Serious Eats Chicago contributor Daniel Zemans checks in with another piece of intel on the Windy City pizza scene. —The Mgmt.
Labriola Bakery Café
3021 Butterfield Road, Oak Brook IL 60523 (map); (630) 574-2008; labriolabakerycafe.com
Pizza Style: Neapolitan-American and bakery/Sicilian
Oven Type: Wood and gas
The Skinny: One of Chicago's best bakers has successfully made the jump to pizza
Price: Neapolitan pies start at $10.95; bakery slices start at $3.99
Once upon a time, after man mastered the art of making flatbread, an anonymous baking genius came up with the idea of putting toppings on the bread. Fast forward a couple thousand years and for reasons that don't make a whole lot of sense, the art of bread-making is largely separate from pizza-making. Sure there are plenty of pizzaiolos who make outstanding crusts, but for some reason, few of the great bakeries sell pizza. Given that making great bread is, depending on one's perspective, up to 90% of the way towards a great pizza, we would all be a lot better off if more breadsmiths would start putting sauce, cheese and toppings on their product.
When Rich Labriola opened his eponymous artisanal bakery in 1993 and signed on Spago as his first customer, the son of a Calumet City pizzeria owner was on his way to building one of the biggest and best bakeries in Chicago. Not content with simply selling great bread to more than 700 restaurants in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin, Labriola made the decision to add a restaurant and bakery store to his growing empire. And last November, he opened Labriola Bakery Café in Oak Brook. The restaurant actually came onto my radar after hearing of the burgers (review forthcoming on AHT), but I was happy to discover that the pizza was good enough to make the long trek to Oak Brook worthwhile.
Sitting in the middle of the restaurant is a wood-burning oven that burns maple and oak at 650 degrees on the deck and over 800 in the dome. That oven is used for one purpose: cooking up 8 different 12-inch Neapolitan pizzas. I was tempted to try the Alsatian Tart Flambé Pizza, which had fromage blanc, coriander, smoked bacon and poached onion, but due to my other eating obligations on this visit, I could only try one Neapolitan pie and I went more traditional. The Salsiccia features Grande mozzarella, a sauce made from San Marzano tomatoes, fennel sausage from Greco and Sons and some olive oil and basil.
The pie was excellent. The crust, which was crisp and chewy, was thicker than a traditional Neapolitan pie, which I prefer. It had enough charring to show that it was cooked to perfection, but not so much that it negatively affected the taste of what was a very nicely flavored piece of bread. The sauce had the great blend of sweetness and acidity that comes from San Marzano tomatoes and the fresh mozzarella was of typical very high Grande quality. The fennel sausage was nicely seasoned and had enough fat to give it a nice chewiness. I would have liked a little more fennel, but I'm a bit of a fennel fiend so take that mild critique with a grain of salt. The Neapolitan pizza at Labriola combines outstanding bread with high quality sauce, cheese and toppings; so simple, yet so rarely done this well.
It's generally more than enough when a restaurant serves up one excellent style of pizza, particularly when that place focuses on more than just pizza. But Labriola is no ordinary restaurant and the bakery comes through with a second style of pizza that is every bit as good as their Neapolitan. Labriola calls it the "Old World Style Pan Pizza," some call it bakery pizza, and some call it Sicilian. When done wrong the style risks devolving into a doughy mess, but when done right the crust can achieve a remarkable combination of softness, chewiness and crispiness. At Labriola, it is done incredibly well.
I was surprised to learn that the dough recipe for the bakery and Neapolitan pizzas is virtually identical, with the only difference supposedly being that the bakery pies have noticeably more olive oil. I got a sausage slice, which had the same meat and sauce as the Neapolitan pie. The cheese, however, was a 50/50 blend of skim mozzarella and a whole milk provolone called Provo-Nello. The flavor combination added a touch of tanginess to the slice that I really liked. There is a lot more cheese on the bakery slice than the Neapolitan pie, but with a flavorful crust that is about 3/4 of an inch thick, the extra cheese did not overwhelm the slice. The Neapolitan pie was really good, but the bakery slice was addictive.
Labriola was absolutely packed when I went in the middle of the day last Wednesday. The restaurant, which already seats over 100 people, is less than a week away from finishing a substantial expansion, something that will make life easier for the hordes of office workers and mall shoppers who descend on the place every day. Much more important for those of us who do not make the trek out to Oak Brook often, Labriola is investigating opening a second location. No word yet on where the new location will be or when it will open, but if it's in the city, I'll be there as soon as it opens.
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