Slice–Serious Eats Chicago contributor Daniel Zemans 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.
Pie Hole Pizza Joint
737 W. Roscoe Street, Chicago IL 60657 (map); 773-525-8888; pieholepizzajoint.com
Getting There: Red Line to Belmont, walk 2 blocks west and two blocks north; or take #8 Halsted bus to Roscoe
Pizza Style: Thin-crust
Oven Type: Conveyor
The Skinny: Proudly gay-themed pizzeria dishes out truly delicious pies with some unique flavor combinations
Price: 14-inch plain cheese, $14; 14-inch specialty pies start at $17; slices start at $4
Notes: For optimal dining experience, go before midnight, and avoid during the Pride Parade and Northalsted Market Days
Every night, when gay men and the women who love them pour out of the bars that blanket the four block stretch of Halsted between Belmont and Addison, one of their go-to places for late-night eats is Pie Hole Pizza Joint. So many, in fact, that the place does a majority of its business after midnight even though it offers a limited menu at that time.
Pie Hole is probably better known for some of its marketing than its pizza. And with slogans like "I want a large sausage" and "the best 10 inches at 2 a.m."--as well as a drag queen who delivers pizzas on Tuesdays (a promotion currently on hiatus)--the marketing is certainly entertaining. But to dismiss Pie Hole as a gimmick place that is really only there for the post-bar crowd would be a mistake: Owner Doug Brandt and his team put out some seriously good pizza.
Pie Hole offers 11 signature pizzas along with a long list of toppings, sauces and cheeses for those looking to build their own. I opted for a specialty pie, the Easy Caprese, which features Grande mozzarella ciliegine, fresh Roma tomatoes, minced garlic, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and fresh basil. The fresh mozzarella was piled on and the sweet ripe tomatoes balanced perfectly with the balsamic. There was almost a full layer of minced garlic that was present in every single bite, but did not overwhelm the other ingredients. Sometimes I find that pizzas that opt for tomatoes in lieu of sauce wind up under seasoned, but that was not remotely true in this case; the Easy Caprese was packed with delicious flavor.
The crust is among the better traditional thin crusts I've had that did not come out of a wood-burning oven. The pizzas are cooked on a conveyor oven at 575 degrees for just three minutes, which is a combination that would seem to guarantee an undercooked pizza. I tried to get them to tell me what else they do to the crust to make it work, but their lips were sealed other than to say they do something to the pizza before putting it in the oven. Regardless, what I got to eat was a crisp, chewy crust with great hole structure and a nice amount of char (but no taste of burned bread at all). Also, and I suspect this can be wholly attributed to the oven and the considerable amount of minced garlic, there was a light crispness to the top of the pizza that really worked well.
If you're not in the mood for a whole pizza, Pie Hole is happy to sell slices from 18" pies. They have a number of different standard pizzas sitting in the heated display case, but they are also willing to sell a "Made to Order 'Diva' Slice" where customers can pick their toppings. I opted for a middle ground by ordering a Diva slice, but choosing a slice of one of their other specialty pies, the After-School Special, which has sausage and marshmallows in addition to tomato sauce and mozzarella. I was hesitant to try that one, but three factors pushed me over the edge. First, I love trying new toppings on pizza. Second, when I was a kid and did not want to try something new, my father routinely convinced me to give it a shot by going over the ingredients and after getting me to confirm that I liked each one separately, asking me, "well, what could be bad." And since sausage and marshmallow are two of my favorite foods (I eat Marshmallow Fluff straight from the jar), even though I couldn't really imagine what they tasted like together, I did have to wonder how it could possibly be bad. The third and best argument in favor of trying the after school special is that it is the only pie where the restaurant offers a written guarantee that the customer will enjoy it.
Slices are par baked with just crust and tomato sauce, so the restaurant can handle pretty much any slice order and turn it out quickly. After inhaling my first slice of the Easy Caprese, I turned my attention to the After-School Special. The marshmallows and sausage were both generously applied. The first thing to jump out was the sweetness from the marshmallow, which was quickly softened by the Grande mozzarella. With a little chewing, the well-seasoned sausage came into play along with the even more seasoned tomato sauce. The flavor combination did not give me any sort of pizza epiphany, but I enjoyed it and would recommend that anyone who likes both sausage and marshmallow give it a shot.
I did find the crust on the slice to be a little chewier, denser, and less crisp than the whole pie, and the cornicione was noticeably smaller in the slice. That said, the slice did have the same charring as the whole pie, which was a nice and surprising touch for a pizza cooked in a conveyor oven. I was not a big fan of the sausage, which had a decent fennel flavor, but was missing some of the good fat necessary to give the substance and chewiness that a good pizza sausage needs.
One tip on visiting Pie Hole: If the only time you visit Boystown is during the Pride Parade and/or Market Days, keep in mind that those are the absolute worst days to go to Pie Hole. The lines are out the door with people too drunk to taste what they're eating and the staff is understandably much more focused on serving as many people as quickly as they can, rather than focusing on pesky details like whether the crust is cooked all the way through.
Finally, I thought I'd share one of the first things that comes up when you google gay pizza: David Cross' imitation of a gay man ordering pizza. On my recent visit to Pie Hole, I was not held up by any such person, though I did have the not everyday for me occurrence of encountering a man who was unable to buy the pizza he wanted because he said he left his money in his other purse. Too bad for him—he missed out on some great food.
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