Dining and food culture in Chicago

The Big Heat #39: Nick Lessins and Lydia Esparza

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Nick Lessins and Lydia Esparza
Owners, Great Lake Pizza
We don’t know what it is about Andersonville that attracts control freak super-artisans, but add Lessins and Esparza to the list of incredible food craftspeople that don’t believe the customer is always right. According to Alan Richman of GQ, they serve the best pizza in America and folks will wait hours for a pie, so for now they can do whatever they want. We just hope they don’t go the way of their control-freak bakery neighbors, the recently shuttered Pasticceria Natalina.

See details on the The Big Heat

Hip To Be Square: Apart is the Huey Lewis of pizza, and that’s a good thing

Lincoln Square, Pizza No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

If you were semi-conscious in the eighties, you probably read the title of this column and thought of Huey Lewis. Or, if born later, maybe you recalled the film “American Psycho” adapted from Bret Easton Ellis’ novel, wherein Christian Bale as investment banker/serial killer Patrick Bateman hacks a dude up with an axe while jigging to the cute organ fills on Lewis’ song.

I don’t really like “Hip To Be Square.” I prefer Lewis’ “Power of Love” from the “Back to the Future” soundtrack as it recalls my old bromantic worship of young Michael J. Fox and also because it’s a simple confection. “Hip To Be Square” is a confection too, but Lewis pretends it’s more by using the song to explore what it means to give up on a dream and sell out to the man. He also interweaves the idea that pretending like you sold out to the man while being a rock-star, i.e. not selling out, is now cool. Lewis is pretty much Billy Joel without soul—and the alcohol problems and hot wives. His music, a formulaic brand of funk and blues mixed with secondhand soccer-mom-friendly Talking Heads is sell-out packaged pop of the greatest vintage and is not particularly complicated.* As such, Lewis comes off as trying too hard.

I recognize if you made it through the last two paragraphs and the footnote below, the same can be said about me. There are worse things than to be the Huey Lewis of food writing. Though I assure you, were I really like Lewis, I would never sue Ray Parker Jr. if he had cribbed a bass line from me for his 1984 hit single “Ghostbusters”—one, because I was already a gazillionaire, and two because I’d hate for people to look too deeply and think maybe I stole that lick from someone else (ahem, “Pop Muzik” by M) for “I Want A New Drug.” But, I wanted to write about how my favorite culinary ‘hood in Chicago is Lincoln Square and though my distaste for Lewis is strong, the title fit. Read the rest of this entry »

The Polish-Italian Alliance: Flo & Santos makes its case for European harmony

Pizza, Polish, South Loop No Comments »

By Michael Nagrant

Save a long tradition of ethnic jokes at their expense, the Italians and the Poles don’t have much in common. With his good work promoting interreligious harmony, validating Darwin and bringing down Communism (although Ronald Reagan might claim that all for himself) Pope John Paul II was probably the brightest spot in their shared history.

Then again, gays, Dr. Jack Kevorkian and women didn’t quite fare as well under JPII. And, with the recent fallout over Pope Benedict’s handling of child-molesting priests, really a legacy of the John Paul II administration since he appointed Joseph Ratzinger, aka Pope Benedict, to handle such cases, Italian-Polish collaboration has generally been a mixed bag. Trying to change all that: Flo & Santos, a new South Loop one-stop shop for pizza and pierogi.

The name of the place sounds like an episode from the defunct sitcom “Alice” whereby Flo goes on a bad date with a dishwasher from Mel’s Diner and at the end of the night tells him to “Kiss My Grits!” Unfortunately the origins of the name are much less exciting and are a nod to owner Bill Bolton’s (no relation to that no-talent ass-clown Michael) best-childhood-friend’s parents. One imagines dinner in that household (Maxwell Street Polishes and Italian combo beef!) would pretty much rule. The execution of that memory in the South Loop however does not. Read the rest of this entry »

Pie-ous: Lining up for Jesus’ blessing at Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder

Lincoln Park, Pizza 1 Comment »

By Michael Nagrant

Jesus doesn’t take names.

You insist he write yours down, but the swarthy host at the Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Co. folds his arms, suffocating his short necktie, and says, “No names. Just faces.” You don’t believe him. Who would? There’s like a football stadium worth of folks lined outside the restaurant and down Clark Street. No way he’s gonna remember. But, what can you do? No matter what Kanye West says, Jesus doesn’t walk. You do. To the back of that really long line.

You’ve been in lines like this before. You’ve even relished them with a fanaticism your friends don’t understand. Your love of food is a fetish to them, up there with Leonard Nimoy worship. But they don’t know. Hell, you’ve gotten drunk, partied in these lines and made friends waiting for a table to open up at Frontera Grill and Uglesich’s in New Orleans, though not at Hot Doug’s. Yet. You browbeat yourself for not thinking to bring a flask to the encased meats super store. Read the rest of this entry »

Resto 100: Chicago’s essential restaurants of 2010

African, Albany Park, American, Andersonville, Argentinian, Auburn Gresham, Avondale, Barbecue, Belmont-Cragin, Beverly, Bistro, Brazilian, Breakfast/Brunch, Bridgeport, Bronzeville, Bucktown, Burbank, Burgers, Cajun/Creole, Caribbean, Chatham, Chinatown, Chinese, Cicero, Contemporary Comfort, Costa Rican, Cuban, Czech, Deli, East Garfield Park, Edgewater, Elmwood Park, Ethiopian, Evanston, Fast Food/Street Food, Filipino, French, Gastropub, German, Gold Coast, Greek, Greektown, Guides & Lists, Hermosa, Hot Dogs/Sausages, Humboldt Park, Hyde Park, Indian, Irving Park, Italian, Italian Beef, Japanese, Kenwood, Korean, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Lincoln Square, Lithuanian, Little Italy, Logan Square, Loop, Mediterranean, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Near North, Near South Side, Nepalese, New American, Oak Park, Pakistani, Pan-Asian, Pilsen, Pizza, Puerto Rican, Punk Haute, Ravenswood, River North, River West, Rogers Park, Roscoe Village, Sandwiches, Seafood, Soul Food, South Loop, Spanish, Steakhouse, Sushi, Thai, Trends & Essays, Ukrainian Village, Uptown, Vegetarian, Vietnamese, West Loop, West Town, Wicker Park No Comments »

Resto 100 is, as always, a list of “essential” restaurants, which is most definitely not synonymous with “best.” We strive to reflect a world of dining in a constant state of innovative transition, to capture a snapshot of the state of the food world at this time.

As last year, when we first dropped Charlie Trotter’s, we’ve continued to cull the old guard of the high-end, both as a reflection of the economic times and as a call to action for such spots to up their game. This year, TRU, MK and Boka didn’t escape the chopping block. While we don’t deny their importance in creating the food scene we have today, there are many other places we’d rather send folks—for example, Sepia, Bonsoiree or Cibo Matto (where, ironically, chef Todd Stein is a vet of MK).

Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand are two of the most successful cooks this city has, but neither spends a significant amount of time at TRU. This is not so much an observation as it’s a cry for the fact that we really miss Rick’s cooking. We appreciate his cookbooks and that he tried to open a nationwide restaurant chain, but with that not working out, why not return to his roots? It should also be noted that Chef de Cuisine Tim Graham was doing some incredibly innovative work, but was recently transferred to Brasserie Jo.

Boka, which we loved for its Charlie Trotteresque complexity, has frankly been a little inconsistent in its execution on recent visits, and frankly maybe too Trotteresque. We love the direction Perennial has gone, look forward to Stephanie Izard’s Girl and the Goat, and think maybe they outshine the original jewel in Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz’s mini-empire.

That’s not to say you have to be cutting-edge innovative or perfect to make the list. For if you do something old-school or classic and you continue to do it well and you didn’t make your bones by being a game-changer, we honor that as well. This year, we added some overlooked classics including Marie’s Pizza, Ginza and, much to our own surprise, Hyde Park’s Calypso Café. Maybe the biggest surprise was Café des Architectes, which used to be as old-school as it gets. Martial Noguier and his pastry chef Suzanne Imaz are probably two of this city’s most underrated cooks, putting out slighty twisted old-school French gourmet plates flawlessly.

Likewise, the trend of informal, casual rustic dining doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere, and we dig that. To celebrate that movement we’ve added The Bristol, Paramount Room, Brown Trout, Kith and Kin and others.

The beauty of any list, though, is that you may not agree. So drop us a line and let us know.

—Michael Nagrant, Resto 100 editor Read the rest of this entry »

Pizza Mind: Thinking about Nella Pizzeria Napoletana’s stumbles

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sausageBy Michael Nagrant

Nella Pizzeria Napoletana supposedly moved Mt. Vesuvius to make your pizza. Or at least they had a few tons of volcanic brick trucked in from the mountain to build their pizza oven. I don’t know if there’s something in the volcanic ash, a sort off pizza terroir that wafts in to the crust, but it was important enough that chef/owner Nella Grassano wouldn’t settle for using the wood-burning oven sitting in her partner Scott Harris’ (Mia Francesca) basement to make her pizza. Likewise, the mozzarella di bufala and other ingredients she uses are imported from Naples regularly. Considering all that attention to detail, I’m having a hard time understanding why no one’s paying attention to the most important thing: the flavor and quality of the food coming out of the kitchen. Read the rest of this entry »

411: Sex, drugs, and … pizza?

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Over the next week, four bars and one house will host Pizza Fest; a delicious set of jamborees combining rock ‘n roll and, you guessed it, pizza.  Conceived by musician and writer (and Newcity contributor) Brian Costello, the fest is making its greasy debut this year.   “We haven’t done this before so I honestly don’t know what to expect,” Costello says. “But I’m really happy with the lineup and these are all bands I really love.”  Personal and the Pizzas, Cococoma, Lover! and Timmy’s Organism are just a few of the bands participating.  The idea is that people will come see the shows and eat a lot of pizza.  “Sometimes pizza will be free,” Costello says, “but it will be unexpected.”  Audiences attending Thursday’s Empty Bottle show will be in for a treat, when a race between Village Pizza and Bacci Pizzeria will be conducted to see which store delivers the fastest.  “It will be pure hedonistic fun,” Costello says.

July 28 at the Cobra Lounge, July 29 at Cal’s, July 30 at Empty Bottle, July 31 at Crystal and Rockwell, and August 1 at the Cobra Lounge

Slow Ride: Paula and Monica’s pizza conjures up sweet stoner memories

Pizza, Ukrainian Village No Comments »

beefpizzaBy Michael Nagrant

In my fourteenth year I had the good fortune of befriending a teenage entrepreneur and a crew of stoner pizza makers. The entrepreneur, my buddy Mike, was the proud owner of a lucrative paper route as well as a premier lawn-care business in Shelby Township, Michigan. Even before Mike could drive, he had a fleet of commercial walk-behinds and tractors, and a shiny trailer to haul them. He was generating mid-five figures while I was still begging my mom for quarters to secure Slurpees at 7-11.

I’d tried to get a paper route, but my father who’d been a Detroit News carrier and a Boy Scout declared that both endeavors had ruined his young life and insisted no son of his would ever join either organization. And for awhile I was sullen as my fellow second-grade homies rocked cool blue-and-gold Cub Scout caps. But, as fathers generally are, years later anyway, he was right. Without his steadfast boycott, I would surely be writing this article from a basement lair drooling over a growing collection of William Shatner memorabilia and animal porn. Read the rest of this entry »

Resto 100: Chicago’s Essential Restaurants 2009

African, Albany Park, Andersonville, Auburn Gresham, Barbecue, Belmont-Cragin, Bistro, Breakfast/Brunch, Bridgeport, Bucktown, Burgers, Cajun/Creole, Chinatown, Chinese, Contemporary Comfort, Costa Rican, Cuban, Deli, East Garfield Park, Events, Fast Food/Street Food, Filipino, French, Gastropub, Gold Coast, Greek, Greektown, Guides & Lists, Hot Dogs/Sausages, Humboldt Park, Hyde Park, Irving Park, Italian, Italian Beef, Korean, Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Lincoln Square, Little Italy, Logan Square, Loop, Mediterranean, Mexican, Middle Eastern, Near South Side, New American, Organics, Pakistani, Palestinian, Pan-Asian, Pilsen, Pizza, Punk Haute, Ravenswood, River North, River West, Rogers Park, Seafood, Senegalese, Soul Food, South Loop, South Shore, Spanish, Steakhouse, Sushi, Thai, Trends & Essays, Ukrainian Village, Uptown, Vegetarian, Vietnamese, West Loop, Wicker Park 4 Comments »
In the kitchen at Alinea/Photo: Lara Kastner

In the kitchen at Alinea/Photo: Lara Kastner

Resto 100 is, as it has been in years past, a list of “essential” restaurants, which is most definitely not synonymous with “best.” We strive to reflect a world of dining in a constant state of innovative transition, to capture a snapshot of the state of the food world at this time.

In these particular hard economic times, we find ourselves dining out a lot more at the BYOBs, mom-and pop-spots and small ethnic joints than we do at the high end.  That being said, while we didn’t set out to consciously create a list to address our lighter wallets, it sure turned out that way.  More than ever, this list is a cross section of the wealth of culturally diverse and reasonably priced restaurants Chicago is lucky to have. Read the rest of this entry »

A Pie Worth the Drive: Looking north for inspiration

Pizza, Road Trips No Comments »
Buddy's pizza

Buddy's pizza

By Michael Nagrant

There are at least a thousand pizza parlors in Chicago, but only about ten spots that people constantly war over as the best. There’s the soft thin-crust of Pat’s (2679 North Lincoln—sausage laden of course) and Vito and Nick’s (8433 South Pulaski), the hard cracker thin-crust of Candlelite (7452 North Western—don’t miss the garlic fries either), the Sicilian style bakery pies of Pequod’s (2207 North Clybourn) and Burt’s Place (8541 North Ferris, Morton Grove), the only real deep-dish that’s not a gut bomb, Pizano’s (61 East Madison—butter crust preferred) and the Neapolitan blistered crusts of Spacca Napoli (1769 West Sunnyside). I’ll even throw in the organic-ingredient-topped dough of Crust (2056 West Division), the Chicago original Uno’s (29 East Ohio—too thick) and the New York/Neapolitan Hybrid Coalfire (1321 West Grand—too much soot on the bottom for my taste) into the mix. Read the rest of this entry »