Unique Slices of Chicago Restaurant Scene: Great Lake Pizza and Burt's Pizza

Chicagoans tend to be pizza snobs.  I remember being in California visiting family and turning up my nose when my sister and sister-and-law were debating whether Domino’s or Papa John’s was the better pizza.  I wondered if they could possibly be serious to have such inane choices to consider.

When we lived in Norwood Park, we ordered thin-crust take-out from Phil’s Pizza d’Oro and usually ordered the meat-heavy Sam’s Special (http://www.philspizzadoro.com/).  Even greasy divey Village Inn Pizzeria (in Skokie, http://www.villageinnskokie.com) has superb pizza compared to the likes of Domino’s and Papa John’s.

For thick crust, we have a weakness for Edwardo’s Natural Pizza (from which we like to order a stuffed pizza, half pesto and half spinach, at http://www.edwardos.com), along with a virtual tie for Lou Malnati’s, Gino’s, Pizzeria Uno, Giordano’s and the rest of the usual crowd.  We’ve also tried those places which are “institutions” in downtown Chicago, though we don’t care for those as much as the restaurants listed above.

So, having eaten at most of the other well-known places, we decided—in one week, no less!—to attempt to try out two places widely recognized in recent years as premier pizza destinations, two Chicago restaurants named in Food and Wine Magazine as best pizza places in the U.S.: thin crust at Great Lake Pizza in Andersonville and deep dish at Burt’s Pizza in Morton Grove (of all places…).  Here is our review of both places which can be summed up the same way: good pizzas, slightly traumatic experiences.

Great Lake Pizza
1477 West Balmoral Ave. (in Andersonville), Chicago

They don’t seem to have their own website, so here is a google page that gives Zagat rating information. (https://plus.google.com/109292090758640979962/about?gl=us&hl=en)

It was hard getting in here.  There are very few tables in this tiny restaurant, so the best bet is to get there when they open at 5pm—really.  After a few tries, we were able to finally finesse the timing such that we got there when there were still two (visible) seats available—at a table we would share with a foursome.  Will was right outside the restaurant, about to park, while I went inside to make sure there was seating available for us before we paid for parking.  Almost immediately I was chastised—twice—to close the door fully.  The first time, I didn’t hear the server because she was at a table and I assumed she was talking to the diners there about something.  Which is the reason why I got a testier second request to please close the door shut.  Then, she told me that there were spaces for the two of us but that they would not seat us until we were both inside.  I made a quick trip right outside to tell Will, and I came back in and closed the door firmly behind me.  Then I groaned with dismay as another couple came in before Will finished paying for parking at the meter.  (When Will stepped in right behind them, I did glare at him out of sheer anxiety of the situation though it wasn’t really his fault, per se.)  Thankfully the other couple was just ordering take-out or I’m not sure what would have happened to our seats.

The food?  Well, the food was excellent, but that almost goes without saying.  Great Lake is one of those places where they tell you which farm they source their goods from.  Nichols Farm for the salad greens?  Or Mick Klug Farm for their green beans?  You get the idea.  Everything is just a little too (?) perfect.  And, everything is just a little too little for the prices they charged.  We also like Nichols and Mick Klug farms and have gotten produce from them from Irv and Shelley’s Fresh Picks or from the Evanston Farmer’s Market.  We can make some great sherry vinaigrette at home, and can toast nuts and breadcrumbs.  So perhaps we shouldn’t have been the couple that ordered the $13 bean salad only to discover that the plate that came out was about the size of a coffee cup saucer.  The 14-inch pizza we got for $27 almost seemed like a bargain in comparison since it was at least covered fully with sliced cremini mushrooms (though it’s not like cremini is one of the more expensive mushrooms…). 

The pizza was very good.  While I wished that perhaps we did also ask for garlic as an additional ingredient, knowing that the move would set us back another $5 dissuaded us from longing for that too much.  In case it doesn’t sound convincing, I should repeat that the pizza was very good.  The crust was nice and chewy, yet with a crispy exterior; the mushroom slices were generously distributed; the black pepper was very much in evidence.  We finished the whole pizza.

Then we got the bill.  1 salad, 1 14-inch pizza, BYO courtesy charges for 2, and tax.  $50.10.  Only cash tip allowed.  All in all, $60.10.  We might order out one of the other pizza choices, but I’m not sure we’ll try too hard to go back otherwise.

Burt’s Pizza
8541 Ferris Ave., Morton Grove, IL

Burt’s also doesn’t have a website, but here’s something better: a short youtube video with Anthony Bourdain visiting the restaurant (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0iys-vgD6M)

Burt apparently used to make pizza at Pequod’s, also in Morton Grove.  I’ve both ordered out from and eaten in at Pequod’s.  But we hadn’t made it to Burt’s before Anthony Bourdain’s famous review, before their pizza was on the cover of Saveur, before they were impossible to get into on weekends.  Reading helpful Yelp reviews, I understood that we needed to order the pizza a day in advance--yes, a day before showing up.  There might have been suggestions of secret handshakes too, but I stopped reading by then.

So I called.  I talked to someone who later turned out to be Burt.  It being a Thursday, he thought it might even be possible for us to get in at “7, 7:30” as long as we order the pizza in advance.  I called Will to make sure that he could make it home by then and then phoned Burt’s Pizza again.  This time, another man answered.  I had just gotten used to Burt’s idiosyncrasies, and now I was dealing with an unknown factor.  I was right to be concerned.  When I told him that it looks like it will be possible to come in at, quoting Burt, “7, 7:30,” the exasperated retort was the there was a whole half-hour between 7 and 7:30.  He’s right, of course, but I felt like replying that he should take that up with the last guy who answered the phone!  I swallowed my pride—because I knew Will really wanted to try Burt’s—and ordered my pizza (Italian sausage, mushroom, and banana peppers).  We were told to get there exactly at the reserved time and that the pizza will be on the table 15 minutes later.  Yikes!

We made it just in time, me hyperventilating with fear of getting yelled at by yet another temperamental pizza-master.  The restaurant was actually half empty when we arrived, and I apparently got lucky and ended up sitting where Anthony Bourdain sat (there was a plaque identifying this sacred spot), across from a huge poster for the Saveur cover.  The place was dingy and dark and was badly in need of a renovation, but aside from these cosmetic factors, the rest of the experience was actually quite smooth and pleasant.

The deep-dish pizza, when it arrived exactly on time, was beautifully fluffy yet substantial, its edges indeed caramelized black in places with the buttery dough.  The sausage was in large chunks and seemed, well, so real!  Perhaps they could have used smaller pieces of sausage and spread it out more evenly across the whole pizza.  In fact, the only complaint might be that we could have used some more of the cheese and toppings.  But really, I was very impressed with Burt’s pizza.  (As you can see from the leftover slice at the top of this post, the pizza is nicely studded with sausage.)

We had a large salad (though it turned out we could have shared a small one), 1 microbrew bottle of beer, a large deep-dish pizza with 3 toppings (which was so filling that we brought exactly half of it home for leftovers—and which reheated surprisingly well).  That and tax came out to just over $32.  I told Will to leave $40—they are cash only—and not to bother with change.  He asked if I was sure about that.  I replied that I’m just glad it’s not $60. 

When Will handed Burt the money while our server was busy elsewhere, the formerly disgruntled-looking hippie was sweetness itself.  He offered us change without even looking at the bill and seemed surprised and delighted when we said that was not necessary.  He shuffled off happily beaming while we left with our lunch for the next 4 days.  We'll be back to Burt's.


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