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Burt's Place: Home of the Pizza King of Chicago
Daniel Zemans, our man in Chicago, checks in with another piece of intel on the Windy City pizza scene. Daniel also blogs about Chicagoland pizza with his friends on the Chicago Pizza Club blog. --The Mgmt.
8541 North Ferris Avenue, Morton Grove IL 60053 (map); 847-965-7997
Pizza Style: Deep-dish
The Skinny: Run by the iconic Burt Katz, a legend in Chicago pizzadom, Burt's Place features a deep-dish pie with a caramelized crust similar to Pequod's (no surprise, as Katz founded that pizzeria as well). There's a little too much caramelization going on and less cheese than is normal in most deep-dish pies, but Burt's is still worth checking out.
Burt Katz, creator of the caramelized crust, is probably the best known pizza chef in Chicago. In his career, he has owned four different pizzerias here. Inferno was already established in Evanston when Katz bought into it in 1963. Two years later, Katz sold Inferno (which no longer exists), and opened Gulliver's in Rogers Park on the city's far north side. In 1971, he was done with Gulliver's (which is still open) and opened Pequod's (reviewed here on Slice), which he kept for 15 years before burning out and selling it. In 1989, he had the pizza itch again and opened Burt's Place in Morton Grove, where he and his wife, Sharon, have been making and serving pizzas (usually with no help) for nearly 20 years.
Unlike most legendary pizza chefs, Katz did not travel throughout Italy, work his way up under a master pizza-maker, grow up in a family pizza business, or even go to culinary school. All he did was develop a very good crust; use high-quality, fresh ingredients; and proceed to turn out pizza after outstanding pizza for the next 45 years and counting. How iconic has Katz become? When Saveur magazine devoted an issue to Chicago, it put a slice of Burt's pie on the cover. The folks at LTH Forum, which in my opinion is the best website out there related to food in Chicago, have anointed Burt's Place as one of their Great Neighborhood Restaurants.
Burt and Sharon have made the decision to keep their restaurant small, and they have resisted repeated offers to buy or franchise the place. The restaurant holds about 30 people, and is not necessarily open as long as advertised. Running out of dough is a risk, so customers are encouraged to call in orders ahead of time.
In addition to Katz himself, who adds plenty of character to any room he enters, the restaurant is filled with hundreds of knick-knacks that the Katzs have picked up over the years, with a heavy emphasis on old telephones and ham radios. While the kitsch is certainly fun, don't let Burt trick you into thinking he's just an aging hippie making pizzas without a care in the world. He is, but he's also incredibly successful at marketing that persona and his business. Rumor has it that Burt's Place will be featured on No Reservations with Anthony Bourdain in early 2009.
Morton Grove is not the easiest place to get to, and it certainly isn't worth going just to meet Burt or to see his ham radio collection. The reason to make the trip is the pizza. The crust at Burt's is probably the most-talked-about part of the pie. As he has at his previous restaurants, Burt puts a little cheese on the back of the sides of the crust before putting it in the oven, resulting in a crunchy, caramelized crust. The part of the crust that isn't caramelized is buttery and surprisingly light for thick deep-dish crust. While I really like the caramelized crust at Pequod's, the caramelization at Burt's is a bit too much—because the walls of the crust are relatively short as compared to other deep-dish pies, there is a high proportion of caramelization that overwhelms the crust. That said, the noncaramelized parts were on par with the butter crust at Lou Malnati's (reviewed here on Slice).
The cheese is a bit of a surprise; not the quality, which was fine, but the quantity. There is shockingly little cheese for a Chicago-style pizza. Next time I go to Burt's, I will be sure to ask for extra cheese, but for those who are normally overwhelmed by the amount of cheese on most Chicago pizzas, Burt's should be a hit. Katz makes his own sauce, and its texture is great—nice and chunky—and the flavor is sweet and well-seasoned.
Every topping at Burt's Place is outstanding. Every day it's open, Katz goes to a market in the morning to get fresh vegetables. He would not tell me where he gets his outstanding sausage, only that it was from a small local butcher who charges more than most. Katz does not offer a wide variety of toppings, but he is willing to add toppings to pizzas that people bring in. He told me about one regular customer who keeps a supply of artichoke hearts at the restaurant so he can have artichoke pizzas when he eats there.
Burt's is unquestionably one of the better pizzas in Chicago, and in many peoples' minds it is the best. If you are going to be in the northern suburbs of Chicago and you've already been to Lou Malnati's, then check out Burt's Place. If you don't go, Burt and Sharon won't mind—they've got a large loyal following that keeps them as busy as they want to be.
Michael Nagrant on Burt's Place
LTH Forum on Burt's
Pequod's: Come for the Caramelized Crust, Stay for the Great Pizza
Lou Malnati's: Home of Flawless Deep Dish
Art of Pizza: Usually a Classic, But Not This Time