Serious Eats Chicago contributor Daniel Zemans checks in with another piece of intel on the Windy City pizza scene. --The Mgmt.
1014 Church Street Evanston, IL 60201 (map); (847) 328-0031; carmenspizza.net
Getting There: Purple Line or Metra to Davis
Pizza Style: Stuffed, thin, and pan
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny: Far from the best version of stuffed pizza around, but still satisfying
Price: Medium stuffed sausage is $19.50
Notes: All you can eat lunch buffet, predominately thin crust, available for $5.99
When a certain Food Lab writer called me out last week for not presenting strong Chicago pizza options, I had a couple of reactions. First, I had to point out that, in fact, the week prior to last week's monstrosity was actually an excellent pie. But second, knowing that I was being watched left me hoping more than usual to find a good one this week. I grew up on stuffed pizza and the style almost never disappoints, so I headed up to Evanston to try out Carmen's Pizza. I was able to scratch my stuffed pizza craving itch, but it was not the most satisfying experience.
Carmen's has been around in Evanston for 30 years and in that time has opened and closed additional locations in Chicago and Albuquerque. The owners, Jose and Carmen Venzor, also owned churrascarias in both cities called Asado Brazilian Grill.
As much as I love stuffed pizza, I freely admit it is not a particularly complex version of pie despite its much more substantial than average heft. The formula at Carmen's is fairly standard: Crust topped with a massive pile of cheese with toppings mixed in, topped with a much more thin layer of crust, all of which is smothered in a chunky tomato sauce. Thanks to the amount of mozzarella and the sweet tangy sauce, a bad stuffed pie is almost an impossibility. Carmen's goes a little light on the cheese for the style but it ultimately succeeds with those two key components.
Much less successful is Carmen's sausage, seemingly processed pre-frozen chunks of pork seemingly flavored with nothing more than salt. The pieces are big enough that they add some noticeably chewy texture to some bites, and the salt is a welcome if insufficient savory addition. But at the end of the day, mediocre sausage on a pizza in Chicago is just not acceptable.
The biggest weakness of the pizza is the crust. Other than at Art of Pizza, I've not had a particularly noteworthy crust on a stuffed pie. The standard crusts from Giordano's (reviewed here) and its offspring Bacino's (reviewed here) and Edwardo's (reviewed here) are good thanks to their flaky texture, a result of a good amount of shortening. The crust at Carmen's is not flaky at all and is way too dense. I'm not sure if there's a big enough market for mass manufactured stuffed crusts, but if there is, I imagine this is what it tastes like.
Thanks to the cheese and sauce, Carmen's certainly offers a good enough stuffed pie to satisfy a craving and if it were the only place around to get that type of pizza, it would do. But with a Giordano's a mere half a mile away, I'd be hard pressed to find a reason to return to Carmen's.