Sky Full of Bacon


The estimable Alan Richman has a piece up in which he decries a new tendency toward what he calls egotarian dining experiences. What is that exactly? Well, I’m not sure by the end and I’m not sure he is either, which I think is an honest reflection of his conflict. Basically he wants to disapprove of chefs who do too weird things, too egotistically show-offy things… and, it seems, too Redzepi-influenced things full of twigs and bizarre combinations. The problem with his piece is that he keeps having to acknowledge that some of it is pretty great.

What we have, it seems to me, is a movement that’s letting chefs just put themselves and their influences and their journey of personal discovery out there, almost uninhibited by normal commercial concerns. And so, guess what? Give chefs their heads and somewhere some of them turn out to be fatuous blowhards who forgot to make it taste good, or forgot that people might not want a pig’s blood tree moss pudding. (That’s never happened in a glitzy downtown spot, of course. Well, the blood moss pudding hasn’t, anyway.) Yet when I think of what we have in Chicago that kind of resembles what he describes, I can’t think of any place currently operating that landed on that side of the tightrope. We have by now a small movement of these experiential restaurants where the chef is on stage and you’re the participatory audience, and so far, to put it bluntly… none of them suck. None of them are full of crap. They’re all pretty wonderful, really, each in a way that could only come from that chef. (We also have, in Iliana Regan, what Richman says this movement never has: “Not once have I seen a female chef prepare such food.”)

Salad with beet macaron.

Tom yum soup in coconut noodle.

Maybe we’re just lucky, but anyway, that brings me to 42 Grams, the new restaurant version of Sous Rising, the underground restaurant I wrote about (and mostly loved) here. I don’t have a lot to add to what I said then; the restaurant version hasn’t traveled far from the underground version in either distance (it’s downstairs from their apartment) or approach, though I do think the increase to full-time service has, unsurprisingly, sharpened technique and the menu, and I thought the lesser courses had mostly gone away (one came back in a new context, but I’ll get to that in a moment).

Chef Jake Bickelhaupt is young and his influences can be picked out— especially when he does a classic El Bulli trick (the espresso espuma that you can turn upside down and not spill… which I saw Ferran Adria demonstrate two days later). But where the young chef who overuses powders and gels is becoming a cliché (more than one chef has said to me some version of “They want to make molecular cuisine before they know how to roast a chicken”), Bickelhaupt has technology under his control and doesn’t forget to make things taste good. The “espresso” comes as a scene change into dessert, just as the meal started with the wit of a gelled cocktail, but what’s in between is mostly simpler, less visibly tricky, and focused on the simplicity of a star ingredient— meltingly sweet and gentle uni on a circle of brioche with maple cream underneath, sushi meeting biscuits and gravy; or the flavors of tom yum soup curled up inside a coconut noodle. Inventiveness is almost entirely in the service of producing delight.



One time it wasn’t at Sous Rising was with an intense peccorino romano crisp which, I wrote, “sort of crossed the line from cheese smell to puke smell.” It is a rule, of course, that if you write 1000 words of praise the chef will only remember the criticism in passing. At a bigger restaurant that might just mean him muttering to his staff that “Hey, Mr. Puke Smell is in tonight.” But much of the point of 42 Grams is that you’re right there with Bickelhaupt, his wife Alexa and the two cooks helping him; she’s taking you through it course by course and the cooks, though focused on the task at hand, are right there too. So one course was introduced by way of telling the story of a writer who came in and said a dish smelled like puke. So I was offered a new (and frankly much better) variation, the Flaming Hot Cheetos version, while the others got the regular one.

And this to me is why this kind of dining is so much fun, such a magical experience well worth the cost (you are basically getting a private chef experience for eight people). The egotarian chef of Richman’s piece probably would have banned him for saying that, refused to serve him cured lichen ever again, but in Chicago it’s playful and intimate and theatrical and about having a party, not giving a symposium. So the food critic stings with words, and they respond in food.

Me and my Flaming Hot Cheeto.

Foie and scallop with blueberry and oxalis at Senza.

Barely a week later I went to Senza, which is known for two things: it’s gluten free, and the chef, Noah Sandoval, had worked at Schwa (actually, he was in the Key Ingredient video we shot there). Which potentially meant a third thing: a rare serious restaurant somewhere near the cutting edge, in Lakeview where restaurants are rarely serious and never cutting edge.

So after 42 Grams, maybe that’s cutting edge for Lakeview. It is a tasting menu, and it has some very fine courses with a lot of creative (but not egotarian!) touches, but I wouldn’t put it out as far as Schwa in terms of wild-ass crazy creativity— no chocolate and parsnip desserts. As for the gluten free, that’s a complete success— most of the meal you simply don’t think about the absence of anything, and the few things that are clear gluten-free substitute dishes— a loaf of surprisingly convincing black bread, a terrific agnolotti, a chocolate cake— were entirely satisfying; you never had to squint to convince yourself something was good. The agnolotti, in fact, was maybe the best dish, a melt in your mouth texture with the combination of lushness (a truffle slice, a parmesan crisp) and bright fruit (kumquat, huckleberry) that was a consistent approach throughout the meal.


Other standouts included a lamb dish with both tender loin and a gamier chunk of belly, and a dessert— the kind that Richman describes as horse feed— in which oatmeal was joined with bright fruit flavors, pine nut foam and a meringue stick (I think it was meant to evoke something classic on a stick but I can’t figure out what now). Service was attentive and neighborhoody in the best sense, welcoming as if you were someone they’d expect to run into around the neighborhood. And it included one thing that floored me at the time, though in retrospect it makes perfect sense from their point of view of keeping a tasting menu on track. They don’t have valet parking and the best I could find was a two-hour spot two blocks away. When I needed to go feed the meter, they took down the location and description of my car, and someone ran out and fed it for me.

One more I’ve been to lately:

Analogue. Everybody loves this new Logan Square bar with an oh-so-hip unmarked entrance, and is praising their Cajun food as the best ever. I think they’ve been drinking! Okay, I’m not dissing it. It was pretty good. I went early on a Tuesday– one of those times when the bar is so empty that having the lights so low seems kind of silly; you just want to say, go ahead and turn a light on so you can see your work, folks. Anyway, I liked the drinks quite well, and I liked the Cajun food fine. The biscuits are genuinely great. The gumbo was good and had pretty good depth of flavor. The fried chicken sandwich was hard to judge because it was drowned in too much one-dimensional hot sauce, and on boring white bread; I was more impressed by Parson’s handling of such classic Southern stuff. So, as a non-barfly who ate early in my drinking, I find it kind of wildly overhyped by some— but that said, compared to the boring burger bar I just had open near me, I admire its ambition and the food is certainly above average for the genre. So this isn’t a diss, just a tempering of expectations. No need to serve me a Flaming Hot Cheeto next time I come in, which I will.

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Photos mostly by Liam Gebert.

I’ve had it in my head to build my own woodburning pizza oven since I went on a camping trip with my son Liam’s class at Angelic Organics a few years ago. (He goes to that kind of school.) They had a home-built one, very rustic and hippie-looking, and referred me to the bible for people who want to do this, Kiko Denzler’s Build Your Own Earth Oven. Denzler convinced me I could make a cool stone oven for about $25… but the book didn’t come with the land to do it on. And I couldn’t see anywhere on my Chicago property that I, or the adjacent houses, could feel happy about an oven sitting there hot enough to bake bread in… 24 hours after the fire went out.

Then I heard about the Kettle Pizza, which is designed to fit onto a Weber kettle (either 18″ or 22″). It’s basically a metal ring with an opening, nothing more than that (okay, it has handles and a thermometer too), but it’s just enough that you can build a fire around 6-700 degrees (or even more), heat up a stone, slide pizzas in and out, and get something like a Neapolitan pizza off your Weber kettle for maybe $200 or so.

Here’s how the first dinner went:



I use a Weber chimney so I lit that, then poured out the hot coals in a C-shape at the back and tossed on some hickory chunks. Wood will burn hotter than charcoal, and I also wanted to see if I could use the more readily available hickory without a margherita pizza tasting like Texas brisket, or if I needed something like oak that doesn’t produce a smoke flavor. Then you put the ring on, set the stone in the middle, and cover it.


Then off to make pizza #1. The night before I had made the standard dough recipe from Mark Bello, of New York’s Pizza a Casa school. Later I’ll dabble in 00 flour and stuff like that, but for now I wanted to try this reliable recipe using regular all-purpose flour, which I already knew worked in my oven. I made a margherita with some fresh mozzarella I’d picked up at Eataly on Friday.


I went back out to check on the temperature and… it was only around 550 degrees. My fire was too small. Carefully I lifted and balanced the kettle on the edge while Liam poured in more charcoal and topped it with some more hickory. There were many possible disasters at this point, so I tell you this so you can avoid having to do it ever.


Back out in a few minutes and the temperature was now off the scale, which tops out at 700. So 750-800 degrees, as high as most woodburning restaurant ovens. In pizza numero uno went!


We waited 2-1/2 minutes, peeking through the slot. We could see the crust bubbling at this end, but I had been told it would cook faster nearer the fire (duh) and you needed to spin it halfway through.


Well, so 2-1/2 minutes at this temperature was quite a bit more than halfway through, it turned out; the pizza was already black bubbles at the far end. Still, after being put back in to cook the other end for a moment, it looked pretty good for a first try.



Pizza #2 was a recipe that I’d gotten from Bello himself when I went to a party he was cooking at here in Chicago. You put down olive oil mixed with honey (very quickly, since they separate again instantly), some sauteed onion, black pepper and hunks of taleggio cheese.


This time we timed the twirling better, barely a minute and a half for each side…


Then topped with some olive oil into which I’d shaved some Australian truffle.


We sat down to eat at this point, the first pizza still hot. How were they? They came out very well for first tries. I think I spread the crusts too thin, and a little more bread would have helped, but they were definitely in the ballpark for Neapolitan pizza. A few thousand more and who knows?



I had two more pizzas to make, another margherita and a Hawaiian which was meant to test how it cooked something covered with more ingredients than the margherita or other minimalist Neapolitan pizzas. Unfortunately, on this cold day by the time I got back out there the oven temperature had fallen down to barely above 500. But, of course, the stone retains its full heat for much longer. So I knew that this pizza would burn on the bottom before the top was done. I wound up holding it on the pizza peel up to the dome for a couple of minutes to get it done. I also realized that there was another tool I would need— a long brush to sweep the burnt semolina meal off the stone. The last two pizzas were less than ideal, but still were eaten happily, basically coming out like the pizzas I’d been making up to this point in my regular oven.



And so, conclusions:

1) The Kettle Pizza works and is money well spent.
2) They say you want their stone because the one you have is only designed for indoor oven temps, so you might as well. It’s thicker, which is good.
3) Build a big fire that will last as long as you cook.
4) Turn earlier than it looks like you need to.
5) Hickory is fine, it didn’t taste like barbecue.
6) I like my new Kettle Pizza!


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I’ve been jonesing to get back in the business of searching for great unknown pizzas since long before the condition of the streets would permit it. To recap from past installments, the point is to look for unheralded, authentic old school pizza joints in different parts of the city where our pizza heritage may have survived. The quest is open-minded, but it’s pretty clear that the main focus is on thin crust joints with at least 30-40 years of heritage behind them, who still make them the way they made them back then. The methodology followed by collaborator Daniel Zemans and myself, as summed up in an earlier installment:

Our modus operandi is to order thin crust sausage, thin crust because it’s more common and takes less time, sausage because it best shows off the skills or tastes of the restaurant, if they make it themselves or even if it merely shows their own taste preferences and the level of quality they’re willing to pay for… Our main method for identifying them is simply searching Yelp for ones that give off clues that they might be promising. Every pizza place has somebody calling it the best pizza in the world, that doesn’t tell us anything; we’re more interested in comments that a place makes its own sausage or does something else that gives a clue that there’s blue-collar craftsmanship at work here.

And as Zemans tersely summed up the main indicator of good pizza neighborhoods: “Multiple generations of Italians.”

This time we (Zemans, me and fellow Serious Eats contributor Dennis Lee) decided to try the suburbs straight south of the city— literally across the street from the city in one case. For me part of the point was to finally hit one of the places that inspired this kind of quest when I spotted it years ago. I didn’t go to Roseangela’s in Evergreen Park then because I went here instead. But nine years later I was determined to go. Otherwise there was an embarrassment of riches in this area, and once we narrowed it down to six roughly along 95th between Beverly and Oak Lawn— Roseangela’s, Fox’s, Palermo’s, Phil’s, Barraco’s and Nino’s in Alsip— we pretty much just chose the final three randomly (or because Zemans had already been to a couple). So don’t say “Why didn’t you go to X, it’s great!” We know that. We may hit the other three some other time. These are the three we hit this time.



Roseangela’s in the suburb of Evergreen Park at 95th and California has been around since 1955, and on this Thursday night it was doing a business; we’ve never run the risk of having a long wait to eat at one of these places before. Fortunately it was possible to order for takeout and then wait in line, so we sat down minutes before our pizza came out.


I remember being perplexed in the early days of Chowhound by mentions of “cracker crust” Chicago pizza, vs. “foldable” New York thin. I had had Chicago thin but it was usually thicker and doughier than this; this is a true cracker crust, in both flavor and texture a spot-on double for a Saltine cracker. In other words, it didn’t really have any flavor— like tendon in Chinese soup, texture was everything, and it was a perfect crackly base for a super-thin pizza. The tomato sauce was tomato sauce straight from the can, the sausage didn’t have much flavor besides pork and salt, but was high quality and satisfying, and the cheese was maybe a little heavy for old school pizza, but certainly within range. Sometimes the highest praise you can give is “there’s nothing wrong with it,” which doesn’t sound all that much of a compliment, but it is one: this is a textbook example of its style in every department, we were very happy with it and agreed we would order it if we lived near it… but kind of feared that the evening had peaked with the first and would only go downhill from there.


Roseangela’s Pizza
2807 1/2 W 95th St
Evergreen Park, IL 60805
(708) 422-2041


Phil’s Pizza

Also doing a business that night was Phil’s Pizza on Ridgeland (aka Narragansett) in Oak Lawn, though this time it was delivery; there were two older delivery guys, one black, one the very picture of Souside Irish white, and we wound up chatting with both of them in between deliveries as well as the manager that evening as we waited to eat ours. Turned out we had just missed a crew from Chicago’s Best, who had shot video in there earlier in the afternoon. Besides trading pizza lore (Zemans and the Irish guy talked arcana of the early days of Giordano’s down on 63rd) and personal favorites, I got to take a look at what I first thought was another classic Faulds oven (see our first expedition) but turned out to come from another manufacturer, who Zemans said was a Chicago company but is now based in Connecticut. (Sadly, they now make the conveyor belt pizza ovens used by places like Domino’s, rather than these Ferris Wheel-style behemoths, and their site even trumpets that they just installed the obviously inferior kind at Comiskey Park. Infidels!)


The pizza when it came out was obviously a much greater deviation from the thin crust of our imaginations—thicker crust, much thicker blanket of cheese:


We didn’t have much hope for it when it came out of the oven, it looked like pretty generic pizza designed to fill you on bread, much like Positano’s in the first installment, but I have to say that even if it wasn’t our style, it was better than the sum of its parts, especially thanks to excellent sausage. Between the ingredients and the very friendly, obviously conscientious service, you could see why everybody who grew up on it loves it and has kept it in business all these years.

Dennis attempts a cheese pull.

Phil’s Pizza
8932 Ridgeland Ave
Oak Lawn, IL 60453
(708) 599-4747


Nino’s Pizza

I picked Nino’s in Alsip just because nobody beyond a few Yelpers ever seemed to have heard of it, compared to our others which seemed at least somewhat known. (Turned out there was a story about it in the Sun-Times 5 years ago, based on the fact that the dad was still running it in his 80s— he has since passed away— while the son ran Lettuce Entertain You’s Frankie’s Scallopine downtown.) We thought we’d arrived too late for it, as they were mopping and vacuuming, but they proved to be very accommodating about not only letting us in but letting us order deep dish as well as thin before the kitchen closed.

WAIT, DEEP DISH? you cry. Yes, deep dish, violating the primary tenet of our past investigations, which is that deep dish is north side pizza and south side is thin. (Never mind that Giordano’s started on 63rd.) Zemans interrogated the waitress to see if we should really go there, and when she described the crust (the same as the thin, just pushed up into the deeper pan) he was pretty much unsold, thinking that the crust would be uninteresting. But then she came back and really advocated it the way she likes it, and we believed that she knew what she was talking about because earlier we were expressing puzzlement at a news story on a rash of catalytic converter thefts affecting the south side and she responded with a detailed and convincing account of the catalytic converter theft racket (it’s the platinum they’re after). So we ordered a sausage deep dish, and, for variety, an Italian beef and giardinera thin (she suggested double sauce for that, pointing out along the way the fact that the thin and the deep had different sauces).


Again the thin looked breadier and cheesier than it probably was when they opened years ago. I suspect in all of these cases, being in the suburbs has forced them, or simply encouraged them, over time to up the cheese to fit the idea of pizza that people have gotten from chain restaurants in the area (which is very built up, retail-wise); the ones on our first expedition in the city, where retail activity is much lower and fairly chain-free, haven’t dialed it up as much and consequently are closer to the fairly modest pizzas of the 1950s and 1960s. That’s my theory anyway. The other thing about the sauce was that it was very sweet, almost shockingly so; words like ketchup and barbecue sauce were tossed around. We were glad we had the giardinera on ours to cut that aspect of it.

Then the deep dish came.


We were wowed by this thing, impressive as a crown roast, with its walls of dough surrounding the interior. Yes, it was the same crust, but it was a whole different thing folded into a thick dam of breadiness, too much bread to eat but fun to pull apart, releasing steam and offering the satisfaction of homebaked bread. There was a rough-hewn, homemade quality to this deep dish pizza that was instantly charming compared to the machine-round pizzas you almost always see. And the sausage was terrific— still light on fennel but bright and meaty and cravable, while the sauce was acidic crushed tomatoes, totally different from the sweet sauce on the thin crust. Zemans was still shaking his head at what the hell deep dish was doing here, but we all three loved it and agreed it was one of the best of its type to be had in the city, anywhere.

Nino’s Pizza
4835 W 111th St
Alsip, IL 60803
(708) 423-9100

Zemans contemplates Phil’s.

Our conclusions: this is a major pizza region within Chicago, tied to its south side heritage but diverging from what it might have been 40 or 50 years ago in several significant ways, notably that the cheese is piled on much thicker. Sausage is taken seriously, even though none of them had the fennel that you take as a defining characteristic of Chicago sausage (and sets it apart from the breakfasty sausage crumble that’s typical in the rest of the country). Which of course means, maybe it isn’t one, nearly as much as we thought. And lastly, everybody was just so darn nice, that suburban niceness, even when they were literally 20 feet from the city in Roseangela’s case. A satisfying and revealing expedition— but the search will continue.

Specials at Phil’s.

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Making Dim Sum at Fat Rice • Nico Osteria’s Erling Wu-Bower Talks Italian Seafood • Joe Campagna, Chicago Food Snob • Behind the Scenes With Big Head Farm


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It’s still the dead of winter, but we’ll warm up with things like dim sum and Italian food.

(1:44) First up, I go downstairs at Fat Rice as they prepare for Cha Gordo, the Macanese version of dim sum brunch:



The full, gorgeous slideshow of these dishes is here at the Reader.


(11:00) Next I talk to Erling Wu-Bower of Paul Kahan’s Nico Osteria about how you do Italian seafood in Chicago. A longer version of this was here and here at the Reader.

Chinese places I mention include Cai, Go4Food and Chengdu Impression.


(24:20) Joe Campagna, former restaurant professional at Charlie Trotter’s, Graham Elliot, etc. and now of the blog Chicago Food Snob, was my guest at lunch for the next segment. We ate at Forno Rosso Pizzeria, 3719 N. Harlem, which I wrote about here.

(48:56) And I fill in the story of Big Head Farm and the Good Food Festival March 13-15 with (almost completely) unused bits from the shoot that yielded my new film Networking the Land. Listen, then see how the story gets condensed and visualized in the movie: