Chicago Essential: Burt's Place
Serious Eats Chicago contributor Daniel Zemans checks in with another piece of intel on the Windy City pizza scene. —The Mgmt.
8541 Ferris Avenue Morton Grove, IL 60053 (map); 847-965-7997
Pizza Style: Deep dish
The Skinny: Chicago pizza icon Burt Katz has been pleasing palates for nearly 50 years and one bite of a pie at Burt's Place makes it clear why
Price: 12" medium starts at $12.25 and toppings are $1.75 apiece
Notes: Call at least a day ahead to place your order and show up on time; cash only
If someone started a Chicago pizza Hall of Fame, Burt Katz would be in the inaugural class. Katz, who is approaching 50 years of pizza making, entered the pizza scene when he bought into the now-defunct Inferno in Evanston, in 1963. Two years later, he opened Gulliver's (reviewed here), which he stayed at for 6 years before selling it and opening Pequod's in Morton Grove (Chicago location reviewed here). After a 15-year run there, he got out of the pizza business but only stayed away for three years. In 1989, he opened Burt's Place, which today gets about as much national acclaim as any Chicago pizzeria.
After revisitng Pequod's a few weeks ago, I decided to set up a comparison and get an identical order at Burt's: one sausage pizza, and one with pepperoni, garlic, onions, extra sauce, and extra cheese. There are definite differences in the toppings, but the biggest difference between the two iconic pizzerias lies in the crust. Both have Katz's signature caramelization, but it's the quality of the bread itself that really stands out at Burt's. The oily bread, one of the thickest pizza crusts in Chicago, is like an excellent piece of focaccia that would be very good with no toppings at all.
The regular sausage pizza arrived with notably less sauce, cheese, and sausage than a typical deep dish or pan pizza. The thin chunky sauce, which Katz makes, is mildly seasoned with herbs and has a strong tomato flavor. Each slice comes with one large hunk of outstanding, juicy sausage that is well-seasoned with pepper and a little bit of fennel. The pizza was delicious — for bread aficionados it might be close to perfect — but I couldn't help wishing it had more of everything: sausage, sauce, and cheese.
With the next pizza, I got my wish. It came topped with, what should be considered a classic combination, of pepperoni, onion and garlic, along with extra sauce, and extra cheese. Burt's pizza is plenty delicious as is, so most people don't feel the need for extra sauce or cheese. But for me, the regular Burt's pizza is more outstanding-focaccia-with-toppings than soul-satisfying pizza.
With the extra sauce and cheese, it is simply magnificent. The thick crust is on the heavy side and is made to stand up to the additional toppings. In fact, the crust would be fine with twice as much of each, though I suspect Burt would refuse to make a pizza like that.
As good as the toppings are, every discussion of the pizza at Burt's Place really should begin and end with the crust. I'm not sure if Katz invented the idea of putting a little extra cheese between the dough and the pan to get some chewy caramelized deliciousness, but he seems to be responsible for making it a permanent part of the pizza landscape. And for that, anyone who has enjoyed a slice at Pequod's or Burt's owes the man some thanks.
Burt's Place is extremely popular and demand surpasses supply. If you want to eat at Burt's, call during regular business hours (there's no answering machine), and let them know what you want and when. If your request is approved, show up on time because your pizza will be ready for you. I've seen many turned away due to an overcrowded oven, even at 5:00 on Saturday. For people who follow the rules, it's actually an incredibly effective system. More importantly, everyone who makes it in gets to eat some truly outstanding pizza.