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That's amore! Pizza Payaa in Bloomington started with love

Adam Elpayaa really loves pizza.

During the early days of the pandemic, many of us turned to food for comfort. Whether it was panic-buying Pop-Tarts or murdering fragile sourdough starters in clumsy attempts at baking (guilty), we sought refuge from uncertainty within the warmth of our kitchens.

That’s where Adam Elpayaa spent his time. He’d always enjoyed cooking, having grown up in a family where food was an expression of love. But the pandemic gave him space to devote himself to mastering one cuisine in particular.

“Pizza was one thing I never really tackled until maybe three, four years ago, Elpayaa said. “And I really got deep into it in the pandemic, because, you know, we had all this extra time.”

Elpayaa may have had less time on his hands had the fates aligned differently. In March 2020, he was scheduled to sign a lease on a space in downtown Bloomington where he planned to serve New York pizza by the slice. It would be Elpayaa's second venture in the restaurant industry, having opened Windy City Wieners in 2009. But on the day he was to sign the lease for his pizza joint, Elpayaa noticed a leak in the ceiling and decided to hold off on signing until it was fixed.

The next day, Gov. JB Pritzker ordered statewide shutdowns.

“And I was like, oh, maybe I'm not gonna sign this lease right now,” Elpayaa said. “Let's see how this next two weeks goes.”

We all know how that turned out.

So Elpayaa found himself at home in the kitchen, perfecting pizza after pizza until he was eventually producing more pies than one mere mortal could consume. He started giving away pizzas to friends and family who went crazy for them. He posted pictures on Instagram where more and more people began sliding into Elpayaa’s DMs, asking where they could get their hands on a slice.

“It just kind of like snowballed,” Elpayaa said. “It was just a passion project that turned into something bigger.”

That something bigger is Pizza Payaa, a Bloomington restaurant that Elpayaa describes as the area’s first and only New York-style pizzeria. Though he grew up loving Chicago-style pizza, Elpayaa decided to ditch his deep-dish loyalties after a trip to Brooklyn where he tried 30 different slices of New York pizza.

“And after that trip, I'm like, oh, this is actually where the best pizza is,” he said.

Elpayaa and his wife, Lauren.
Elpayaa and his wife, Lauren

That is not to say that Elpayaa doesn’t still love him some Pequod’s or Gepetto’s – those quintessentially deep, dense pies that the Windy City is known for. But he sees a certain practicality in the quick and easy nature of a floppier, more foldable slice.

“In New York, you even see people just eating them over the garbage can,” Elpayaa laughed.

To be clear, Pizza Payaa isn’t serving its pizzas over the garbage can. Elpayaa plans to eventually offer single slices, but for now he’s focused on whole, Sicilian-inspired pies (a sub-category of New York-style pizza). The pizzas are square with what Elpayaa describes as a light and airy crust. They’re also baked in a pan, so they maintain some of that depth Chicago-style lovers may appreciate. But Elpayaa says there’s at least one key difference.

“You can eat more than a slice and you're not going to need a nap, you know?”

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Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.