Cafe Luigi: A Slice of New York in Chicago
Serious Eats Chicago contributor Daniel Zemans checks in with another piece of intel on the Windy City pizza scene. —The Mgmt.
2548 N. Clark Street, Chicago IL 60614 (map); 773-404-0200; cafeluigipizza.com
Getting There: #22 Clark or #36 Broadway bus to Deming
Pizza Style: New York thin, Sicilian, stuffed
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny: One of the best New York slices in Chicago, but take a pass on the Sicilian
Price: Thin and Sicilian slices start at $2.85; stuffed slices, $4.15
After reading Nick Solares's ode to Ray's last week, correctly identifying the place as the quintessential New York pizzeria, I was inspired to go find a similar piece of simple slice satisfaction. While I've never been to the Ray's that Nick wrote about, in my three years in New York, I visited the Famous Ray's on Sixth Avenue on more than a few occasions but much preferred the Famous Joe's on Carmine.
At the end of the day, however, I found that most of these mid-grade pie-slingers were, like a lot of the tavern-style pizzerias in Chicago, somewhat interchangeable. There are a few standouts that might offer a particularly good topping or sauce, but for the most part these places put out an easily replicable style of pie that can be tremendously satisfying but not particularly revelatory. Still, Nick reminded me I hadn't had a New York pizza since my visit to Santullo's, so I headed to Café Luigi to see how it stacked up.
According to a clipping from a defunct newspaper on the wall, Café Luigi was created by an Italian-born pizzaiolo who spent time selling pies in Brooklyn before heading to Chicago. He sold the place years ago and left Chicago with a pizzeria that is routinely identified by former New Yorkers as their favorite in the city. Luigi's actually offers three different styles of pizza: New York thin, Sicilian and stuffed, but since I was there to check out Luigi's New York street cred, I ignored the stuffed slice.
The standard slice, misidentified on the menu as Neapolitan, could easily pass muster at any of the 1,427 iterations of Ray's in New York. The large slices of an 18" pie have a crisp and chewy crust, a bit of cheese grease and a sauce that cries out for some red pepper flakes. The well-seasoned crumbled sausage was, in a clear break from standard New York slicerias, actually very good. The pie did fall short in one key fashion: Upon folding, the bottom of the slice split open. I haven't had this problem before at Luigi's, but this particular slice would not have been manageable had I opted to eat it while walking down the street. That flaw in construction aside, this was a good representation of a New York slice that would definitely satiate the pizza cravings of homesick New Yorkers.
The Sicilian slice, oddly cut in triangles instead of squares, did not fare nearly as well. For one thing, the crust had the unfortunate characteristics of an overly crisp almost crouton-like exterior and far too soft interior. The standard special slice at Café Luigi comes with mozzarella, sauce, tomato, spinach, and ricotta, but I went for a similar version that replaced the ricotta with artichoke hearts. The spinach and tomatoes were fresh, which I appreciated, but by replacing the ricotta, I was left with a slice desperately in need of some salt. The large quantity of vegetables and thick piece of glorified white bread rendered the cheese and sauce irrelevant.
I was a bit surprised at the difference in quality in the two slices, but if they were going to get one right, they picked the right pie. There are many more Italian bakeries making excellent Sicilian slices in Chicago than there are pizzerias making reliable renditions of classic New York pies. If you're looking for the latter, Cafe Luigi is definitely worth a visit.