Daniel Zemans, our man in Chicago, checks in with another piece of intel on the Windy City pizza scene. Daniel also blogs about Chicagoland pizza with his friends on the Chicago Pizza Club blog. --The Mgmt.
A strip mall is generally not a place to go to find high-quality pizza. But there are exceptions to most rules, and one exists to that one at the Ashland Wellington Plaza. There, nestled between a Supercuts and an H & R Block, sits La Gondola Italian Restaurant, a 25-year-old restaurant that features a full Italian menu and some very good pizza that would make even the most biased New Yorker happy.
As soon as I entered La Gondola, I quickly forgot about the strip mall surroundings. The small restaurant has just six or eight tables close together. It is so dark that small flashlights are passed out so people can read the menu. The size, lack of light and décor gives La Gondola the feel of an out-of-the-way hole-in-the-wall.
La Gondola opened in 1984 about a mile south of its current location. The original owners stayed on until early 2006, when the restaurant was sold to Andy and Christi McGuire. While the new owners have added a couple of entrees, the menu remains virtually unchanged, and everything is still overseen by the original Executive Chef. That includes three kinds of pizza: stuffed, thin crust and extra thin. On this visit, I opted for the regular thin crust.
The thin crust pizza at La Gondola is a bit like a Chicago version of a decent New York pizza. The pizza, cooked at 500 degrees, has a crisp, chewy crust. On this visit, my pizza could have was a little lacking in the crispness department compared to past experience, but it was good as served. Unlike most Chicago thin pizzas, this one was cut into slices rather than squares (though La Gondola offers an extra thin pie that gets the benefit of a tavern cut). While the crust is New York, the quantity and quality of the toppings are pure Chicago. This is not a good cheese pizza with ingredients tossed on as an afterthought at the end of the cooking process - each pie is cooked with all of the toppings on from the beginning. The crust can be folded, but the amount of cheese and toppings on top and the crisp outer edge makes that a bad and messy idea (not that folding a slice is ever a good idea).
On my next trip to La Gondola, I will try one of their specialty pizzas, but on this visit, I went with sausage and tomato slices. The sausage comes from a local butcher and it was quite good—a little chewy with some nice fennel flavor. The fresh tomato slices were good, but combined with the homemade sauce, added a little more sweetness than I find ideal. But that is a minor complaint—this was a very good pie.
For those looking to try out La Gondola, I recommend you not make the same mistake I did by overlooking the gift certificates available at restaurant.com. There are $10 certificates for $3 and $25 ones for $10 available.