Chicago: Cuckoo for Pizza at Coco Pazzo

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[Photographs: Daniel Zemans]

Coco Pazzo

300 West Hubbard, Chicago IL 60654 (map); 312-836-0900;
Getting There: Brown or Purple Line to Merchandise Mart
Pizza Style: Thin crust
Oven Type: Wood-fired
The Skinny: Creative and well-executed toppings on a perfectly cooked crust make pizzas stand out on this very good Tuscan menu
Price: 12-inch pizzas, $14 to $16

Notes: Pizza only available at lunch

Since 1992, Coco Pazzo has consistently served Tuscan cuisine that's kept the restaurant in a spot high up among most lists of high-quality but not crazy-expensive Italian cuisine. That said, like most restaurants that have been around for nearly 20 years, the place does not get nearly the buzz of newer restaurants that serve food on the same level. In fact, I can't imagine when I would have made it back over there had it not been for a relatively recent discovery that they cook pizzas in their wood-burning oven.

I'd already reviewed the pizzas of Tony Priolo, the longtime chef at Coco Pazzo, who left in 2008 to start his own restaurant, Piccolo Sogno (review here). I was happy to discover that current chef Chris Macchia, who hasn't missed a beat since moving to the restaurant from Coco Pazzo's lower-priced sister restaurant, Coco Pazzo Café, is also putting out delicious pizzas.

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The first pizza I tried was the Diavola, which features spicy salami and chili oil along with mozzarella, tomato sauce, and basil. Looking at the picture, I need to make clear that the lack of salami on half of the pie above is due to my dining companion's dietary choices and not gross oversight by the chef. Everything about this pizza was excellent, if simple. Great tomatoes, good cheese, and excellent sausage all on a perfectly cooked crust made for a great pizza that was made even better by the strong but not overpowering heat from the chili oil.

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As anyone who's had the bread service at Coco Pazzo would expect, the pizzas feature a flawless crust. With a beautiful hole structure and a light smokiness from the oven, the firm yet pliant crust is ideal for the style of pizza.

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The second pizza I had was the Funghi e Gorgonzola, which comes with mild gorgonzola, butternut squash puree, a variety of mushrooms, house cured pancetta and thyme. This pie was as creative as it was delicious and while I thought everything worked together perfectly, at my dining companion's prodding I tried the side without pancetta and found it to be almost as great, if a little low on salt.

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The butternut squash puree, which I've never had on a pizza, was a stroke of genius. In the more than seven years of pizza history this site has documented, butternut squash has only been mentioned three times. I'm not sure I'd like squash in chunks on a pizza, but the puree added serious richness to the pizza while allowing the meat, mushrooms and cheese to shine. I also liked that the pancetta, which can be tough to bite through when cooked, was cut into small enough chunks that savoring it was no problem.

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As far as I know, there is nothing particularly Tuscan about the pizza at Coco Pazzo. Nor, for that matter, is there anything particularly Tuscan about pizza in general. But regardless of pizza's place in northern Italian cuisine, these guys are putting out some very well thought out pies on delicious and expertly executed crusts. They're priced on the higher end, but definitely worth a minor splurge at lunch.

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