Serious Eats Chicago contributor Daniel Zemans checks in with another piece of intel on the Windy City pizza scene. —The Mgmt.
Barnaby's Family Inn
960 Skokie Blvd. Northbrook, IL 60062 (map); (847) 498-3900; barnabysofnorthbrook.com
Getting There: Drive
Pizza Style: Thin crust
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny: In paying close attention to the crust, Barnaby's puts out one of the best tavern-cut pies in Chicago
Price: 10-inch, 1-topping pies, $9.75
Typically a visit to a dimly lit square cut pizzeria that's been around for more than four decades means you're in a neighborhood that either is or once was an Italian stronghold. That is definitely not the case at Barnaby's of Northbrook, a multi-generational favorite just off I-94 on Chicago's North Shore.
In doing some research for this review, I was surprised to learn that there have been at least 36 locations over the years, mostly in the greater Chicago area, but also in California, Florida, Minnesota, Ohio, Virginia, and Wisconsin. In 1981, Bally, then known more for making pinball machines than health clubs and casinos, bought the chain. Obviously, that move didn't work out so well, but a few Barnaby's remain today. It's not entirely clear just what the relationship is between Barnaby's of Northbrook and the other locations (Niles, IL; Schaumburg, IL; Des Plaines, IL; South Bend, IN; Tallahassee, FL). Some the restaurants tell their history and it seems to indicate that territorial rights were once distributed, but how their claims of continuous ownership and the news article about Bally raise questions. Regardless of what the other Barnaby's are like, I can confirm that the Northbrook location turns out some seriously good pie.
The set-up at Barnaby's is a little odd. The menus are permanently out on each time like an old diner or an ice cream parlor. After settling on their choices, diners make their way to the cashier in back and place their orders, pay for their food and take a number. If they want something to drink, customers head over to the bar where they buy drinks and/or get water. One drink of note: Filbert's root beer is on draft, though it was remarkably flat on my visit. When the food is ready, the cashier calls out a number and the respective eater walks over and picks up their own meal.
I opted for a 10" sausage pie. The sauce is good and, almost as importantly for the style, very present in every bite. And again in true Chicago thin crust fashion, there's a healthy pile of cheese on the pie that extends almost all the way to the edge of the pie. Like any self-respecting Chicago pizzeria, Barnaby's makes their own sausage, a nice chewy pork that's a bit light on the seasoning but otherwise very good. Whatever mild disappointment I had with the strength of flavor was more than made up with the quantity of sausage that dotted each slice.
My dining companion for the adventure, a vegetarian, went with a combination of mushrooms and jalapenos. The sauce and cheese were identical to my pie, and both vegetables were fresh. There was more sausage on pizza than there were jalapenos and mushrooms combined on his, but given the water in mushrooms and the heat in jalapenos, that was probably a good thing.
While homemade sausage and piles of decent quality mozzarella are common at joints like this all of over Chicagoland, what makes Barnaby's one of the best around is the crust. Tavern-cut pies generally offer a crust that serves two functions: add some texture and hold the rest of the pizza; adding taste is not in the job description. The buttery crust at Barnaby's, which features the heaviest dusting of corn meal I've ever seen on a pizza, is outstanding. Particularly delicious is the end crust, which looks and tastes like a fresh baked cheese twist.
My visit was a lunchtime trip, but to get the full Barnaby's experience, it's best to go for dinner. The pizzas are the same, as is the rest of the menu, but only at dinner does the restaurant put out its disturbingly rich pimento cheese dip for customers to snack on with Ritz crackers.