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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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Freddie's [Meeting #113]

701 W. 31st Street (Map)
Chicago, IL 60616
(312) 808-0147

CPC invaded Freddies aka Fabulous Freddies Italian Eatery at 5:30 PM on Sunday, September 22, 2013.

It's been nearly two years since the Chicago Pizza Club ventured out to a place with less than high expectations. One of the drawbacks of infrequent meetings besides less pizza (this was just our 10th since the start of 2011) is that we've gotten quite a bit less ambitious in exploring places that are a bit below the radar. Freddie's (also spelled Freddies and also sometimes known as Fabulous Freddies Italian Eatery), has been serving up pizza and a whole lot more in Bridgeport since 1990.

The menu at Freddie's is a bit ridiculous in its length. In addition to three kinds of pizza (thin crust, deep dish, and stuffed) and homemade "panzarotti puffs," they've got everything from burgers and beefs to fried chicken and fried breaded pork to classic Italian American sandwiches and pastas to salads to fried fish and a host of sausages to breakfast sandwiches. Seriously, go look at the menu; there's a lot more than I just listed. Ordinarily, that would be a huge red flag. But upon closer inspection, some care is revealed - homemade soup of the day, homemade donuts, and homemade Italian ice. Also promising was that the menu lists sausage pizza as its own category. That's usually a sign that, if nothing else, the sausage is going to be pretty excellent. So that's where I was coming from when I walked in the door. Come along and see how things played out.

Seven Pizza Clubbers made it to the meeting which gave us sufficient ordering power.

We ordered:

The best pizza of the night by a wide margin was the stuffed pizza, which we got with pepperoni, garlic, and onion, a routinely successful combination of toppings. When ordering a stuffed pizza, diners are asked whether they want it with sauce or not. For people who buy into the theory put forth by the founders of Giordano's and Nancy's (visited pre-website), that stuffed pizza is based on scarciedda, an Easter pie filled with ricotta, an egg, and other goodies, it actually makes sense because tomato sauce wasn't part of that tradition.

Naturally, we opted for sauce and it was a good thing we did. This chunky and surprisingly vibrant sauce was a nice touch for the thick pizza, even if it lacked the herbaceousness of places like Giordano's. The top crust was thick for a style of pizza where it's usually close to paper-thin. I think this might have the thickest top crust of any stuffed pizza this side of Connie's (another place considers sauce on stuffed pizza to be optional. The cheese, melted to an ideal gooeyness, was fine, and for a group trying as many pizzas we were, thankfully less prevalent than at some other places in town. All together, I really enjoyed the stuffed pizza; certainly more than the other two pies of the evening.

We're spoiled in Chicago with great sausage. It's odd that so much of the country fails to measure up considering that good sausage is incredibly easy to make, but that's their problem. Know what's hard to make? Unfortunately, as the thin crust pizza at Freddie's demonstrated, a good pizza crust. This crust was not good - it was flavorless and was not crisp at all. Technically, this is what Freddies calls a regular crust. There's a thinner thin crust option and we should have asked for that. Slices were available at the counter and the thinner crust appeared to be almost cracker-like. There's no reason to think the taste would have been any better, but the texture would have been an upgrade.

The sausage was pretty good. To be fair, by national standards, it was very, very good. But in this sausage-loving town, we can be hypercritical and note that it could have used more fennel and a little more chewiness. The cheese didn't stand out as a positive or negative, nor did the sauce. The dearth of sauce was surprising, especially when considering the thickness of the crust.

We finished about 2/3 of the thin crust pizza and nobody really wanted to take home the extras. I took home three squares, one of which Phred thoroughly enjoyed.

It's quite possible a deep dish pizza with Italian beef and giardiniera is the most Chicago food one can buy. Unfortunately, this was the least enjoyable pizza of the night. The biggest problem was, again, with the crust. Let's start with the obvious; this crust is not close to a traditional deep dish pizza crust. Allow me to take a step back and make clear that people with strict rules about pizza categories frequently take it too far. But at some point names have to mean something and a deep dish pizza is more than just a thin pizza with more of everything.

The Uno's/Gino's East/Lou Malnati's/Pizano's family of deep dish all feature a crust that is more a slightly crunchy biscuit version of bread than generic thick crust on this. I'd call this pan pizza, but I still wouldn't want to eat it again. Sorry, that's mean, but the bottom line is that this came across as a rendition of deep dish pizza made by someone who'd never had the real thing.

The pizza puffs, which can be ordered baked or fried, are unquestionably the best pizza-ish value at $4 plus 75 cents per topping. It's a good rule in life that when any food is offered baked or fried, the latter should be chosen, and that's what we did. The most obvious benefit was that the crust that had been a problem so far was transformed into a flaky and crunchy bread that actually quite nice.

I suppose it's an art form to fry a pizza puff this big and achieve a beautiful golden crust and melted cheese. As you can see, this one came up a little short in the melted cheese department but that wasn't really noticeable when eating it. Overall, the pizza puff was a success. Until more places start making their own, it's easy to say this is one of the best in Chicago..

 We were all full after eating our fill of pizza but there were homemade desserts to be had. Some people refused to partake in the sweets, but those of us who did were rewarded with some very good Italian ice. The Italian ice is offered in sizes ranging from 8 ounces to 2 gallons and diners can enjoy lemon, strawberry, watermelon, cantaloupe, raspberry, and mango. We split an 8-ounce cup of lemon and watermelon and, despite our overstuffed state, would have eaten more. Also good, but not as special were the donuts, which are made to order and covered in a whole lot of powdered sugar.

It's doubtful anyone is going to go into Freddy's expecting to get their minds blown and it's even more doubtful that anyone will leave thinking they just had the best pizza of their lives. CPC members were a bit divided, but for me, I could see myself stopping in on my way to a Sox game for a stuffed pizza and an Italian ice. 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Reno [Meeting #112]

2607 N Milwaukee Ave (Map)
Chicago, IL 60647
(773) 697-4234

CPC and family invaded Reno at 5:30 PM on Sunday, January 27, 2013. Marla Collins' Husband started writing this review in early March and just finished it in mid-August.

El Presidente has two babies and a very important job so it's understandable that he did not get around to writing this review. I didn't jot down any thoughts after the Chicago Pizza Club ate most of the pizzas at Reno, but I've got one hell of a pizza memory. For the second consecutive time, we gathered early on a Sunday night in order to accommodate the early bedtimes of the next generation of the CPC. At this meeting, young Estela, Cora (first CPC meeting outside the womb!), and Hugo were joined by 6 full-fledged adult members and, for the very first time, a parent of a CPC member. That's right, three generations of the Chicago Pizza Club made a temporary home in Logan Square to eat some pizza!

Reno is the latest venture from the team that has given Chicago Webster's Wine Bar, Telegraph, and Bluebird. Of the three, I've only been to Bluebird and that was to drink while waiting for  a table to open up next door at Hot Chocolate, so I'm not sure whether Reno's pedigree should impress or not. But after eating there, I do know the pizza at Reno is worthy of a visit from anyone serious about our favorite food.

Reno had 8 pizzas on the dinner menu with predetermined sets of toppings along with a plain sauced pie to which diners can add toppings. Apparently the menu does change a bit because there was a pizza with beets and whipped tofu available when we visited that has mercifully been removed. (Note: Amanda wanted us to order the Beetza (shaved beets / hazelnuts / thyme / whipped tofu) and she should be publicly be humiliated for that). Here's the menu as of early March, which was very similar to the one we saw in late January (the Bono was not there for our visit):

Mozzarella / Fresh Basil / Red Sauce —9
Add toppings & make it your own
Roasted Cauliflower / Truffle / Parmesan / Mozzarella
Paulina Pepperoni / Jalapeño Pesto / Mozzarella / Red Sauce
Edward’s Ham / Kimchi / Spinach / Mozzarella / Fried Garlic
Artichoke / Spinach / Gouda / Mozzarella / Pecorino
Porkbelly Carnitas / Salsa Verde / Mozzarella / Rajas / Cotija Cheese
Fennel Sausage / Crimini Mushroom / Smoked Onion / Mozzarella / Red Sauce
Butternut Squash / Sage / Gruyere Cheese / Walnuts / Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Sweet Potato / Brussels Sprout / Corned Beef / Smoked Onion / Aleppo Pepper

*** As of August 17, 2013, the menu is now:

Mozzarella / Fresh Basil / Red Sauce —9
Add toppings & make it your own Husker
Sweet Corn Salsa / Roasted Eggplant / Grilled Peppers / Mozzarella / Basil
Paulina Pepperoni / Jalapeño Pesto / Mozzarella / Red Sauce
Artichoke / Spinach / Gouda / Mozzarella / Pecorino
The Meg
Arbol Peanut Salsa / Spinach / Smoked Onion / Piquillo Pepper
Porkbelly Carnitas / Salsa Verde / Mozzarella / Rajas / Cotija Cheese
Fennel Sausage / Crimini Mushroom / Smoked Onion / Mozzarella / Red Sauce
Proscuitto di Parma / Asparagus / Sunny Side Egg / Rosemary / Mozzarella
Smoked Chicken / Arbol Peanut Salsa / Green Onion / Smoked Onion

As you can see, lots of changes. ***

Back to the actual meeting, which took place over six months ago. We sampled the Hog, the Combo, the Butternut, the Southern, the Paulina, a Reno that we topped with pepperoni, onion and garlic; and, because there were children present, a plain Reno.

Remember that memory I bragged about at the beginning? I wrote that in early March. It's now mid-August and my memory's not superhuman, so I can't get too detailed. Look at the ingredients and the pictures and use your imagination. And take it as a major compliment to Reno that the following thoughts remain in my head almost seven months after I ate this stuff:

The crust is really, really good. It's got the whole crisp and chewy thing down pat - that was consistent in every pizza. There wasn't anything that stood out particularly about the flavor, but to the extent a test of a crust is whether it would be enjoyable to eat without cheese, sauce or toppings,  this one passes with flying colors.

In terms of the toppings,  the Hog and the Paulina really stood out. They were creative, but not just for the sake of creativity; the combinations were as delicious as they are uncommon. The Hog is just about the best Mexicanish pizza you'll find anywhere and the jalapeno pesto on The Paulina (with pepperoni from Paulina Meat Market!) was a standout topping that really ought to be bottled and sold. It makes perfect sense that those two have remained on the menu that, as you can see above, has seen some major tinkering since the CPC visited. I was also a big fan of the Combo. The sausage was studded with fennel and the smoked onion was a unique and pretty excellent twist on a fairly typical toppings' combination that a self-respecting Chicagoan would consider ordering anywhere.

Not surprisingly, at least to me, the butternut was the least successful of the night, reinforcing that the 99.99% of pizzerias that never put butternut squash on a pizza have the right idea. Update: Amanda says the butternut was her idea and that she didn't push for the tofu. The dinner was 7 months ago; she might be right. But still, public shaming for foisting butternut and sage upon us is appropriate.

That's all I've got. Hopefully some CPC members will chime in with their memories. And perhaps the best thing I can say is that coming back and finishing this review makes me realize how badly I need to get back to Reno. And not just for the pizza. We also had a sampling of desserts and they were, for me, the highlight of a delicious meal.

Lastly, a housekeeping note. There has been a coup in the Chicago Pizza Club. El Presidente has been banished to the pizza wasteland that is Orlando, Florida. There will be an election at the next CPC meeting to anoint a new Supreme Leader. I will have the only vote in the election. The winner will be me, Marla Collins' Husband the Magnificent, Prime Minister of Pizza. All hail MCHMPMP!

chicagopizzaclub's Reno album on Photobucket

Monday, January 28, 2013

Balena [Meeting #111]

1633 North Halsted Street (Map)
Chicago, IL 60614
(312) 867-3888

CPC invaded Balena on December 16, 2012.

The Chicago Pizza Club may not be the active hotbed of pizza exploration it once was, but the CPC is not dead. And what our 2012 lacked in quantity was made up for in quality. Our last meeting (Tocco) may have been a dud, but our first three stops of the year (Roots, Jimmy's, and Pizzeria da Nella) were all excellent. 80% success rate makes for a great year but 60% success is decidedly mediocre. See, kids, when you're dealing with a small set of numbers, each individual one carries a lot of weight. What that means is that Balena, the joint venture of Chef Chris Pandel (The Bristol) and the Boka Boys, was going to make or break our year.

Eight CPC members, one 2-year-old child, one 3-month-old child (CPC debut!), and one 3-week-pre-birth fetus all gathered around a pretty sweet large heavy wood table in a nook in the back of the restaurant. The pizzas, which range from $13 to $18, are 12 inches across and the restaurant's recommendation is that diners share a pizza before diving into the more expensive entrees. That wasn't going to work for us, so after getting an incredibly enthusiastic overview of the menu from our very friendly server, we placed an order for each of the six pizzas currently on the menu:

  • Mozzarella, Basil, Tomato
  • Cauliflower, Garlic Crema, Burrata, Anchoïade
    • This was one of t the anchoïade (typically a blend of olive oil, white wine vinegar, garlic and anchovies)
  • Spicy Sausage, Red Onion, Tomato, Mozzarella
    •  The spicy sausage, made in-house, was particularly good. It was nice to see a new place put out sausage that holds its own against the better old-school purveyors in town.
  • Mushroom, Fontina, Taleggio, Scallion, Thyme
    •  This umami bomb of a pizza was one of just two vegetarian options but packed enough flavor to stand up against its meaty counterparts
  • Brussels Sprout, Pancetta, Pecorino, Red Onion
    •  Anyone who does not think Brussels sprouts are an underrepresented pizza topping needs to check this thing out. This combination of sweet, salty, and earthy flavors made for my favorite combination of the night.
  • Mortadella, Pistachio Pesto, Mozzarella 
    • Pistachios, often an ingredient in mortadella, are a logical choice for pairing with the classic Italian meat. But rather than toss some crunchy nuts on there, Balena takes a more creative apporoach with the pesto which eliminated textural issues that might bother some people and ensures there's pistachio flavor in each bite.
The menu does change with the seasons so readers shouldn't get their heart set on any of these particular combinations of toppings. But based on what we sampled, anyone going to Balena should look forward to having a nice array of extremely well executed toppings, some in combinations found in virtually every pizzeria in America, but others that might not exist anywhere else.

The only issue with the pizzas for me, and it's not a major one, came with the crust. The first thing that jumps out when seeing the pizzas is just how much crust is left naked. If the bread is exceptional, like at Great Lake (RIP, hopefully temporarily) or at Mozza in Los Angeles, that's easily overlooked. But Balena's crust, while quite good, isn't in that league. That's not to say it's bad, it tastes like a basic freshly made piece of bread. Our server told us there's some honey in the dough, but its impact seems limited to enhancing the beautiful golden color. The drawback with the crust was that it was extraordinary chewy. A couple people didn't eat all of their end crusts, though I ate mine and finished off a couple others.

The final components of the of the pizza experience at Nellcote, which we failed to document with pictures, are the housemade chili flakes and chili oil, which are provided with every pizza for those who want to kick up their pizzas a bit. None of the pizzas were starving for more flavor, but these were both a nice touch for those of us who like a little more heat of the variety that complements rather than overwhelms.

Because there were 8 of us and only six pizzas, the CPC made the rare decision to add some non-pizza items to our order. The only hard part was deciding which pair of pastas we were going to add to our order.
  • Orecchiette, Kale, Lemon, Bread Crumbs, Chili
  • Rigatoni, Pork Ragu, Porcini Mushroom 
This is the Chicago Pizza Club not the Chicago Pasta Club so I'm not going to get into details about these two $16 plates of noodles. I will say that these were inhaled and I'm pretty sure everyone made a mental note to return to Balena for more pasta at some point.