Founding a museum dedicated to all things pizza-related seems like the kind of scheme you’d dream up while letting your thoughts drift into absurdity, 20 minutes deep into a hot shower. For U.S. Pizza Museum founder Kendall Bruns, however, doing so feels like the end of a natural progression — a prophecy foretold by the gods of Italian food.
The Chicago-based museum is a monument to the fast food staple’s rich history, yes, but also to its persistence in popular culture. Scan the U.S. Pizza Mueseum’s collection and you’ll find a VHS copy of Mystic Pizza, LEGO pizza boys toting plastic pies and even a vinyl record of The Fat Boys’ self-titled debut, which features a cover photo of the Hip Hop trio’s members digging into a levitating delivery box.
This mecca for pizza aficionados — a treasure trove of vintage menus, boxes and historical documents — may currently reside in a Chicago shopping center, but its story begins in Cincinnati, where Bruns first developed his passion for the dish.
“I didn’t connect with any other food as a kid like I connected with pizza,” Bruns says. “It was always a fun, special food that I had. My mom used to cook a lot of our meals at home, and my dad was in the Air Force. We didn’t go to restaurants or order food a lot, but she would make these Chef Boyardee pizza mixes with, like, ground beef as the topping. And that would always be my favorite meal she’d make at home.”
As Bruns reached adolescence, he began to discover the variety of pies that the fast food world had to offer. He fondly remembers the pairs of Hot-N-Ready Little Caesars pizzas his mom would bring home on special occasions, or rarer trips to Pizza Hut.
As fate would have it, Bruns landed his first-ever job at the LaRosa’s on Rapid Run Pike on the West Side when he turned 16, bussing tables before working his way up to kitchen duty.
“It was just a summer job, but it did get me to see how a pizzeria worked,” he says. “I was really proud of how I made pizzas, you know? There are a lot of different ways to make them, but in the way LaRosa’s made pizza I felt like I was good at it. I cared what they looked like — the presentation, evenly distributing the toppings.”
While his appreciation for the culinary arts deepened, so did his knack for creative expression. Earning his BFA from the Art Academy of Cincinnati in 2000, he spent the better part of the aughts churning out a prolific body of work: cartoon-y sculptures, album artwork, music and short films released by his own indie production company, christened — wait for it — Pizza Infinity.
It was perhaps pizza’s divine light that led Bruns to Chicago.
“I started making short films, and my writing partner Josh Flowers and I started working on projects,” Bruns says. “I had an idea for a short that takes place in an all-you-can-eat pizza place buffet, but the premise of the sketch was someone who was living there to eat pizza all the time. My idea was to call the sketch ‘Pizza Infinity.’ ”
Though the sketch never came to fruition, the idea was enough to inspire the duo’s name. Bruns and Flowers produced a number of satirical DIY short films for the 48 Hour Film project, an annual contest that challenges directors to produce a short movie over the course of the weekend. Garnering local success (like recognition in CityBeat’s 2008 Best of Cincinnati issue) and international attention (Cannes screened a short titled “Robot Love from Another World” in 2009), Bruns moved to the Windy City in 2010 to tap into a larger pool of acting talent.
A year earlier, while still living in Cincinnati, he stumbled across an article in GQ Magazine titled “American Pie,” food writer Alan Richman’s list of the best pizza parlors in America. Spanning 25 entries and the width of a continent, the article overflows with fanaticism, reined in by Richman’s intense attention to detail. He’s as dedicated to the dish’s taste as Bruns is to the culture that surrounds it.
“I’d been to a couple of the places listed and they were great,” Bruns says. “If there’s 25 on the list, why would I not want to go to all of them?”
His pizza quest began with a stop at Great Lake in Chicago, Richman’s top-ranked restaurant. The now-defunct eatery was known for its impeccable creations and hot-blooded owners, infamous for ordering customers to leave over requesting substitution — a scenario that bore an eerie resemblance to Seinfeld’s “Soup Nazi” episode, according to Bruns.
Luckily, he avoided the boot. The food was amazing, and so was Great Lake’s brand of what Bruns calls “Pizza Theater.”
“It’s when you go to a pizzeria, and beyond (the food), there’s all this other stuff that happens, whether it’s watching them make the pizza in the kitchen, or even the choreography of walking through the restaurant with a pie, and the stands when they put them on the table. Eating at the pizzeria is the ultimate experience” he says.
Sold on Richman’s list, Bruns started to keep a spreadsheet of his own, documenting his pizza outings and making road trips just to try pies in other states (he still eats pizza an average of three times a week). He recalls a trip he took over the Fourth of July weekend in 2013 to New Haven, Conn. for the sole purpose of sampling slices at Frank Pepe Pizzeria and Sally’s Apizza.
On trips like these, he made it a point to collect as much memorabilia and pizza lore as he could bring back home with him on the flight: boxes, menus and knowledge of pizzerias past.
He first hatched the idea for using his collection to establish a pizza museum in 2012, but the opening of Philadelphia’s Pizza Brain (a restaurant with a pizza museum of its own) just a year earlier gave him pause.
Bruns couldn’t quite shake the concept, though. In 2015, he launched the U.S. Pizza Museum as an online gallery that featured photos and background information about his collection, which then included plush versions of the animatronic musicians that took the stage at Chuck E. Cheese’s and Showbiz Pizza, a pair of Vans slip-ons adorned with little pies and a set of triangular dinner plates shaped like slices.
It garnered some initial buzz, enough for friends and family to start sending him their own collectibles to house in the museum, but it wasn’t until 2016 that the U.S. Pizza Museum really took off. Bruns landed space at the first annual Chicago Pizza Summit that year, curating a pop-up exhibit. The story was picked up by local media, and eventually even Smithsonian.com published a piece on the collection.
“As a creative person who does a lot of different things, you never know what people are going to latch onto,” Bruns says.
What started as a website evolved into a series of pop-ups, podcast appearances and events at local pizzerias. Bruns pushed himself to expand a little more with each exhibition but felt hesitant about going all in to establish a permanent location. He still had a full-time job and was also working on an equally obsessive mission to write a song inspired by every national park he visited.
It wasn’t until this year that Bruns was ready to commit, receiving an offer to open the museum at the Roosevelt Collection shopping center. The location was perfect, within walking distance from Chicago’s Museum Campus, and it allowed him to stay open on weekends. He couldn’t refuse.
The free museum is Bruns’ most buzzed-about venture yet, earning write-ups in Food & Wine and Time Out London, and for good reason. It’s a cleanly arranged testament to the sense of fun pizza brings to any occasion. Come for the inflatable pizza rafts and stuffed Noids, stay for the origin stories of local parlors.
And, inevitably, he’s encountered a few detractors — many are New Yorkers who refuse to recognize the validity of Chicago deep-dish pizza.
“New Yorkers may not agree on where to get the best local slice, but we do know that deep dish is not pizza. Case closed,” read a tweet fired off by the NYC Mayor’s Office, linking to a piece about the U.S. Pizza Museum.
Bruns, however, has no desire to get wrapped up in any argument about pizza supremacy. His museum is meant to celebrate pizza in all its forms.
“Pizza’s one of those things that comes up in listicles all the time — articles about regional styles,” says Bruns. “There’s a number of books that talk about the history of pizza. But a lot of it’s very fragmented. I specifically made this the U.S. Pizza Museum to focus on pizza in America, in communities all over the United States.”
The U.S. Pizza Museum is located at 1146 S. Delano Ct. W., Chicago. More info: uspizzamuseum.com.