Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Singular Pizzeria

Detail of Tomato, Mozzarella and Mora cheese pizza, Great Lake, Chicago

If you love pizza (who doesn't?), you probably have your favorite pizzerias you head to when the craving hits. I finally had the pleasure of dining at Great Lake in Chicago last night and let's just say that while I'm sorry it took me so long to get there (especially as it's only about a mile from my home), I'll be back very soon.

There are several reasons for returning, but the basic one anyone would care about is this - how is the pizza? Briefly, it's as good as I've ever had in the United States. Now it's not classic pizza from Napoli, where you get Pizza Margherita or Marinara or a variation on one of these classic pies. Nor it is Roma pizza with its snappy crust. Nor is it New York style or Chicago style or any other city's style. It is totally, beautifully, deliciously, it's own style as created by owner Nick Lessins.

I first heard about this tiny pizzeria in June 2009, when Alan Richman wrote an article in that month's GQ about his search for America's single best pizza. There, sitting at number one, was the mortadella pizza from Great Lake. Naturally my civic pride got a boost as here was a famed writer from the East Coast letting the world know that the best pizza in the country was in Chicago! Referring to the mortadella pizza, Richman wrote;

"This pie - creative, original and somewhat local - represents everything irresistible about the new American style of pizza-making."

Now that certainly got my attention, but let me tell you flat out that I like to make up my own mind, whether it's on a movie I saw or the pizza I'm about to eat. I also tend to avoid places - at least for awhile - that are the overnight successes on the block. You can imagine how crowded this place was for quite some time after that article appeared. Add to that the fact that the place only seats 12 people! Yes, that's right, 12 people, as there is a communal table for 8 and then two two-tops.

I travel quite a bit which added to my delay in getting there, but about a month ago, a friend told me that it was finally getting manageable and you could get a table without too much of a wait if you arrived early (the restaurant opens at 5:00 PM and is only open from Wednesday to Sunday). So two of my friends accompanied me this past Wednesday for our initial meal. We had heard rave reviews from many friends, so we were quite excited.

We arrived a few minutes after 5:30 and already the place was full. We gave our name and cel number to co-owner Lydia Esparza, who told us it would be about a 30 minute wait and that she would call us when our seats were ready. As the place is tiny, you can't wait there, but there are several upscale wine bars and restaurants in a two block radius, so we went for a beer and sure enough, we got the call almost exactly 30 minutes later. As my friend Sue remarked, "this was a very civilized way of handling this situation."

There are only three pizzas available each night; this particular evening the mortadella was not one of them. But fear not, especially given the amazing aromas coming from our neighbors' pizzas (we sat at the communal table) and the kitchen. The three choices we had that evening were:

1) Tomato, homemade Mozzarella and Mora cheese
2) Cremini mushroom with Mora cheese and salumi biellese
3) Sauteed bacon, red onion and homemade creme fraiche

We ordered the first two and were fortunate enough to also try a piece of the bacon pizza that our neighbors couldn't finish (thank you!). Each of the pizzas is quite rich - especially the bacon- and has wonderful texture and flavors. The crust on each one is quite salty and maybe that's certainly one of chef Lessins' signatures. But it's the amazing combination of vegetables, meat and cheeses that are the real key here and each pizza is perfectly cooked and is mouthwateringly delicious!

Lessins works with local farmers in Illinois, Michigan and a few other states and proudly lists their names on the menu board on the wall. The pizzas cost about $22 each, a fair value for such a full, satisfying meal (most people we saw took a piece or two home as they couldn't finish a whole pizza - we were no exception).

What's really neat is that Lessins has repeatedly stated that he is not going to expand the place. Yes, it could mean more money, but that would take away from what he is doing. Lessins, you see, makes every pizza and gives them a lot of TLC. There's no rushing here, but with an experience like this, who wants to rush? Incidentally, while the pizzas take a little longer to come to your table than at most pizzerias, it doesn't take an inordinate amount of time, as Richman suggested in his article.

You bring your own wine and as I was finally heading there for the first time, I went to the cellar and pulled out something special - the 1999 Feudi di San Gregorio "Serpico." This 100% Aglianico from Campania was in great shape and had the body and spice to easily carry all the flavors in these pizzas. If you don't bring wine, you can always order a San Pellegrino Aranciata - and how nice that they offer this wonderful orange soda!

So a big thank you to owners Nick Lessins and Lydia Esparza for all their hard work - it comes across lovingly in their pizzas. I'll be back soon and maybe that mortadella pizza will be available. But no matter, I'm pretty certain I'm going to like every different pizza they create!

Great Lake, 1477 W. Balmoral Avenue, Chicago, IL 60640 (773-334-9270)

P.S. A nice family of four - mom and dad and their two young sons - seated at the communal table was also here for the first time. The mentioned they loved pizza and had eaten at Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, which was also cited in Richman's article. They said they loved the pizzas they consumed there, so when I finally make it to that beautiful city out west, I'll make certain I check out their food.

P.P.S. I mentioned that the pizza at Great Lake is singular. It is not classic Neapolitan pizza. When I'm talking about that, the three finest I've dined at in America (in no particular order) are:

Kesté, New York City
La Pizza Fresca, New York City
Spacca Napoli, Chicago

If you have a favorite, let me know!


  1. T,
    I lived a block west and never did get there. Glad to hear it was good.
    I've moved now to Sheridan & Hollywood. Surprisingly better rent!

  2. Bob:

    Glad the rent thing has worked out! You'll love Great Lake when you finally get there.

    Hope all is well!