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.

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Pizzeria Via Stato

620 N. State Street, Chicago IL 60610 (map); 312-337-6634; osteriaviastato.com/pizzeria
Getting There: Red Line to Grand Avenue, walk 1 block north
Pizza Style: Roman thin crust
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny: Crisp, thin crusts and high-quality fresh ingredients make for some very good pies. The Margherita, with even better mozzarella and sauce, is outstanding
Price: All pizzas are 11 inches and range from $10 to $15

When Rich Melman opened R. J. Grunts in 1971 in the not-yet-trendy Lincoln Park neighborhood, I can't imagine that he or his business partner and financial backer, Jerry Orzoff, had any idea they were on their way to building a culinary empire. Today Lettuce Entertain You (LEYE) owns, licenses, or manages more than 75 restaurants in seven states, ranging from the casual Grunts to the upscale L20 (check out the blog), and a whole lot in between.

Among that "in between" have been a number of pizzerias over the years. In 1976, LEYE opened the fabulously named Lawrence of Oregano, a Lakeview pizzeria that I think reintroduced Chicago to Neapolitan-style pizza (though the restaurant predates my pizza-eating years so I can't be sure). The company ran the first franchise of Gino's East (reviewed here on Slice) and later opened Tucci Bennuch, an Italian restaurant that offered thin-crust pizzas among many other items. Recently LEYE shut down the Tucci Bennuch location in Chicago and replaced it with Frankie's 5th Floor Pizzeria, which features Sardinian and Tavern pizzas. I'll eventually make it to Frankie's but first I turn my attention to LEYE's newest pizza venture, Pizzeria Via Stato,.

Osteria Via Stato was already a well regarded Italian restaurant when the LEYE folks decided to shake things up a bit, converting the large bar area in front into a separate restaurant in late 2007. While the restaurants are technically separate, they share an entrance, a kitchen, and, most importantly a commitment towards high quality food made primarily with locally grown ingredients when possible.

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As far as I can tell, there are two styles of pizza that people refer to as Roman. One has a slightly thick crust and is rectangular in shape, like those served at I Monelli (reviewed here for Slice). Those pizzas are either sold by the slice or served whole with the expectation that they will be shared. The other Roman pizza is typically not shared and, like a Neapolitan pie, has a very thin crust. However, in sharp contrast to its Neapolitan brethren, these Roman pizzas have a cracker crispness. And when done right, as they are at Pizzeria Via Stato, that crust has an airiness to it that serves as the base for some very, very good pizza.

The first pizza I tried was the mushroom pizza which came with Vidalia onions, mozzarella and tomato sauce as well as fresh, flavorful mushrooms. I was pleasantly surprised to notice the nice blistering on the crust. Even though these pizzas are cooked in a gas oven, the use of a pizza stone combined with the thinness of the crust leads to some attractive charring and a nice toasted bottom. The mushrooms and mozzarella were both fresh and the onions added a nice sweetness to the pie. My only complaint was the inexplicably uneven distribution of the mushrooms.

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Up next was the potato pizza, which is one of the three white pizzas offered (in addition to the six red ones). The pie came with a variety of organic fingerling potatoes, pancetta and smoked mozzarella. Between the Purple Peruvian potatoes (which I always find to be too mealy to enjoy) and the frugal application of pancetta, this was my least favorite pizza of the evening. The bites that included pancetta and a non-purple potato were good, but they were few and far between.

20090310OsteriasSide.jpgAs was the case with all of the pizza, the crust was thin, but more than up to the task of holding all of the toppings. I also appreciated the nod to Chicago-style thin crust with the restaurant's decision to opt for a tavern cut, serving the pizza in small squares.

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The last pizza we ordered was the sausage, which comes with housemade sausage, mozzarella and tomato sauce. Again, the crust, sauce and cheese were all good, but the sausage was missing the fennel flavor that I crave. That said, the sausage had a great chewy texture thanks to a good amount of fat and I'd think that fans of a very mild sausage would be very happy with it.

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The downside of having a light, thin crust is that the pizzas are not that filling. While I tend to eat more than I should, my dining companions have much more reasonable appetites. But even they were left wanting more to eat and we all quickly settled on dessert - a Margherita pizza. It would prove to be our best decision of the night. Pizzeria Via Stato does make some of the mozzarella in-house, but they only use it on the Margherita and one other pie. The version they use on the rest of the pizzas, including the other three we ate, is very good. But the hand-pulled mozzarella made in-house is a reminder of how good that cheese can be. Even better, the Margherita was covered with a very generous offering of crushed San Marzano tomatoes. Normally, I am a huge fan of toppings on pizza, but this simple pie blew away the other three that night.

Related

I Monelli: Excellent Roman Pizza in Chicago
Thin-Crust Pizza in Chicago? Yes, and It's Outstanding at Vito & Nick's
Pat's Pizza: House-made Sausage and a Perfect Crust Make One Great Pizza
Great Lake: Stunningly Good Pizza in Chicago
Is Chicago's La Madia a Pizzeria or Restaurant? Who Cares?

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