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.
15 E. Oak Street, Chicago IL 60611 (map); 312-596-1111; barneys.com
Getting There: Red Line to Chicago Ave., walk about a quarter of a mile north and 1/2 block east
Pizza Style: Neapolitanish
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny: Top of the line ingredients, including some pretty unique toppings, all cooked well, makes for the best department store pizza around
Price: Most pizzas are $16
With all of the debates that go on about Chicago pizza versus New York pizza, I've long wondered why none of the great Chicago pizzerias open outposts in New York or vice versa. There are a few Uno's Chicago Grills in New York, but those locations offer a vastly inferior chain version of the original pies served in Chicago (reviewed here for Slice). So while Lou Malnati's and Home Run Inn have expanded all over the Chicago area and Giordano's and Edwardo's have opened locations in a few other states, they haven't touched New York. Similarly, Grimaldi's has set up shop in Arizona, Nevada, and Texas, but is nowhere to be found in Chicago. And as far as I know there isn't even a single pizzeria in Chicago called Ray's. In fact, until a couple of weeks ago, I thought the only overlap in the New York and Chicago pizza scenes were places that most serious pizza eaters routinely look down on: California Pizza Kitchen, Sbarro, Domino's, Papa John's, and Pizza Hut.
It turns out that a bastion of the elite is working to bridge the pizza gulf that separates Chicagoans and New Yorkers by serving up Neapolitan-style pizzas in both towns. Barneys New York's flagship location has Fred's at Madison Avenue and the Chicago location has Fred's Chicago. While there are minor differences in food offerings and major differences in price—most pizzas in New York are inexplicably 50 percent more than their Chicago counterparts—if the New York version is close to as good as the Chicago version, then the two Fred's can claim the title of best pizza available in both Chicago and New York as well as, I think, best department store pizza anywhere.
I ordered the Macelleria, which came with sopresatta, coppa, and caramelized red onion, along with mozzarella and a sauce of San Marzano tomatoes. This was the first pizza I have reviewed for Slice that featured high quality cured meat toppings since I reviewed Pizzeria Mozza. I was surprised at Mozza's decision to put its cured meats on the pizzas after the pies came out of the oven, but was left wondering that maybe it made sense if the heat of the oven would damage the meat. The Macelleria is cooked with the sopresatta and coppa on it and I loved the added texture that both rich meats added to the rest of the pizza.
Speaking of the other components of the pizza, the chef at Fred's is as obsessed with name brands as are the staff and customers at Barneys. In the pizza world, that means using San Marzano tomatoes, King Arthur flour, homemade mozzarella, and Monini olive oil made exclusively from Italian olives. While I have little doubt that there are tomatoes grown elsewhere in the world that are every bit as good as and even better than those from the shadows of Mount Vesuvius and that there are olives all over the globe that can be turned into oils rivaling those from Spoleto, Italy, every place I have been to that uses ingredients that would make the pizza police proud turns out an excellent product, and Fred's Chicago is no exception.
The crust is crisp and chewy and has a great flavor. The sauce of crushed San Marzano tomatoes is juicy and sweet. The homemade mozzarella was a creamy delight. And the meats, discussed above, added outstanding flavor and texture as well as a nice amount of salt to balance the sweet tomatoes. As a wood-burning oven would be a logistical challenge in a department store, Fred's Chicago has embraced a gas oven. The result is that the very well-cooked pizza crust has less char than a Neapolitan pizza (the upskirt shot shows the most charred piece from either pie). While that might be a major disappointment to the purists out there, I suspect the typical customer/Barneys shopper welcomes the lack of char. Fred's is not a pizzeria; it's a restaurant that serves excellent pizza. I'm not sure how many casual pizza eaters embrace charred crusts. Other deviations from true Neapolitan pizza are a smaller cornicone and a thicker center crust. he first is irrelevant and the second is, in my mind, an improvement as it allows for a little more toppings and prevents the pizza from becoming a floppy mess.
The second pizza I tried at Fred's was unlike any I had ever had before. The Emilia Romagna is a white pizza that features a healthy layer of mozzarella, some Parmesan and a 12-year-old Aceto Balsamic vinegar that was a revelation for a simple guy like me who is more than happy with the Kirkland brand balsamic I buy at Costco. I still like the Kirkland version, but the added depth of flavor in the vinegar drizzled atop the Emilia Romagna at Fred's was vastly superior and made a seriously delicious pizza.
I do not usually comment on the service in my reviews, but our server was fantastic and deserves a special mention. The Macelleria is listed on the menu hanging outside the restaurant but is not on the current menu. I asked about it and even though I said I was happy to order a different pizza, he insisted that he take the time to check with the kitchen to make sure they had the necessary meats. He was consistently attentive throughout the meal and when we mentioned our thoughts on the need for more balsamic vinegar, again over protests that he not worry about it, he brought us some extra out from the kitchen.
I have no idea how Fred's at Madison Avenue compares to Fred's Chicago, but I suspect, other than the outrageous price difference, they are pretty similar (compare the Chicago menu and the the New York menu). If that's the case, then kudos to Barneys for possibly starting construction on a bridge that will someday allow Chicagoans to stroll down any street while eating foldable slices and New Yorkers to learn that variety is indeed the spice of a full pizza life.
Uno's, Chicago's Original Deep Dish Pizza
Is Chicago's La Madia a Pizzeria or Restaurant? Who Cares?
Giordano's, a Stuffed Pizza Classic in Chicago
Pizzeria Mozza Just About as Good As You've Heard
Home Run Inn: You Can't Ball Like Derrick Rose, But You Can Eat His Favorite Pizza