This is the blog and public record of the Chicago Pizza Club. We eat a lot of pizza and share our thoughts on it as well as post any relevant pizza news we come across.

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Saturday, May 10, 2014

Bartoli's Pizzeria [Meeting #114]

1955 West Addison Street (Map)
Chicago, IL 60613
(773) 248-0455

CPC braved a snowstorm and invaded Bartoli's Pizzeria on Sunday, December 8, 2013. 

It's been quite a while since a new place opened that serves quality deep dish pizza. Even as pizza artists have reached for the stars on the thin end of the spectrum (Reno, Balena, etc.), nobody has put forth a serious challenge to Lou Malnati's and Pizano's, both of which have added locations in recent years. But word coming out of Roscoe Village was that something pretty excellent was brewing at Bartoli's, a pizzeria with historical deep dish street cred. Kind of.

Bartoli's was founded by Brian Tondryk, who named the place after his grandfather, Fred Bartoli. Grandpa Bartoli was one of the founders of Gino's East, hence the claim to deep dish OG street cred. But neither Bartoli nor his Gino's East co-founders Sam Levine and George Loverde knew a thing about making pizza when they bought some property on East Superior Street downtown and decided to put a pizzeria in there. Instead, they simply hired Alice Mae Redmond away from Uno's.

Given that Fred Bartoli likely had nothing to do with the actual recipe at Gino's East, it's a bit curious that Bartoli's claims on its menu that "Bartoli's deep dish pizza crust is a 50-year old family recipe." I suppose family recipe could mean that the recipe was owned by the family or they could be referring to the Redmond family recipe, but those are not reasonable interpretations. Given that the current owners of Gino's East have consistently lowered their standards, it makes sense that Bartoli's explicitly declare they are carrying on the tradition of Gino's East rather than the current iteration. But to do without acknowledging Alice Mae Redmond is just not right.

So how was the food?

We tried one deep dish and one thin crust pizza. We also, thanks to a couple early arrivals hell-bent on breaking CPC protocol, tried "badger-style fried cheese balls."

Let's start with the badger-style fried cheese balls, which are basically fried cheese curds. Fried cheese is one of those things that's pretty tough to screw up and Bartoli's puts out a fine rendition. The breading is on the thicker side and had some nice seasoning. Some people opted to dip in the accompanying marinara sauce but I didn't think it was necessary.

For our deep dish selection, we opted for spinach. Bartoli's uses fresh spinach, which is always a plus, though there wasn't all that much of it on the pizza. The chunky sauce seemed fresh and was well-balanced between tangy and sweet. It was particularly good as compared to the processed sugary tomato paste Gino's East calls sauce these days. That alone makes this place leaps and bounds better than the current iteration of its inspiration.

All was not right with this pizza, however. Due to the weather, there was only one other occupied table in the place. Smart people all stayed in that night, so it's quite possible that there were a lot of deliveries going out. But whatever the reason, our pizza was significantly overcooked and had a crust that was way too firm. The taste was fine, but I couldn't get over the crunchy crust. Well, I suppose the fact that I happily ate my entire slice meant I could get over it, but it was a real flaw. I left thinking it was good enough that I should go back but it's been 5 months and that hasn't happened yet. Shame on me.

For our thin option, we went with a pizza that had mushrooms all the way across and sausage on half. Other than Pizano's, I've never been particularly impressed with the thin crust offerings from pizzerias that specialize in deep dish and Bartoli's version wasn't great. The problem, as it usually is, was that the crust was flavorless and way too dry. That said, everything else about the thin crust pie was very good.

The toppings, cheese and sauce were well-balanced. There was no skimping on the mushrooms and the sausage was very good, though a little more fennel would have been nice. All in all, a solid thin crust pizza but not one worth going out of your way for.

Phred approves of Bartoli's!

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Freddie's [Meeting #113]

701 W. 31st Street (Map)
Chicago, IL 60616
(312) 808-0147

CPC invaded Freddies aka Fabulous Freddies Italian Eatery at 5:30 PM on Sunday, September 22, 2013.

It's been nearly two years since the Chicago Pizza Club ventured out to a place with less than high expectations. One of the drawbacks of infrequent meetings besides less pizza (this was just our 10th since the start of 2011) is that we've gotten quite a bit less ambitious in exploring places that are a bit below the radar. Freddie's (also spelled Freddies and also sometimes known as Fabulous Freddies Italian Eatery), has been serving up pizza and a whole lot more in Bridgeport since 1990.

The menu at Freddie's is a bit ridiculous in its length. In addition to three kinds of pizza (thin crust, deep dish, and stuffed) and homemade "panzarotti puffs," they've got everything from burgers and beefs to fried chicken and fried breaded pork to classic Italian American sandwiches and pastas to salads to fried fish and a host of sausages to breakfast sandwiches. Seriously, go look at the menu; there's a lot more than I just listed. Ordinarily, that would be a huge red flag. But upon closer inspection, some care is revealed - homemade soup of the day, homemade donuts, and homemade Italian ice. Also promising was that the menu lists sausage pizza as its own category. That's usually a sign that, if nothing else, the sausage is going to be pretty excellent. So that's where I was coming from when I walked in the door. Come along and see how things played out.

Seven Pizza Clubbers made it to the meeting which gave us sufficient ordering power.

We ordered:

The best pizza of the night by a wide margin was the stuffed pizza, which we got with pepperoni, garlic, and onion, a routinely successful combination of toppings. When ordering a stuffed pizza, diners are asked whether they want it with sauce or not. For people who buy into the theory put forth by the founders of Giordano's and Nancy's (visited pre-website), that stuffed pizza is based on scarciedda, an Easter pie filled with ricotta, an egg, and other goodies, it actually makes sense because tomato sauce wasn't part of that tradition.

Naturally, we opted for sauce and it was a good thing we did. This chunky and surprisingly vibrant sauce was a nice touch for the thick pizza, even if it lacked the herbaceousness of places like Giordano's. The top crust was thick for a style of pizza where it's usually close to paper-thin. I think this might have the thickest top crust of any stuffed pizza this side of Connie's (another place considers sauce on stuffed pizza to be optional. The cheese, melted to an ideal gooeyness, was fine, and for a group trying as many pizzas we were, thankfully less prevalent than at some other places in town. All together, I really enjoyed the stuffed pizza; certainly more than the other two pies of the evening.

We're spoiled in Chicago with great sausage. It's odd that so much of the country fails to measure up considering that good sausage is incredibly easy to make, but that's their problem. Know what's hard to make? Unfortunately, as the thin crust pizza at Freddie's demonstrated, a good pizza crust. This crust was not good - it was flavorless and was not crisp at all. Technically, this is what Freddies calls a regular crust. There's a thinner thin crust option and we should have asked for that. Slices were available at the counter and the thinner crust appeared to be almost cracker-like. There's no reason to think the taste would have been any better, but the texture would have been an upgrade.

The sausage was pretty good. To be fair, by national standards, it was very, very good. But in this sausage-loving town, we can be hypercritical and note that it could have used more fennel and a little more chewiness. The cheese didn't stand out as a positive or negative, nor did the sauce. The dearth of sauce was surprising, especially when considering the thickness of the crust.

We finished about 2/3 of the thin crust pizza and nobody really wanted to take home the extras. I took home three squares, one of which Phred thoroughly enjoyed.

It's quite possible a deep dish pizza with Italian beef and giardiniera is the most Chicago food one can buy. Unfortunately, this was the least enjoyable pizza of the night. The biggest problem was, again, with the crust. Let's start with the obvious; this crust is not close to a traditional deep dish pizza crust. Allow me to take a step back and make clear that people with strict rules about pizza categories frequently take it too far. But at some point names have to mean something and a deep dish pizza is more than just a thin pizza with more of everything.

The Uno's/Gino's East/Lou Malnati's/Pizano's family of deep dish all feature a crust that is more a slightly crunchy biscuit version of bread than generic thick crust on this. I'd call this pan pizza, but I still wouldn't want to eat it again. Sorry, that's mean, but the bottom line is that this came across as a rendition of deep dish pizza made by someone who'd never had the real thing.

The pizza puffs, which can be ordered baked or fried, are unquestionably the best pizza-ish value at $4 plus 75 cents per topping. It's a good rule in life that when any food is offered baked or fried, the latter should be chosen, and that's what we did. The most obvious benefit was that the crust that had been a problem so far was transformed into a flaky and crunchy bread that actually quite nice.

I suppose it's an art form to fry a pizza puff this big and achieve a beautiful golden crust and melted cheese. As you can see, this one came up a little short in the melted cheese department but that wasn't really noticeable when eating it. Overall, the pizza puff was a success. Until more places start making their own, it's easy to say this is one of the best in Chicago..

 We were all full after eating our fill of pizza but there were homemade desserts to be had. Some people refused to partake in the sweets, but those of us who did were rewarded with some very good Italian ice. The Italian ice is offered in sizes ranging from 8 ounces to 2 gallons and diners can enjoy lemon, strawberry, watermelon, cantaloupe, raspberry, and mango. We split an 8-ounce cup of lemon and watermelon and, despite our overstuffed state, would have eaten more. Also good, but not as special were the donuts, which are made to order and covered in a whole lot of powdered sugar.

It's doubtful anyone is going to go into Freddy's expecting to get their minds blown and it's even more doubtful that anyone will leave thinking they just had the best pizza of their lives. CPC members were a bit divided, but for me, I could see myself stopping in on my way to a Sox game for a stuffed pizza and an Italian ice. 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Reno [Meeting #112]

2607 N Milwaukee Ave (Map)
Chicago, IL 60647
(773) 697-4234

CPC and family invaded Reno at 5:30 PM on Sunday, January 27, 2013. Marla Collins' Husband started writing this review in early March and just finished it in mid-August.

El Presidente has two babies and a very important job so it's understandable that he did not get around to writing this review. I didn't jot down any thoughts after the Chicago Pizza Club ate most of the pizzas at Reno, but I've got one hell of a pizza memory. For the second consecutive time, we gathered early on a Sunday night in order to accommodate the early bedtimes of the next generation of the CPC. At this meeting, young Estela, Cora (first CPC meeting outside the womb!), and Hugo were joined by 6 full-fledged adult members and, for the very first time, a parent of a CPC member. That's right, three generations of the Chicago Pizza Club made a temporary home in Logan Square to eat some pizza!

Reno is the latest venture from the team that has given Chicago Webster's Wine Bar, Telegraph, and Bluebird. Of the three, I've only been to Bluebird and that was to drink while waiting for  a table to open up next door at Hot Chocolate, so I'm not sure whether Reno's pedigree should impress or not. But after eating there, I do know the pizza at Reno is worthy of a visit from anyone serious about our favorite food.

Reno had 8 pizzas on the dinner menu with predetermined sets of toppings along with a plain sauced pie to which diners can add toppings. Apparently the menu does change a bit because there was a pizza with beets and whipped tofu available when we visited that has mercifully been removed. (Note: Amanda wanted us to order the Beetza (shaved beets / hazelnuts / thyme / whipped tofu) and she should be publicly be humiliated for that). Here's the menu as of early March, which was very similar to the one we saw in late January (the Bono was not there for our visit):

Mozzarella / Fresh Basil / Red Sauce —9
Add toppings & make it your own
Roasted Cauliflower / Truffle / Parmesan / Mozzarella
Paulina Pepperoni / Jalapeño Pesto / Mozzarella / Red Sauce
Edward’s Ham / Kimchi / Spinach / Mozzarella / Fried Garlic
Artichoke / Spinach / Gouda / Mozzarella / Pecorino
Porkbelly Carnitas / Salsa Verde / Mozzarella / Rajas / Cotija Cheese
Fennel Sausage / Crimini Mushroom / Smoked Onion / Mozzarella / Red Sauce
Butternut Squash / Sage / Gruyere Cheese / Walnuts / Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Sweet Potato / Brussels Sprout / Corned Beef / Smoked Onion / Aleppo Pepper

*** As of August 17, 2013, the menu is now:

Mozzarella / Fresh Basil / Red Sauce —9
Add toppings & make it your own Husker
Sweet Corn Salsa / Roasted Eggplant / Grilled Peppers / Mozzarella / Basil
Paulina Pepperoni / Jalapeño Pesto / Mozzarella / Red Sauce
Artichoke / Spinach / Gouda / Mozzarella / Pecorino
The Meg
Arbol Peanut Salsa / Spinach / Smoked Onion / Piquillo Pepper
Porkbelly Carnitas / Salsa Verde / Mozzarella / Rajas / Cotija Cheese
Fennel Sausage / Crimini Mushroom / Smoked Onion / Mozzarella / Red Sauce
Proscuitto di Parma / Asparagus / Sunny Side Egg / Rosemary / Mozzarella
Smoked Chicken / Arbol Peanut Salsa / Green Onion / Smoked Onion

As you can see, lots of changes. ***

Back to the actual meeting, which took place over six months ago. We sampled the Hog, the Combo, the Butternut, the Southern, the Paulina, a Reno that we topped with pepperoni, onion and garlic; and, because there were children present, a plain Reno.

Remember that memory I bragged about at the beginning? I wrote that in early March. It's now mid-August and my memory's not superhuman, so I can't get too detailed. Look at the ingredients and the pictures and use your imagination. And take it as a major compliment to Reno that the following thoughts remain in my head almost seven months after I ate this stuff:

The crust is really, really good. It's got the whole crisp and chewy thing down pat - that was consistent in every pizza. There wasn't anything that stood out particularly about the flavor, but to the extent a test of a crust is whether it would be enjoyable to eat without cheese, sauce or toppings,  this one passes with flying colors.

In terms of the toppings,  the Hog and the Paulina really stood out. They were creative, but not just for the sake of creativity; the combinations were as delicious as they are uncommon. The Hog is just about the best Mexicanish pizza you'll find anywhere and the jalapeno pesto on The Paulina (with pepperoni from Paulina Meat Market!) was a standout topping that really ought to be bottled and sold. It makes perfect sense that those two have remained on the menu that, as you can see above, has seen some major tinkering since the CPC visited. I was also a big fan of the Combo. The sausage was studded with fennel and the smoked onion was a unique and pretty excellent twist on a fairly typical toppings' combination that a self-respecting Chicagoan would consider ordering anywhere.

Not surprisingly, at least to me, the butternut was the least successful of the night, reinforcing that the 99.99% of pizzerias that never put butternut squash on a pizza have the right idea. Update: Amanda says the butternut was her idea and that she didn't push for the tofu. The dinner was 7 months ago; she might be right. But still, public shaming for foisting butternut and sage upon us is appropriate.

That's all I've got. Hopefully some CPC members will chime in with their memories. And perhaps the best thing I can say is that coming back and finishing this review makes me realize how badly I need to get back to Reno. And not just for the pizza. We also had a sampling of desserts and they were, for me, the highlight of a delicious meal.

Lastly, a housekeeping note. There has been a coup in the Chicago Pizza Club. El Presidente has been banished to the pizza wasteland that is Orlando, Florida. There will be an election at the next CPC meeting to anoint a new Supreme Leader. I will have the only vote in the election. The winner will be me, Marla Collins' Husband the Magnificent, Prime Minister of Pizza. All hail MCHMPMP!

chicagopizzaclub's Reno album on Photobucket

Monday, January 28, 2013

Balena [Meeting #111]

1633 North Halsted Street (Map)
Chicago, IL 60614
(312) 867-3888

CPC invaded Balena on December 16, 2012.

The Chicago Pizza Club may not be the active hotbed of pizza exploration it once was, but the CPC is not dead. And what our 2012 lacked in quantity was made up for in quality. Our last meeting (Tocco) may have been a dud, but our first three stops of the year (Roots, Jimmy's, and Pizzeria da Nella) were all excellent. 80% success rate makes for a great year but 60% success is decidedly mediocre. See, kids, when you're dealing with a small set of numbers, each individual one carries a lot of weight. What that means is that Balena, the joint venture of Chef Chris Pandel (The Bristol) and the Boka Boys, was going to make or break our year.

Eight CPC members, one 2-year-old child, one 3-month-old child (CPC debut!), and one 3-week-pre-birth fetus all gathered around a pretty sweet large heavy wood table in a nook in the back of the restaurant. The pizzas, which range from $13 to $18, are 12 inches across and the restaurant's recommendation is that diners share a pizza before diving into the more expensive entrees. That wasn't going to work for us, so after getting an incredibly enthusiastic overview of the menu from our very friendly server, we placed an order for each of the six pizzas currently on the menu:

  • Mozzarella, Basil, Tomato
  • Cauliflower, Garlic Crema, Burrata, Anchoïade
    • This was one of t the anchoïade (typically a blend of olive oil, white wine vinegar, garlic and anchovies)
  • Spicy Sausage, Red Onion, Tomato, Mozzarella
    •  The spicy sausage, made in-house, was particularly good. It was nice to see a new place put out sausage that holds its own against the better old-school purveyors in town.
  • Mushroom, Fontina, Taleggio, Scallion, Thyme
    •  This umami bomb of a pizza was one of just two vegetarian options but packed enough flavor to stand up against its meaty counterparts
  • Brussels Sprout, Pancetta, Pecorino, Red Onion
    •  Anyone who does not think Brussels sprouts are an underrepresented pizza topping needs to check this thing out. This combination of sweet, salty, and earthy flavors made for my favorite combination of the night.
  • Mortadella, Pistachio Pesto, Mozzarella 
    • Pistachios, often an ingredient in mortadella, are a logical choice for pairing with the classic Italian meat. But rather than toss some crunchy nuts on there, Balena takes a more creative apporoach with the pesto which eliminated textural issues that might bother some people and ensures there's pistachio flavor in each bite.
The menu does change with the seasons so readers shouldn't get their heart set on any of these particular combinations of toppings. But based on what we sampled, anyone going to Balena should look forward to having a nice array of extremely well executed toppings, some in combinations found in virtually every pizzeria in America, but others that might not exist anywhere else.

The only issue with the pizzas for me, and it's not a major one, came with the crust. The first thing that jumps out when seeing the pizzas is just how much crust is left naked. If the bread is exceptional, like at Great Lake (RIP, hopefully temporarily) or at Mozza in Los Angeles, that's easily overlooked. But Balena's crust, while quite good, isn't in that league. That's not to say it's bad, it tastes like a basic freshly made piece of bread. Our server told us there's some honey in the dough, but its impact seems limited to enhancing the beautiful golden color. The drawback with the crust was that it was extraordinary chewy. A couple people didn't eat all of their end crusts, though I ate mine and finished off a couple others.

The final components of the of the pizza experience at Nellcote, which we failed to document with pictures, are the housemade chili flakes and chili oil, which are provided with every pizza for those who want to kick up their pizzas a bit. None of the pizzas were starving for more flavor, but these were both a nice touch for those of us who like a little more heat of the variety that complements rather than overwhelms.

Because there were 8 of us and only six pizzas, the CPC made the rare decision to add some non-pizza items to our order. The only hard part was deciding which pair of pastas we were going to add to our order.
  • Orecchiette, Kale, Lemon, Bread Crumbs, Chili
  • Rigatoni, Pork Ragu, Porcini Mushroom 
This is the Chicago Pizza Club not the Chicago Pasta Club so I'm not going to get into details about these two $16 plates of noodles. I will say that these were inhaled and I'm pretty sure everyone made a mental note to return to Balena for more pasta at some point.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Tocco Pizza e Arte [Meeting #110]

Tocco Pizza e Arte
1266 North Milwaukee Avenue (Map)
Chicago, IL 60622
(773) 687-8895

CPC invaded the patio at Tocco on July 30, 2012.

From the time of unification until the 1970s, the Italian government maintained a monopoly on salt.  The government was so devoted to retaining that power that, at least in the 1890s, it actually restricted how much ocean water people could take to their house because they might use the small number of crystals that would be left behind days later when the water evaporated rather than buy more of the heavily-taxed, government-controlled product. While I highly doubt the intent at Tocco is to create a tribute to those oppressive days in Italy, I did find the pizzas to be the most underseasoned ones I can remember eating.

Five members of the Chicago Pizza Club headed to Tocco on a surprisingly mild Tuesday night. The wall of windows was wide open, giving those of us who took our place on the patio several steps off of a largely ungentrified stretch of Milwaukee Avenue a clear look at one of the more stylish interiors the Chicago Pizza Club has encountered. We ordered five pizzas:

  • Margherita
  • Casarecci (white pizza with mozzarella, gorgonzola, fresh tomatoes and mushrooms)
  • Soppressata
  • Milanese (mozzarella, prosciutto and fresh arugula)
  • Red pizza with zucchini, kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, and mushrooms (name not on the website and therefore lost to history)
These pizzas, which ranged from $12 - $18 and are intended as a meal for one person, were not very good. The crust on each pie, which looked pretty enough thanks to some nice charring in spots, was dry and had no real flavor. The cracker-like texture was fine, but that just made it a cracker crust, not a good crust. The sauce, which was present on three of the pizzas, and which was presumably made from canned San Marzano or some other type of Roma tomato, tasted like, well, tomatoes. Like the crust, there was no noticeable salt. And these tomatoes were not particularly bright; not bad, but not that good. Another note about the sauce - there were seeds in it. They were soft seeds and I probably wouldn't have noticed them had I not looked closely at the sauce, but it's just lazy to leave them in.

There were a couple of highlights. Actually, there was one. The soppressata itself was actually good cured meat that packed a little heat. The pizza was simple and, other than the crust, not particularly flawed. The Margherita was also pretty good, but the cheese, like the sauce, brought nothing that made it stand out at all. It looked like fresh mozzarella, but wasn't the creamiest version out there.

The other three pizzas had significant problems. The Casarecci and the red pizza with the unknown name, suffered not only from the lack of salt that was a theme of the night, but also from decidedly unimpressive ingredients. Every single vegetable tasted like one of the cooks walked to the nearby Jewel and picked up whatever was on sale. It's the middle of summer; there's no excuse for using vegetables with this little flavor.

The Milanese might have been the worst offender of the evening. The prosciutto, which was far too thick and chewy, was a virtual salt lick. The meat was so oversalted that if someone in the kitchen could have figured out a way to extract the salt from the prosciutto and distribute it across the other four bland pizzas, then it's possible the tenor of this review would be entirely different. But that science doesn't exist and we were left with an unsatisfactory pizza meal. The arugula on the Milanese was good, but sandwiched between that prosciutto and a dose of Parmesan that looked and tasted like it came from a green shaker, it wasn't going to save the pizza.

All that said, we at the Chicago Pizza Club are troopers. We ate almost everything so Tocco's pizza at least had a little going for it. But I'll be surprised if any of us go back there again.

Petey Pizza gives Tocco Pizza e Arte a 4.9.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Pizzeria da Nella Cucina Napoletana [Meeting #109]

Pizzeria da Nella
1443 W. Fullerton Ave. (Google Maps)
Chicago, IL 60614
(773) 281-6600

CPC filled just one table at Pizzeria da Nella on June 14, 2012.

For a pizza town as outstanding as Chicago, there are surprisingly few well known pizzamakers. There's certainly no known deep dish piemaster of note actually doing the cooking (though I have no doubt that both Marc and Rudy Malnati can make a great pie). Same goes for most thin crust places - Pat's not cooking at Pat's (CPC review here) and there's no Vito or Nick slinging pizzas at Vito & Nick's (CPC review here). And at Spacca Napoli (CPC review here), owner Jonathan Goldsmith does a great job as a host and he's been overseeing the best Neapolitan operation in Chicago for six years, but he's not cooking pizzas.

But then there's Nella Grassano, the best known pizza craftsman in town. There's no question that Grassano can make stellar Neapolitan pizzas. She ran the kitchen at Spacca Napoli when it opened but then left after  a falling out with Goldsmith. A little less than 3 years ago, she reappeared on the scene with Nella Pizzeria Napoletana (CPC review here). With a Lincoln Park location, the financial backing of Scott Harris, and more advance press than perhaps any pizzeria in Chicago history, all seemed to be going her way. But then she and Harris's relationship soured and that was that.

None of this is intended as a knock on Grassano at all; I have no idea what happened in either situation. What I do know is that her skills are undeniable and now, with the opening of Pizzeria da Nella in Lincoln Park, she has quietly returned to the scene and is once again demonstrating that, like her father and grandfather before her, making pizza is what she was meant to do. This time, the money is coming from a much more silent partner, the owners of Tsuki, a sushi restaurant in the same location that shut down over two years ago.

The restaurant is on Fullerton, just west of Southport, one of those locations that's close to a lot, but isn't going to see a lot of foot traffic. Nella and her husband Frank have never wanted for confidence in abilities, but apparently confident that her pizza is good enough to draw crowds, Nella and her husband Frank have built out a space that holds at least 50 people inside and, when the weather permits, another 40 outside. Nella brought in her brother to help out with the non-pizza items, but she's going to make every pie in the gorgeous tile-covered oven built by a crew flown in from Naples.

The 3 1/2 CPC members who attended this pre-heat-wave meeting opted to take advantage of the mild early summer evening and sit outside. We were there on a Thursday night with great weather and and saw about 30 or so customers. Admittedly knowing nothing about the restaurant's finances, I have a significant fear that they're going to have to do better than that if Nella's third time is going to be her charm. For the sake of Chicago's pizza scene, I certainly hope so because Nella Grassano's pizzas are as good as ever.

The Bufalina, a Margherita but with buffalo mozzarella rather than fior di latte, serves as a reminder of how good even the simplest pizza can be. Nella is a fervent nationalist when it comes to pizza. She thinks that the tomatoes, the mozzarella, and the flour of Italy are all better than their American counterparts. While I and countless people who have done blind taste tests strongly disagree, I couldn't help but think she might be right while eating this pizza. The bright, sweet, and lightly acidic sauce, applied very generously for the style, is exceptional. Seriously, I'd consider sipping a glass full of this stuff. Mozzarella is not a cheese that's ever going to win a flavor competition but this rich and creamy buffalo mozz is impeccable.

But, not surprisingly, it's the crust where Nella's skill really shines through. The bottom crust is sturdier than you'll typically find at places bearing the seal of approval as "autherntic" Neapolitan pizza from the pizza police, and the end crust is not quite as high as is typical of the style. But both those deviations are just fine with me; this lightly crisp and slightly chewy crust, with noticeable hints of salt and yeastiness, is simply outstanding bread.

That said, the crust wasn't perfect. Upon close visual inspection, a thin line of undercooked dough is evident in the middle of the end crust. None of us noticed a negative effect while eating the pizza before or after discovering the flaw, but it does raise two questions. First, if this is a consistent problem when the restaurant isn't particularly busy, what's going to happen if it ever takes off? Second, how good can the crust be? Thanks to my other experience eating Nella's pizza, I actually know the answer to the second question is that it can be as good as any Neapolitan crust I've had. Unfortunately, I don't have an answer to the second question. I had good luck with her pizzas in the past, but some people whose opinions I respect had different experiences at Nella Pizzeria Napoletana.

We stayed relatively unadventurous with our remaining pizzas. The Diavola, which comes with spicy salami, red pepper flakes, and a dose of olive oil (Italian, of course), was excellent. The spicy salami, which was basically really delicious pepperoni, stood out as by far my favorite topping of the night. Largely that's because the sausage on the Funghi E Salsiccia, our third pizza of the evening, was so pedestrian. The debate over whether the United States or Italy is the leading pizza country will likely never be resolved, but there's no question Chicago drops a serious ass-whooping on Naples when it comes to making sausage. So in fairness to Grassano, who's as committed to Naples as the CPC is to Chicago, the sausage she's serving is her take on what you'd find in southern Italy.

Weak sausage and very slight misfires on the crust aside, it was clear with each bite that Pizzeria da Nella is the only threat in town to Spacca Napoli's crown as best Neapolitan pizzeria in Chicago. Whether or not Nella can surpass the place is a question for a future day. I only hope this restaurant sticks around long enough for the answer to matter.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Jimmy’s Pizza Café [Meeting #108]

Jimmy’s Pizza Café
5159 N Lincoln Ave (Google Maps)
Chicago, IL 60625
(773) 293-6992

CPC shoehorned into Jimmy’s Pizza Café on March 29, 2012.

It was only two meetings ago that I lamented the state of Chicago’s Pizza by the Slice offerings, both in terms of quantity and quality, and I still stand by the fact that for a city to be as bike and pedestrian-friendly as our new mayor and everyone else around town seem to want it to be, we need to have a plethora of suitable single-serve dining options- first and foremost, Pizza by the Slice.

So it was with great pleasure that I read the CPC email suggesting Jimmy’s Pizza Café for our next meeting. Jimmy’s is just a few short blocks from my apartment, and since they opened late last year, I’ve been there at least 2-3 times a month to get down with their New York (and New Orleans- more on that later) style goodness.

Jimmy’s is designed in the simple, traditional, small-tables, pies-on-display, order-at-the-counter pizzeria manner, but based on the size and tastes of our group, we decided to order whole pizzas rather than slices.

The first pie up was half-jalapeno half-spinach. Though lighter on the toppings and meat than most CPCers would ordinarily prefer, this pizza went over quite well. The jalapenos were hot- more than a few were pulled off of slices around the table, but this relatively simple pie was the perfect introduction to the Jimmy’s experience. Simply put, Jimmy’s is amongst the elites as far as NY style pizza in Chicago goes. From the perfectly crisp bottom layer up through the moist chewiness of the mid-dough, the sweet tang of the sauce, perfectly adequate but never excessive blanket of mozz, to the occasional char bubbles around the crispy/chewy collar, these guys nail the foldable savory sweetness that New Yorkers have justifiably loved and bragged about for decades.

Next up was the sausage and mushroom. The fennel-heavy sausage was a universal crowd-pleaser, and while the mushrooms didn't appear to be anything more than regular button mushrooms, they were surprisingly flavorful and stood up well to the sausage.

Last but undoubtedly not least was the bulgogi kimchi (props to LTHforum for letting us know about it in this post), a special, off-menu pie that requires pre-order notice a few days ahead of time. This monster, topped with bulgogi, kimchi, garlic, scallions, sesame seeds and egg, was thoroughly enjoyed, though a few CPCers seemed a bit overwhelmed by the intensity of the flavor combination. Additionally, as this pizza was far more heavily topped than their ordinary offerings, the crust was hard pressed to handle that much weight, and this was definitely the soggiest of the three pizzas we ordered, limp crusts sagging under their mighty burden.

In addition to this fantastic pizza, Jimmy also offers Intelligensia coffee and homemade beignets— pillowy New Orleans style doughnuts topped with powdered sugar—and dang if they weren’t the perfect ending to our meal.

Jimmy’s Pizza Café has so much working in its favor- let’s just hope the slightly out of way and inconducive-to-walk-ups location at the corner of Foster and Lincoln Avenues doesn’t keep people from checking out this north side gem.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Roots Handmade Pizza [Meeting #107]

Roots Handmade Pizza
1924 W. Chicago Avenue (Google Maps)
Chicago, IL 60622
(773) 645-4949

CPC invaded Roots Handmade Pizza on February 7. 2010.

Deep dish; stuffed; Neapolitan; New York; New Haven; Midwestern thin crust. What do all of those pizza styles have in common? Every respectable pizza aficionado knows what they're all about. Now what about Quad Cities style? Ever heard of it? Do you know where the Quad Cities are? Do you know how many cities are in the Quad Cities?

First, the easy answers. There are actually five cities in the Quad Cities and they are on the Illinois and Iowa sides of the Mississippi River. I've been there twice, once to witness the 1997 Great American Bash and once a couple years later for a girl. I finally outgrew wrestling and the girl is married. And because I failed to get pizza on either visit and I may never get back to the area, the possibility exists that I wouldn't have gotten to try Quad Cities style pizza were it not for Roots Handmade Pizza.

That brings me to the other questions: Yes, the Quad Cities have developed their own pizza style. It's basically regular thin crust pizza but with the twist of having malt in the crust. The malt makes the crust a bit more yeasty than is found on the average pizza and supposedly is responsible for some extra chewiness.

Anyhow, on to the food...

While the Pizza Clubbers are typically just a pizza-eating crowd when we gather together, the mozzarella sticks at Roots are an absolute requirement. At $9 for 5 of them, these are certainly the priciest mozzarella sticks any of us have encountered. I'll let everyone else speak for themselves, but I'd say they are also the best. Crafted from housemade mozzarella and covered with a crisp and well-seasoned/salty batter, these might actually be worth the price.

For the pizzas themselves, we ordered one with sausage and one taco pizza, two choices that went over very well with 6 1/4 CPC members who came to the meeting. At the end of the meal, we'd inhaled both pies.

I'll start with the sausage because, well, the sausage itself is freaking outstanding. The crumbled bits sausage covered virtually every single inch of the pizza and were loaded with fennel and pepper. The mozzarella was laid on thick and the sauce was pretty sparse, but while less of the former and more of the latter would have been nice, neither thing mattered because that pork was so good.

Taco pizza is apparently a thing in the Quad Cities. And the CPC is no stranger to taco pizzas, having had them at Meeting 31 (Barcello's), Meeting 41 (Michael's), Meeting 45 (Pete's Pizza), Meeting 56 (Pat's Pizza), Meeting 65 (Aurelio's), and Meeting 81 (John's Pizza Ristorante & Lounge). I love Pat's and I didn't go to every single one of those meetings that included taco pizzas, but if there's a better example of this delicacy in Chicago, I've never had it.

Everything about the taco pizza looks and sounds like a bad idea. It's got iceberg lettuce, cheese, beans, sausage, and, even cheesy tortilla chips (consensus was they were inferior to Doritos). Oh, you also get an unlimited supply of packets of taco sauce to go with the thing, something we took full advantage of. Despite the potential for this being nothing more than a silly gimmick, this was one outstanding pizza. And there's no question the extra chewy crust was key to standing up to the mess of toppings on this one.

One little detail of note to all the baseball fans out there: Roots has a couple of baseball connections courtesy of some of the people who invested in co-owners Greg Mohr (QC native) and Scott Weiner pizza venture. The Ricketts family, current overseers of the transformation of the Cubs, put some money into the place. People who, like me, pay far too much attention to these things might remember that Tom Ricketts and the Cubs Wonderboy General Manager watched a World Series game at Fifty/50. Well, that's co-owner Mohr's other restaurant (and their wings will apparently be available at Wrigley Field this year). The other baseball tie is that Yankees outfielder (and Chicago native) Curtis Granderson is also an investor in the place and he even brings some of his Yankee friends over for pizza dinner from time to time when they're in town slapping around the White Sox.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Papa Ray’s [Meeting #106]

Papa Ray's
2551 W. Fullerton Ave (Google Maps)
Chicago, IL 60647
(773) 661-2113

CPC crowded into Papa Ray's in the Logan Square neighborhood on November 10, 2011.

We’ve all had pizza-by-the-slice, and to some extent, it’s usually pretty satisfying (more than likely because we’re starving when we get it; on-demand pizza greatly appeals to the under-satiated). The quest for some is to find the best slice they can in that genre to fill the gaps between more refined pizza meals where whole pies are made to order, and generally have greater breadth in topping selection and customization.

One small chain of pizzerias that strives to be the aforementioned go-to for top quality pizza-by-the-slice is Papa Ray’s Pizza & Wings. Founded at the turn of the last decade by George and John Rayyan, Papa Ray’s busted out of the gates with 3 Chicago locations all within a few miles of each other and established in close proximity, timewise. The Chicago Pizza Club visited the Logan Square location on November 10th.

As eluded to above, pizza-by-the-slice is not always the most gratifying food for the discerning palate, and for those who insist on only the best in every aspect (organic, super-fresh and/or exotic ingredients, pristine presentation, delicate proportions, etc.) Papa Ray’s will likely disappoint. However, if you fancy large servings of blue collar, no-frills pizza, this could be the place you hang your proverbial hat.

Potential drawbacks here are the expected inconsistency in freshness of the slices since they can potentially sit uneaten for some time, as well as the caliber of ingredients being appropriate to the genre and price point. As of this writing, you can get a massive slice with a refillable soda for $4.41 after tax. On the evening we went the choices were cheese, sausage, pepperoni, or bacon and the Pizza Club got one (or more) of each and split them up. The meats seemed to be a click or two above what you’d expect for fast food pizza – the sausage was not too rubbery; the pepperoni pretty standard; the bacon actually pretty decent and thick. As for the cheese, nothing about it was outstanding – same pre-packaged stuff you get at the grocery store. The sauce did have a bit of salty/canned flavor, but was more or less benign. The crust is actually pretty good with a pleasant fresh baked essence – one member commented and I thought I overheard “frozen” mentioned.

We shall see what the members had to say, but for the price and convenience, I think Papa Ray’s does a great job. And, if you decide to eat it there, they put that day’s newspaper in a clear plastic holder that spans the length of the counter so you can stay current while stuffing your face (at least, this is true at the Fullerton location).

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dough Boys [Meeting #105]

Dough Boys
626 South Racine Avenue (Google Maps)
Chicago, IL 60607
(312) 243-9799

CPC crowded into Dough Boys in the Little Italy/University Village neighborhood on June 13, 2011.

Billed as a counter-service and delivery pizza place, Dough Boys is yet another collaboration of famed Chicago restaurateurs Scott Harris and Jimmy Bannos (Purple Pig, Salatino’s, etc.), and absolutely nails the casual “pizza joint” vibe they’re shooting for—though with decidedly better pizza than your average joint. From the simple outdoor patio, complete with red and white checkered tablecloths, to the four tables and no-frills interior, to the photocopied notebook paper menu, Dough Boys gets the easy stuff out of the way and focuses on what they know we’re there for: damn good pizza.

Pizza at Dough Boys comes in four styles: (1) Chicago-style thin crust, (2) New York style thin crust, (3) Sicilian and (4) stuffed, with the NY and Sicilian styles also available by the slice. Given all the standard topping options, plus a couple of less common ones like zucchini and roasted red peppers, we got down with the following:

  • Chicago-style thin crust – Daily Special: pepperoni, onion and garlic
  • Chicago-style thin crust – black olives and roasted red peppers
  • New York-style thin crust – sausage (by the slice)
  • New York-style thin crust – cheese (by the slice)
  • Sicilian – pepperoni (by the slice)
  • Sicilian – cheese (by the slice)
  • Stuffed – sausage
While Chicago-style thin crust is often pretty standard fare, the high quality and plentiful ingredients—well seasoned, tangy sauce and soft, creamy mozzarella—make this one a winner. The sturdy, lightly corn meal dusted crust, while perhaps a bit tame in terms of flavor, had a nice crunch and was more than up to the task of holding up under the considerable moisture of the sauce and toppings. Universally enjoyed by CPCers.

The New York-style thin crust, while hindered by the fact that it had been sitting out for not-sure-how-long under the front counter (or is that the secret to its authenticity?), had a delightful end crust, crispy and chewy, with a bottom crust sturdy enough to hold the slice up without needing to fold it or curl the tip back. Served fresh, this slice would be absolutely spot-on, and even slightly dried out under the counter, it was one of the better NY-style slices Chicago has to offer. Definitely a great slice-to-go option.

The Sicilian, unfortunately, suffered far more for having been sitting under the counter so long. While there is no denying that the crust itself is a work of baking magic, it is more than an inch thick, superbly light and airy on the inside and wonderfully crisp on the outside, the thickened cheese and lack of sauce made this slice a disappointment, and clearly the least popular amongst CPCers. A bit more sauce, a bit less cheese and a bit less time sitting around under the counter, and this one could really be a gem.

The stuffed pizza is clearly the treasure here and the real reason why Dough Boys is destination dining. Taking 40 minutes from order to table, this labor of love boasts a lard crust that gives it a unique richness of flavor and a flakier, crispier texture than just about any other stuffed pizza can offer. Topped with a wonderfully generous dose of the aforementioned soft, creamy mozzarella and covered with a wallop of chunky, tangy sauce, this bad lad deserves recognition as one of the finest stuffed pizzas in Chicago.

The bill for one stuffed sausage, three NY style slices, three Sicilian slices and two Chicago style thin crust pizzas came to $99, a mere $11 per person. That’s not much dough at all, boys!

As an added bonus, Dough Boys is a few short blocks away from the lovely Mario’s Italian Ice, a wooden stand painted in the Italian green, white and red, jutting out from the front of a brick row house on Taylor St.

A cool, fruity and delicious way to end a great night of grub.