Slice–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.
2056 W. Division, Chicago IL 60622 (map); 773-235-5511; crustorganic.com
Getting There: Blue Line to Division; Damen bus to Division; or Division bus to Damen
Pizza Style: thin-crust
Oven Type: Wood-fired
The Skinny: Organic restaurant serves up some decidedly nontraditional toppings on a very good crust
Price: Pies, $12 to $16
If Nelson Algren were alive today, he would have been gentrified off of his section of Division Street years ago. The West Town area that Algren called home and the street that inspired the title for Studs Terkel's spectacular chronicle of urban life in America have been transformed in recent years into a neighborhood packed with trendiness and, much more germane for our purposes, a growing supply of seriously good restaurants.
It was into the new version of Wicker Park that chef Michael Altenberg of Bistro Campagne moved when he opened Crust in May 2007. The pizzeria was the first certified organic restaurant in Chicago and, according to some reports, the fourth in the country. Technically, I suppose it's not fair to call the place a pizzeria since the menu identifies the round crusts with toppings as flatbreads, but the outer crust of the pies is definitely raised a bit and, besides, I'm a rebel like that.
Of the 12 different flatpizzabreads on the menu, only three have both mozzarella and tomatoes or tomato sauce, and six have neither. While I am not one to get into the "that's not really pizza" debate, I will say that many of the offerings at Crust certainly stretch the boundaries. Come to think of it, maybe that's why Altenberg calls them flatbreads.
The first one I tried was my guest's choice of Italian sausage, which comes with the obvious sausage as well as pesto, provolone, and shaved fennel. I never would have selected it on my own because every time I've had pesto on a pizza it dominates everything else. That streak ended at Crust where the pesto remained in the background, offering a complementary bit of flavor in every bite.
The sausage itself was fairly well seasoned but nothing special. The shaved fennel on top of the pie was a nice touch, adding some light crunch and some of the moisture that ordinarily would have been provided by tomato sauce. I don't understand the decision to use a very mild provolone instead of the more traditional mozzarella, but despite the cheese being a bit less creamy, it worked out well enough. Had there been some fennel seed in the sausage, the pie would have been even better, but this was still a very successful combination.
The best part of the pizza was definitely the crust, which is probably a good thing given the name of the place. It was cooked perfectly in the wood-burning oven, leaving a flavorful crisp and chewy piece of bread that would be great with no toppings at all.
For my second pie, I went with the Stuffed BBQ Brisket pizza. This is definitely not to be confused with traditional stuffed Chicago pizza, which features a paper-thin layer of crust atop a bed of cheese and covered with tangy chunky tomato sauce. The stuffed flatpizzabread at Crust has two equally thick pieces of crust and while this pie had substantially more cheese than the single crust options, it had nothing on the traditional cheese bomb that is stuffed pizza.
Given how good the crust is, I was a fan of having twice as much, but I was less enamored with what was in between the two pieces. The pizza included slow cooked beef brisket, house made barbecue sauce, melted pepper-jack, julienne of red onion and diced scallions and provolone. The flavors were not bad at all, but I had a little bit of a hard time wrapping my arms around this one as a pizza. With no mozzarella, no tomato, brisket as the centerpiece, this one struck me as more of a pizza sandwich.
I applaud the restaurant's devotion to organic food and Crust definitely shows that there is no reason organic pizza can't compete with pies at traditional pizzerias. That said, I've been there twice and both times I've left thinking the food was interesting and had good crust rather than thinking it was good pizza. I'd be happy to go back at someone else's request, but Crust won't be in my regular rotation.