Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Great Lake

Of course, what kind of a pizza expedition to Chicago would be complete without a stop at the Windy City's newborn artisinal pizza mecca, Great Lake?

Husband and wife team Nick Lessins and Lydia Esparza opened the doors to this pizzeria just shy of three years ago in February of 2008. Flash back a few years earlier, when the couple stumbled upon a talented pizzaiolo making pies in a strip mall in Chicago. That man was Chris Bianco, and he made a lasting impression on Lessins and the pizzas he now crafts.

This place is tiny- 14 seat capacity and they're only open a few hours between Wednesday and Sunday. Between the two of them, Esparza and Lessins essentially had no experience working in the food industry prior to opening Great Lake. Nick toiled away in his home kitchen, making pizza after pizza until his recipe was just right (woof, I can relate to that) until finally porting it over to his workhorse gas oven blazing at a modest 650 degrees.

Shortly after the grand opening, GQ food critic Alan Richman "exposed" Great Lake as making one of the best pizzas in the country, and while some locals may call it overrated ("I would rather get a root canal or watch 'Two and a Half Men' than go to this place again"), there is no denying the attention this place is getting.

In an interview with the NY Times, Lessins has called this attention a blessing and a curse. This is where the couples' business model begins to show its true colors. To put it bluntly, Lydia is quoted as saying "the customer really isn't always right." It's pretty apparent that Esparza and Lessins' top priorities are:

1. Make the absolute best pizza possible, every time, no matter how long it takes or how impatient the customer, and
2. Keep in control of the pizzeria and don't let it rule your life. Don't expect this place to expand or open a second location.

I got lucky the night I stopped by (who am I kidding, I planned my day around this visit) and did not have to wait for a table (around 5 P.M. on a Saturday). There were three pizzas on the menu, of which I ordered #1 to stick as close to a traditional Margherita as possible. 40 minutes later the waitlist to be seated reached an hour and a half, and my pizza finally hit my table:

Homemade mozzarella, tomatoes (source and style unknown), mona cheese, and marjoram in lieu of basil. I'd never encountered an herb swappage such as this, but it definitely works. So what's my opinion on Great Lake's controversial pizza?

Pretty goddamn fantastic. I can honestly say (and did between slices) that I've never had a pizza quite like this. After watching Lessins meticulously stretch out pizza skin after pizza skin, I was expecting a heavy, dense pie, but boy was I wrong. As I lifted my first slice I thought it was going to float away- the crumb and hole structure throughout the whole pizza is a thing of beauty:

The dough has a great sourdough flavor due to the wild yeast Nick has cultured, and the flavors meld together in perfect harmony. My only regret was not ordering another pie or two (that Cremini mushroom pizza sounds stellar, right?), but after eating at five pizzerias prior and still needing to tackle another two that day, I had to refrain.

I did my best to capture the pizza's deliciousness via photograph, but I don't think my pizza was very photogenic. Now I bet you're wondering: was the service as shitty as everyone says it is? Yes and no. Nick and Lydia are very focused individuals with little concern for customer accommodations, and can at times come across as cold. That being said, I appreciate Lessins' attention to detail and sat patiently for a pizza well worth the wait. After the meal, Nick and I had a nice chat about his operation and I almost couldn't get him to stop talking.

While the pizzeria may lack somewhat of a soul, the bottom line is: you gotta try this pizza. Worth taking a trip to Chicago just to experience it? Probably not, but with everything this city has to offer (especially in the way of pizza), I highly suggest booking yourself a trip once the weather improves. Just don't expect any smiles from the other end of the counter.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Winter Pizza Party

I'm interrupting my recap of Chicago for the more self-serving purpose of blogging my own pizza from a little shindig last weekend-

The only rule of the night was to BYOT (bring your own toppings), resulting in some pretty zany combinations. By the end of the night I had fired eight pizzas in the smoldering depths of what is possibly the world's smallest home oven; three New York-style pies, three "Neapolitan" style, one Sicilian and a gluten-free.

This here's the gluten-free pizza made with Daiya dairy-free "cheese" for the celiac and vegan crowd. No wheat or dairy? I don't know how I'd survive in this world without beer and pizza, but no friend of mine should be left pizza-less regardless of dietary afflictions, so it had to be done. Needless to say, with a consistency resembling Play-Doh, gluten-free dough is the biggest pain in the ass.

New York-style pie. Could have used another 30 seconds under the broiler. Meh.

Next we had a white pie with fresh mozzarella, black olive pate, garlic, artichokes, and arugula. Clearly there were some clever flavor combinators in attendance.

I was pretty stoked on the fact that there were no technical dough-ficulties during the night- every pie built came right back out of the oven well-cooked (more or less).

The demand for meat was in the air, so someone decided throw together a pizza with San Marzano-based sauce, fresh mozz, (pre-oven) arugula, strips of bacon and (half) pineapple. I didn't get a chance to try this so I can't speak for the final outcome.

My pan of Sicilian dough had been rising for a few hours, so it was time to start making power moves on this guy.

Maybe not the best shot, but I was going for an L&B-inspired Sicilian pie with low-moisture mozz, NY-style tomato sauce, heavy sprinkling of grana padano, then half pepperoni and half mushroom.

Next up on the list is my pride and joy, the eponymous Pizza Commander I created while at Paulie Gee's- fior di latte, (pre-oven) arugula, cherry tomatoes, EVOO, shaved Parmesan and lemon juice.

I was pretty stoked on this pie; it turned out smashing.

I barely remember what went on this pizza, nor how many beers in I was at this point. I'm 90% it was the following: fior di latte, goat cheese, sliced pears lightly caramelized in Mike's Hot Honey, then topped with arugula fresh out of the oven.

No pizza party is complete without a desert pizza- sliced apples, honey, cinnamon, nutella and peanut butter. Peanut butter? Yeah I know, but it worked, so don't even.

Wash it all down with some limoncello digestif from a good friend,

Over and out.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Lou Malnatti's

After eating at Spacca Napoli, Pizzeria Uno, and Giordano's, I decided the least sane and healthy thing to do was to grab one more deep dish pizza at Lou Malnatti's. Ya know, for a night cap.

For the sake of convenience, I hit up the location on North Wells. Similar to New York City's incestuous pizza family tree, Chicago's pizza history is comprised of family legacy and pizzeria off-shoots, and Lou Malnatti's is no exception. When Rudy Malnatti, Sr. first brought deep dish pizza to the Windy City with Ike Sewell and Rick Ricardo at Pizzeria Uno, his sons Rudy Jr. and Lou soon joined the ranks helping out in the kitchen.

Flash forward 30-some odd years to 1971 to when Lou set out to open his eponymous pizzeria with his wife in Lincolnwood, IL, and history will show that Rudy's son had a success on his hands. Now with 31 locations scattered throughout the greater Chicago area, Lou Malnatti's is consistently ranked as one of the city's best pizzerias. I wasted no time ordering the "Malnatti Chicago Classic-"

As a disclaimer, I've been told the 6" individual pie is not the best option on which to base an opinion for any deep dish, but three pies in I didn't have the stomach to order anything larger.

The Malnatti Classic is made up of mozzarella, lean sausage, tomato sauce, Parmesan cheese, and Lou's signature butter crust. Full disclosure: I did not eat this in the restaurant. In fact, I ordered my pie with full intention of sitting down to wolf it, but minutes after ordering became discouraged and changed my order to go. Strangely enough, my pizza was ready just seconds after I did so (did I 'steal' someone else's pizza? Or are these par-baked?). Odd.

Of all the deep dish pizzerias I ate at (Lou's, Uno's, Gino's East, Pizano's, and Giordano's), Lou's was definitely my favorite, primarily due to the crust they rock. It's much simpler than its counterparts and quite frankly, it's tastier. It's thinner, crunchy while retaining a nice greasy breadiness, and most importantly it doesn't look as ridiculous as their competitor's product.

While I have my respect for it, I'm still not completely sold on the deep dish craze. Malnatti's may have been my favorite amongst this style, but I would still only rank it my 5th favorite pizza in the 12 I tried in Chicago. Oh what the heck, here's to you, Lou.


Just minutes after wolfing all but one slice of my individual pie at the OG Pizzeria Uno, I met a good friend near beautiful Millennium Park to dig right back in to another pie, this time at the birthplace of Chicago's acclaimed stuffed (not deep dish) pizza, Giordano's.

While this may not be the first Giordano's to open, I didn't have the luxury of opting for each pizzerias authentic original location considering how many spots I had to hit up while in town. Besides, I've never heard a Chicagoan insist on one pizzeria's location over another- quality control seems to be consistent across the city.

Cutting right to the chase- this is a stuffed pizza. Let me refine that; this is a small (10") spinach stuffed pizza. From the ground up, it consists of dough, spinach, mozzarella, dough (again), tomatoes, and Parmesan cheese.

Did I mention the crust is two inches tall?

I put my chapstick next to the pie just to give it some scale. I was at a loss for words when the pie hit the table. Deep dish is one thing, but two layers of dough? Are you trying to fatten me up to eat me? What's going on here?

Apparently Giordano's (and I'm assuming most other pizzerias in the city) use a pound and a half of cheese per pie. WOOF.

Giordano's was founded by brothers Efren and Joseph Boglio in 1974, both immigrants from northern Italy. According to Efren, his mother Giordana used to make stuffed pizza similar to what they serve today. For some reason, I have a hard time believing not only they serve stuffed pizza in northern Italy, but that it has any resemblance to this monstrosity. Until this can be proven to me, I'll accept the Boglio's story with a grain of salt.

While the ingredients in my pie certainly tasted fresh, I was underwhelmed by Giordano's dense, bready crust and superfluous second layer of dough. This pizza looks like a caricature of a pizza style already pushing the envelope on going overboard.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Spacca Napoli

Contrary to popular belief, Chicago's repertoire of pizza is not limited to just deep dish and stuffed style. In fact, it has its own VPN-certified Neapolitan Pizza joint in the northern neighborhood of Ravenswood, Spacca Napoli.

After numerous trips to Naples, Jon Goldsmith opened Spacca Napoli in the winter of 2006 after realizing Chicago had no traditional Neapolitan pizzerias to offer. Spacca Napoli translates directly to "Naples splitter," referring to a main thorough fair through Naples that literally divides the city into different sectors.

Originally Jon employed native Italian Nella Grassano as his pizzaiola until she left to start Pizzeria Nella in 2009, but nothing could have prepared me for who was behind the counter when a friend and I walked through the door:

(courtesy of FoodMayhem)

Keste pizzaiolo Roberto Caporuscio! We both did a double take upon seeing one another, and neither of us understood what the other was doing so far from home. I had just stopped in at Keste days before leaving for Chicago to see the man himself and grab one of his killer Margheritas. I am totally kicking myself, but in my stupor of such a coincidence I completely forgot to get a shot of him manning the oven (idiot!).

Check out that sweet custom oven! That bushel of grain is Spacca's logo designed by Jon's partner Ginny Skyles. Shortly after being seated, we were served a dish that any Keste regular would recognize-

I'm embarrassed to say, but I have no idea what this is called (anyone care to enlighten me?). Roberto whips these up and throws a combo of great toppings on top, ranging from squash and mozzarella to Marscapone and fennel. In this case, he made one with broccoli rabe, mozzarella and sausage. Yum!

Shortly thereafter, Roberto returned with Jon (a native New Yorker) to chat about Chicago pizza and gave me some additional recommendations while in town. Since the pizza menu was split between red and white pies and we were completely undecided, we decided to get one of each, starting of course with the Margherita:

This pizza was extremely tasty, but by no means life-changing in my opinion. After a while, it becomes hard to differentiate most Neapolitan pizzas from one another, especially when they are under the strict certification of the Vera Pizza Napoletana and there is little room to deviate from guidelines. Next up was our white pie, which features mozzarella, arugula, shaved Parmesan and Proscuitto:

This pie was the winner and tasted extremely fresh. After taking a bite, I realized this was one ingredient away from Paulie Gee's famous Parma d'Or, lacking only the fresh-squeezed lemon on top.

Something to note- of piles of leftovers I was forced to bring back to my gracious hosts while pizza hunting around the city, I think this pie held up the best. That being said, it's a no-brainer that this pizza is best consumed straight out of the oven.

Spacca Napoli (and Roberto Caporuscio) whipped up some fantastic pies, making this my third favorite pizzeria (out of 12) that I visited in Chicago.

Pizzeria Uno

Well kids, I'm back from Chicago, and while I may be five pounds heavier from all the pizza, I had a total blast. The trip had a tumultuous start in which I nearly missed my flight, but alas I made it to chilly Chi-town unscathed. Where else should I begin than at the birthplace of deep-dish pizza as we know it, Pizzeria Uno?

Located on the corner of Wabash and Ohio St., former University of Texas football player Ike Sewell opened the original Pizzeria Uno in the River North region of Chicago with his partner, WWII vet Rick Ricardo in 1943.

If you can't tell from this picture, the place is pretty tiny and cramped. It's got a real cozy, authentic feel to it (unlike the hundreds of other franchised Uno's). As the story goes, Ike wanted to open a Mexican restaurant in Chicago since the city had none to offer, but his friend Rick, having just returned from fighting fascists and nomming slices in Italy, insisted they open a pizzeria.

Only one problem: neither Ike nor Rick knew how to make pizza. In desperation, the duo found a saucy Italian guy named Rudy Malnatti to come up with a new-fangled recipe the likes of which had never been seen- or tasted before. The rest is history, I give you the birth of the deep-dish pizza:

So what exactly is a deep-dish pizza? In most cases these pies consist of dough pressed into a 1-2 inch deep aluminum pan, followed by cheese and any additional toppings (a bit of a misnomer in this case, isn't it?), then rich, chunky tomato sauce and a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.

What makes each pizzeria unique is what the ingredients they choose to make their dough. Comparatively, Uno has a relatively basic crust that tastes altogether bready compared to some of its other Windy City counterparts.

Both the menu and the pizza at HQ were significantly different (and simpler) from any of the Uno franchises I've ever visited. I know the chains use soybean oil in order to obtain that pastry-like consistency in the crust, but this did not seem to be the case here. No "Pizza Skins," "Avocado Rolls" or "Buffalo Chicken Quesadillas" either; just pizza, salad, and a few appetizers (the way it should be, in my opinion).

Twelve years after the creation of Uno, Sewell opened Pizzeria Due across the street to accommodate the crowds, and ten years after that, finally opened his Mexican restaurant, Su Casa. While it was refreshing to see that Uno's relatively-new corporate owners left the flagship restaurant untouched, the original Pizzeria Uno left me wanting more.
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