Chicago Essential: Gino's East
2801 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago, IL 60657 (map); 773-327-3737; ginoseast.com (main corporation); ginoseastlakeview.com (franchise reviewed here)
Pizza Style: Deep Dish and Thin Crust
The Skinny: Deep dish pizza that's worthy of it's global reputation; pass on the thin crust
Price: Medium deep dish with sausage is $17.45; medium thin crust with spinach is $11.45
Notes: 12 additional locations; prices vary from location to location
The popular history of Gino's East involves two cab drivers who opened a pizzeria with a friend after growing frustrated with rush hour traffic. The actual history (much of which is found here) is a little less sexy, though still a bit out of the ordinary. Fred Bartoli and Sam Levine were cab drivers, but they were also successful entrepreneurs who bought four different cab companies. Along with a friend, George Loverde, they decided to invest in a piece of real estate just off the Magnificent Mile.
Far from being passionate pizzaiolos looking to live a pizza dream, they actually had no idea what to do with the place. When a friend suggested they open a pizzeria, they embraced the idea but had no idea how to make one. They hired away a cook from nearby Uno's, a well-established local institution by the time Gino's East opened in 1966. In the 45 years since, Gino's East has deservedly established its place among the most popular deep dish pizzerias around.
When you order, as I did, a deep dish pizza with sausage at Gino's, you are given the choice of patty or crumble. For those unfamiliar with this choice, patty means the pizza comes with a giant sausage disc that covers the entire pizza (outer crust excluded). Here's a valuable lesson for you kids out there: If you have the option of guaranteed sausage in every bite, jump on it. At Gino's East, you will be rewarded with mouthfuls of soft, juicy, moderately fennel-y sausage that makes the pizza substantially better.
The golden crust at Gino's East is often billed as having cornmeal, but a credible source (a friend of a cook there) confirmed the common sense thinking that cornmeal would make a far too crumbly bread. Regardless, the combination of yellow food coloring and corn oil add some interesting color and good flavor to the delicious Gino's pizza dough. The firm, not quite crunchy exterior gives way to a soft interior that is more than sturdy enough to stand up to the full load of toppings. The thick sauce on this particular pizza was a shade sweeter and not quite as wet as I'm used to at Gino's, but it still had its characteristic tangy tomato flavor.
Gino's was open for three decades before putting thin crust pizza on the menu. I didn't bother trying it until this review, and I only did so because the Chicago Essential series demands thoroughness. I'd love to say that I've been missing out all these years, but my thin crust pie with spinach tasted like an afterthought. It's perfectly fine, but, unlike the deep dish, it isn't worth going out of your way to try.
One aspect of the thin crust pizza that I appreciated was the sauce. Most purveyors of deep dish use a different, lighter sauce on their thin crust pizzas, a decision I've never understood. At Gino's they use the same thick sauce, albeit in much smaller quantities. I couldn't tell if the spinach was seasoned or if there was a second, saltier cheese in addition to the mozzarella, but the result was a muted sweetness in the sauce, which I appreciated.
Bartoli and Levine, both deceased, sold the business in 1984 and it's now owned by the same company that owns Ed Debevic's and Edwardo's (reviewed here). There are now 13 locations of Gino's East, but a number of them are franchises, including the Lakeview location I visited for this review. The manager I spoke with assured me they work very closely with the corporate office, and based on the pizzas I've had there, I believe him. Given the shorter lines, BYOB policy and lower prices in Lakeview, there's actually not much reason for northsiders to visit either downtown shop.