Classic Neapolitan from Spacca Napoli in Ravenswood
It’s really all about the dough. Say what you will about the merits of San Marzano tomatoes or fior di latte vs. buffalo milk mozzarella; sausage made in-house vs. a recipe made by a local butcher. When it comes to assessing pizza quality, the dough is what stands out, or, alternatively, dooms an otherwise well-intentioned pie. It is, afterall, the basis for everything. Believe me, I’ve had plenty of opportunities over the past few months to assess and, if you’ll forgive me, “chew” on it. Call it hubris or call it crazy, but over the course of August and September, I managed to sample pizzas from a staggering 76 different locations throughout Chicagoland. I prefer to call it a once-in-a-lifetime quest, unparalleled in Chicago history, and unlikely to ever be eclipsed, at least in terms of thoroughness.
Why take on a Pizza Quest with such vigor? The roots of the experiment were not unlike my legendary Italian Beef Quest from earlier this spring. After I had taken a few tepid bites of a particularly weak $7 beef from Bari Sandwich Shop, I wondered, “how hard is it to make a decent beef, and more importantly, who makes the best beef in town?” Never content to do a slapdash, “Top 7/Hottest 8 _______” based on hearsay, reputation or a publicist’s emails, I hit 31 beef joints over the course of a month and came up with my Essential Chicago Italian Beef list – a list I still stand by today, after having done a few follow-ups and add-ons after-the-fact. But pizza was different, as I quickly discovered. In Chicagoland (city and suburbs) there are multiple styles of pizza – tavern, thin, deep, etc. – not to mention the more recent wave of Neapolitan-style pizzaiolos, all trying to out-do each other with their igloo-shaped brick ovens and bufala mozz. I knew this list was going to be a little longer than 31, but I had no idea I’d be sampling pizzas #75 and #76 into October.
WHAT QUALIFIES ME?
I get this question frequently, and I’m happy to make my case here. Let’s forget, for a moment, my professional credentials. I could probably just say I’ve been covering food professionally in Chicago, full-time, since 1995 and leave it at that. I’ve also eaten pizzas at some of the touchstones in America – Bianco (Phoenix), Frank Pepe’s (New Haven), A16 & Delfina (San Francisco), Mozza (L.A.) and Motorino & Una Pizza Napoletana (NYC). But the thing that truly qualifies me more than anyone else, is the fact I wasn’t born in Chicago.
Stay with me.
One of the unfortunate things pizza does is it creates bias. Midway through the Quest, I diagnosed a common ailment that affects thousands of people, most likely you or someone you know. That malady is Pizza I Grew Up Eating (PIGUE) Syndrome. It somehow attaches itself to the frontal cortex, the result of countless birthday parties, special events and high school sleepovers. Few of us have fully developed palates when we’re young (although I’m guessing Zimmern and Bourdain were eating foie as teenagers), so it’s difficult to assess food accurately in your pre-teen and teenage years. The pizza I had as a kid in St. Cloud, Minnesota was Shakey’s. It was our destination after little league games (followed by DQ), and it served as a de facto birthday headquarters for me and many of my friends. Do I think Shakey’s has the best pizza in the world? Of course not, it’s chain food garbage along the lines of Pizza Hut. My palate has developed into adulthood, and continues evolving, but I’m wise enough to know there are plenty of other pizzas out there that are far superior to the processed cheese-and-sweet-tomato-sauce-on-cardboard that passed for my childhood pizza eating experience.
PIGUE Syndrome, however, hits Chicagoans especially hard. I can now tell where someone is from, based solely on the kind of pizza they love. You like Armand’s? I’m guessing you grew up near Elmwood Park. More of an Aurelio’s person? Even if you don’t insist it comes out of the “old” oven, there’s a pretty good chance you grew up in Homewood or Flossmoor. Still think Barnaby’s has the best thin crust in the world? Here’s some news for you: not only are you from the North Shore, but that “cornmeal” crust is a myth – they only sprinkle cornmeal – as many other smart places do – underneath the pizza to keep the crust from sticking to the bottom of the oven. The list goes on and on – a cult-like pocket of eaters on the Northwest Side is loyal to Trattoria Porretta (and most likely has my headshot up on the bar’s dartboard); some crazy Norridge devotees swear by Villa Napoli, though after my visit there with Fooditor Founder and Chicago Reader contributor Michael Gebert, I’m not sure why. Down in Palos Heights, there’s a faction that truly believes AneMoNe Café makes an authentic Neapolitan pizza, which is like saying the Bears are fielding one of the NFL’s top teams right now. The loyalty, and stubbornness, is truly puzzling, especially after you take two bites. But I get it. PIGUE affects everyone, and it doesn’t matter if the dough is tough or flavorless, or if the mozzarella is part-skim from a giant bag or the sausage comes in frozen, because no one – not even a professional eater who takes the time to attempt to judge based on an even playing field – is going to change their minds. Which leads me back to my thesis on why I’m the most qualified person to tackle this subject.
I didn’t grow up here, but I’ve lived in Chicago for 23 years. I have no childhood memories in any of these “legendary” joints, but I moved here in my 20s, just as my tastes had begun to “grow up,” and shortly thereafter began eating professionally. I became wise enough to know the difference between a place that made its own gyros (Parthenon) and one that didn’t, despite its out-sized reputation (sorry, Chuckwagon). I still had plenty to learn of course, and still do to this day, but I don’t carry biases around like those misguided souls who still think Gene & Jude’s makes the best hot dogs. Don’t get me wrong, I respect their longevity, but it’s hard to argue on their behalf when they still sell size 10s, aka “meat pencils” with only a fraction of the holy seven condiments. And here’s the rub: unlike those other home-grown “experts,” I’m not afraid to call it like I see it. Honesty is always the most refreshing aspect of these Quests, where I don’t feel inhibited, as most would, knocking more than a few reputation coasters off of their tomato-and-cheese-fortified pedestals (looking at you, Art of Pizza). I show up anonymously, order, eat and pay, then take notes and make honest, unbiased assessments; all social media posts occur after my visit.
Here’s my approach. I knew there were several styles of pizza in Chicago, but I didn’t want to automatically determine them until I had seen a regular pattern. This is one of the reasons I’ve come up with an all-new category: artisan thin (I’ll explain more about these categories and their nuance in my Top 5s that will be released over the next week). I also wanted to give everyone a fair shake, which meant just because a pizza place had a special pie, say, an ‘nduja with fresh ricotta and arugula, and another place kept things pretty basic, it wouldn’t be fair to judge them side-by-side, since the one with the killer toppings would be far superior, even if the crust or sauce wasn’t; higher-quality toppings would give an unfair advantage, and would also serve as a cover-up. So I decided that every pizza would be the same, for continuity’s sake: half pepperoni-half sausage. If the pizza place specialized in a Neapolitan-style with a fancier oven and listed a margherita, then that’s what I’d order as a baseline.
I made a point to call ahead and ask what their specialty was, just to insure I was trying the proper pizza at each place. In several instances, menus would list multiple styles – thin, extra thin, double dough, deep and stuffed – so I’d just ask the person at the counter or our server what they were known for. A few times our server would offer up their own favorite from the menu, which didn’t interest me in the least.
I had wanted this Quest to be a snapshot in time. One of my colleagues asked why was it that I felt compelled to return to places I’d already been, like Lou’s. “Why not just use a picture you’ve already got on file?” Because that wouldn’t be fair either. If you’re going to make a list with any credibility, you need to visit the places in question within a condensed period of time. What if the cook at a certain place had left after 20 years and a bunch of teenagers were now in charge? Don’t you think that might change the quality and consistency? Burt’s is a good example up in Morton Grove. Known for their deep dish, a precursor to Pequod’s, it’s been a few years since I visited, but ever since mid-summer, a sign has been posted on the front door, saying they were closed “due to health reasons.” There’s no way I could include it in a modern pizza round-up. I had originally set aside the month of August for this quest, but soon realized it was going to be more like two months of eating research.
My other parameter was to concentrate on pizza places, or at least restaurants that devoted more than 50% of their business to pizza. This did two things, it kept me from going insane on a never-ending treadmill of pizzas that would have taken me a year to complete, and it whittled down the contenders considerably. For instance, after I dined at Labriola Ristorante off of Michigan Avenue, I realized that the Neapolitan – while pretty darn good – is only a small part of the café and restaurant, so even though I scored it and wrote up a brief synopsis, I wound up deleting it from this list. There are similar situations, like Quartino, Piccolo Sogno and Balena – among many others – where they have pizza ovens and churn out very good pies, I just didn’t have the capacity or the time to hit every major restaurant with a pizza oven. Likewise, as much as I love the amazing Nomad Pizza Truck that shows up every week at the Green City Market, it’s not a pizza that’s available everyday, so unfortunately, it’s not a part of this Quest.
Scoring was pretty simple: with crust weighted more heavily, points were awarded for sauce, sausage-pepperoni quality, usage and mouthfeel of cheese(s) and overall taste. I can tell you that ratio was certainly an issue too. If the crust was good but overwhelmed by everything else, then points were deducted. I always visited anonymously, without warning, oftentimes alone but on occasion with a friend or relative who was game; I would always pay with my ABC corporate card (and when I exceeded my budget, used my own card) and after leaving, would post a picture and some commentary on Instagram.
Based on my findings, here is how I’m going to schedule my results:
Tomorrow I’ll reveal all of the thin crust places I tried – unranked – in alphabetical order, so you can see where I went, what I ate and how it all tasted. A map of their locations will also be posted.
On Wednesday, I’ll rank my top 5 tavern-style pizzas in the region.
On Thursday, I’ll rank my top 5 artisan thin pizzas in the region.
On Friday, I’ll reveal my top 5 thin pizzas in the city, and that afternoon, will feature my top 3 pizzas in various categories (thin, Neapolitan, tavern) on ABC 7 at 4 p.m.
On Saturday, I’ll reveal my top 5 thin pizzas in the suburbs (tavern, artisan and thin), and that night, will feature them at 10 p.m. on ABC 7.
On Sunday, I’ll release my updated top 5 Neapolitan pizzas – all of which happen to be in the city (yet another reason property taxes are so high here).
On Monday, November 2nd, I’ll introduce my Thick Pizza Week, explaining how I went about tackling this hefty subject, listing all of the deep and stuffed places I visited, alphabetically, with commentary on each, plus a map showing their location.
On Tuesday, November 3rd, I’ll reveal my least favorite category, aka The Lesser of Several Evils But Must Be Included List, known as my top 5 stuffed pizzas in the region.
On Wednesday, November 4th, I’ll share my top 5 deep dish pizzas in the city.
On Thursday, November 5th, I’ll share my top 5 deep dish pizzas in the suburbs
On Friday, November 6th, I’ll have a brief recap, and ask for your comments and suggestions for places that I’ve overlooked. I know there are some that eluded me, for whatever reason, and if there seems to be unanimous agreement that one or two places were missed, then I’ll most likely try them, just to be sure (that doesn’t mean a write-in campaign is going to work). That day at 4 p.m., I’ll highlight my top 3 deep dish pizzas in the city on ABC 7 News.
Finally, on Saturday, November 7th, I’ll highlight my top 3 deep dish pizzas in the suburbs on the ABC 7 news at 10 p.m., and will begin my long hiatus from dough, cheese and tomato sauce.
Sunday the 8th I begin an all sushi diet, go vegan or possibly paleo.