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


  1. I had plenty of time to familiarize myself with the modus operandi at Great Lake, having shown up at just before 6pm and being promised a table for 3 in the next hour and a half. What I noticed from looking at their wall marquis was that this place is serious about their ingredients and the suppliers from whom they get them - it appeared that they purchased just about everything they need to make their pies from small farmers and co-ops in the good ol' U-S-of-A. This ethos for quality and sustainability shone through in their food.

    My group had two pizzas: the #1 with mushrooms added (tomato sauce, mozzarella, mona aged cheese, herbs, cremini mushrooms) and the #3 (spinach, cream, mona aged cheese, cayenne pepper). The combination of ingredients on the #1 proved to be very tasty, albeit slightly 'soupy,' especially toward the center of the pizza. Both pies came straight out of the oven onto the table, so the crust was perfectly crispy throughout, and with the crust not yet soggy, the mild soup effect was not entirely a bad thing - the flavors sort of fused with one another, taking from the complexity, but lending to the comfortability (sic). I thought the mushrooms were the #1's shining star, and was glad we added them - buttery, with a lot of character. The #3 was my hands-down favorite of the two - the spinach was generously and appropriately distributed and perfectly cooked; the cayenne pepper came in big, fresh slivers (I don't recall having fresh cayenne pepper before....tasty!); the cream sauce was applied in the correct proportion to compliment the other ingredients - all around a very well thought out pizza. On both pies, I very much enjoyed the half-charred crust.

    Things I'd like to add which won't have any bearing on my score would be that, given the slightly higher price you pay for the micro-farmed, organic ingredients, and the hassle of the long wait for one of their four tables, I think this is probably a place I'd only revisit if I had an insatiable hankering for theirs over someone else's pizza - it could happen. One other thing to mention is that the gourmet ice cream, which I didn't get to sample but saw from a neighboring group, looked very good. And, it's BYOB - who doesn't like that?!


  2. Through a stroke of good fortune, research and planning my group got to Great Lake just after they opened and were able to secure a table without any wait. Well, when I say we didn't have to wait that would refer only to the seating situation as we certainly had to wait for our pizzas to get made and come out of the oven.

    Frankly, I found the pizza to be very good, but definitely not worth the mountains of praise that have been heaped upon this place. I agree with Adam that while the pizza is quite good I can't forsee myself of going through the hassle to eat there again.

    Some thoughts on the pizza, both of the crusts were very good. We ordered the #1 (with prosciutto) and the #3, the crust on the #3 was a bit overdone and kinda subtracted from that pie, as did the overabundance of garlic. The #1 was a much better pizza, and the added meat was definitely a good idea (even if it did make the pizza quite salty), though I wish the pie had some more sauce, as what little I was able to taste was quite good.

    So, in summary… a very good pizza, but not worth all the hype. Though not made in a wood or coal burning oven, nor a Neapolitan style pizza, Great Lake's pizza seems to be closest to those style of pies, and in comparison to how much I liked those places and the scores I gave them I give Great Lake an 8.

  3. This was my fifth visit to Great Lake and my seventh time eating it overall. When I go, I either get there when they open to avoid a wait, or I go fully prepared to wait a long time. With that approach, I can't say I've ever been annoyed with the wait (and that includes a 2.5 wait on a Wednesday night).

    I ate with Andrew and agree almost completely with his descriptions. The crust on #3 was a little bit overdone; not close to burnt but more crisp that intended or desired. And there was a whole lot of garlic on it, but I liked that. I think I liked #1 more than Andrew as it was the kind of pizza I would be happy to eat every day for the rest of my life.

    I give Great Lake a solid 9 on this visit.

  4. Great Lake makes some yummy pizza that's full of flavor. All of the ingredients come from places where they are carefully looked after and nurtured. Because of this attention to detail, the price of the pizza is pretty stupefying. This is coming from someone who thinks a large pizza with a few toppings shouldn't be more than $20. Maybe I need to get with the times?!

    Question: Worth it?
    Answer: For a special occassion.

    My group had the #1 with mushrooms, and the #3. I am not a fan of mushrooms in general, but these were delicious. They were super thinly sliced, and the flavor spread throughout the melted cheese and sauce. They sprinkled sea salt on the pizza which balanced out the crust. I loved it. The only detracting factor was an overcooked crust. It was too burnt in areas on the #1. However, the #3 was perfect. The #3 was an interesting combination of spinach and cayenne pepper. Both appeared in great quantities and were enjoyed thoroughly. If I had to choose a favorite, I go with #1 because it tastes like a really good basic pizza.

    If you're in the Andersonville neighborhood and it happens to be 5:30pm or you have a few hours to enjoy, stop by Great Lake. They do offer take out, so I could see myself picking up a pizza and taking it to Foster beach in the summertime.

    Great Lake gets an 8.

  5. The pizza at Great Lake is probably the best thin crust I've tried in Chicago so far. With all the hype over the past year, it was hard to not let my expectations take away from the experience. As, supposedly, the best pizza ever on earth, it was hard to be objective. Fortunately, I was not disappointed.

    We had a party of four, so were able to order two pizzas. These were expensive, but not neopolitan style, which often you need one pizza per person. I can eat a lot, and half of one pizza filled me up, almost beyond comfort. I arrived at 5:15 worrying about the wait, but had a choice as to where to sit, and the wait remained reasonable throughout the evening; most guests were able to sit down as they arrived. Yes, there aren't many seats, but if there is a wait you can give them your mobile number and go out drinking until your table is ready. It's best to order sooner rather than later, because the pizza chef is the slowest; but that you'll forgive as soon as you're eating.

    To start out: damn, they make the perfect crust. I don't know how it can be so much better than everywhere else, but it is. It's very, very thin, and not soggy -- in fact, it holds up well under its ingredients. I could eat just the crust all night long. To top things off, I noticed that the #1 slice that we had was edged with a sprinkle of kosher salt.

    I felt that the cheese, sauce and toppings were in perfect proportion, and placed with care. The quality of all ingredients was top of the line, making the pizza worth the price. This is obviously by design, as evidenced by the list of local farms that they use.

    I agree with Andrew that the crust on the spinach slice (#3) was a little overdone, but personally I loved the abundance of garlic. However, the #1 with prosciutto is what blew me away. The meat was so incredibly creamy, and combined with all of the other things I've listed it made this the perfect pizza.

    I will definitely be back to Great Lake, even with the long commute, potential crowds and wait, and the slightly higher prices. I give Great Lake a 9 out of 10.

  6. As described above, Great Lake makes one of the finest crusts in the city. Medium grain salt and other seasonings are a welcomed touch, along with a crust that has a nice balance between crunchy and chewy, with--brace yourself--a crisp middle. This a quantum leap from often soggy Neapolitan pizzas. The one minor quibble, also noted by other reviewers was that sometimes the crust is burnt too much. Overall, I found the crust to be refreshing and elegant.

    Fresh local toppings were arranged in wonderful combinations, along with the add-on prosciutto which melted in your mouth like butter. While at times I felt the prosciutto added too much salt, the satisfaction from the flavor combinations could not be denied.

    On a side note, the salads and white chocolate and orange marshmellow ice cream were worthy bookends.

    Great Lake is a unique and quirky little artisanal establishment worth returning to for exceptional pizza.


  7. I have nothing by respect for the quality pizza produced at Great Lakes. The pie for my inaugural visit was a #1 with prosciutto. With the exception of the slightly charred crust (which is forgivable) everything about the pizza was outstanding. The crust had a crisp outer rim with a soft chewy inside that reminded me of a pretzel made from pizza dough. The cheese, tomatoes and toppings were obviously chosen with care as each was nearly perfect. Is it the best pizza in the US? Maybe. Is it the best pizza I've ever had? No

    The use of local ingredients combined with the artisan quality of the final product makes for an outstanding pizza. I wish that every neighborhood had a Great Lakes equivalent.


  8. As I said in my review, the cremini mushroom plus pancetta pizza was amazing and still haunts my dreams. The spinach was a bit of a misfire, but only in a relative sense. I will eat here again and soon. I'd like to also say the salad was great and I think sharing a salad and a pizza is the way to go.


  9. I got to try all three pizzas, with prosciutto added to #1 and pancetta added to #2. I enjoyed them all. The crust is outstanding, though it can be a bit over-charred in some spots, and about 1/2 of the #2 with mushrooms got soggy (though some actually enjoyed that texture). I like tomato sauce, so that may be why #1 was my favorite, as it struck an incredible crust/sauce/cheese balance and paired well with the delicious, flavorful prosciutto. I did not find the spinach pizza off-putting at all. I love spinach, especially fresh spinach on pizza, and I never tasted it like this. Packed with flavor but still delicate, and a nice cayenne kick. I could eat that often.

    Lately, it seems hit or miss as to whether you'll have to battle a crowd to get into Great Lake. It's absolutely worth visiting, but I probably wouldn't wait more than 20-30 minutes again in the future.