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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Sunday, August 12, 2012

Tocco Pizza e Arte [Meeting #110]

Tocco Pizza e Arte
1266 North Milwaukee Avenue (Map)
Chicago, IL 60622
(773) 687-8895

CPC invaded the patio at Tocco on July 30, 2012.

From the time of unification until the 1970s, the Italian government maintained a monopoly on salt.  The government was so devoted to retaining that power that, at least in the 1890s, it actually restricted how much ocean water people could take to their house because they might use the small number of crystals that would be left behind days later when the water evaporated rather than buy more of the heavily-taxed, government-controlled product. While I highly doubt the intent at Tocco is to create a tribute to those oppressive days in Italy, I did find the pizzas to be the most underseasoned ones I can remember eating.

Five members of the Chicago Pizza Club headed to Tocco on a surprisingly mild Tuesday night. The wall of windows was wide open, giving those of us who took our place on the patio several steps off of a largely ungentrified stretch of Milwaukee Avenue a clear look at one of the more stylish interiors the Chicago Pizza Club has encountered. We ordered five pizzas:

  • Margherita
  • Casarecci (white pizza with mozzarella, gorgonzola, fresh tomatoes and mushrooms)
  • Soppressata
  • Milanese (mozzarella, prosciutto and fresh arugula)
  • Red pizza with zucchini, kalamata olives, artichoke hearts, and mushrooms (name not on the website and therefore lost to history)
These pizzas, which ranged from $12 - $18 and are intended as a meal for one person, were not very good. The crust on each pie, which looked pretty enough thanks to some nice charring in spots, was dry and had no real flavor. The cracker-like texture was fine, but that just made it a cracker crust, not a good crust. The sauce, which was present on three of the pizzas, and which was presumably made from canned San Marzano or some other type of Roma tomato, tasted like, well, tomatoes. Like the crust, there was no noticeable salt. And these tomatoes were not particularly bright; not bad, but not that good. Another note about the sauce - there were seeds in it. They were soft seeds and I probably wouldn't have noticed them had I not looked closely at the sauce, but it's just lazy to leave them in.

There were a couple of highlights. Actually, there was one. The soppressata itself was actually good cured meat that packed a little heat. The pizza was simple and, other than the crust, not particularly flawed. The Margherita was also pretty good, but the cheese, like the sauce, brought nothing that made it stand out at all. It looked like fresh mozzarella, but wasn't the creamiest version out there.

The other three pizzas had significant problems. The Casarecci and the red pizza with the unknown name, suffered not only from the lack of salt that was a theme of the night, but also from decidedly unimpressive ingredients. Every single vegetable tasted like one of the cooks walked to the nearby Jewel and picked up whatever was on sale. It's the middle of summer; there's no excuse for using vegetables with this little flavor.

The Milanese might have been the worst offender of the evening. The prosciutto, which was far too thick and chewy, was a virtual salt lick. The meat was so oversalted that if someone in the kitchen could have figured out a way to extract the salt from the prosciutto and distribute it across the other four bland pizzas, then it's possible the tenor of this review would be entirely different. But that science doesn't exist and we were left with an unsatisfactory pizza meal. The arugula on the Milanese was good, but sandwiched between that prosciutto and a dose of Parmesan that looked and tasted like it came from a green shaker, it wasn't going to save the pizza.

All that said, we at the Chicago Pizza Club are troopers. We ate almost everything so Tocco's pizza at least had a little going for it. But I'll be surprised if any of us go back there again.

Petey Pizza gives Tocco Pizza e Arte a 4.9.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Pizzeria da Nella Cucina Napoletana [Meeting #109]

Pizzeria da Nella
1443 W. Fullerton Ave. (Google Maps)
Chicago, IL 60614
(773) 281-6600

CPC filled just one table at Pizzeria da Nella on June 14, 2012.

For a pizza town as outstanding as Chicago, there are surprisingly few well known pizzamakers. There's certainly no known deep dish piemaster of note actually doing the cooking (though I have no doubt that both Marc and Rudy Malnati can make a great pie). Same goes for most thin crust places - Pat's not cooking at Pat's (CPC review here) and there's no Vito or Nick slinging pizzas at Vito & Nick's (CPC review here). And at Spacca Napoli (CPC review here), owner Jonathan Goldsmith does a great job as a host and he's been overseeing the best Neapolitan operation in Chicago for six years, but he's not cooking pizzas.

But then there's Nella Grassano, the best known pizza craftsman in town. There's no question that Grassano can make stellar Neapolitan pizzas. She ran the kitchen at Spacca Napoli when it opened but then left after  a falling out with Goldsmith. A little less than 3 years ago, she reappeared on the scene with Nella Pizzeria Napoletana (CPC review here). With a Lincoln Park location, the financial backing of Scott Harris, and more advance press than perhaps any pizzeria in Chicago history, all seemed to be going her way. But then she and Harris's relationship soured and that was that.

None of this is intended as a knock on Grassano at all; I have no idea what happened in either situation. What I do know is that her skills are undeniable and now, with the opening of Pizzeria da Nella in Lincoln Park, she has quietly returned to the scene and is once again demonstrating that, like her father and grandfather before her, making pizza is what she was meant to do. This time, the money is coming from a much more silent partner, the owners of Tsuki, a sushi restaurant in the same location that shut down over two years ago.

The restaurant is on Fullerton, just west of Southport, one of those locations that's close to a lot, but isn't going to see a lot of foot traffic. Nella and her husband Frank have never wanted for confidence in abilities, but apparently confident that her pizza is good enough to draw crowds, Nella and her husband Frank have built out a space that holds at least 50 people inside and, when the weather permits, another 40 outside. Nella brought in her brother to help out with the non-pizza items, but she's going to make every pie in the gorgeous tile-covered oven built by a crew flown in from Naples.

The 3 1/2 CPC members who attended this pre-heat-wave meeting opted to take advantage of the mild early summer evening and sit outside. We were there on a Thursday night with great weather and and saw about 30 or so customers. Admittedly knowing nothing about the restaurant's finances, I have a significant fear that they're going to have to do better than that if Nella's third time is going to be her charm. For the sake of Chicago's pizza scene, I certainly hope so because Nella Grassano's pizzas are as good as ever.

The Bufalina, a Margherita but with buffalo mozzarella rather than fior di latte, serves as a reminder of how good even the simplest pizza can be. Nella is a fervent nationalist when it comes to pizza. She thinks that the tomatoes, the mozzarella, and the flour of Italy are all better than their American counterparts. While I and countless people who have done blind taste tests strongly disagree, I couldn't help but think she might be right while eating this pizza. The bright, sweet, and lightly acidic sauce, applied very generously for the style, is exceptional. Seriously, I'd consider sipping a glass full of this stuff. Mozzarella is not a cheese that's ever going to win a flavor competition but this rich and creamy buffalo mozz is impeccable.

But, not surprisingly, it's the crust where Nella's skill really shines through. The bottom crust is sturdier than you'll typically find at places bearing the seal of approval as "autherntic" Neapolitan pizza from the pizza police, and the end crust is not quite as high as is typical of the style. But both those deviations are just fine with me; this lightly crisp and slightly chewy crust, with noticeable hints of salt and yeastiness, is simply outstanding bread.

That said, the crust wasn't perfect. Upon close visual inspection, a thin line of undercooked dough is evident in the middle of the end crust. None of us noticed a negative effect while eating the pizza before or after discovering the flaw, but it does raise two questions. First, if this is a consistent problem when the restaurant isn't particularly busy, what's going to happen if it ever takes off? Second, how good can the crust be? Thanks to my other experience eating Nella's pizza, I actually know the answer to the second question is that it can be as good as any Neapolitan crust I've had. Unfortunately, I don't have an answer to the second question. I had good luck with her pizzas in the past, but some people whose opinions I respect had different experiences at Nella Pizzeria Napoletana.

We stayed relatively unadventurous with our remaining pizzas. The Diavola, which comes with spicy salami, red pepper flakes, and a dose of olive oil (Italian, of course), was excellent. The spicy salami, which was basically really delicious pepperoni, stood out as by far my favorite topping of the night. Largely that's because the sausage on the Funghi E Salsiccia, our third pizza of the evening, was so pedestrian. The debate over whether the United States or Italy is the leading pizza country will likely never be resolved, but there's no question Chicago drops a serious ass-whooping on Naples when it comes to making sausage. So in fairness to Grassano, who's as committed to Naples as the CPC is to Chicago, the sausage she's serving is her take on what you'd find in southern Italy.

Weak sausage and very slight misfires on the crust aside, it was clear with each bite that Pizzeria da Nella is the only threat in town to Spacca Napoli's crown as best Neapolitan pizzeria in Chicago. Whether or not Nella can surpass the place is a question for a future day. I only hope this restaurant sticks around long enough for the answer to matter.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Jimmy’s Pizza Café [Meeting #108]

Jimmy’s Pizza Café
5159 N Lincoln Ave (Google Maps)
Chicago, IL 60625
(773) 293-6992

CPC shoehorned into Jimmy’s Pizza Café on March 29, 2012.

It was only two meetings ago that I lamented the state of Chicago’s Pizza by the Slice offerings, both in terms of quantity and quality, and I still stand by the fact that for a city to be as bike and pedestrian-friendly as our new mayor and everyone else around town seem to want it to be, we need to have a plethora of suitable single-serve dining options- first and foremost, Pizza by the Slice.

So it was with great pleasure that I read the CPC email suggesting Jimmy’s Pizza Café for our next meeting. Jimmy’s is just a few short blocks from my apartment, and since they opened late last year, I’ve been there at least 2-3 times a month to get down with their New York (and New Orleans- more on that later) style goodness.

Jimmy’s is designed in the simple, traditional, small-tables, pies-on-display, order-at-the-counter pizzeria manner, but based on the size and tastes of our group, we decided to order whole pizzas rather than slices.

The first pie up was half-jalapeno half-spinach. Though lighter on the toppings and meat than most CPCers would ordinarily prefer, this pizza went over quite well. The jalapenos were hot- more than a few were pulled off of slices around the table, but this relatively simple pie was the perfect introduction to the Jimmy’s experience. Simply put, Jimmy’s is amongst the elites as far as NY style pizza in Chicago goes. From the perfectly crisp bottom layer up through the moist chewiness of the mid-dough, the sweet tang of the sauce, perfectly adequate but never excessive blanket of mozz, to the occasional char bubbles around the crispy/chewy collar, these guys nail the foldable savory sweetness that New Yorkers have justifiably loved and bragged about for decades.

Next up was the sausage and mushroom. The fennel-heavy sausage was a universal crowd-pleaser, and while the mushrooms didn't appear to be anything more than regular button mushrooms, they were surprisingly flavorful and stood up well to the sausage.

Last but undoubtedly not least was the bulgogi kimchi (props to LTHforum for letting us know about it in this post), a special, off-menu pie that requires pre-order notice a few days ahead of time. This monster, topped with bulgogi, kimchi, garlic, scallions, sesame seeds and egg, was thoroughly enjoyed, though a few CPCers seemed a bit overwhelmed by the intensity of the flavor combination. Additionally, as this pizza was far more heavily topped than their ordinary offerings, the crust was hard pressed to handle that much weight, and this was definitely the soggiest of the three pizzas we ordered, limp crusts sagging under their mighty burden.

In addition to this fantastic pizza, Jimmy also offers Intelligensia coffee and homemade beignets— pillowy New Orleans style doughnuts topped with powdered sugar—and dang if they weren’t the perfect ending to our meal.

Jimmy’s Pizza Café has so much working in its favor- let’s just hope the slightly out of way and inconducive-to-walk-ups location at the corner of Foster and Lincoln Avenues doesn’t keep people from checking out this north side gem.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Roots Handmade Pizza [Meeting #107]

Roots Handmade Pizza
1924 W. Chicago Avenue (Google Maps)
Chicago, IL 60622
(773) 645-4949

CPC invaded Roots Handmade Pizza on February 7. 2010.

Deep dish; stuffed; Neapolitan; New York; New Haven; Midwestern thin crust. What do all of those pizza styles have in common? Every respectable pizza aficionado knows what they're all about. Now what about Quad Cities style? Ever heard of it? Do you know where the Quad Cities are? Do you know how many cities are in the Quad Cities?

First, the easy answers. There are actually five cities in the Quad Cities and they are on the Illinois and Iowa sides of the Mississippi River. I've been there twice, once to witness the 1997 Great American Bash and once a couple years later for a girl. I finally outgrew wrestling and the girl is married. And because I failed to get pizza on either visit and I may never get back to the area, the possibility exists that I wouldn't have gotten to try Quad Cities style pizza were it not for Roots Handmade Pizza.

That brings me to the other questions: Yes, the Quad Cities have developed their own pizza style. It's basically regular thin crust pizza but with the twist of having malt in the crust. The malt makes the crust a bit more yeasty than is found on the average pizza and supposedly is responsible for some extra chewiness.

Anyhow, on to the food...

While the Pizza Clubbers are typically just a pizza-eating crowd when we gather together, the mozzarella sticks at Roots are an absolute requirement. At $9 for 5 of them, these are certainly the priciest mozzarella sticks any of us have encountered. I'll let everyone else speak for themselves, but I'd say they are also the best. Crafted from housemade mozzarella and covered with a crisp and well-seasoned/salty batter, these might actually be worth the price.

For the pizzas themselves, we ordered one with sausage and one taco pizza, two choices that went over very well with 6 1/4 CPC members who came to the meeting. At the end of the meal, we'd inhaled both pies.

I'll start with the sausage because, well, the sausage itself is freaking outstanding. The crumbled bits sausage covered virtually every single inch of the pizza and were loaded with fennel and pepper. The mozzarella was laid on thick and the sauce was pretty sparse, but while less of the former and more of the latter would have been nice, neither thing mattered because that pork was so good.

Taco pizza is apparently a thing in the Quad Cities. And the CPC is no stranger to taco pizzas, having had them at Meeting 31 (Barcello's), Meeting 41 (Michael's), Meeting 45 (Pete's Pizza), Meeting 56 (Pat's Pizza), Meeting 65 (Aurelio's), and Meeting 81 (John's Pizza Ristorante & Lounge). I love Pat's and I didn't go to every single one of those meetings that included taco pizzas, but if there's a better example of this delicacy in Chicago, I've never had it.

Everything about the taco pizza looks and sounds like a bad idea. It's got iceberg lettuce, cheese, beans, sausage, and, even cheesy tortilla chips (consensus was they were inferior to Doritos). Oh, you also get an unlimited supply of packets of taco sauce to go with the thing, something we took full advantage of. Despite the potential for this being nothing more than a silly gimmick, this was one outstanding pizza. And there's no question the extra chewy crust was key to standing up to the mess of toppings on this one.

One little detail of note to all the baseball fans out there: Roots has a couple of baseball connections courtesy of some of the people who invested in co-owners Greg Mohr (QC native) and Scott Weiner pizza venture. The Ricketts family, current overseers of the transformation of the Cubs, put some money into the place. People who, like me, pay far too much attention to these things might remember that Tom Ricketts and the Cubs Wonderboy General Manager watched a World Series game at Fifty/50. Well, that's co-owner Mohr's other restaurant (and their wings will apparently be available at Wrigley Field this year). The other baseball tie is that Yankees outfielder (and Chicago native) Curtis Granderson is also an investor in the place and he even brings some of his Yankee friends over for pizza dinner from time to time when they're in town slapping around the White Sox.