My old roommate, Pipes, came to Chicago for Halloweekend. In the planning stages of his trip, I told him about Great Lakes Pizza, a pizza place that is on my block that earned "Best Pizza in America" from GQ Magazine and the now defunct Gourmet Magazine. Great Lakes Pizza is located at 1477 W. Balmoral (near the corner of Clark and Balmoral). He said he wanted to put a trip to Great Lakes on the agenda for the weekend. After reading a lengthy article in the Chicago Tribune (www.archives.chicagotribune.com), I felt I needed to warn him about the "Soup-Nazi" like reputation that this article makes them out to have. Note that I find the reputation totally unwarranted, and they have been very nice each time that I have been there. That being said, there are a few quirks that you should be aware of. Firstly, they have only three types of pizza each day made from whatever ingredients are fresh that day, so you can't order the exact type of pizza that you want. I've also heard the rumor that you cannot add anything or take anything off of any of the three types of pizza. I have never tested this rumor, mainly because they always have turned out incredible pizza, so there is no reason to change the pizza. If they are making a pizza a certain way, just trust that they will not mislead you. I'm sure if you were allergic to something, they would probably make an exception (if this rumor is even true), but I can't stress enough that they really know what they are doing with pizza, so just go with their judgment. They list all of their suppliers of their ingredients on the ever-changing pizza board, which I feel is a very nice touch. They are open only four days a week, I think Wednesday through Saturday from 5pm to 9ish. If the weather is nice, there will be a line (especially on the weekends), so plan on showing up 15-30 minutes early so you are assured a seat. Note that there is one communal ten-person table and two two-person tables (that's 14 total seats) and if you want to order a to-go pizza, you have to go in and order it, no phone calls. Lastly and most importantly, the pizza will probably take a while to cook, so be patient (you aren't going to starve), have some fun, and know that this will be one of the best pizzas that you will ever eat. As discussed in the Thai food post, I love restaurants where the owners are present. The husband and wife owners are not only present at Great Lakes, but they are also the only workers. They have made every pizza that has been cooked since the time the place opened. Great Lakes is BYOB (it's like they went down a checklist of things I like at restaurants when they opened), and there is a great little wine store right around the corner on Clark St. called In Fine Spirits, so you can be sure to have something nice to drink with your pizza.
Anyway, now that all the initial matters are out of the way, I can actually talk about the adventure to Great Lakes on Friday night. At 4:15, I looked out of my apartment window and saw that it was raining. Normally I am slightly disheartened when I need to go out and it is raining, but when a trip to Great Lakes Pizza is in the making, the exact opposite reaction happens since there will be less of a wait. I trudged through the rain to the bus stop. After a short bus ride to Clark street, I walked to the wine store to pick up a bottle. I had no idea what would be on the menu today, but I figured that a nice, light red wine would go with anything that could be put on a pizza. Eventually I arrived on a zinfandel (I forgot the name, but it had a picture of a bride with a skeleton in a tuxedo on it) since zins are generally very food-friendly. I picked up a six-pack of beer for Pipes since he doesn't like wine (he describes himself as a working man). I wasn't sure what type of beer he wanted with the pizza, so I made a sampler pack that consisted of three Metropolitan Brewery Flywheel Lagers (made in Chicago), a Bells Pale Ale, and two different beers from Three Floyds.
We arrived at Great Lakes shortly after 5:00p.m., and fortunately there was no line so we were able to be seated right away. The three pizzas on the menu Friday were: 1. mozzarella cheese, tomato sauce, garlic, and fresh herbs; 2. Some type of squash pizza with cream sauce (we did not get this one); and 3. mona (a sheep-cow milk blend cheese), marconi peppers, pepperoni, cream sauce. As noted, we got the first and third pizzas. I watched as the chef/owner stretched and pulled the dough into the proper size and shape. I noted the meticulous way that he placed each ingredient on the dough and how he spread the thin layer of sauce. He pulled a pizza out another table's pizza and in ours went. Great Lakes has only one oven, but it looks exactly like an oven that would turn out awesome pizza (if that makes any sense). He repeatedly opens the oven to check on the pizzas to make sure they have just the right amount of char on the crust. What I'm telling you is that they are pizza perfectionists.
About twenty-five or thirty minutes after we put in our order, the pizza was done. Both pizzas were so stunning that I wasn't sure which to eat first. I figured that I would go in the order they were listed on the menu. The first pizza (the tomato-basil one) had a delicious layer of tangy mozzerella cheese (which I have heard is homemade), a very thin, ethereal spreading of tomato sauce that perfectly accented the tangy cheese with some sweetness, but did nothing to bog down the crust with sogginess. For an additional layer of complexity, they put a decent amount of fresh herbs on top of the cheese after it was cooked. The herbs gave off a minty and vegetal character, and the garlic gave off the sharpness that rounded out the pizza. This pizza was similar to one that I had the first time I went, except this one did not have bacon. I was especially excited about the second pizza since I normally order pepperoni pizza at other places, so I wanted to see how Great Lakes would improve upon this. However, when I looked at the pizza, I noticed that it was very liberally covered with peppers with very little cheese. I like peppers very much, but I was concerned that the peppers would drown out the flavor of everything else on the pizza. Going back to my default position of "just trust whatever they give you", I took my first bite and my trust definitely paid off. Everything on this pizza was the way it was for a reason. While there was a relatively large amount of peppers, they were so delicately flavored that they gave off fruit notes and somehow (after being cooked in a 600+ degree oven) were still crunchy. The small amount of cheese belied the impact that it had on the pizza for it was sharp , but not overwhelming. Lastly, there was a layer of pepperoni under the peppers that had a subtle spiciness, again, building the complexity of the pizza.
So far, I have refrained from mentioning the part that makes Great Lakes have the best pizza...the crust. The crust is difficult to describe without actually having it. It is light and dense, airy and cakey. It is crisp all the way to the center, but still doughy throughout. It's like an edible contradiction, and it is slightly difficult to understand. It comes out with charred spots, almost like a char-grilled steak, so you expect a burnt flavor, but a burnt flavor never comes through, at least not as powerfully as you would imagine. Since the dough is hand tossed, each bite has a slightly different texture, thickness, and level of cooking. It is fun to eat since no two bites are ever the same.
I really feel bad about forgetting to take pictures of our pizzas (I was too excited to eat them), but I did manage to snap a picture of a pizza as it was being whisked to another table (that's why it's so blurry). Here it is. If you ever have a chance to eat there, I'd highly recommend that you take it. Remember, just trust their judgment and be patient. If you aren't then NO PIZZA FOR YOU!!!!