Friday, January 28, 2011

Pat's Pizza

Just after departing from the Chicago Pizza Tour, I zipped uptown to Lincoln Park with a friend to check out what is hailed as one of the city's best thin-crust pizza at Pat's.

I have absolutely no idea who Pat is or was, but the pizzeria was started by Nick Pianetto in 1950 out of his family home. The restaurant remained in its original location until a few years ago before ultimately relocating to its current location on North Lincoln Ave.

Check out these rows of booths with their own roof! I wasn't patient enough to wait for one of these cozy guys, so I dashed into a roofless booth and ordered a plain thin crust pie with a quickness. After trying Pizano's flavorless, undercooked take on this style, I was weary and set my expectations low. Then the pie arrived:

ThaswhaddImtalkinbout! A well-cooked thin crust pizza with a perfect balance of flavorful ingredients, Pat's knows how to make a good, solid pie. It came as a relief to see an undercrust with some color- something I had grown accustomed not to expect in Chicago.

This is the epitome of Chicago's take on thin crust; a minimalistic counterpoint to often overwhelming deep dish pizzas. Always cut tavern-style/party-style, leaving the crustless center squares the trickiest and greasiest to handle.

Honestly there wasn't anything profound or incredible about Pat's, it's just a real solid, tasty pizza that I would eat over and over again if I lived in the Windy City. Further, I think the pizza here struck a chord of nostalgia for me, beckoning my taste buds back to similar pies found at places like Carbone's in Minneapolis on which I was raised.

I was happy to scarf a pie that boldly asserted that not all thin crust in Chicago was a bland alternative to ordering a demanding deep dish, like some sort of boring younger brother of your best friend. No, at Pat's the thin crust pizza commands the attention and appetite of its patrons, and while you can order a deep dish here if you want, you'd be missing the point.


After stuffing myself with pies from 6 other pizzerias, I decided to (of course) eat more pizza and grab my first "NY-style" slice in Chicago at Santullo's while waiting for my table down the street at Piece Pizza.

At this point, I'd had a good variety of deep dish, Neapolitan, artisinal and thin crust pizza throughout Chicago, but no hot slices. Thankfully Santullo's, located in the oh-so-hip Wicker Park neighborhood, couldn't have been more convenient for me at the time.

The place has a welcoming, almost kitschy rockabilly feel to it, with plenty of seating and tongue-in-cheek humor regarding its clientele.

I was
so used to stumbling into NY pizza joints and placing my order with anyone willing to take it- not the case at Santullo's. I had to be redirected to the front register (even though I was the only customer around).

It was there that I came across Santullo's esteemed "Best Pizza" award next to the register. I don't really understand it- it's cutter attached to a golden wire-frame pizza slice? Hmm, okay. Pretty sweet.

This coupled with the seemingly endless reheat process, I was seeping with anticipation for my slice. "This is going to be so awesome," I remember thinking to myself.

...This is so not awesome. Look at the muted layer of coagulated cheese. In this light (which to be fair is unflattering), it looks almost like prosthetic skin. Did I just make that up? After a good four minutes reheating in the oven, the slice was somehow piping hot and incredibly soggy at the same time.

The last time I ate a slice this shitty and sloppy it was at Blondie's in San Fran. No, Santullo's slice isn't quite as bad, but after making my way halfway through and sampling the crust, I tossed it in the trash all the same. And that's saying a lot.

Sure Santullo's, if that's what you wanna call it. At this point I realized Chicago should stick to making deep dish, and NY should stick to making slices. Please.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Chicago Pizza Tour

As I prepared for my pizza expedition out west, one of the best decisions I made was to book myself a spot on Jon Porter's Chicago Pizza Tour.

A native Chicagoan, Jon has his eyes on the pies and his thumb on the pulse of the Windy City's pizza scene. Yet he's not the only pizzaphile in town operating a pizza tour- in fact, the city has three competing tours. So how did I pick Jon's CPT?

(There's Jon on the right with a double-dose of driver Jim Nikitas)

For one thing, Jon is the only tour that travels by bus- or should I say, via the Dough Force One. The heavy snow that Saturday only reinforced my decision.

Jon's tour also seems to have the most pizzeria diversity compared to his competitors, cutting across traditional Chicago deep dish and thin crust, artisinal, and brick oven styles. Also before I forget, there's something to be said about the similarity in logos between Scott's Pizza Tour and the Slice of Chicago pizza tour:

Calling SoCPT's logo similar is being nice. What gives?

We started out at Pizano's in the loop. This pizzeria was founded by Rudy Malnatti, Jr., the son of the legendary man behind Pizzeria Uno and brother to Lou Malnatti.

Here we tried Pizano's deep dish as well as their thin crust-

My apologies on the low exposure. To be quite honest, I wasn't very impressed with either pie. The deep dish had a firm, bready crust similar to Pizzeria Uno's, and the thin crust was disappointingly undercooked on the bottom.

After hopping into the Dough Force One, we headed north to artisinal pizzeria Apart Pizza.

Immediately upon walking in the door, I knew this place was serious about the pies they crank out.

I love the "CAUTION: We cook real Italian pizza" warning. Most Chicagoans must not know what they're getting into.

Co-owner Bianca Ganvik warmly received us before taking us back stage to show off her ovens and *gasp* let some of us make our own pizza! I couldn't resist.

Awe-inspiring, I know. I took a cue from Jon and made some sort of breakfast concoction including mozzarella, ham, goat cheese, egg and oregano...

...while the resident chef whipped up one of Apart's signature "Pollo Tuscano" pies, consisting of chicken, mushrooms, onions, Feta and roasted peppers.

I had a great time on the tour, and was stoked that I could knock down slices at four pizzerias that I would have had to otherwise visit individually. Not only does Jon know his pizza, he knows his history which provided for a tasty, informative and well-rounded tour of Chicago.

If you find yourself hungry in the Windy City with a free afternoon and a serious case of indecision, do yourself a favor and give Jon a call.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Gino's East

Just as I thought my journey on the Chicago Pizza Tour was beginning to wind down, I had no idea what I was in for.

Holy shit. Welcome to Gino's East.

This is Gino's East's largest location, formerly a Planet Hollywood, where vandalizing is not only allowed but encouraged on any untouched spot in the joint-

Why not? It's fun for the whole family!

Gino' East was founded in '66 by two taxi-drivin' buds Fred Bartoli and Sam Levine with their pal George Laverde. Though they were (relatively) recent Italian transplants, they had no idea what they were doing when it came to deep dish pizza, so they hired this woman:

Alice Mae Redmond. This righteous lady cut her teeth making pies at deep dish ultra HQ Pizzeria Uno and Pizzeria Due for 17 years before heading over to Gino's East to do some major damage.

Unhappy with the taste and consistency of the crust in Uno's pie, Alice made some major tweaks to create what has now become legendary at Gino's- a thick, bready, corny crust.

Yes, you heard me right. This stuff tastes about one ingredient away from actual cornbread and has a slight sweetness to it.

Somebody that saw this picture without any explanation thought it was a bloody foot. What you're looking at here is Gino's crumbled sausage deep dish pizza (not to be confused with the disc-like patty sausage variety) consisting of the aforementioned crust, a pound and a half of mozzarella, sweet chunky tomato sauce, and small bits of sausage.

Alice eventually retired in 1989 after developing recipes and working at Gino's for 29 years. I'm impressed...

...unfortunately I can't say the same for Of all the deep dish places I visited, I think I liked Gino's LEast.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


Initially I was planning on squeezing the four pizzerias I visited while aboard the Chicago Pizza Tour into one review, but my experience at Coalfire ensured this place deserves its own write-up.

Just before we rolled up to our third stop of the day amidst the billowing snow in the "Dough Force One," our guide Jon Porter passed around this year's Chicago Magazine which featured critic Jeff Ruby's top 25 pizzerias in the city. Guess who's pizza graced the cover?

BOOM, Coalfire! As Jon explained it, J. Spillane was a bartender at The Matchbox who always had a gripe with what Chicagoans passed as pizza. He'd go on and on about what pies were like back east outside of Boston in his native Worcester, MA (pronounced /wuh-stuh/ for those unfamiliar). Finally someone challenged him to make something better, so J. took to his home oven and his grandmother's recipe.

Being the perfectionist that he is, Spillane tossed out his family's dough recipe in search of something even better. After many pies and tribulations (see what I did there?), he brought a pizza by the bar and silenced the patrons to such an extent he decided to open his own pizzeria just down the road with a fellow Massachusite? Massachussetter? I give up, I'm going with Masshole.

After J. picked his oven of choice, the place practically named itself. Do I even have to tell you what kind of fuel they use in their oven?

That's 800 degrees for ya. Just like its coal-burning forefathers like John's and Patsy's, it only takes a mere 2 minutes to fire a pie in that monster. The result?

What a beautiful pie, ammiright?

Upon my first glance at the crust, I was immediately reminded of Totonno's dark-tinted cornicione.

Just when I was beginning to believe the Windy City was made up of nothing but deep dish pizzerias, J. swoops in to save the day. The crust was chewy, the sauce tangy, and silky mozzarella not a touch over-burned, all finished off with a firm, crispy undercrust.

Along with our margherita, we also got to taste Coalfire's white pie consisting of ricotta, mozzarella, Romano, black pepper, oregano, garlic-infused olive oil, and of course garnished with fresh basil.

Pretty decent slice, but my initial reaction was that it could use a bit of a salty kick. Maybe a little more Romano or even some sea salt? Regardless, this pie's delicate balance yields a creamy, fluffy product that is not to be messed with.

Here's the Coalfire crew-

L-R: Dave Bonomi, Bill Carroll, and J. Spillane. Not only was it refreshing to come across some east coast transplants that know how to throw a good pie, Coalfire's margherita was one of the best pizzas I had while in Chicago and for that matter, anywhere in quite some time.

Keep the home fire burnin', guys.
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