

The acclaimed chef behind Giant is serving takeout pizza and "huge salads," mixing Italian inspiration and Midwestern nostalgia.

“It's a summer night. You know what I mean?” Jason Vincent asks rhetorically. He’s talking about his just-opened takeout (for now) joint Pizza Matta in Chicago. He’s just described how he and his team, which run acclaimed Logan Square restaurant Giant and Chef’s Special Cocktail Bar, came to open a pizza place. Now, he’s describing the feeling that it evokes.

“This is what I pictured,” he continues. “Back in the ‘80s, [before] pizza delivery started being a thing, and on Sunday or Friday or whatever day, your dad puts you in the front seat and takes you to pick up the pizza. You're holding the warm cardboard on your lap and you smell the pizza mixed with cardboard. And there's a bag at your feet [with soda] and you pull it out and you sit around the table and the windows are open…”

It’s not surprising to me that Vincent would describe his new pizza joint this way. Over the past decade-plus, he established himself as one of America’s best chefs, adept at cooking with an attitude but also knowledgeable about foodways and inspired to continually evolve. The point of view comes across on his menus. During his time at Nightwood, the restaurant was a standard-bearer for creative contemporary American cooking, and at Giant, he’s impressed not only loyal Chicago diners but Michelin and other award-giving inspectors. 

Now, at Pizza Matta, he’s using pizza as a palette to paint a sort of picture, of a family meal with a pie at the center, but with drinks—hard and soft—on the table, a big salad with house-made dressings to share. And, to finish, a spumoni-inspired take on the Midwestern favorite Superman ice cream—also made in house, of course.

pepperoni pizza
Pepperoni pizza from Pizza Matta. Photo: Jaclyn Rivas

Speaking to Appetito by phone a week after opening, Vincent animatedly recounts the initial spark behind Matta. During the pandemic, when things seemed bleak, he heard from staffers at Giant that chef Mike Gaia was experimenting with pizzas at home. They agreed to start using the oven at Giant to make thick-crust pizzas “big enough to feed a family of four for days,” Vincent says. 

Fast forward a couple of years and Vincent and his team have the opportunity to expand to a small space next to Giant in Chicago’s Logan Square. They install pizza ovens and call on an Italian name for a dough that results in “pasta matta,” or crazy pasta, to influence what they'll call the new pizza joint. They create a new dough, and add “very large, huge” salads to the menu with equal billing. This being Chicago, there’s a side of ranch dressing available (for dipping—sorry to our Italian readers). 

In April, Pizza Matta opens for take-out only—for now—and starts generating buzz on social media. The menu, with its thoughtfully crafted pizzas and salads, along with that ice cream, looks like the template for an amazing night in. 

The salads are what stand out, in part because they make a healthy addition to a meal otherwise centered on pizza and ice cream. The menu includes a list of “things to know,” which reads in part:

  1. Salad cancels out pizza…it’s science.
  2. With that balance in mind we have carefully crafted pizza that will exist harmoniously with salad.

I ask Vincent about this manifesto and he laughs. “I wrote that in like two seconds,” he says. “The web designer was like, ‘You need something on the about page.’ I'm like, do-do-do-do, there you go.”

Menu from Pizza Matta with Pizza and Salads
Part of the menu from Pizza Matta.

He’s more serious about the salads, however. I ask him why they are such a focal point at Pizza Matta, and he replies diplomatically about not wanting to “talk shit” about anybody in his market coming out of the rough pandemic time. But then he cuts to the chase. “The salad game in Chicago is pretty weak. Like a lot of places have one salad. And they try to make it so appropriate for pizza. Like there’s soppressata on it. It's like a pizza but with lettuce and that's not what I want. I want something that's complimentary, but also interesting, delicious, hearty, fresh.”

The opening menu’s beet salad lists a local farm’s goat cheese, toasted walnut, pickled raisin, carrot, garlic cracker, and creamy tomato dressing as ingredients. Vincent says that he and the team recipe-tested dressings for months. “One of them has fermented leeks and peppers that we ferment for a month, then dehydrate and pulverize [the mix], and that’s the base of the dressing.”

Naturally, Vincent and Gaia studied pizza and dough making to develop the style of pie served at Pizza Matta. They also improvised ingredients and techniques, like jazz musicians seeing how certain notes, discordant as they may seem, fit together. “We knew a lot of stuff about yeasts and what they like to eat and how they like to react,” he says of the dough-making process. “Literally by the gram, we would take and remove things. Then we figured out that if we treat it more like bread, where we let it bulk ferment out at room temperature for a couple of hours, and then give it a couple of folds every couple of hours, it adds this dynamic texture.”

The pizzas are highly customizable, with choices of red or white sauce and a range of ingredients, including a mild and hot version of Chicago’s Sicilian-inspired giardiniera. There’s a vegan mozzarella if you’re so inclined. 

Vincent at times returns to the idea that Pizza Matta is a place that he, as a 20-year resident, feels that the neighborhood needs. He says he also intends to make it adaptable to how the neighborhood wants to order. 

He seems intent on creating a place that can become part of Chicagoans' routines, and eventually, their memories. 

red white and blue ice cream in a metal container
House-made Superman ice cream from Pizza Matta. Photo: Jaclyn Rivas

That’s the thinking behind the house-made ice cream, a tricolor offering that Vincent says is known regionally as Superman ice cream. The idea references Italian spumoni—with its three flavors of gelato, usually including green pistachio, red cherry and either chocolate or vanilla—but here is the red, blue and white of Superman’s uniform, made with Blue Moon, black cherry and vanilla ice cream. He says he wanted to mention it because he’s very proud of it, which is how he sounds about Pizza Matta in general. 

It’s simple but brilliant: pizzas made with stellar ingredients, combined with chef-composed salads. Whether or not these salads cancel out the carbs and fatty cheese of the pizza, well, if Vincent says so, I’ll take him at his word.

Pizza Matta, 3211 W Armitage Ave, Chicago, IL 60647, 773.661.6521, Open Friday-Sunday, with more days coming soon.

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