Serious Eats Chicago contributor Daniel Zemans checks in with another piece of intel on the Windy City pizza scene. —The Mgmt.
626 N State Street, Chicago IL 60611 (map); 847-432-5244; quartinochicago.com
Getting There: Red Line to either Grand Avenue, walk 1 block north
Pizza Style: Neapolitanish
Oven Type: Brick oven with gas fire
The Skinny: Quartino is great for Italian small plates and wine, but the unique pizzas ultimately disappoint
Price: Pizzas are $10 to $12
Quartino is a very successful four-year-old restaurant from the team behind Gibson's and Hugo's Frog Bar. This Italian restaurant features small plates, including an excellent selection of antipasti, along with very good pastas and very reasonably priced wine. It also suffers from lighting that proved to be a challenge for my camera and limited photography skills, so I apologize in advance for the pictures.
I was reminded of how good Quartino is at curing meats at Chicago Gourmet, where I had their sensational lonzino, a flavorful cured pork loin that was melt-in-your-mouth tender. At the event, Quartino handed out cards offering a free pizza. My previous experience at the restaurant had been limited to their antipasti and cured meats, which had been uniformly excellent, so I was looking forward to giving their pies a shot.
Up first was the Fumo Negli Occhi, which featured speck and smoked provola, along with an extraordinary amount of baby spinach. In addition to the pile of raw spinach on top of the pizza, there was an additional thin layer of spinach that had been cooked under the cheese. The provola was on the tangy side of the provolone spectrum, which I appreciated, the spinach was fresh. The speck, which is one of the few cured meats at Quartino not made in house, was excellent. My problem with this pizza was that spinach was the dominant flavor. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it was not at all what I was expecting. I wanted a speck pizza with some spinach accents, but ended up with something that could appear in the next installment of Meat Lite.
The next pizza was the Trevisella, which featured proscuitto and radicchio with a light balsamic syrup. As was the case with the Fumo Negli Occhi, the vegetable dominated the meat. The meat was further overwhelmed by the balsamic syrup that worked fine as a salad dressing, but there was not enough meat or cheese to stand up to it. Speaking of the cheese, the allegedly homemade mozzarella lacked the creaminess that I expected. It was fine, but not noticeably better than an above average non-homemade version. Like the speck, the prosciutto is imported from Italy and is very good, though had I known that ahead of time I would have opted for a meat cured at Quartino.
The final pizza was the sausage, which came with onions and bits of tomatoes in addition to the cheese and the sauce. The sausage was heavy on the fennel, which I normally love, but it had been severely overcooked before it was put on the pizza, rendering it dry and somewhat mealy. The chunks of tomato were flavorless and disturbingly soft. The final straw that killed any chance of the sausage pizza's success was the massive quantities of shaved parmesan that was dumped on the pie. I did not finish this pizza and I did not eat the leftovers when I got home.
I'm now a few days removed from my Quartino experience and I'm still not sure what to make of the crust, which features 00 flour. The flavor was fine, though it lacked any real punctuating tastes. Texturally, it's impossible to make a generalization because each one was different. The crust on the sausage pizza was incredibly soft. I would have assumed that Quartino was aiming for a traditional Neapolitan crust, but it was a little thick for that and neither of my other two pizzas were close to that soft. The crust on the Fumo Negli Occhi was more chewy than crisp, but did have elements of both, which was nice. The Trevisella had the best combination of crisp and chewy, but the cornicione was almost like a breadstick in its crunchiness.
Quartino is a very satisfying if unspectacular restaurant that I have and will continue to recommend that people check out. And if making the trip, it's not a bad place to try a pizza (not the sausage), especially given some of the more unique toppings. But if in the River North area looking for pizza, you'll be much better off across the street at Pizzeria Via Stato (reviewed here) or a couple blocks away at La Madia (reviewed here).