Chicago Essential: Great Lake
1477 W Balmoral Avenue, Chicago IL 60640 (map); 773-334-9270; no website but update menu available at MenuPages
Pizza Style: Artisanal American
The Skinny: Every positive word you've heard about this place continues to be true.
Price: 14" pizzas start at $23
Notes: BYOB; open Wednesday through Saturday; no substitutions on pizzas
From the outside looking in, the idea that Great Lake could succeed must seem preposterous. The owners, Nick Lessins and Lydia Esparza, opened the place with no culinary training between them. The restaurant is tiny (12 people max), allows diners to linger, does not deliver, utilizes zero advertising and has no web presence at all, has very limited menu choices, and is only open four nights a week and never for lunch. To add to the minefield of potential failure, Lessins and Esparza, who I've always found to be very friendly, do not embrace the extremely flexible approach to customer service that many consumers (often very vocal ones) have come to expect and even demand of restaurateurs.
So with all those self-imposed strikes against them, how is it that Great Lake has been one of the toughest dining seats in town since Lessins and Esparza opened their Andersonville restaurant almost four years ago? Let me put it this way: If you meet someone who has eaten there and they do not tell you they had one of the best pizza of their lives at Great Lake, it's probably in your interest to not listen to another word that person has to say about food.
Since I first reviewed Great Lake nearly three years ago, my opinion on the quality of the food remains unchanged. But there have been additions to my appreciation of the place. First, the quality is remarkably consistent, something that is surely tied to the fact that Lessins has made every single pizza that has ever been served at Great Lake. Second, over time, Lessins and Esparza have continuously increased their commitment to sourcing local ingredients and avoiding all ties to factory farming. And third, even though the menu typically only has three pizzas at a time (though one of them comes with a few toppings to choose from), the changing nature of the menu allows Lessins to show off a remarkable degree of creativity that few pizzaiolos can match.
The pizza with roasted tomatillo salsa, farmers cheese, and arugula is undoubtedly one of Lessins's most nontraditional pizzas. The tomatillo salsa is from Tomato Mountain Farm, an organic outfit just outside Madison. The salsa is a bright, acidic, spicy concoction that is applied with a light hand over virtually every inch of the pizza (save the end crust). The farmers cheese, a product used regularly at Great Lake, is from Cedar Grove Cheese in Wisconsin. Lessins does use housemade mozzarella on some of his pizzas, but farmers cheese is much more common at Great Lake and for good reason. The semi-soft cheese offers as creamy a flavor as fresh mozzarella with much better meltability. The final topping is a generous pile of arugula from Kinnikinnick Farm that brightens up the pie a bit and disproves the theory (long held by me) that fresh greens can't work on a pizza.
Were I not visiting Great Lake for review purposes, I would have ordered the first pizza on the menu, a version of which appears to be a mainstay, albeit with different toppings as time goes on. It's the most traditional of the bunch and it's similar to the one I reviewed six months ago for a Daily Slice piece. So instead of getting a pizza with tomato sauce, cheese, and a traditional Italian meat, I ordered a pie with chorizo, onion, crème fraiche and herbs.
The chorizo, which Lessins makes himself, is simply outstanding. The small hunks of meat are moist, chewy and pack a nice spicy punch. The heat from the chorizo, which is not close to overwhelming, is tempered by the crème fraiche, a cheese replacement Lessins has been known to use before, especially with the late summer sweet corn pizza (a pie that is one more appearance from being an "official" late summer Great Lake tradition). Finishing off the pie are some thinly sliced ribbons of onion that gain an extra crispness from the time the pizza spends in the oven. Taken together and finished off with some Tellicherry black pepper, the toppings on this pizza make for a mouth-watering combination of flavors.
As good and innovative as the toppings are at Great Lake, there's no question it's the crust that gets the most raves. And the praise is all deserved. The dough, made from organic unbleached wheat flour and a healthy sprinkle of sel gris de guérande (gray sea salt), is simply outstanding. The finished crust is crisp, crunchy, and chewy, and is both yeasty and salty, while emitting a slight sourdough tang. It's not just one of the best pizza crusts around, it's among the best pieces of bread in Chicago.
While the consensus on the pizza is about as universally positive as it gets, the reviews of the service are a bit more mixed. From what I've witnessed in the couple of dozen times I've been to Great Lake, the gripes about the service tend to be born from inaccurate expectations. Lessins and Esparza are focused on putting out outstanding food utilizing local and organic ingredients as much as possible, and serving it in a comfortable and intimate neighborhood setting. And to that end, they have succeeded. This is a place where I have, on more than one occasion, traded slices of pizza with strangers sitting nearby. If you go into Great Lake expecting to be seated immediately or, on some nights, within an hour or two, or if you attempt to demand changes to the pizzas, you are going to be disappointed. But if you approach with the expectation of a leisurely evening where you are going to accept the pizza as the chef designed after rigorous experimentation, you'll understand why this is worthy of being called some of the best pizza on the planet.
About the author: Daniel Zemans is so devoted to Chicago that he covers pizza for Slice and burgers for A Hamburger Today. When he's not focusing on expanding his waistline, he works as a lawyer on behalf of employees and tenants.