Terzo Piano: A Masterpiece in the Art Institute of Chicago

Serious Eats Chicago 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.

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[Photographs: Kelly Daily]

Terzo Piano

159 E. Monroe, Chicago IL 60603 (map); 312-443-8650‎; terzopianochicago.com
Getting There: Brown/Purple/Organge/Green Line to Adams/Wabash or Red Line to Adams, walk 1 to 2 blocks east to Michigan Avenue; or take any of a large number of buses that go up/down Michigan Avenue
Pizza Style: Thin-crust/flatbread
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny: Outstanding thin-crust pies in a stunning modern masterpiece enhance any visit to the Art Institute of Chicago
Price: 10-inch pizzas, $14 to $16
Notes: Museum admission is not required to get to the restaurant

From the time the final plans were announced in 2005 for the biggest expansion in the history of the Art Institute of Chicago, architecture buffs and fans of the museum eagerly looked forward to the new Modern Wing, designed by Renzo Piano. When the $300 million, 264,000-share-foot building opened in May, it did so to high praise.

Museum restaurants tend to not be particularly noteworthy, but the leaders of the Art Institute knew that any restaurant in their magnificent new building ought to be worthy of the space. So they turned to Dirk Denison Architects to design a restaurant worthy of the new wing and Tony Mantuano, chef and part owner of Spiaggia to create the restaurant. Mantuano, known to the food world as the winner of a James Beard award for Best Midwest Chef in 2005 and to the rest of the world as Barack Obama's favorite chef, created Terzo Piano, a name that references its location on the third floor of the building designed by Renzo Piano. Included on Mantuano's menu are two pizzas, both of which are definitely worthy of being served in such a spectacular locale.

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Both pizzas, listed as flatbreads on the lunch menu are considered appetizers, but are big enough to be a complete meal. The first pizza I tried was the tomato flatbread with burrata, Nichols' Farms leeks, Calabrian chilis and chervil. Everything about this pizza was excellent. I did not know exactly what to expect of something listed as "tomato flatbread" but it turns out that the crust is covered with passato, a seedless tomato pulp reduction that gives a great concentrated tomato flavor without risking turning the pizza into a soggy mess.

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20090929TerzoPianoUpskirt2.jpgThe burrata, which is identified as California burrata is exceptional. I don't know whether it is from Gioia or not, but this was an incredibly fresh, rich and creamy version of the increasingly popular mozzarella byproduct. The Calabrian chilis, which were present in small but powerful bits, added a nice amount of heat that was balanced perfectly by the burrata. The roasted leeks were a nice touch that I wrongly assumed would be overwhelmed by everything else on the pie.

What the Terzo Piano people call flatbread, I call a cracker crust pizza, but what matters is not what we call a millimeters thin piece of bread with no cornicione, but how it tastes. And the crusts on both pizzas at Terzo Piano are exceptional. Nicely browned, full of flavor and incredibly crisp but with a touch of pliability, the crust would be good enough to eat on its own as a snack.

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The second pizza on the menu has locally made chorizo, with Manchego cheese from Michigan, McWethy Farms tomatoes and cilantro. As good as the first pizza was, this one was even better. The Manchego, while not as exciting as fresh burrata, worked really well as a pizza cheese. The cheese layer was thin and was very much a bit player in the pizza, which starred the chorizo and the tomatoes.

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The chorizo, which is a spicier Mexican style rather than the cured Spanish or Portuguese version, was outstanding. It had a rich flavor with enough spice so that it was definitely noticeable but not so much that it came close to overwhelming the pizza. The McWethy Farms hydroponic cherry tomatoes were exceptional. They were absolutely packed with a sweet tomato flavor that perfectly balanced the chorizo.

Both pizzas at Terzo Piano are outstanding and very much worthy of the stunning atmosphere created by the two world-class architects involved in the restaurant and building design. And while a lunch there is a perfect way to complete a trip to the Art Institute, museum admission is not necessary to eat there. Just walk up the Renzo Piano designed Nichols Bridgeway that starts in Millenium Park and you will end up at the entrance to Terzo Piano. The restaurant is primarily open for lunch, though there is a prix fixed dinner available on Thursday nights.

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