335 N. Dearborn, Chicago IL 60654 (map); 312-629-3500; amanochicago.com
Getting There: Brown Line to Merchandise or Red Line to State/Lake or Grand
Pizza Style: Thin crust
Oven Type: Wood
The Skinny: Very good pies with great crust at excellent prices could use a boost in toppings and sauce but are a great lunch option Downtown
Price: Pizzas are $12.50 most nights; $5 Thursday nights; $11.95 lunch deal includes pizza, antipasti, and gelato
Next to Bertrand Goldberg's Marina City, the two large corn cob–looking structures that were once the largest residential buildings in the world and remain among some of Chicago's most recognizable buildings, sits Bin 36, a 10-year-old Italian restaurant and wine bar that continues to win high praise. Three years ago, the trio behind Bin 36, owner Dan Sachs, chef John Caputo, and wine man Brian Duncan, opened A Mano underneath Bin 36, a smaller casual rustic Italian restaurant.
Michael Nagrant wrote a little about A Mano a while back on Serious Eats, but that was before a burst pipe in 2009 destroyed the floor and gave the team a chance to reconfigure its menu. Fortunately, the wood-burning oven remains and still pumps out some very satisfying pies. While I went to A Mano for the pizza, I would have been a fool not to drop the additional $2 for unlimited trips to the antipasti bar and a scoop of the house-made gelato, a lunchtime special available Monday through Friday.
Up first was a trip to the antipasti bar, which sits on the edge of the open kitchen in the middle of the restaurant. I was able to restrain myself to one trip and only got to try about 5 of the dozen or so items. The highlight was the nice mix of olives which got an added burst of flavor from the fennel seeds mixed in with the oil. I was also a fan of the salami fritatta, which was unfortunately the only antipasti offered that included meat. On the other end of the spectrum was the tomato soup that was too thin to be served with no vegetables in it, a flaw that ultimately did not matter thanks to the metallic taste that stopped me from eating more than a couple of spoonfuls.
There are only four pizzas on the menu and we bypassed the buffalo mozzarella pie and the Margherita for the two meaty options. Up first was the A Mano Fennel Sausage which came with fingerling potatoes and arugula along with the housemade meat. The soft hunks of sausage were rich and full of fennel and the potatoes were cooked perfectly if a bit sparsely applied. The arugula was a nice addition but was severely damaged by an overabundance of salt - large salt crystals were visible on the greens. The sauce was applied with so light a touch that it was imperceptible.
The second pizza was the soppressata, which also included spicy peppers. Like the sausage pie, this one suffered from insufficient quantity of toppings and a sauce that seemed to exist for decoration only. The soppressata, which was very good, was the most thinly sliced I've ever had on a pizza. Between the meat and the peppers, this pie did have some nice kick to it.
While the toppings get a few complaints, I can't say a bad word about the crusts on either pie. Both had a nice crisp shell, but retained enough chewiness that a nice little tug was needed to separate each bite from the rest of the pie. The soppressata crust (not pictured) had a bit of extra char, but not so much that any bitterness was noticeable.
Both crusts had the feel and taste of a good rustic loaf of Italian bread. The bottom crust is thicker than a Neapolitan and easily held up the limited toppings and cheese. The end crust had a beautiful hole structure; actually one of the best I've seen in a while.
The final course was a small scoop of housemade gelato, which is among the best in town. I was tempted by the caramel with sea salt and the blood orange sorbet, but settled on the chocolate hazelnut. The serving was small, but at the price there's no room for complaining.
Chicago's Loop is surprisingly weak on good, reasonably priced lunch options. While most people understandably don't want to drop $12 on a lunch, this deal at A Mano definitely ranks among the better lunchtime deals. That's particularly true when you take into account that most people will finish with half a pizza or so to take home for a second meal. For people who only want the pizzas, an even better deal awaits on Thursday nights when all four pies are sold for $5 each.