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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.

We invite you to post any comments on anywhere you have eaten under our review of that establishment. If you have any questions, please read the FAQs on the sidebar first to see if it has already been answered. Please note that we are at capacity and are not seeking new members. And finally, if you have a place you think we should try, have some other inquiry, or want to send us love/hatemail then please contact us at:

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Saturday, May 09, 2015

Stella Barra Pizzeria [Meeting #115]

Stella Barra
1954 N. Halsted Street (Map)
Chicago, IL 60614
(773) 634-4101

CPC invaded Stella Barra Pizzeria on Sunday, May 8, 2014. 

The Chicago Pizza Club lives! The Chicago Pizza Club will live forever! We met almost a year ago. This report was written in my head almost a year ago. I let it ferment. That made it better. You know what else gets better with fermentation? Pizza dough! But not a lot of places bother with that time-consuming step. Stella Barra does and the crust is delicious. We'll get to that. Here's the review:





















We Chicagoans are justifiably proud of our pizza. Those of us who think our fair city and New York are the only two contenders for best pizza city in America the world are absolutely correct. However, just because a pizzeria is not in one of those two cities absolutely doesn't mean it isn't great. If Arizona's Pizzeria Bianco, Detroit's Loui's, New Haven's Sally's (and others), or any number of stellar pizzerias from across the country were to open an outpost in Chicago, there is simply no degree of regional chauvinism that would justify anything less than unbridled joy at the news.

That said, regional skepticism is certainly understandable when it comes to Stella Barra, a relatively unheralded (at least nationally) pizzeria opened by Chicago's own Lettuce Entertain You. For one thing, with the exception of Pizzeria Mozza, the words "LA" and "pizza," when used together, have long deserved derision. For another, while Lettuce is responsible for some great restaurants in Chicago, the empire's one foray into pizza, Frankie's 5th Floor Pizzeria, is decidedly mediocre.

Here's why you don't make assumptions about restaurants without trying them:

The 6 CPC members, 2 junior members, 2 fetuses, and one CPC guest who attended our meeting at Stella Barra were unanimously thrilled with the pizza. We made a serious dent in the menu. Given the number of pizzas, the time that has passed, the number of people who read the blog, and the value of my time, there's not going to be a detailed description of the pizza. But fear not, you'll get an overview and a lot of pictures worth somewhere between 800 and 1200 words apiece.

There are currently nine pizzas on the menu at Stella Barra. There were 10 when we went (lots of overlap with the current menu) and we tried nine of them. I should note there are technically well over 9 or 10 choices at Stella Barra because there's also the ability to customize any of the pizzas with various toppings and each pizza can be had on either their standard thin crust or their cracker thin crust. The pizzas on the menu range from simple ones like the Margherita (the only one we didn't get) to unique pies like the spinach and kale pizza with pecorino cheese and roasted garlic.









The default crust is fantastic. It's a great example of the crispy/chewy bakery quality bread that has come to embody higher end American pizza since Chris Bianco broke the mold in Arizona years ago. The chef/partner behind the pizza, Jeff Mahin, lets the dough rise for a day, beats it down, and then lets it rise again for another 12-plus hours. The result is a beautifully textured crust with a sourdough tang that I'd happily devour if it were presented sans toppings, sauce or cheese.



The extra thin version of the crust, called "Thin Sin" and referred to as Roman style, has the same flavor (but obviously less of it) and without the chewy part of the crispy/chewy. The Thin Sin will make anyone partial to old-school Chicago thin crust swoon with delight; it's a version up there with Vito & Nick's, Villa Nova, and Pat's.

Here's what we ate:



The butternut squash pizza, which is not on the current menu, has the obvious pieces of the namesake gourd as well as candied bits of bacon, tallegio cheese, fresno chilies, parmesan, parsley and oregano.





It was frigging delicious and if it doesn't come back on the menu when fall rolls around, then someone needs to be fired.





All vegetables was no problem even for the biggest meat lovers among us. The roasted spinach and purple kale were nicely salted and full of flavor that was only made better thanks to the addition of pecorino, cracked peppercorns, and garlic.






Chicago is a sausage town. Los Angeles is not a sausage town. Kale pizza from LA makes sense. Butternut squash pizza from LA makes sense. But can an LA pizzeria deliver sausage up to Chicago's standards? Yes it most definitely can. The chunks of housemade sausage use fennel pollen to get a flavor worthy of the mildly chewy texture. 





Another one not on the current menu. This is the Fennel Bianco. It had a lot of shaved fennel; some burrata; and rosemary, torn basil, and extra virgin olive oil. It was great.






The Prosciutto and Egg. It has prosciutto, it has egg, it has mozzarella, gruyere, and pecorino, it has some chili flakes and cracked black pepper. It was good. Not the best, but quite good.





That's the Rossa. At $13, it's the cheapest pizza on the menu. That's appropriate because it has no cheese. Cheese makes pizza better. That said, I liked this very simple pie topped with arugula, roasted garlic, calabrian chilies and sweet basil. I wouldn't recommend ordering it unless you're sharing a bunch of pizzas like we were. Or if you're lactose intolerant.





This Shaved Mushroom was one of our two "Thin Sin" pizzas. In addition to the funghi, this delightfully crispy pizza came with gruyère, melted onions, torn parsley, rosemary, thyme and a not-overwhelming amount of truffle flavor. This was a winner.




Four cheese is usually a dumb pizza to order but Stelios wanted this one so we got it. We ate every slice, though it was the last one we finished. If you like four cheese pizza, this is a great one to get. But if you like four cheese pizza, you should probably try other kinds of pizza. And if you like four cheese pizza, you might have to go somewhere other than Stella Barra because it's not on the menu any more.




The Hobbs Pepperoni pizza is a pepperoni pizza. It has sauce, mozzarella, a little parmesan, and, of course, pepperoni. Hobbs is a charcuterie company out there in Californ-I-A. The pepperoni was great. Obviously, this is a pretty basic pie. Basic can be great and this one was.

So there you have it, almost a year later, the Chicago Pizza Club has reemerged from its slumber. We'll try to stay awake.

Hooray for Pizza!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Bartoli's Pizzeria [Meeting #114]

Bartoli's
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]

Freddie's
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.