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Thursday, July 09, 2009

Union Pizzeria [Meeting #83]

Union Pizzeria [Google Maps]
1245 Chicago Avenue
Evanston, Illinois 60202
(847) 475-2400

CPC invaded Union Pizzeria on 7/9/09.

Review submitted by AJ

Haute pizza is the new “it” food and any self-respecting town with aspirations of legitimacy requires a vendor. For years, Evanstonians have been underserved in this critical respect and have been subjected to a variety of pizzamongers (with the exception of Lou Malnati’s), primarily catering to the college crowd. However, Executive Chef Vince DiBattista of Campagnola, Evanston’s rustically-elegant Italian comfort food spot, has overseen the “coming out” of its swanky-urbanite kid sister, Union Pizzeria. Originally dubbed Wild Geese, Union Pizzeria opened to much fanfare and praise in February 2008 and has been serving up Italian-style, oak-fired, thin-crust pizza ever since. On this mild summer’s evening, Chicago Pizza Club took the Purple Line north and took a look/see and taste for ourselves to determine if the “it” food had finally arrived in Evanston.

Upon entrance, CPC noticed the trendy ultra-lounge vibe, exemplified by its loft ceiling, artsy exposed brick walls, micro-lighting fixtures, large 25-seat bar and 25 tables. Welcoming patrons is a comfy lounge featuring low sofa sectionals and glass tables. The bar boasts a large selection of German and Belgian microbrews and 20-plus beers by the bottle, plus a diverse wine list of 50 bottles under $50. Inconspicuously tucked behind the bar is a lovingly-made, dome-shaped brick oven, which reminds one and all that kid sister may have some cool, but she knows her roots.

The brick oven deserves a mention as Union Pizzeria noted that it is the only true dome brick oven in the Chicagoland area. The oven burns oak, cooks at about 700 degrees and can hold 10 pizzas at a time. It also features a unique ventilation system that prevented the space from smelling of campfire … a definite plus for those looking for a date spot or a starting point for an evening out.

The service was very good. Water glasses were always full, drink orders always ready to be taken and the pizza delivered together without much wait. On peak evenings, CPC would suggest a few drinks at the bar to offset the 45-minute wait for a table.

We ordered all of the pizzas offered, but for the “mozzarella cheese and tomato sauce.”

In no particular order, the pizzas sampled:

  • Pepperoni & Sausage - mozzarella & Sicilian oregano
  • Sausage - sweet pepper, onion & Sicilian oregano
  • Wild Mushroom - béchamel, fontina & sage
  • Artichoke - Sweet peppers, Gaeta olives, fresh mozzarella & garlic
  • Prosciutto & Arugula - béchamel & Parmesan
  • Margherita - tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella & torn basil
  • Lamb Sausage - Pinn-Oak lamb, eggplant, Gaeta & rosemary
  • Asparagus - goat cheese, cherry tomatoes & scallions
  • Quattro Formaggi - mozz., fontina, Parmesan & provolone
  • Shrimp - Nueskes bacon, béchamel, basil & cilantro
The complete menu can be found here: www.unionevanston.com/menu.html

In general, the sauce and cheese ratio was even. I never felt myself wanting more of one or the other, which is an admirable quality. Union Pizzeria uses locally-grown and organic products whenever available and we had no doubt. The toppings were all top-notch quality, with each piece obviously handled, whether it was flora or fauna, with the utmost care.

Moreover, the crust was well-executed, but lacked distinct flavor. Given the brick oven, the lack of burn on the crust was surprising. There was definitely some engineering involved in the baking process and we commend the chef and crew on that consistency. However, the inordinately high number of crusts left uneaten on CPC plates was the most telling criticism. This is not something that CPC does with any regularity.

In order to avoid pizza review ad nauseum, I will mention three pies that were particularly noteworthy:
  1. Lamb Sausage - The general consensus was that the lamb sausage pizza was the best of the evening. Upon delivery, I was presented with the glorious waft of wonderfully fragrant herbs. At first bite, the sausage tasted pleasantly rich, a good balance of fat and protein, which had excellent interplay with the cheese and sauce. I could have used a bit more kick in the sausage, perhaps even a merguez, but as is, it was safe, appropriate and pleasant.
  2. Proscuitto and Arugula – Skip the salad. Added post-bake, the arugula was refreshing and poignantly accented by strategically- placed parmesan shavings (near the center, noticeable on first bite). The prosciutto melted in my mouth and provided a nice hint of protein to the pie. For those not wanting the fatiness of sausage or the brashness of pepperoni, prosciutto is the definitely the way to go.
  3. Shrimp – The dark horse and this reviewer’s favorite of the evening. The béchamel, cheese, shrimp and bacon fat make a sublime quartet. The interplay between the shrimp juices and fats created a transparent seafood roux that I will not soon forget. This pizza only got better as it cooled, allowing the roux to settle over time.
If great pizza were not enough, Union Pizzeria doubles as a music venue, featuring live music most every night of the week. The venue is completely separate from the restaurant/bar space and is located in the rear section of the building. One can only hear the music by getting close to the venue doors. Cover charge for the evening’s Talking Heads cover band = $15. One CPC member noted the lack of a bike rack, which would have been useful.

The pizza was very good, the execution excellent, the attention to detail very admirable and the overall experience memorable. Union Pizzeria has done a wonderful job of combining old-world tradition with modern sophistication. Evanston … welcome to the “it” club.

CPC gives Union Pizzeria a score of 6.8

Union Pizzeria on Urbanspoon


  1. I don't understand the general dislike of the shrimp pizza. I thought it was a relevation. Based on my review ...

    6.75 out of 10

  2. The first thing I noticed when the pizzas arrived was how little charring there was on the crust, which is usually indicative of a less than crisp crust when the pies in question come out of a wood-burning oven. The second thing I noticed was when I picked up my first piece and the tip sagged heavily. The third thing I noticed occurred when I bit into my first slice and got not a bit of crunch out of the crust. My fears were confirmed: the crust was undercooked. Not grossly undercooked, but still subpar.

    I'm a firm believer that toppings, cheese and sauce can overcome a flavorless improperly textured crust and a couple of the pizzas at Union definitely did that. The Lamb Sausage, featured in the review, definitely did, as did the Asparagus pie, thanks in large part to the large globs of rich goat cheese.

    When sauce or tomatoes were on the pizzas, they were uniformly excellent. A problem for me was that most of the pizzas had neither. I don't mind white pizzas as a rule, but for me to really enjoy a sauceless pie, something else is going to have to really jump out at me. In some cases, as the with the two I mentioned above, Union succeeded greatly. In others, like with the shrimp pizza and the dreadfully overseasoned mushroom pie, Union failed.

    If the crusts were cooked better or if I were just judging on the Lamb Sausage pie, my score would be higher, but I'm going with a 6.3 overall.

  3. I definitely enjoyed the majority of the pizza offerings at Union; I felt that efforts to provide thoughtful, creative couplings of ingredients were patently apparent, and that the results were generally very likable. I noticed that the pepperoni on the sausage/pepperoni pizza was rather average and seemed a bit out of place next to the other gourmet offerings like the prosciutto and lamb sausage (both of which were very tasty). On the whole, the ingredients seemed to be on a higher echelon of refinement and freshness.

    I agree that, although Union should be praised for putting together a modern, hip restaurant with a functioning wood-burning oven (that operates, seemingly, without creating a smoke problem within the room), the crust left a little bit to be desired - not quite as crispy as one might expect. I would say, too (and I hope it is okay to remark on value), that based on their size and aggregate food amount, the pies did not necessarily match their price; although I am not typically very ostentatious, and the difference is not egregious, by any means. I suppose I have a slight tendency for over-satiation, which no doubt plays into my sense of value at a restaurant.

    On the whole, I felt that the pizza at Union Pizzeria commands a 6.7.

  4. There is no doubt that Union Pizzeria uses great ingredients. I really enjoyed their creative combinations, with the highlights being proscuitto/arugula and asparagus/goat cheese/cherry tomatoes. As for the proscuttio/arugula pizza, first I must say that it was baby spinach and not arugula based on the shape of the leaves and the lack of bitterness. I wasn't disappointed though because the flavors were so delicate and the citrus squeezed on the greens was heavenly. My other favorite, asparagus/goat cheese/cherry tomatoes, was loaded with bright white goat cheese, seasoned asparagus, and wait...here's the best part...plump, warm and juicy tomato halves.

    Let's talk about the crust. It wasn't bad by any means, it just wasn't amazing. There was crispyness on the edges of the pie, but not in the center. My slices collapsed regularly. The dough didn't have much flavor. I'm not sure what was missing, if anything, but it just seemed a little boring.

    All in all, I enjoyed the pizza. Oh, and about the oven, their ventilation system is top notch becasue I didn't notice a hint of that lovely campfire scent. Just another upscale touch some people may appreciate. I for one like smelling as though I've been in the great outdoors.

    Union Pizzeria gets a 7.5.

  5. reading this post made me hungry -- i guess that's the power of suggestion for ya

  6. The crust has potential -- especially if they have that fancy oven in the back. The Quattro Formagio, I think, had the best charring. The others more pretty bland. The stand-out, in my opinion, was the lamb sausage. I love that Union was so bold with the rosemary. The combination of lamb sausage and bursts of rosemary was simply outstanding. It is worth a trip to Union for this pizza alone. However, there are others worth a try. My next favorite was the asparagus and goat cheese combo. Like the rosemary, Union did not shy away from using generous heaps of goat cheese, which melted in my mouth. The asparagus was fresh and crisp, cherry tomatoes sweet and evenly distributed. I give Union a 7.0.

  7. I'm ammending my prior comments... so, this pizza didn't quite have a Neapolitan style crust, I found it to be pretty similar. But that could just be because of the wood-burning oven that the pies were cooked in. Nevertheless, it seems I enjoyed the crust much more than other members... I loved the texture and the chewiness, my one complaint is that it could've had a touch more flavor though.

    The toppings that I got to try were all fantastic, my favorite slices being the four cheese and the lamb sausage. The lamb sausage was so good I'm now wondering why all sausages aren't made out of lambs? Has the lamb lobby put the kibosh on this in Washington?

    Again, while I thought the crust was well-cooked and had a good texture it could've used a touch more flavor. I give this place a 7.5

  8. I think the lamb sausage was a hit with our group, as much for its novelty as for its true value. I was eager to try it and it was better than their regular sausage. The regular sausage was good, but it seems as if they had a salt ration and decided to allocate their entire store to the lamb sausage.

    My main problem with this place is the discrepancy I noticed from person to person about topping distribution. Since we only got one slice of most of these pizzas, if your slice didn't hold everything then you were out of luck. I heard people saying they didn't get any sauce, peppers, garlic, etc on their respective slices. I understand that the way we eat the pizza is not how you would normally do it, but I don't think it's anything special to ask for a better distribution.

    My favorite pizzas were the sausage and peppers (despite not getting any peppers), the lamb sausage, the shrimp, and the prosciutto. The sauce, when available, was just nice chunks of tomatoes and went very well with the meat toppings.

    I was less than impressed with the goat cheese pizzas. The cheese was over cooked and flaky and that combined with no sauce on the pizza made it extremely dry.

    If the crust was undercooked, I didn't notice. It was a little chewy on some pieces and on others was just fine, but never chewy enough that my jaw was getting a workout.

    I give it a 6.0

  9. There were only 3 pizzas worth ordering here. I really like the lamb sausage, the pepperoni and sausage, and the mushroom pizza. The mushroom pizza had the most potent basil I have smelled on a pizza in a while. They do use fresh ingredients for these pizzas but what's the deal with all the arugula? There was enough to wear home. And no sauce? I was like what the hell? Where is the sauce? The crust was pretty good. I did not think undercooked and I did not think that the over nuked it to oblivion like so many really hot wood burning ovens do. I give this place a 5.5/10.

  10. The pizza at Union could easily pass as an exceptional snack while drinking a bottle of wine. For the pies to stand on their own however, Union needs to step the work on their crust. The vast majority of the wood-fired pizzas I've had show the same characteristic of the soggy center that Union showed; I don't consider that a bad trait just that of a wood oven. My biggest issues with the crust were the lack of char and the pronounced flour flavor with each bite. Unfortunately I was too engaged in conversation to watch the pizzas being cooked but have to wonder if they were not finished at the top of the oven (where the temp should be significantly higher) and thus the lack of char. The heavy flour flour was the real killer for me and was either from lack of hydration in the dough or just too much flour of the peel.

    I was a bit surprised but the only pie I was really impressed with was the sausage and pepperoni. Typically a traditional combination like that doesn't translate well in a wood-fired pizza but theirs was filling and delicious.

    Union is simply too far north to make it worth my trip for this kind of pie. If I lived in Evanston though I'm sure it would be on my regular rotation.


  11. When I walked into this place and saw the beautiful oven, I expected the crust to be the stand out feature. In fact, as others noted, the toppings grab you. Fresh, creative, delicious. The lamb sausage was my favorite, and it was also one of the few pies with generous amounts of chunky sauce. I love biting into tart tomatoes, and it reminded me a bit of Lou Malnati's sauce at its chunky best. I am with AJ when it comes to the shrimp. I think we've all been burned by nasty shrimp pizzas, but if you like shrimp in other contexts, you will like what Union does. I also thought the pepperoni was better than average. Aside from that, I really enjoyed the mix of fresh wild mushrooms and herbs on the mushroom pie, and the four cheese was really nice because the cheese was a bit browned.

    That said, the crust was pretty disappointing. It had no flavor, not from the ingredients and not from the lovely burning logs, so I think that oven is a bit of a waste. It was just chewy bread. There was shockingly little charring, which must have something to do with the particular tastes of the proprietors or the clientele. I definitely would have prefered for it to have been thinner and cooked a bit longer. The fact that it was so thick got in the way of the enjoyment of all the tasty toppings.


  12. Prosciutto & Arugula with béchamel & Parmesan was my #1. The nuttiness of the arugula and the saltiness of the prosciutto paired with the sharpness of the parmesan was out of this world!

    The Margherita was my #2 at Union. It's chunky tomato sauce was really good. It is a shame it is not more present in the other pizzas. They do this simply and it works.

    The lamb sausage was very interesting. Not usually a sausage fan in general, but this is a must try. Great flavor and texture.

    The asparagus pizza was quite tasty, but seemingly everything tastes better with goat cheese.

    The shrimp pizza was a bit too fishy for my tastes.

    The crust did not stand up to the caliber of pizza being offered. It was a disapointment.

    Overall Union is a nice and trendy restaurant with friendly staff. The venue in the backroom is an excellent addition to this cool place. This place could be an easy 10 if it were not for the crust, so I have to give it 6.5.