The Pizza Prep Area
Nick Lessins and his wife, Lydia Esparza, opened Great Lake in 2008. According to Daniel, Nick is a self-taught pizzaiolo and pizza-lover who was inspired by multiple visits to Pizzeria Bianco. Interestingly, unlike Chris Bianco, Nick makes his pizza in a conventional gas pizza oven, which is practically obscured in this photo of the kitchen prep area.
The menu, is quite small: three pizzas on any given day, a salad, and the most recent addition, ice cream made by Hot Chocolate's Mindy Segal, one of Chicago's best pastry chefs (and maybe the country's, as I subsequently found out).
The simple salad, made with impeccably fresh ingredients grown on local farms, didn't quite prepare me for how good the pizza turned out to be.
Pizza No. 1
Heirloom tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, garlic, mona, and fresh herbs. Lessin's crust has a beautiful lip or cornicione, as the Italians call it. It is more breadlike than either Anthony Mangieri's was at the now-defunct Una Pizza Napoletana or Chris Bianco's pizza. In fact it looks and tastes a great deal like Nancy Silverton's pizza at Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles.
In Crust We Trust
The underside and cross-section shots show just how breadlike Lessins' crust is. I would have liked a little more salt and a tad more pliancy in the dough, but I'm nit-picking here. This is glorious, light yeasty, pizza crust.
Pizza No. 2
Impossibly thin slices of zucchini, tangy, salty mona cheese (made from a blend of sheep and cow's milk in neighboring Wisconsin), black pepper, with added pepperoni, reveals Nick's gift for inspired, perfectly proportioned, and wonderfully balanced toppings. His toppings are in fact the stuff of pizza genius.
Pizza No. 3
This smoked bacon, fresh cream, white corn, mona, and chives pizza was spot-on. I could have eaten this whole pie myself.
Lessins made us an off-the-menu pizza so that we could see and taste the kinds of pizza he makes the other three seasons. In summer he likes to stick with white, sauceless pies. This more conventional pizza, made with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and the aforementioned mona, had me planning a return trip.
Daniel Zemans brought us some sodas to enjoy—and a special Goose Island Concord Grape soda for Robyn, who dislikes most sodas except for grape-flavored varieties. We also had some serious red wine, thanks to a BYOB-toting Serious Eats fan who sat with his friends at the one big common table that is the heart of Great Lake.
Pizza No. 2 again: Zucchini, mona, black pepper, with added pepperoni. This might be a gratuitous photo, but I really loved the zucchini and pepperoni pizza, so I thought I should leave you with this enduring image.
So congratulations, Chicagoans, after all these years you finally have a truly great pizzeria that serves non-casserole-derived pizza. Lessins and Esparza have delivered you from pizza purgatory. Great Lake deserves its place in the pizza pantheon. Treasure them and the pizza they are making in the great food city that is Chicago.