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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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Gruppo di Amici [Meeting #99]

Gruppo di Amici
1508 W Jarvis (map)
Chicago, IL 60626
(773) 508-5565

CPC invaded Gruppo di Amici on 7/21/2010

As with any arbitrary ranking, there is debate and skepticism. Chicago Magazine recently ranked the top 25 pizzas in town. So, naturally, CPC decided to do some reconnaissance on some places we have not tried. Our second consecutive trip to a ranked pie shop took us way north to Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood and #19, Gruppo di Amici. Located twenty paces from the Jarvis Red Line stop and nestled on a quiet block that boasts a neighborhood pub and fine foods store, Gruppo immediately sticks out of the crowd with its classic white stone Uptown Chicago fa├žade and spacious al fresco dining patio. Lori Alderete and Phaedra Divras opened Gruppo in June of 2006 and have since been offering, among other things, their own unique variety of “Roman-style” pizzas.

The restaurant space is lofty, clean, and modern. Prominently anchored in the rear of the space is the wood-burning brick oven. According to the bartender, the oven holds approximately 5-6 pies and burns wood at a relatively cool 500 degrees Fahrenheit. As such, the pies take about 2.5 to 4 minutes to cook (as opposed to 90 seconds in the typical hotter brick ovens). This is done to minimize the burnt crust that is endemic to this type of pizza. For the most part, Gruppo succeeded in that objective.

We ordered the following:

  • Mare: Italian tuna in extra virgin olive oil with capers, olives, diced tomatoes and fresh parsley
  • Funghi e Prosciutto: Fresh bufala mozzarella, mushrooms, prosciutto di parma and tomato sauce
  • 4-Formaggi: Gorgonzola, Swiss, Fontina and Holland
  • Salsiccia: Red bell pepper and mild Italian sausage and tomato sauce.
First, I had mixed feelings about the seafood pie. The thing about the tuna is that you get the seafood flavor, without the seafood salt. As I believe that the salt is the point of having fish on pizza, I prefer anchovies. In this respect, the tuna did not satisfy, despite its quality. In contrast, the cracker crust was good. What it lacked in flavor, it made up in texture, which was crackery and firm. For the most part, Gruppo pies do not limp. The sauce was good, but not memorable. It had a safe balance of acidity and sweetness, but lacked a noticeable bouquet.

The mushroom and prosciutto pie was my choice and I was disappointed. I think the problem was a matter of proportion, as there were simply too many mushrooms. The mountains of mushrooms oversaturated the crust, which made it limp. Once the crust lost its texture, it lost its strength. The mushrooms also changed the character of the prosciutto, which became wet and lost its essential dry elasticity. Things got much better with the four-cheese pie, a white pie that had great contrast, which covered the entire flavor spectrum. The crust merely served as a mode of delivery for this delicious amalgam of fat, salt, and sharpness. As far as cheese pies go, this was pretty good.

However, my favorite of the evening was the sausage pie. This pie had all of the right stuff. The sauce had a noticeable tang, which was buttressed by the fresh red bell pepper. The mozzarella lumps were fluffy. The crust had great texture: firm and crispy, but not dry. The sausage was good, yet a little bland, as I would have preferred a little more spice. Why go with “mild” sausage, when you can have “spicy?”

In fact, I believe the sausage pie is the perfect summary of what Gruppo pies are all about: high quality, but safe. Even the temperature Gruppo bakes their pie is safe. The problem with offering brick oven pies in Chicago is that there are so many choices and unless your pie has a certain memorable quality, it will be forgotten. Risks must be taken!

Of all the pie shops CPC have tried in its over seven years of pizza gorging, this one falls somewhere in the middle. Gruppo may be a bit overrated at #19, but they certainly earned the spot by providing, for the most part, a well-balanced pie. Besides, every ranked team is going to have its critics.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Castel Gandolfo Pizzeria [Meeting #98]

Castel Gandolfo Pizzeria
800 N Dearborn St (map)
Chicago, IL 60610
(312) 787-2211

The CPC invaded Castel Gandolfo on 7/1/2010

The sign on the sidewalk in front of Castel Gandolfo proudly proclaims their recent third place ranking by Chicago Magazine. On July 1st the Chicago Pizza Club decided to see if their pies stood up to the prior 97 spots reviewed.

Castel Gandolfo has one of two coal fired pizza ovens in the city. Their cooking technique does not produce a char like the pizzas from Coalfire but that's not to say they don't do the oven justice. With a pizza menu consisting of just 2 sizes, 14" and 16" and the specialty option of a white pizza for $1 extra, the only debate is on the toppings. Considering there was only a $2 difference between the two pie sizes available (and no increased topping charges) the CPC ordered 4 pizzas for the review.

  • Sausage and Garlic
  • Margherita
  • White Pizza with Prosciutto
  • Roasted Grapes and Taleggio Cheese
The first round of pizzas delivered to the table were a sausage and garlic pie along with a traditional Margherita. Both pizzas had a generous amount of fresh mozzarella that extended closer to the edge of the crust than the slightly acidic sauce did. The crust was thin with a slight snap under the toppings and a soft wide rim. The second round brought out a white pizza topped with prosciutto along with an unlisted special pie containing roasted grapes and taleggio cheese.

The same Margherita pizza ranked highly by Chicago Magazine also seemed to be the favorite of the pizza club. Even with a crust that could have stood another minute in the oven, it's easy to see why this pizza is highly regarded. If Castel Gandolfo wasn't so close to the pizza I make at home, this would be a very frequent destination.