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.
In 1966, Chicago cab drivers Sam Levine and Fred Bartoli, who had already built up a few taxi companies, made a smart real estate investment with their friend George Loverde when they bought a property just east of the Magnificent Mile. Rather than just sit on their investment, they opened Gino's East, which evolved into one of the best pizzerias in Chicago.
Loverde was born in Sicily, and Bartoli was a first-generation Italian-American, but they had nothing to do with creating the recipe that made Gino's famous. Instead, the owners of the new pizzeria hired Alice Mae Redmond, a black woman who had developed the dough recipe at Pizzeria Uno (reviewed for Slice here) and who had been at that company for 17 years. She would spend the next 23 years making the pizzas that made Gino's East famous.
In 1984, the original owners sold their restaurants (by then they had added a couple of suburban locations) to the first of a few different corporate owners that had grand expansion plans, most of which never came to fruition. The various owners of Gino's planned expansions in areas that have included Australia, Arizona, the Midwest, and the New York area, with locations planned in, among other places, East Brunswick, New Jersey, and Huntington, New York. As far as I can tell, the only location that ever operated outside of the Chicago area was a now-closed outpost in Tempe, Arizona, but perhaps someone reading this knows the story about the New York locations?
At some point, Gino's fell under the same corporate umbrella as Edwardo's Natural Pizza Restaurants, one of the top spots for stuffed pizza, and Ed Debevic's, an inexplicably popular '50s-themed diner. Recently, the group that owns Gino's added another Chicagoland culinary institution to its holdings: Mitchell's Candy and Ice Cream (unrelated to the even better Mitchell's Ice Cream in San Francisco).
Through all of the ownership changes and the proposed and executed expansions, Gino's stayed put at its original Pearson Street location until 2000, when Planet Hollywood went bankrupt, leaving a large restaurant space vacant in a popular tourist area (which includes the flagship location of Ed Debevic's). Over the years, a tradition had been established whereby customers routinely write (in pen or marker--or even carving) on the walls, tables, and much of the décor. When Gino's moved, the company took most of the decorated walls and tables with it, and the original site was torn down. In 2006, the people at Gino's decided they could go home again and expanded back into the original location. The original walls stayed at the newer restaurant, but the old tradition has been reborn at the new old location, which is the one I visited for this review.
Gino's was open for 30 years before it even started offering a thin-crust pizza. I've never had it and doubt I ever will. I don't say that because I think the thin-crust version is bad, I just strongly doubt that it compares to what, after more than 40 years, is still an excellent deep-dish pie.
The crust, which was developed by Ms. Redmond, is the first thing people notice when seeing a Gino's East pie for the first time. Like Uno's, Lou Malnati's (reviewed for Slice here), and any other respectable deep-dish pizzas, it is thick. The texture is like a firm yet crumbly biscuit, and it has a strong corn taste. There is some debate as to how Gino's gets its corn flavor, but the best guess I can find is that it's a combination of corn oil and some corn meal.
I found this crust recipe, and it seems like the anonymous message board poster may have a good take on it—others who posted on that board tried it out and commented approvingly. The deep yellow color of the crust likely comes from egg shade food coloring (the same color often used in fortune cookies).
The chunky, tangy sauce is a treat, even if it does have a bit too much oregano for my taste, and it goes well with the gooey pile of mozzarella. I tried to find out the type of tomatoes in the sauce and the fat content of the milk in the mozzarella, but a company spokesman refused to answer, saying the recipe is their "family secret." I've never had a pizzeria refuse to answer such basic questions before, so I found it more than a little funny that the first place to refuse is one that got its recipe by hiring a chef from a different pizzeria.
At Gino's, there are two choices of sausage—crumbled or patty. Because there's no such thing as too much sausage, I went with the patty, which is a piece of sausage about the same diameter as the pizza, ensuring meat in every single bite. While the quantity of sausage is outstanding, the quality is merely good, which was sufficient to make for an excellent pie.
I don't think Gino's East has the best deep-dish pizza in Chicago, but it does have one of the better ones. There are currently 13 locations, all in the Chicago area, six of which are franchises. Two, mentioned above, are in the downtown area. There's another location just more than a mile from Wrigley Field, and for those passing through Chicago, there's one really close to O'Hare that delivers to most of the airport hotels. If you're not going to be in Chicago any time soon, you can order by mail.