Serious Eats: Chicago
Great Lake: Stunningly Good Pizza in 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.
1477 W. Balmoral Avenue, Chicago IL 60640 (map); 773-334-9270
Getting There: #22 Clark Street bus to Balmoral, walk a quarter block east, or take the Red Line to Berwyn, walk one block north and half a mile west
Pizza Style: Biancoesque
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny: Extraordinary in every way
Price:All pizzas are 14" and range from $19 to $23
Since Great Lake opened last February in Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood on the far north side, the small storefront pizzeria has gotten enough good press that it has been routinely packed. I was intrigued, but I had enough places that I knew to be good that I wanted to cover for Slice, so I had not made it a priority. Last weekend, I made it to Great Lake and was happy to find one of the best pizzerias in Chicago.
Nick Lessins and Lydia Esparza, the husband and wife team that owns Great Lake, are college sweethearts who are both Detroit natives (though she properly noted that, while she spent all of her youth in Detroit, Lessins spent much of his childhood in the suburbs). After graduating, they moved to Chicago and then, in the mid '90s, headed to Phoenix, where they came upon a small pizzeria in a strip mall operated by a New York transplant named Chris Bianco. Lessins and Esparza both grew up in families that did their food shopping at local markets, so it was no surprise that the pizza and ethos of Bianco lured them in as loyal customers. After a few years in Phoenix, Esparza and Lessins headed back to Chicago and continued working far away from the restaurant industry. Indeed, prior to opening Great Lake, their combined professional culinary experience consisted of a couple of stints by Lessins at fast food restaurants while in high school.
But like so many amateur chefs, they continuously worked at their craft. The only difference is that they developed a whole lot better than the rest of us. And early last year, they took the plunge and opened a restaurant that has more in common with a certain Phoenician pizzeria than the personalized autographed Chris Bianco pizza box displayed on their shelf. Every single part of the pizza is either made in-house or comes from a meticulously selected supplier. Great Lake is so confident in the quality of their ingredients that every supplier is listed on their menu.
On any given night, Great Lake offers five different pizzas, four of which are kind of permanent (there are changes based on what toppings are fresh at the time) and one of which is a special that changes much more frequently. On my visit, the special pizza featured avocado that was shipped to the owners by a friend in Los Angeles who has an avocado tree in her yard. Of the four regular pies, two have sauce and two do not. I opted for one with sauce, mozzarella, mona, and fresh mushrooms.
Lessins (who has been reading Slice since Adam's "SliceNY.com" days) does things to his crust that I didn't know could be achieved in a gas oven. The crust is thicker, particularly in the middle, than traditional Neapolitan-style crusts. The perfectly charred crust is astounding; the bread has great flavor and a flawless hole structure that gives it a spectacular degree of chewiness. I know next to nothing about bread, so I can't even begin to speculate on what makes it so good. I tried to find out, but the only secrets I could get out of Lessins is that he uses more than one kind of flour and he cooks at 650 degrees Fahrenheit.
The crust is so good that Lessins occasionally sells loaves of bread made out of the same dough. I have such little appreciation for bread that, more often than not, I don't even have any in my house. But I took a loaf home (full disclosure: he gave it to me), started eating it around 10:30 the next morning and finished it by 2 in the afternoon.
The combination of house-made mozzarella and mona (a cow/sheep blend from the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative) made for a fantastic creamy mix with just a little bit of tanginess.
Unfortunately, I cannot report on the sauce because I didn't really notice it other than as a complement to the rest of the pizza. Normally in those circumstances I isolate the sauce to get a good read on it, but here I was too busy inhaling a pizza to remember to my research. My pizza also came covered in mushrooms and was inspired by the pizza funghi at Sullivan Street Bakery. The mushrooms were fresh and incredibly flavorful. And the olive oil from California Olive Ranch that was poured on the pizza once before cooking and again after coming out of the oven added a flawless finishing touch.
The seating at Great Lake consists of 14 seats, eight of which are at one table in the middle of the room. The other six seats are divided among three two-person tables off to the side. Usually, because of crowds, strangers end up sitting together at the big table. The dine-in business was surprisingly slow the night I was there so we had the big table to ourselves.
Even though we were alone at our table, the cozy atmosphere still led to a bit of a communal experience and when the guy at the table next to me heard me saying how good his pizza looked, he offered me a slice. I could not deny him his fair share of pizza so I traded him a slice. His pizza had the same outstanding mozzarella/mona cheese blend, no sauce, and was covered in fresh spinach and garlic. And it was every bit as good as mine.
My only critique of Great Lake (other than the more sauce mantra I repeat in virtually every thin crust review) is that of the five pizzas offered on my visit, not a single one of them had meat on it. And, given that the bulk of their pork comes from heirloom pigs at Caw Caw Creek, that omission is a particularly grievous sin. That is not enough to make me even think about staying away, though, and I expect to return soon.
Great Lake is open Wednesday through Saturday, though they do private parties on other nights. In addition to pizza, they sell pulled pork and salads, as well as a few shelves full of goodies ranging from Amish-made popcorn to a book on pork. Drink offerings are slim as they only sell mineral water and aranciata, but they more than make up for that with a BYOB policy.
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