Chicago: Two Days, Nineteen Pizzerias (Part 1)


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I spent a total of two days in Chicago last month and managed to visit 19 pizzerias. It was my first time in Chicago since 2003. I’m not a big fan of restaurant reviews, so think of these more as abbreviated recollections of my experiences at each place. I might do more in-depth reports later but people ask me about pizza in Chicago so often I just want to use this as a quick reference guide. It’s split into two parts because Chicago pizza is too massive to fit into one post. Description first, photo below. Enjoy! 

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Pizzeria Uno
I hate to start this way, but Uno was the worst deep-dish I tried in Chicago. We ordered the Chicago classic onions-peppers-mushrooms-sausage-pepperoni (someone referred to it as “sticking to basics” — WHAT?!?!) and it was a soppy mess. You can see the runoff in the photo. Veggies were basically raw because they’re topped toward the end of the 45+ minute bake. I don’t need to ever go back.

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Pizzeria Due
As its name suggests, Pizzeria Due is the second location of the more familiar Pizzeria Uno. They’re located a block away from each other. Even though the managers claim the pizza is identical, my experience found otherwise. I tried them both back-to-back and liked everything about Pizzeria Due MORE than Pizzeria Uno. If you’re on a Chicago pizza pilgrimage you’ll have to go to both, but save more room for Due. It’s a serious deep-dish pizza.

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Coalfire
This was the first pizza I had on this trip and I was really jazzed up when I got there but I still think it would have been my favorite pizza in Chicago even if I tried it last. I know what you’re thinking, this is basically a New York coal oven pizza and NOT a typical Chicago style pizza. You are correct, and maybe that’s why I loved it. But it’s in Chicago so it belongs on this list. It’s a domed wood-burning oven but they keep a mountain of bituminous coal piled into the back of the oven for that dry heat. We use anthracite in NYC but Chicago doesn’t have easy access so they go with the lighter coal with more moisture content by default. Great crunchy-yet relenting crust paired with creamy fresh mozzarella, a sharp sauce and post-oven basil. 

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Pizza in Atlanta

I just got back from a 10 day pizzacation in the good old American south. Here’s a round of images from Atlanta, GA.

These are two of the four pies we had at Antico, one of Atlanta’s new hotshot pizzerias. The place is loud a bustling — more an open garage than a restaurant — and everyone seemed to be having a blast. I loved the place. It felt great. You stand in line, order your pizzas and the server hunts you down by calling out your receipt number about five minutes later. Seating is open and communal, so you have to scout your spot once your order is in. It’s pretty intense.

The photo above shows the San Gennaro (sausage, red peppers and onions) and the Bianca (mozzarella, ricotta, pecorino, basil). The place bills itself as “authentic Neapolitan STG” but that’s far from true. Their pizza is more Americanized in that it’s larger and stretched with more aggression. Don’t get me wrong, I actually really dig what they’re doing but it doesn’t conform to STG standards as it so claims. Solid pizza and a really fun experience, just don’t expect a quiet evening of gentle conversation.

Next stop was Mellow Mushroom. I’ve had so many people mention this place to me I just had to check it out. There are a bunch of them scattered around the USA but most are concentrated in the southeast. It’s a real family joint — there was even a family celebrating a kid’s 3rd birthday while we were there!

The pizza was fine but nothing Earth-shattering. The crust is sweet and ripe for ample toppings. We had one that was half Maui Wowie (pesto, pineapple, ham, jerk chicken, banana peppers, Applewood smoked bacon, mozzarella) and half Magical Mystery Tour (pesto, button and Portobello mushrooms, feta and mozzarella cheeses, spinach and jalapeños). It’s kind of a mess but absolutely fine for what it was. 

The two folks in the photo are Jeff and Kirstin. I met Jeff a few years ago as he was getting ready to open his own pizzeria. If you’re into pizza making, Jeff’s website is the Rosetta Stone.

The big event in Atlanta during my brief visit was finally checking out Jeff’s place - Varasano’s. I would normally go more covert when making a visit like this to get a more honest experience, but Jeff’s a friend and I had no choice but to GO BIG! I invited all Atlanta-based pizza tour alumni and about 15 came out for a tasting with Jeff. He had the kitchen make 14 different pizzas plus three desserts and everything was delicious. I wish I had better pizza photos but the lighting was low and slices were cut small so I’m not going to bother.

This photo shows Jeff presenting the final pizza of the night — a super herby Sicilian — to the crew of ready-to-explode pizza eaters. Varasano’s is located in the ground floor of a fancy apartment building. There’s even valet parking, which creeps me out at a pizzeria. The vibe is totally different from Antico and Mellow Mushroom but I enjoyed the pizza more. Jeff’s crust is just killer. He got his start by experimenting at home with dozens of flours, tomatoes, cheeses and methods. He even went so far as to clip the lock in his electric oven so he could bake pizzas in the high heat of the self-clean cycle. Please don’t try that at home.

One more thing you need to know about Jeff Varasano: he wrote a book about solving the Rubik’s Cube when he was 14 years old. You’re welcome.