Serious Eats: Chicago
Bacino's: Chicago's Healthy (?) Stuffed Pizza
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.
Bacino's has been selling stuffed pizzas since 1978, making it one of the oldest purveyors of the Chicago delicacy. The founder, Dan Bacin, had a background in business, not cooking. No marketing dummy, Bacin used a variation of an old Chicago political trick in naming his restaurant. There is no truth to the rumor that Barack Obama's last name used to be Bama before he ran for office in Chicago, but many political candidates have changed their names to appeal to the significantly Irish electorate. While it would make no sense to name a pizzeria O'Bacin's, adding an o to the end of his name gave Bacin's pizzeria some faux Italian authenticity.
I don't know the full story behind the founding of Bacino's, but it involves Giordano's (reviewed for Slice here), Chicago's most popular stuffed pizza chain. Not long after Giordano's was formed in the mid '70s, the company was looking to grow. Dan Bacin got involved with them but ended up going out on his own and starting Bacino's. I'm unclear as to the time frame and whether Bacin ever actually opened a Giordano's, but a search of the relevant page on the State of Illinois website shows that on September 11, 1980, The Bacin Group was registered as Giordano's of Lincoln Park, Inc.
For this review, I went to the Bacino's location in the heart of Lincoln Park. There are three other locations, two downtown and one in the suburb of LaGrange. The building itself, both on the outside and the inside, is pretty nondescript. There is a bar on a different side of the restaurant that has a little more to look at. There is also a downstairs dining area that I've never seen used.
But what matters here is not the history of the restaurant or the décor, but the delicious pizza. According to Bacino's website, Crain's Chicago Business has named Bacino's "the best stuffed pizza in town;" and no less of a culinary authority than Charlie Trotter has said, "Easily Bacino's is the best pizza I know of, all quality ingredients, everything fresh and made from scratch the best!" I think that Charlie Trotter is wrong on this one, but I'm inclined to agree with Crain's - Bacino's is consistently the best stuffed pizza in Chicago. I think, at its peak, Giordano's is better, but I've also been disappointed there; I've never had a bad dining experience at Bacino's.
On this visit, I got Bacino's most famous pie—the stuffed spinach. Like most stuffed pizzas, including Giordano's, the structure includes about a quarter crust at the bottom topped with about an inch of cheese (with the toppings mixed in the cheese). On top of that is a very thin, almost unnoticeable layer of crust, which is topped with a generous portion of sauce.
The crust at Bacino's is made with a mix of butter and margarine, and includes no shortening. The sauce, which is nice and chunky, is one of the more seasoned sauces that I've had. And unlike Giordano's where occasionally the sauce has been a bit dry, likely due to overcooking, the sauce has always been flawless at Bacino's.
The spinach, which is shredded, is fresh. The cheese remains something of a mystery. According to the menu, the spinach pizza comes with a special blend of cheese. In the past, I was told that the blend included mozzarella and ricotta, but on this trip, the blend was supposedly just mozzarella. What has been consistent in the story is that the mozzarella for te spinach pie is made from 2% milk. It's just as thick and gooey as a regular stuffed pizza, but this one is allegedly good for you. According to the owner it is the only pizza listed in the American Heart Associations Eat-well Guide. I find it hard to believe that the pizza is actually good for me, but it's certainly less fattening than a regular stuffed pizza.
I also tried a stuffed sausage pizza on this visit. Again, the sauce was outstanding and the cheese (a lot more than 2% fat) was plentiful and tasty. The sausage added a good amount of flavor when I ate it as part of the pizza. However, when I isolated the sausage (read: took a piece of it out of the pizza and ate it), the flavor was fine, but the texture was a bit rubbery.
Bacino's does offer thin pizzas as well, and the restaurant actually serves a number of non-pizza items (it bills itself as a trattoria and pizzeria). The thin crust pizzas are good, but they do not have traditional Chicago cracker-thin crusts. Bacino's thin crust is well worth getting if the quantity of cheese on a stuffed pizza is too much.