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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, Ancho├»ade
    • This was one of t the ancho├»ade (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.


  1. For the reasons explained in the review, I give Balena a 7.7

  2. For a restaurant that's not focusing on Pizza, this place was surprisingly good… and, actually, even if the pizza had been the focus I would've been pleasantly surprised. 8/10

  3. I loved their pizza - 8.5, overall. Oddly enough, the "weirder" the toppings sounded on paper, the better the pizza seemed to be, which is atypical for me. Thanks to Phred's Dad for the competent write up, too!