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.