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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

La Madia [Meeting #66]

La Madia
59 W. Grand Avenue
Chicago, IL 60610

CPC invaded La Madia on 9/23/08.

Oh God. Not again. Another place that insists on making traditional Neapolitan-influenced pizza? Like many other notable new pizzerias in town, La Madia presents itself as a slight update to the Neapolitan method of pizza-making. Where it detours from Spacca Napoli and Coalfire is in its swanky decor and River North location (former site of the excellent Jazz Showcase) and its aim to be a hip restaurant where you can expect excellent wine during and after your meal when lounging and looking cool. It manages to do all of these things in a fairly relaxed atmosphere to the credit of its staff. They look better than you, but don't make you feel too bad about it. Self-consciously, I did end up wearing a collared shirt to try and fit in.

Chef Johnathan Fox opened up his new restaurant after working for the Maggiano's chain in an executive position and it quickly gained good press and word of mouth. Like all good pizza chefs, he roamed the world tasting and analyzing, experimenting and perfecting his craft. The staples of any good pizza are the focus here: freshness, quality ingredients, and homemade sauces and dough along with some creative combinations. Digging deeper than the Neo-Nea pizza overlay reveals a full restaurant that has already impressed us once before with its Monthly (now bimonthly due to demand) Chef's Table a few months ago. But this is Chicago Pizza Club, damn it, and while I like scallops as much as the next guy, now we're ready to talk about some pie! As you might expect, there is no stuffed or pan pizza here. Chef Fox makes up for it by unwittingly disguising a pan pizza as a calzone. However, this great treat was not on the dinner menu. We requested one anyways, but were informed this was not a possibility. Not wanting to leave his customers less than fully satisfied, Fox produced a free pepperoni pizza for us and personally brought it to our table. The restaurant was busy, but certainly not at full capacity. We were somewhat surprised that our pizza took 28 minutes to come out considering how little cooking time they require. This is slower than many thin crust pizzas around town by 10 minutes, but ended up being a minor point in the end even if half of our members were gnawing on their napkins.

We ordered 6 pizzas and received a bonus one from the chef:

  • Triple Pepperoni, Tomato Sauce & Mozzarella Cheese, finished with White Truffle Oil
  • House-Made Fennel Sausage, Tomato Sauce with Mozzarella Cheese
  • Roasted Asparagus, Sweet Onions, Pecorino Toscano & Oregano
  • White Clams with Sweet Chili Peppers, Fresh Herbs
  • Seasonal Wild Mushrooms, Pecorino
  • Taleggio and Vin Santo Roasted Grapes
  • Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, Tomato Sauce & Torn Basil
There's a lot to talk about here because these weren't all pizzas that have the same sauce, crust, and cheese with the only variation coming in the form of toppings. I don't think the crust ever changes, but some pies have sauce and some have none, mozzarella is not the only cheese used, and this isn't a simple topping change from mushrooms to onions. The multiple toppings on each pizza are designed to complement each other.

The crust is artfully cooked and there's not much to say. There is the background of appropriately charred bitterness in the flavor profile and the combination of chewiness and crispness is really well-balanced and was reproduced throughout all our pizza. The sauce is similarly well-balanced, fresh, and colorful when present. I think many of us would love to have this sauce present in greater quantity on the pizzas, but I wonder if the crust could support more. As a broad overview of toppings, I'll say that all of them were top-notch and that the pairings were in harmony. I will comment on the excellent sausage made at La Madia. If the over-powering fennel flavor in many sausages turns you off, this may be where you should turn. Although there is fennel in his sausage, and a good amount of garlic, it doesn't hijack the great natural flavor of the pork, which is the real highlight. The pork manages to be both meaty and fatty without giving that uncomfortable feeling of chewing on a piece of gristle. I can only assume this is from purchasing better quality meat to use in making sausage. Whatever you may think of pepperoni, it's undeniable that in the great majority of pizzerias you would be hard-pressed to distinguish between their pepperoni, likely because they use the same product. This one is very salty (in a great way) and has enough spice to never let your tongue relax. You have to like pepperoni to order this pizza here because it has LOTS of pepperoni and it will dominate your palate. I'll leave discussion of the rest of the toppings to members' comments.

All in all, I wish we had more members at this meeting so we could have ordered every single pizza because it was just that good. We were all very satisfied and left feeling uncomfortable with our waistbands, a surefire sign of satisfied clientele. Don't wince when you see La Madia is a take on Neapolitan pizza - just sit down and prepare to enjoy it.

Petey Pizza gives La Madia a 9.03.

The Chicago Pizza Club enjoying the ambience...

Hard at work in the kitchen...

Oh... Sausage!

Wild Mushrooms...

Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, Tomato Sauce & Torn Basil...

Taleggio and Vin Santo Roasted Grapes...

Kelly shows off the White Clams with Sweet Chili Peppers, Fresh Herbs Pizza...

Roasted Asparagus, Sweet Onions, Pecorino Toscano & Oregano...

Missy has something in her teeth...

How much Pepperoni? Triple Pepperoni!

Where it went down...

La Madia on Urbanspoon


  1. Anytime I find myself sitting at a table, gasping for oxygen because I've just been stuffing my face it is usually a good sign, and last night at La Madia was no different. I'm not even sure right now if I'd be able to pick a favorite from all of the pizzas we sampled last night, the Taleggio and Vin Santo Roasted Grapes pizza was delicious and unlike any other pizza I've ever had, the Wild Mushrooms pizza was amazing, the Pepperoni can't be talked about enough...

    If I have one (minor) complaint about the pizza — and indeed, I only have one very minor complaint — it's that the crust, while delicious and very complimentary of the cheeses and toppings on each pie, tended to be a little dry when one reached the end of a slice. But that's a small squabble, as the sauces used (though minimal in amount), the cheeses and the toppings were all first rate and worked excellently together.

    I think I almost prefer choosing pizza combinations from a chef's menu rather than haphazzardly picking toppings from a list. It was obvious from all of the pizzas we sampled that the topping/sauce/cheese combinations had all been carefull considered by the chef.

    I really enjoyed La Madia, and would require no arm-twisting to go back again soon, 8.5

  2. There’s been many a time when I’ve gotten adventurous and ordered something that I’d never heard of -like a mashed potato pizza- and really, really wished I’d just stuck with either sausage or pepperoni.

    This didn’t happen at La Madia. I’m not sure what exactly Taleggio is, and I’ve never had grapes on a pizza, but the whole thing tasted amazing together. I’ve also never had Pecorino, but it worked extremely well with the mushrooms, somehow reminding me of the fried mushroom caps that come with escargot. All in all it seemed like they used exotic ingredients not just to make a unique pizza, but to make a very good pizza that happened to be unique.

    I wouldn’t go to La Madia all the time, but that's not due at all to the quality. To me it seems like a special event restaurant, a place to go with a date before heading off to do something else downtown, and as that it works great. The wine list is impressive, and there were suggestions of what to pair with each pizza, the atmosphere was very classy, and the waiters and waitresses were all friendly.

    Overall I’ll give La Madia a 9.

  3. The only clunker was the clam pizza. the salt from the cheese and crust overpowered the sweet peppers and the clams were absent.

    Otherwise, it was all great. Couple of points here...the mushroom pizza had a great cheese and garlic base to go with the mushrooms...the buffalo mozzarella was very good, but the basil was either grown on steroids or infused or laid under the cheese or something because it was very present and i loved it...the sausage is the bomb...i was skeptical of the asparagus, but really won over by it...salt and sweet tallegio and grapes was my favorite of the night despite having no meat on it.

    also, i love that Fox makes sure each slice gets an equal distribution of ingredients. it's a pet peeve of mine when you get a lopsided pizza and he makes sure that is not the case here.

    Having eaten here before, I knew I would be giving this place a high grade. I didn't predict I would be giving it this high of a score though. I was really impressed at our meeting.


  4. My visit to La Madia in a nut shell:

    Triple Pepperoni-really flavorful, tasted like summer sausage, didn't skimp on the pepperoni. It was free, compliments of the chef, so extra plus.

    House-Made Fennel Sausage-loved it, cheese/bread/sausage ratio was good.

    Roasted Asparagus-one big asparagus per slice. The cheese was gooey and plentiful.

    White Clams-least favorite, didn't really taste clams, my toppings fell off while eating.

    Seasonal Wild Mushrooms-mushrooms were cooked to perfection and didn't overwhelm the pizza.

    Roasted Grapes-my favorite, sort of tasted like a warm jelly and cheese sandwich. went back for seconds.

    Buffalo-loved the sauce and the mozzarella cheese. Tasted fresh and delicious.

    The crust was thin and crispy on all the pizzas. Any pizza cooked in a wood burning stove is delicious.

    Our waiter was attentive and nice. Bussers were on the ball. I can't remember if music was playing, which is good.

    I'd go back in a second. 9.5

  5. I'm eating microwaved leftovers now and it's still delicious...

  6. I have been looking forward to this meeting ever since I went to La Madia for lunch a few months ago. At lunch we had the pepperoni, the taleggio/grapes and a sausage/mascarpone calzone that would knock your socks off. Four pizza clubbers also attended La Madia's very first chef's table about a month ago. We went in expecting just pizza and wine pairings, but it ended up being SO much more (AND for only $25! ...see special events). Needless to say, I was really excited to finally have a meeting here.

    With only seven of us in attendance, I think lots of pizza clubbers missed out last night. We had a table full of mouth watering pies and culinary orgasms were happening all over the place. You can tell that each pizza has been specifically designed to tingle your palate with flavor profiles you’ve never ever had on a pizza before. Yeah, we've all had pepperoni, but have you ever had it with white truffle oil? The quality and freshness of the ingredients is amazing. Mushroom and cheese pizza might seem boring in your average pizza place, but at La Madia you get Seasonal Wild Mushrooms with Pecorino. Another two ingredient hit (and my personal favorite) is the Taleggio and Vin Santo Roasted Grapes. After having a bite of the 'grape' pizza, I heard one clubber say, "Where am I?" as if in total disbelief that he was sitting in Chicago and not Italy.

    Let it be known that I am NOT a fan of Neopolitan pizza. I hate it when people try to tell me that my food is ‘wood fired’ when ‘burnt’ would be a more accurate descriptor. That being said, last night La Madia had me at hello. I love this place and I love pretty much everything they make. My only gripes would be 1) MAKE THE SAUSAGE CALZONE FOR DINNER TOO (I really wanted some last night). 2) The pepperoni is delish but sooo rich I cannot eat very much of it. 3) The crust is an edible plate on which the ingredients have been artfully displayed. Eating the crust is a cardinal rule of the CPC. I broke that rule last night and so did a few others. Once you’re at the end of the ingredients, there’s just a dry, flavorless crust that’s no fun to eat alone. Oh well!

    I give La Madia a 9/10. Nice job La Madia. That Mrs. Chef Fox is one lucky lady. I bet she gets free pizza all the damn time.

  7. My only other experience at La Madia was the tasting menu (highly recommended!) where we got to try three pizzas as well as four other courses. I thought the pizza was excellent then, but so was the other food (and the wine), so I worried that perhaps the whole experience then made me think the pizza was better than it was.

    My fears were silly. In fact, I'd take last night's 7-pizza feast over the tasting menu any day of the week.

    The crust is outstanding, as nearly every crust is when it's cooked in a wood-burning oven. The outside edges of the crust (the part without toppings) did seem a little dry, but since a butter crust probably isn't possible when the crust is so thin, I can't complain. I ate all of the crusts on all ten of my slices.

    There is not enough sauce on the pizzas. When I bite into a pizza, I want to taste all four parts - crust, sauce, cheese and toppings. I cannot taste the sauce on a La Madia pizza. When I made an effort to just try the sauce by scraping it off a slice, I saw that it was great. But I can't taste it when eating the pizza.

    The toppings and cheese were almost all outstanding. La Madia uses top-notch ingredients and you can taste the difference. The only exception was the clam pizza. The toppings may have been high quality, but that sucker needs to be sent back to Connecticut where it belongs.

    First, the sausage deserves special mention because their homemade fennel sausage is unbelievable. The soft texture screams high fat content, but the flavor is definitely solidly meaty. I'd prefer more fennel, but I like more fennel than most, so that's a minor quibble. There did need to be more sausage, and that is not a minor quibble.

    The tallegio and grape was the surprise of the night for me - the aged cheese and sweet grapes went perfectly together.

    The asparagus pizza offered another outstanding blend of flavors, but one asparagus spear per pizza wasn't enough. I suspect that two whole spears wouldn't fit and Fox likes the appearance of the long spear as opposed to pieces of asparagus. It is more elegant, but I'd rather eat an ugly pizza where I get some asparagus in every bite.

    The pepperoni at La Madia serves as a reminder that pepperoni can be good. I almost never order pepperoni pizza because most places use some cheap oversalted processed piece of pork a la Hormel. The well-seasoned, aged meat that La Madia uses is so good it should be called something other than pepperoni. It's too good for the name. And anyone who thinks that Neapolitan style pizza can't have an abundance of toppings needs to try a La Madia triple pepperoni pizza and then never speak such nonsense again.

    The mushroom pizza used large hunks of fresh, flavorful mushrooms. Everything was great on the pizza, but it was missing something: meat. But I am biased on this one as I think mushroom is a great complementary topping, but unless served in massive quantities, cannot carry a pizza on its own.

    Finally, the bufala. Guess what happens when you take a great crust, delicious cow mozzarella and sparse, yet excellent sauce, and you add bufala mozzarella? You get an outstanding plain pizza.

    I give La Madia an even 9.

  8. Mmm... vin santo roasted grapes on pizza. Perhaps the beginning of a beautiful trend of booze-roasted fruit appearing on pizza? I like booze, I like fruit, I like pizza, this could work.

    Thanks for the review. I'm normally a little suspect of any restaurants in that neighborhood, but this place looks like it's totally worth the visit.


  9. I had been to La Madia a few times before our CPC visit, and it is definitely consistently great pizza. All the ingredients are fresh and carefully put together. I love the flavor the crust gets from the wood-fired oven, though I have to agree with others that the all-crust inch or so at the edge is a bit dry and worth passing over (once and a while) to make room for the first delicious bites of the next slice. I've never said that about a pizza before, and crust-non-eating is a big no-no at CPC, but it's just because the rest of the pizza is so dang good.

    Every other element of the pizza is amazing. The tomato sauce-based pizzas would probably be more delicious with more of that great sauce, but I understand there is a delicate balance with this type of pizza, and this may be all the sauce the crust can handle. Meat-eaters: best sausage and pepperoni in town. No doubt. And do get the sausage calzone if you ever stop in for lunch, because then you can be greedy with the tomato sauce that comes on the side. I thought all the pizzas we had were great because the fundamentals of the pizza are so sound (and by that I of course mean the hard-working folks in the kitchen). But I found the clam pizza a bit dull compared to the others. As I already stated, the sausage and pepperoni were so good. And the truffle oil on the pepperoni pizza actually made the crust edges on this slice pretty tasty. I loved the taleggio and roasted grapes ... I need to try that pie with a glass of red wine next time. I also loved the bufala, tomato, basil pizza because those ingredients make up the heart and soul of pizza, and they are just incredibly flavorful at La Madia. The mushroom and asparagus pizzas were also very good. I particularly like the use of pecorino and the hint of garlic in the vegetable pizzas.