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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Gruppo di Amici [Meeting #99]

Gruppo di Amici
1508 W Jarvis (map)
Chicago, IL 60626
(773) 508-5565

CPC invaded Gruppo di Amici on 7/21/2010

As with any arbitrary ranking, there is debate and skepticism. Chicago Magazine recently ranked the top 25 pizzas in town. So, naturally, CPC decided to do some reconnaissance on some places we have not tried. Our second consecutive trip to a ranked pie shop took us way north to Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood and #19, Gruppo di Amici. Located twenty paces from the Jarvis Red Line stop and nestled on a quiet block that boasts a neighborhood pub and fine foods store, Gruppo immediately sticks out of the crowd with its classic white stone Uptown Chicago fa├žade and spacious al fresco dining patio. Lori Alderete and Phaedra Divras opened Gruppo in June of 2006 and have since been offering, among other things, their own unique variety of “Roman-style” pizzas.

The restaurant space is lofty, clean, and modern. Prominently anchored in the rear of the space is the wood-burning brick oven. According to the bartender, the oven holds approximately 5-6 pies and burns wood at a relatively cool 500 degrees Fahrenheit. As such, the pies take about 2.5 to 4 minutes to cook (as opposed to 90 seconds in the typical hotter brick ovens). This is done to minimize the burnt crust that is endemic to this type of pizza. For the most part, Gruppo succeeded in that objective.

We ordered the following:

  • Mare: Italian tuna in extra virgin olive oil with capers, olives, diced tomatoes and fresh parsley
  • Funghi e Prosciutto: Fresh bufala mozzarella, mushrooms, prosciutto di parma and tomato sauce
  • 4-Formaggi: Gorgonzola, Swiss, Fontina and Holland
  • Salsiccia: Red bell pepper and mild Italian sausage and tomato sauce.
First, I had mixed feelings about the seafood pie. The thing about the tuna is that you get the seafood flavor, without the seafood salt. As I believe that the salt is the point of having fish on pizza, I prefer anchovies. In this respect, the tuna did not satisfy, despite its quality. In contrast, the cracker crust was good. What it lacked in flavor, it made up in texture, which was crackery and firm. For the most part, Gruppo pies do not limp. The sauce was good, but not memorable. It had a safe balance of acidity and sweetness, but lacked a noticeable bouquet.

The mushroom and prosciutto pie was my choice and I was disappointed. I think the problem was a matter of proportion, as there were simply too many mushrooms. The mountains of mushrooms oversaturated the crust, which made it limp. Once the crust lost its texture, it lost its strength. The mushrooms also changed the character of the prosciutto, which became wet and lost its essential dry elasticity. Things got much better with the four-cheese pie, a white pie that had great contrast, which covered the entire flavor spectrum. The crust merely served as a mode of delivery for this delicious amalgam of fat, salt, and sharpness. As far as cheese pies go, this was pretty good.

However, my favorite of the evening was the sausage pie. This pie had all of the right stuff. The sauce had a noticeable tang, which was buttressed by the fresh red bell pepper. The mozzarella lumps were fluffy. The crust had great texture: firm and crispy, but not dry. The sausage was good, yet a little bland, as I would have preferred a little more spice. Why go with “mild” sausage, when you can have “spicy?”

In fact, I believe the sausage pie is the perfect summary of what Gruppo pies are all about: high quality, but safe. Even the temperature Gruppo bakes their pie is safe. The problem with offering brick oven pies in Chicago is that there are so many choices and unless your pie has a certain memorable quality, it will be forgotten. Risks must be taken!

Of all the pie shops CPC have tried in its over seven years of pizza gorging, this one falls somewhere in the middle. Gruppo may be a bit overrated at #19, but they certainly earned the spot by providing, for the most part, a well-balanced pie. Besides, every ranked team is going to have its critics.

4 comments:

  1. I do not have much more to add to the review. I will be going back to Gruppo soon in order to try their pasta offerings.

    6.5 out of 10

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  2. My favorites were the sausage pizza and the cheese pizza. I liked the sauce and the crust and thought the overall pie was well-balanced. The four-cheese pizza was more exciting, simply because they chose strong, distinct cheeses with a lot of flavor.

    I'm almost never a fan of fish on pizza, so it's not really fair for me to say I didn't like the tuna. If you like fish on pizza, this is probably good for you. If you don't like fish on pizza, skip this one for sure.

    The mushroom pizza was a overwhelmingly earthy. Again, if you love a really earthy, mushroomy-y pizza, go for it.

    Overall, this is a nice place with good pizza that could use a little tweaking. I give it 7.0 out of 10.

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  3. Gruppo di Amici turned out to be a mixed bag of tricks for me last week. I enjoyed eating two out of my four pizza slices. My first of the evening (and of my favorites) was the four cheese pizza. There were lots of cheesy flavors going on, and the crust was buttery and crisp, reminiscent of pita chips. There wasn't any tomato sauce on this slice, but I didn't miss it. The other slice I really enjoyed was the Salsiccia. AJ is right, this wasn't a spicy sausage, but there was definitely good sausage flavor. Although the chunks were big, there could have been more of them on the pie overall. The Funghi e Prosciutto on the other hand, had way too much weighing that crust down. The proscuitto was plentiful, and there were layers and layers of mushrooms. They tasted ok, but it was a wet mess. The mare also didn't skimp on the tuna or olives either, so that was one fishy tasting pizza. Not my thang...though I did eat it...all.

    To conclude, I found half of the pies we tried pretty good, and the place itself was comfortable. If I'm up north and not heading to Pita Inn, I would swing by Gruppo for a cheese or sausage pizza, and maybe even try a risotto cake cause that sounded pretty interesting.

    Gruppo di Amici gets a 6.5.

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  4. Gruppo gets a 6.5 from me as well.

    I like seafood pizza, but this one turned into a sloppy meal with flavors that didn't mesh as well as you would expect. My main problem was that the tuna just wasn't good enough to showcase on its own.

    Liked the mushroom heavy flavor (because I love mushrooms), but didn't like that the pizza became a greasy mess with a crust that lost any of its differentiating characteristics from soggy bread.

    Unsurprisingly, the salsiccia was my favorite pizza because it followed the KISS method of pizza making. Nothing particularly outstanding about the sausage that I could detect - just standard Chicago sausage high quality stuff. the crust held up best here.

    I will note that this place would be a nice date place if one were inclined to go on dates. Not that anyway here was bad, but it didn't inspire me to drive that far north in the future.

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