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.

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Monday, February 08, 2010

Great Lake [Meeting #91]

Great Lake
1477 W. Balmoral Avenue [GoogleMaps]
Chicago, IL
(773) 334-9270

CPC invaded Great Lake from 2/3/10 to 2/6/10.

Great Lake has been featured everywhere and I presume that if you're reading this blog you don't need me to point you towards the various articles that sing its praises.

Many of our members had already eaten here on their own. With our usual large group out of the question at this small storefront with only 4 tables, we decided to make it a week-long affair. From Wednesday to Saturday, our members went in groups of 2, 3, and 4 to eat and debate the merits of Great Lake.

I took the Saturday shift and went in with 1 member and 1 non-member. We were in the initial seating for the evening. We waited 40 minutes in brisk February weather before the restaurant opened. Ordering is pretty quick considering there are only a few pizzas available every week. We decided to order the #1 and #2 and added prosciutto and pancetta, respectively. Below are the pizzas that were available when we went. Keep in mind that these topping combinations come and go, oftentimes never to be seen again. After about a 30 minute wait, our pizzas arrived.

As luck would have it, my friend's parents were eating at Great Lake for the second time in two nights. Excited by their gushing reviews, I grew antsy waiting for my turn to eat. Undoubtedly disappointed that all they had to show for their son's higher education was an article on Tosca and futurism, they have decided to act out by: dressing cooler than me, being more athletic than me, and hanging out at cooler spots than me throughout the city. After humbling me with their coolness, they felt bad and generously shared their salad and lone pizza, #3, with us and our group was thus able to try them all. The salad was excellent; fresh, simple, and local.

In my experience, the crust at Great Lake is unique. It is rare to find a gas-cooked pizza that features a crust as sturdy and crisp as this one. It has an airiness that belies the fact that this crust holds up so well when piled with toppings. Even the center of our pies were as crisp as the edges; rare indeed. When you do get to the edge of the crust, it is essentialy like eating excellent bread.

The first pizza was a cheese pizza and a great way to judge the basic components of a Great Lake pizza. The sauce was sparse and this was the only one of the three that had a tomato sauce. I would say it's sad that the frequently omit their excellent tomato sauce, but so far my favorite pizzas have been their non-sauce ones anyway. The sauce was just tomatoes and provided an acidic balance to the prosciutto and creamy mozzarella and nutty Mona. The third pizza was unique to me: chopped spinach served in a pseudo-creamed form that doubles as the "sauce" for the pie. I didn't get much of the Mona flavor here, but the cayenne pepper was certainly prominent. The pizza was expertly cooked, but I thought the combination was not well-executed. The cayenne was some welcome heat, but I felt it overpowered the spinach cream and I had to try to find the taste of it in every bite even though it was certainly there in terms of quantity. When I focused on the spinach, it had a depth of flavor I appreciated, but generally speaking I was struggling to find it.

The cremini mushroom pizza deserves its own article, however. This was a transcendent experience for me. It's rare to find such nice pieces of pancetta, especially when it is so abundant, be matched by any ingredient, especially mushrooms. That's what Great Lake was able to accomplish here. The creaminess of the Capriko cheese made the whole thing more pleasantly unctuous than any pizza I've ever had. I really can't decide which component was the star and that is probably why I enjoyed it so much. It was as well put together as any combination of toppings I've had and the crust provided a nice textural counterpoint to the smooth and velvety toppings.

Great Lake owners Nick Lessins and Lydia Esparza work at their own pace. It's been well-documented and to expect anything else at this point is ridiculous. It's clear they like the slower place with limited seating and hours that enable them to spend a lot of time outside of their restaurant. They don't try especially hard to be accommodating and are not believers that the customers is ALWAYS right. If you can get past these things, and I will note I had perfectly friendly service, then you will have some outstanding pizza. If you can't, then you should do yourself a favor and at least order some for take-out and eat it in your car.

Great Lake is a BYOB restaurant and they do sometimes sell bread to take home. They are only open from Wednesday to Saturday, but word is that they are considering opening on Tuesday as well although they may not publicize it. They have outdoor seating in warm weather, but be warned that the combination of deliberate service and massive demand can make for a multi-hour wait. I had read they they no longer take phone orders for take-out; you must come in to the store to order it in person. When we were there, I thought I heard them take phone orders. So it might depend on how busy they are and I recommend calling to find out. The pizzas serve one to two people and cost about $20 apiece. It's not cheap, but the list of purveyors demonstrates that they are buying the best ingredients available. And, no, they do not have a website.

Great Lake makes excellent pizza and manages to not drown underneath the mountain of hype. All three pizzas were excellent, although the pizza topped with cremini mushrooms and pancetta was my clear favorite. The ever-rotating menu means I'll head back every so often with a nice bottle of beer to see what new combinations they have in store for their loyal patrons, whose ranks I have now joined.

Great Lakes Pizza on Urbanspoon