Slice: Chicago

Chicago: Bakery Pizza Done Right at D'Amato's

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[Photographs: Daniel Zemans]

D'Amato's Bakery

1124 West Grand Avenue Chicago, IL 60642 (map); 312-733-5456
Pizza Style: Bakery
The Skinny: One of Chicago's oldest and best bakeries turns out a killer pizza.
Price: Slices range from $1.80 to $2.75; sheet pans start at $27

For decades, D'Amato's Bakery in West Town was far ahead of the bread curve in Chicago, where good bread was very much the exception rather than the rule. Today there are a number of other places to get top-notch fresh bread, but D'Amato's remains among the best. D'Amato's has existed under its current name and ownership since 1971, but the location has been home to a bakery with the same massive coal-burning oven since 1880.

D'Amato's has a small storefront and a bakery in back. There are two parallel cases filled with a variety of breads, pastries, tomato breads and pizzas. In between the shelves of bread is an ever-present line of customers eagerly waiting their turn at the counter in back. The food and the customers take up so much space that there is only room for one table with two seats.

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There are typically five or six varieties of pizza available. The pieces are about 8" x 6" and they are served at room temperature unless you ask for them to be reheated in the countertop oven. Full and half sheets of pizza are also available, although they have to be ordered ahead of time.

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There is nothing particularly noteworthy about the flavor of the crust; it's just an extremely well-balanced piece of fresh Italian bread. Texturally, it's on the chewier side, but there's a nice element of crispness if you are lucky enough to get a piece along the pan's edge. Because of the softness of the bread, the pepperoni works particularly well as a topping, thanks to the textural transformation it undergoes in the hot oven from soft salami to crisp and chewy pieces of slightly spicy pork.

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The sausage, which is made next door at Bari, is a solid version, though the pieces are a bit small given the thickness of the bread. The sauce is applied sparingly which allows the bread to remain the star. On one hand, that's fine, because the bread is very good, but on the other, the sauce has such a delicious tangy extra-tomatoey flavor that I felt like someone in the kitchen was taunting me by giving me so little.

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There is something special about the cheese at D'Amato's. It has a tanginess that convinced me there had to be more than mozzarella. But when I asked, I was told that mozzarella is the only cheese. Specifics about the type of mozzarella were not revealed. The cheese was flavorful enough that I even tasted it clearly on the special, a pizza topped with sausage, green pepper, onion, and mushrooms.

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The only slice that did not work for me was the tomato and spinach. I was initially worried about sliced tomatoes in the middle of winter, but the oven did a good job bringing out the flavor. The problem with this slice was that there was just too much moisture cooked out of the veggies and into the dough. The flavor was excellent but the mushy texture was not enjoyable.

In the years since the D'Amato family started selling pizza, Chicago has seen an explosion in its pizza scene. Stuffed pizza has been invented, Neapolitan pizza has gone away and come back, and styles from other parts the country have found a welcoming populace. Through it all, D'Amato's has held its ground and still puts out what are, dollar for dollar, among the best slices in town.

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