Serious Eats contributor Daniel Zemans 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.
4882 N. Clark Street, Chicago IL 60640 (map); 773-275-7080; monticchiopizza.com/
Getting There: Red Line to Lawrence, walk half mile west and 2 blocks north; or #22 Clark Street bus to Ainslie
Pizza Style: Neapolitan-style and thin crust
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny: Comes up short on what they call Neapolitan pizza, but the thin crust is worth a visit
Price: 11-inch Neapolitan pies, $9.75 to $14.50; 14-inch thin crust (2 toppings), $16.25
Like most major American cities, Chicago has seen an incredible amount of urban renewal over the past few decades. Nowhere has that been more evident than in north side neighborhoods along the lake stretching almost all the way from Old Town to Andersonville. For reasons that would take a team of political scientists, economists, historians, and sociologists to adequately explain, the periodic economic booms of the last 30 years have somehow consistently skipped much of Uptown, the large community between Lakeview and Andersonville. The most recent boom finally saw some economic growth in Uptown, but the forces that have kept the neighborhood struggling could not be defeated entirely.
Perhaps no one block better defines the slow transition of Uptown than Clark Street between Lawrence and Ainslie. At the southern end sits Rainbo Village, a beautiful new development that was built and financed by overly optimistic folks who thought hundreds of people would pay a premium for a view of St. Boniface Catholic Cemetery. The development is failing. Further to the north sits a remnant of Uptown’s past, Lincoln Towing Services, among the most hated of Chicago corporations. Immortalized in song by the brilliant Steve Goodman, LTS seems to have progressed beyond the days when it would routinely tow legally parked cars, but a mere mention of its name can send countless longtime Chicagoans into a rage. And next to LTS sits what may well be a part of Uptown's future: Monticchio (pronounced Mone-tee-kee-oh), a six-month-old pizzeria that serves both Neapolitan-style pizza and a more traditional Chicago-style thin crust. The good news is that Monticchio serves up one OK and one very good style of pizza. The bad news is that neither the Neapolitan pies nor the Chicago thin crust fit most definitions of their respective styles.
Their Neapolitan style pizzas, which they describe as Italian, hand-pulled pies, are 11 inches across and are cooked on a pizza stone in a gas oven that cooks at 600 degrees. There are 12 different Neapolitan offerings, eight red, and four white. We went with two red pies: the Funghi Porcini and the Monticchio. Both pizzas had a thicker crust than is common in Neapolitan pizzas, and they had a smaller cornicione than is typical. The crust was chewy but not crisp at all. I had a little fun pushing the crust down and watching it bounce back up as if nothing had happened. While that might have provided my simple mind with some amusement, it was not a good indication of a well-made Neapolitan crust.
As far as the toppings go, they were a mixed bag on the pizzas we tried. The Monticchio came with tomato sauce, fresh tomato, roasted peppers, caramelized onions, and goat cheese. The roasted peppers, caramelized onions, and overcooked tomatoes combined with the chewy crust to create a very mushy texture that I found unpleasant. The bites that had goat cheese in them tasted pretty good, as the tanginess of the cheese somewhat balanced the sweetness of the vegetables. But even the nice flavor in those bites was insufficient to overcome the bothersome consistency.
The second Neapolitan pie was the Funghi Porcini which had tomato sauce, mozzarella, and porcini mushrooms. The lightly sweet sauce and the mushrooms were both good and the fresh mozzarella was generously applied. There were shockingly few mushrooms, an oversight that was particularly noticeable given the amount of cheese and sauce, but the Funghi was still a very good pie, albeit it one with a mediocre crust. Again, I would have preferred some crispness to the crust, but that does not seem to be the style at Monticchio. There was a some very minor charring on the bottom, but it was some pretty chewy char.
The third pizza to arrive at our table was a sausage and mushroom pizza from the “Classic Pizza” category. I asked our server what Classic Pizza meant and he said it was a typical Chicago thin crust pizza. However, when the pizza arrived, it was cut into slices instead of squares, which almost by definition means it’s not a Chicago style thin crust.
Further distinguishing it from typical Chicago thin pies was that it had a foldable crust. Most tavern cut pies have crusts that are too crisp for easy folding, or else they have so much sauce, toppings and cheese that folding is impractical.
Aesthetics aside, this was a very good pizza. The crust was chewy and had a little crispness throughout; the cornicione was very crisp. The classic pizzas are cooked in the same oven as the Neapolitan pies and are also cooked on a pizza stone. The friendly owner, who made it a point to talk to everyone in the restaurant, told me that there is more flour in the classic crust than in the Neapolitan crust, so I can only assume that had something to do with the crispness. The classic pie had the same fresh mozzarella and sauce. The mushrooms were fresh and were generously applied. The sausage was excellent – full of fennel and the sides exposed directly to the oven heat were nice and crisp, adding some extra texture to the pizza.
I hope Monticchio succeeds as it is in a part of Uptown that needs a lot more nice restaurants. But the problem Monticchio faces is that it is less than a mile from two places that are significantly better: Great Lake (reviewed here for Slice) and Spacca Napoli (reviewed here for Slice). At the same time, Monticchio offers pies for significantly less money than either of those pizzerias. Still, even though I live less than a mile away, I don’t see Monticchio becoming a regular part of my pizza rotation. I will, however, go back to Monticchio at least once: They have brunch on the weekend and the menu includes a breakfast pizza that comes topped with scrambled eggs, cheddar and mozzarella, and whatever meats or vegetables people want to add.