Sky Full of Bacon


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The classic Chicago pizza oven: a Faulds oven. No longer made, you have to keep yours up and running by cannibalizing parts from others.

The great thing about food on the internet is that if you publicize something, lots of people wind up going to the same place. The bad thing is, lots of people wind up going to the same place… and never check out other places that might be good, too. This is especially true for certain iconic foods whose definitions are pretty clear— you could know Vito & Nick’s alone, say, and claim that you had a pretty good handle on old school Chicago thin crust pizza, such as is typically found all over the south side. In fact, that’s pretty much exactly where I was on the subject.

And yet, I wondered… could there be other, outstanding, undiscovered pizzas out there, unsung and unheralded? To answer that question, Daniel Zemans, who has written on classic pizza widely (including this definitive Serious Eats roundup some years back, in which I am quoted), and I scouted out some listings on Yelp that looked like they might offer something above the ordinary. (Almost nothing’s completely undocumented by now, but by the most obvious measure for pizza joints, mentions on LTHForum, these were pretty darn obscure— one mentioned merely in passing in a 2005 thread and not since, another in that thread and again parenthetically five years later, and the third (which is relatively new) had a similarly brief mention earlier this year.)

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Longevity is a good sign in a pizza joint.

How did we choose these three? We focused on a specific area— they’re all within a narrow corridor in the western section of Gage Park/West Elsdon, a once-white-ethnic, now mostly Latino section of town straight east of Midway Airport, the kind of neighborhood that should still have old pizza joints around. And we searched Yelp for clues, ignoring the typical Yelp hyperbole for signs that suggested a cut above— like that they made their own sausage, say. Anyway, we narrowed it to three, and settled on a single dish for all three— thin crust with sausage. (The thought there is that sausage is the meat which most shows the taste preferences and philosophy of the owner, versus meats like pepperoni which tend to be ordered somewhat generically and are also common around the country. Chicago pizza sausage is a fairly unique thing, fat little wads of ground pork heavily spiced with fennel, very different from the crumbled breakfast-style sausage which most of America eats on pizza.) Here’s what we found.

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Geneo’s

Few places quite live up to the name “hole in the wall” as well as Geneo’s. The brown paneling exterior and the ancient sign make it hard to tell if Geneo’s actually closed in 1977, and once inside you’re in a narrow little room consisting only of a window into the much vaster kitchen, and the almost comically large menu:

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All three of the places we tried had enormous menus like this, full of things which surely would go straight from many months of deep-frozen sleep to a fryer if you ordered them. We stuck to pizza, even as we were fascinated by cryptic offerings like the Fat Freddie sandwich (their version of this) or Bosco Sticks, whatever those are.

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Anyway, 20 minutes pass and we take the pizza to my car parked across the street and dine al hatchbacko. The pizza is maybe just a little thicker than we wish, certainly thicker than Zemans (whose perfect pizza crust is Pat’s ultra thin) wishes. Still, it has a nice Saltine-cracker taste like a pretty good Chicago thin. As for what’s on it— plain, straightforward tomato sauce; pretty good sausage with noticeable fennel; good quality cheese that doesn’t taste like the glue factory— for the price, about $11, this is quite a good neighborhood pizza. But we both agree it’s not a drive-all-the-way-to-the-south-side good pizza, and I can taste the things I’d do to brighten and heighten it (like introduce it to the taste of garlic, somewhere). If it’s what you grew up on, it’s still good, but it’s not noticeably different from a pizza near you almost anywhere in Chicago.

Geneo’s Pizza
2945 W 59th St
Chicago, IL 60629
(773) 767-5545

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Positano’s

It’s not clear how old Positano’s, 3 or 4 blocks east of Midway on 55th, is, but it’s plainly newer and spiffier than the other two we would visit. But our hope that we had found a proud new South Side Italian joint were quickly set straight by the owner’s accent… his Polish accent. He and the gal at the counter were very friendly, but as happens sometimes in this town with Eastern European businesses trying to reproduce other ethnic restaurants, they just don’t get it right. It’s not just that Positano’s crust was way too thick and bready for South Side thin, but the sauce tasted more like Paul Newman’s pasta sauce than pizza sauce, too far the other direction from Geneo’s plain tomato sauce. And the thick shelf of cheese was also overkill (and made it really hard to eat cold the next day). Now, all those things are probably virtues for many people— this is a pizza that will fill you up, for sure. It’s just not a Chicago South Side pizza, for me and especially not for ultrathin crust freak Zemans. (I should note that the LTHForum mention recommends deep dish anyway, but we had too many pizzas to eat in one night to sit around for 45 minutes waiting for that to cook.)

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Positano’s
4312 W 55th St
Chicago, IL 60632
(773) 284-7745

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Pizza Castle

A photo similar to the one above at Yelp nearly scared me off Pizza Castle, making it look like a mattress store having a going out of business sale. Only the claim of housemade sausage kept them in the running. But 30 seconds inside this place, we both knew that it was the gem of the night.

The walls are covered with photos of kids in Halloween costumes— literally thousands of them; for decades Pizza Castle has handed little squares of pizza to trick or treaters, and they get kids from all over the south side now, lined up for a block for two bites of pizza and their picture to be taken. About ten seconds of chitchat from Zemans produced a photo of owner Rich Jensen, much younger and 70s-haired, posed with Cubs Hall of Fame pitcher Fergie Jenkins. A little more produced the information that he was, somehow in this old Slavic turned Latino neighborhood, of Danish extraction, the business started by his Danish parents who belonged to a long-gone community of South Side Danes.

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The Danish flag decorates Singing Pizza Elmo. “That’s not dust, it’s pizza flour!” he points out.

We’re inquisitive enough that he asks us if we’re from out of town and we explain no, but from far enough away on the north side that we might as well be, and that we’re on a pizza tour. He quickly explains that his shop does things the old-fashioned way— rolls its own dough, grinds and seasons its own sausage, and so on. He’s trying to be self-deprecating about it and not seem like he’s bragging (“It’s how we’ve always done it, so we just do”) but he soon gets to the heart of the matter — “If we opened this place now, we’d just call up and order everything [premade], and ours would taste just like everybody else’s pizza and we’d go out of business in a year.” He’s reluctant to outright brag, but he knows exactly why his unassuming place is treasured by its community.

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If the inside of this Faulds oven looks familiar, check about 26 minutes into this Sky Full of Bacon video.

So we’ll brag for him. This is a completely admirable pizza, one I’d drive a considerable way (from Hyde Park, say) for. The thin crust gets crisp on the bottom and caramelizes the cheese on top in a way the previous two, thicker pizzas could not. The sausage and sauce are both brighter and tastier than what we’d had before. We weren’t exactly full when we came in but we had eaten enough that we didn’t expect to finish this pizza— but in fact that’s just what we did, a bit painfully but not sorry that we did so. I’m not going to claim that we toppled the South Side crown from Vito & Nick’s, but whatever south side pizza came in second before (Aurelio’s?) just dropped a rung. Pizza Castle is easily a discovery good enough to have made the whole night worthwhile.

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And yet… we’ve only begun with one small neighborhood out of the south side. We pulled a bunch of potential candidates from the Beverly/Evergreen Park vicinity, before deciding to focus further west. Stay tuned for the next exciting episode… sometime.

Pizza Castle
3256 W 55th St
Chicago, IL 60632
(773) 776-1075

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Last year I told myself we wouldn’t win a James Beard award… but deep down, a tiny part of me thought we might. This year, I knew perfectly well that being nominated against actual TV networks with actual budgets was reward enough, and a considerable feat of legitimizing, so I just went to New York to show up and have a good time. The Beard awards were held in a massive Roman tomb called Gotham Hall, formerly the lobby of a particularly ostentatious bank which survived the Depression (it was built in the Roaring 20s) but failed in the S&L crisis in the 80s. It was loud, I met John T. Edge and told him my video was inspired by all he does, I saw other swelegant people…

But enough of that. Let’s go eat.

I went to New York with the idea that I’d fly in Thursday night and be relaxed the next day. Ha! A hail storm and lightning and who knows what delayed my flight to the point where instead of hitting my hotel around 10 p.m., I hit it around 2 a.m. The next morning, groggily, I awoke with much of the morning gone. Rather than throw my entire dining schedule off, I decided to do the rest of my waking up on a subway train to Brooklyn and start my day by being at the legendary DiFara Pizza, alleged to be the best pizza in New York, when they opened at noon for lunch.

I’d heard enough about the demand at DiFara and ordering strategies (there was a time when, somehow, ordering on Facebook and then going to Brooklyn was the advised strategy) that I wondered if even then, I might be too late. Nonsense. I was the only person in line at 11:45, one of only two when the door opened, though they came quickly after that. DiFara has two shapes of pie, square and round; I ordered one of each. As soon as I heard that sizzling, I knew I needed video.

I’m always baffled by people who talk about “New York pizza.” I’m not sure what that is. If it’s round, with a doughy crust and a rounded edge but fairly flat otherwise, that style, the “Original Ray’s” style, is not just New York pizza, that’s exactly what you find all over America, Sbarro’s and Costco and so on. I’m not saying New York isn’t better than those, it plainly can be. But that’s American pizza, mall pizza, basically. Then there are New York pizzas which adhere closer to the Neapolitan style, but to me, those aren’t New York pizza, there are Neapolitan pizzas, like any other directly imported ethnic food in New York.

So which was DiFara? The round pie is a lot like a “New York pizza,” though the main different thing is that he tries to get some char on the crust, which you’ll never see at Sbarro. The square pie— that’s more interesting. It’s thicker, and it’s covered with more cheese, which swims in the acidic tomato sauce. (And, again, is charred on the edge, which is what lifts it from delicious to magnificent.) If anything, with its acidic 1950s tomato sauce (no trace of sweetness) and industrial cheese flavors, and its excess of both, it reminded me of… Chicago pizza. Kind of like the deep dish at La Gondola or somewhere, except that, again, the crust was blackened along the edges. So is DiFara the best pizza in New York? Well… it’s the pizza that most reminds me of Chicago pizza, so draw your own conclusions.


Dammit, she was second in the place but somehow she got the corner piece with two burnt sides. Life is so unfair!

Last year I plotted out my primary choices with the precision of Rommel planning a tank corps attack. This year, I didn’t have time, but I did have my guidebook from last year with lots of cryptic notes in it. A few hours after DiFara but before the award dinner, I was wandering around Chinatown, Little Italy, somewhere and I checked my book for somewhere to get a Chinatown snack. I saw a scribble that looked like “Jui.” I walked to where it seemed to indicate and I knew at once it had meant “Joe,” that is “Joe’s Ginger,” one of the Joe’s Shanghai restaurants famous for xiao long bao, the soup dumplings much sweated over by some LTHers.

Now that’s a soup dumpling, when you can see the liquid inside it and the dumpling sags like a water-filled balloon. Best soup dumplings ever? Typical for xiao long bao? I have no frickin’ idea, but they were very good and tasted like good examples of 1) soup and 2) dumpling, so they were fine by me. I also ordered, just to keep them company, something I think was called turnip cake. I’ve had turnip dim sum at places like Shui Wah, where it’s a flat square of mashed fried turnip; so I wasn’t at all expecting this:

You would think that these were the Italian pastry known as sfogliatelle, with its paper-thin armadillo-like shell, but this was their turnip cake, no lie. Did a rogue sfogliatelle maker from up Mott Street escape from little Italy and find refuge a few blocks south in Chinatown? I don’t know, and I hope showing his handiwork hasn’t just outed him to La Cosa Nostra, but if anything I liked these even better than the soup dumplings, the crispy exterior hiding a center of savory shredded turnip (which suggested another cross-cultural resemblance, to sauerkraut balls) dotted with bits of pink ham and green onion.

Afterwards, wandering the streets in this area, I saw carts selling “Chinese cake,” which were cute, but very plain, little muffins freshly baked on the cart; I ate a couple and then left the bag prominently on top of a full trash can where the neighborhood homeless were likely to find them and have a treat.

Last year I hit both Zabar’s (an old fave) and Russ & Daughters (first time), so this year my Jewish breakfast slot went to Barney Greengrass, The Sturgeon King, on the upper West Side. A tiny dining room (decorated, incongruously, with New Orleans-themed wallpaper) is served by fast-moving waiters who I had read described as slightly caustic and sarcastic. On the contrary, despite the speed at which they moved, they were unfailingly helpful to a first-timer from out of town jammed into a tiny table. At brunch the next day, Steve Dolinsky mentioned how good the service was in New York, because you can make a real living of it here, and with only one exception (the Grand Central Market, where they seemed bored and uninterested) service was excellent everywhere I went this weekend.

But you were asking about Barney Greengrass. Velvety, meaty sturgeon kissed lightly with smoke, good cream cheese and a toasted bagel, fresh-squeezed orange juice— exactly how you would want to live and still stay in touch with your East Side origins in the moneyed precincts of the upper West Side.

Afterwards I popped into a butcher’s next door called Schatzie the Butcher and bought my wife a logo t-shirt while admiring the very nice quality meats and chatting up the main guy that day (Richie, son of Schatzie). Here again was the most welcoming side of New York; if you want to live in this city, I highly recommend getting the several million dollars to live up here.

I walked up to the outskirts of Harlem to see the massive Cathedral of St. John the Divine and then over to Morningside Heights for another bagel place, Absolute Bagel. Here I found the more expected Noo Yawk atmosphere of brusque, Yiddish-inflected service. The only surprise was, the owners who were talking like that… are Thai:

I brought a bunch of these bagels back with me, so they maybe weren’t at their peak when I got to eat them, but I don’t think they are the best in the city, as some claim— puffier and breadier than I like, without the full chewy snap of the very best bagels, like Zabar’s. (Which is still to say they beat 99% of bagels in America. Or Thailand, for all I know.)

Alan Sytsma, my boss at Grub Street, had suggested a Montreal smoked meats place called Mile End, but it seemed unlikely I was going to trek to Brooklyn again for a sandwich. So fate smiled upon me and on my way to Eataly, I found a street fair. By which I mean, I ran smack into the first stand of the street fair, which was… Mile End, its smoked meat-wenches assembling smoked meat sandwiches before my eyes:

And then I saw the next stand, directly opposite… the famous (and shortly to be, James Beard Award-winning) Momofuku Milk Bar, selling their famous crack pie with no line:

There was more, but there was no way I’d get to eat anything at Eataly if I didn’t stop there. The crack pie— well, it’s good, but it’s one of those things where the city sophisticates go nuts for something that’s existed all along in the boonies— it’s basically just a really, really dense lemon chess pie.

The smoked meat from Mile End— I’d say it’s every bit as good as the smoked meat sold here at Fumare in the French Market. Which means it’s very good indeed. In fact, my theory is that smoked meat is the best thing to happen to pastrami in years. When I make pastrami it’s smoky and meaty and peppery and coriandery, but when you eat commercial pastrami, it tends to be salty with undernotes of saltiness and saltitude. It’s one dimensional. Montreal smoked meat, like homemade pastrami, restores the other dimensions and reminds you that it’s meat, first, salt and other spices second.

Eataly I did a slideshow about here at Grub Street, so I’ll just focus on what I ate at Mario Batali and Joe Bastianch’s Ikea of Italian food after an hour or so of shopping to make some room next to the smoked meat and the cracked pie. I went to La Verdure, the vegetable counter, feeling that I could use some vegetables and also that seeing what they did with fresh vegetables was probably more revealing than a panini or pizza of the quality of the entire venture.

They were, not to put too fine a point on it, two of the best Italian dishes I’ve had lately. I had romano beans in a deep, rich, roasty red sauce, served as bruschetta:

and a salad, I guess, of braised escarole with currants and pine nuts:

both tasting like every bit of flavor had been brought out and amplified through the cooking process. Really, I would be much closer to a vegetarian if a counter serving stuff like this was near me, dishing it up fresh every day. I can’t wait for Eataly.

After my two lunches I met up with Janet Rausa Fuller (ex of Sun-Times, fellow nominee) and her sister for drinks at The John Dory Oyster Bar; I didn’t mind that they’d pretty much eaten all the oysters and the Parker House rolls by my late arrival. We took a good little while making our way to dinner, and then had to wait for it a little longer:

Totto Ramen is a new ramen shop from the owners of my beloved Yakitori Totto last year. Not that it’s anything like Yakitori Totto’s 2nd floor yakuza bar feel; more like college town hole in the wall:

We were joined while waiting by Chuck Sudo of Chicagoist, who had dined at Ippudo Ramen earlier in the day, but apparently had no problem with a second bowl.

With the help of the specials board the menu maybe gets to ten items. We ordered the sea urchin appetizer, not that I care for uni that much but with the help of a blowtorch, this was a nice bowl of food:

The ramen— seen here with extra pork belly and a big blob of miso in the middle— was superb, a complex yet delicate broth and noodles combining velvety smoothness with a little backbone of chewiness. As with xiao long bao, I don’t know from best or less than best, I just know really good, and this was it. On the service note, with that line outside I knew we wouldn’t be invited to linger, but again, the deftness with which they hustled us out without making us feel hustled was a tribute to New York levels of service.

I had breakfast proper the next day at a little cafe called Penelope, which could fit right into Wicker Park or Logan Square (and like most of those places, charged a little too much for its partial delights, but I knew it would going in and it was fine), and after some sightseeing met Steve Dolinsky over in Hell’s Kitchen at a place he wanted to try for a magazine piece he’s doing, Salinas.

The best thing was the back room with the open roof; on this sunny, clement day it seemed like one of the best places to be in New York, which made me a little sad that no one in New York seems to go out for brunch until two o’clock or something— we had it to ourselves for most of the meal. The chef came out to sell us on the virtues of his dinner menu, which is to say, the chef came out to tacitly acknowledge that brunch wasn’t anything to get that excited about— some fried balls, some paprika-dusted vegetables, a curiously bland pa amb tomaquet, a jamon grilled cheese sandwich (this was actually quite good). Based on brunch Vera doesn’t have anything to worry about for best Spanish restaurant I’ve been to this year, but I’ll take him at his word that dinner has higher aspirations, and suggest that if it’s an evening when you’d want the stars and the fresh air, the charming back room at Salinas seems worth a gamble on the food.

Uncle John’s hot links, glowing bigger than life from the screen at the James Beard Foundation Awards in New York City.

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I’m not saying the only consolation of driving 14+ hours to my hometown of Wichita and spending the entire week in 100+ degree weather is the food along the way. No, wait, I pretty much am saying that, at least since we exhausted the list (two items long) of tourist attractions I wanted to see last year. We managed to find another excellent one this year, or rather my sister-in-law did. But otherwise, family aside, the only thing to do was eat.

I wanted to visit L.C.’s BBQ in Kansas City again for dinner; there’s always a danger with barbecue of being wowed by one, irreproducible experience. As it turned out, it wasn’t as good as last year, but in ways that paradoxically confirmed its superiority. Huh? What am I smoking? Well, the thing with barbecue is, it’s always variable. And this year compared to last, the variation was that the burnt ends, luscious little meat and smoke nuggets, weren’t as done as last year, and hence were a little fatty and chewy. But you could tell what they’d be in another hour or two— and meanwhile the ribs, which hadn’t stood out last year, were terrific. A second visit, even though not perfect, convinced me that L.C.’s remains in the front rank of pit barbecue joints, and in contrast to so many new Kansas City places popping up, is still gritty and real enough to treat my kids to a real-life episode of Cops as we pulled up.

My original goal upon reaching Wichita the next morning was to eat at an old favorite, Takhoma Burger, which had apparently reopened in a former Tiki Dancing bar just south of downtown on the somewhat sketchy strip of South Broadway mainly familiar to me, as I was growing up, from news reports of massage parlors being raided. (My friend Scott once called up the Tiki Dancing place to ask what Tiki Dancing was. He was told he’d have to come in to find out which, as he was 16 at the time, was not possible.) Alas, it was no more, so a quick call to my mom produced the alternate suggestion of a Walt’s on Tyler.


Ersatz diners in Wichita are so common that the real old school diners feel compelled to look like the ersatz diners. The difference is, no real diner would have billboards for its “Wok’n'Roll Bowls,” as the annoying Spangles chain does.

I say “a Walt’s” because various places called Walt’s, of varying quality, have popped up around town over the years, started by different descendants of the original Walt. This one, though, is in a gleaming diner building imported from the east coast (I couldn’t tell if it had been bought new or well-used already) and the loosely-packed fresh-meat burger and fresh-cut fries were textbook perfect, every beefy thing you want a diner burger to be and rarely find in Chicago. I tweeted that it was one of the 10 best burgers in America, perhaps an enthusiastic exaggeration, but certainly not an absurd claim.

Presumably the oldest surviving hamburger chain in Wichita is the Kings-X chain; Jimmie King was an original White Castle franchisee in Wichita (where the chain started) and went out on his own some years later. Kings-X was always a slightly downmarket but good enough family restaurant chain with classic old school burgers with grilled onions. When a yuppie area on the east side took off, the younger generation built a new restaurant called Jimmie’s Diner which successfully managed to draw yuppies for, again, a real diner’s imitation of an imitation diner.

We stopped there for lunch after a matinee of Captain America. The burger was not up to Walt’s, though still better than 98% of Chicago family restaurant burgers, I’m sure. The odd thing about it, though, was that it tasted exactly like a Five Guys burger. Did Kings-X burger’s always taste like that, even before Five Guys existed, or are they imitating that chain (which has reached Wichita) instead of their own heritage? I don’t know, but it was strange.


Another old chain, food’s decent enough but I always loved the logo. I grabbed an excellent cherry limeade here.

My last burger stop was on the near West side, in what you might call the hippie-biker-artist part of town. T.J.’s had come highly recommended over the years, and it did not disappoint. The patty is bigger than a canonical 30s style thin patty, but I was impressed that they nevertheless managed to get a Schoop’s-like outer crust on it without murdering the inside. I ordered a chili burger just to have something different, and the chili was old-school beanless with some nice heat, again bridging tradition with modernity.

To be honest, though, I have to admit by this time I was pretty worn out by burgers, fries, black and white checkerboard tile, jukeboxes, pictures of James Dean and Marilyn Monroe sitting at the counter, etc. One thing I noticed driving around town this year was that there are lots of new barbecue places. Two Brothers is the one we tried (my in-laws ordered takeout one night) and it’s perfectly solid Kansas City-style BBQ, but I wonder about all these other places. Maybe next time that will be my quest– to see if Wichita can finally compete with Kansas City as a BBQ destination, too.

* * *

More interesting to me this time, though, was that Asian food has exploded in Wichita. Much of it, admittedly, is pure fakery, like a bunch of new Mongolian barbecue places. But a Chowhound thread pointed me to a place that was supposed to be a Thai-Lao Cafe— like the Malaysian restaurant I ate in last year, something we can’t get in Chicago. And like that Malaysian restaurant, located in a former pancake house where my sisters used to waitress, the Lao restaurant was located in a pretty ironically nostalgic location, a one-time Davy Crockett-themed arcade on the south side:

We went inside and the atmosphere was something between a VFW hall and the place the GI’s would have gone for R&R in Full Metal Jacket, a sort of tropical disco feel with the Lao extended family hanging out watching Dancing With the Stars or something at a long table littered with beer cans:

The menu looked straight Thai to me and I had to work my way through the entire family in search of Lao dishes. The son called Mom over, Mom barely spoke English and seemed unsympathetic to my desires, Dad finally came over and was much more amiable about helping me pick out things that he claimed were at least a little more like Lao dishes, though he said they didn’t have many of the Lao ingredients on hand. When we had made a decent list, he reached under the counter, and came back up with a dusty 1980s cash register, which he plugged into the plug next to the coffee maker to ring me up. Not a lot of food traffic, I thought, which made his greeting query (“You call for pickup?” even more curious. But no more curious than a (painfully) white family, 9-year-old son included, sitting there at the Phnom Penh disco waiting for takeout must have seemed to the occasional Thai or Lao person wandering in; pretty sure they’re not getting a lot of traffic from the east side of Wichita. It was pretty good authentic Thai, in the ballpark of our best places here, but if there was anything Lao about it, I wouldn’t know.

* * *

But I said we hung out with eagles. My sister-in-law found this privately run bird sanctuary west of town; with 100 degree weather the guy didn’t want to exercise the birds during the day, but he said if we came out early in the morning, he’d give us the tour. So we saw and interacted with hawks, kites, falcons, and…

He says he has the only bald eagle tame enough that you can pose for pictures with it. I’m always awestruck when I see a bald eagle in the flesh; it’s like seeing a president in person.

* * *

My old LTHForum colleague Aaron Deacon suggested Brobeck’s as another possible Kansas City BBQ destination, and being located right off 435 on our way to Iowa and Chicago, we decided to give it a try, even if it was white suburban barbecue in a strip mall.

It’s really good white suburban strip mall barbecue, though— like Smoque, getting about the most you can out of a Southern Pride. Burnt ends were terrific, ribs and smoked sausage quite good, and the sample of ham salad offered at the start worth a lunch trip (well, not from Chicago maybe, but from the KC area, sure). One thing that amused me: besides their own sauces, they offered dispensers of other popular sauce brands like K.C. Masterpiece and Gates’. To me that’s Coke offering you a shot of Pepsi to put in your Coke, but I guess these sauces have such a following that it makes sense in Kansas City.

Noticeably missing, though: Arthur Bryant’s.

Finally, we stopped over in Iowa City. Being a college town, Iowa City’s culinary scene seems dominated by pizza, and the Yelp reviews for any of them are not spectacularly good, but the best of the bunch seemed to be an old place called Pagliai’s.

Last year we ate pizza in the Quad Cities area; this, though another hour further from Chicago, seemed much closer to a Chicago pizza, the same rolled-out crust you see around town, a thin tomatoey sauce like D’Agostino’s, and where the Quad Cities pizza’s idea of sausage was crumbly breakfast sausage-style, as it is through much of the midwest, this had nice lumps of pretty good Italian sausage. A very decent pizza— and at least it wasn’t another damn hamburger.

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UPDATE: see this Menu Pages post if you didn’t just come from there.

Confronted with my earlier challenge not to go all New York-snooty on us and mock pizzas as thick as Stephen King novels, Serious Eats went out and picked somebody with Chicago street cred to make their list: my quasi-doppelganger (except for the part about being a decade younger), Mike Nagrant.

My verdict on their verdicts? Right choices, not right categories.

We match up on a number of choices.  This is no surprise, since a lot of places have sorted themselves out as the best in the foodie community and Nagrant doesn’t want to be contrarian for the sake of contrarianism.  At most, you can sense that he was probably going to come to the same answer I did (eg, Scooter’s for best ice cream) but decided to provide a broader answer with more choices.  And there’s nothing wrong with more choices, well chosen.

Where I still have a problem with their list is that, hot dogs, burgers, late night, it just doesn’t accurately represent the real diversity and interest of dining in Chicago to me.  Commenters have already called out the absence of Italian beef, which is like leaving cheese steak out of the Philadelphia one, but Nagrant had to invent (I suspect) a category for non-sushi Asian to get a Thai place in [CORRECTION: it was in the original NY list, and mine too], he has to turn Best Taqueria into Best Mexican to cover it adequately (which is like putting all Italian food under Best Pizza, basically), he has to sneak Indian food in by placing Khan BBQ in under late-night dining (as someone who’s never eaten there past 3 in the afternoon, it sure isn’t that for me) and Eastern European, which is everywhere here, and which Nagrant has written about before, is pretty much absent (there’s a category called “Eastern European Butcher,” which he picks Paulina and Gepperth’s for, both of which are, of course, Germanic and thus western European, if we’re being picky).  Ignoring Eastern European is no small thing because I have an east coast friend who, first thing he wants to do in Chicago is go eat Polish food, precisely because he can’t get it there.  It may not be something we think of as being as distinctive as the Bayless school of fine Mex, but it’s still a real strength of ours.

In short, I think Serious Eats has somewhat missed a chance here by picking the right guy to pick the answers—but not asking the right questions, at least not all of them.

Helen at Menu Pages plans to compare our choices head to head, so I’ll let her do that first, although I’ll say one thing about deep dish pizza— yeah, Burt’s is great (although I find the harried service post-Saveur rather offputting), but this isn’t a deep dish pizza:

That’s a pan pizza, which is what we train New Yorkers on before we reveal to them the full majesty and glory that is…

The Hallelujah chorus made edible in cheese and dough.  Spinach deep dish from Art of Pizza, the best pizza in Chicago.

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So foodie woodburning pizza places open here and there and get all the attention, Great Lakes in Andersonville is the latest one.  Meanwhile, plain old pizza parlors, slice places, dot the Chicago landscape like red splotches on a guy called “Pizzaface.”  And once in a while someone even opens one of those, new.  Or two of those, in fact, since I’ve noticed that two new ones toward the north end of Lincoln Ave. have opened in relatively recent times.  I decided to see if one of them was open for lunch, and see how the old standby slice pizza joint was faring in today’s chichi pizza environment.

The one that was open at lunch is called Pizzeria Calzone, promising, in slightly mangled English, Italian Delicious Pizza.  Guess what else is on the menu?  Hamburgers, hummus, and an entire category entitled “Mexican Food.”  Continuing our theme of dada randomness, guess what is NOT on the menu?  Calzones.

Partly because of the cross-cultural wackiness on the menu, I couldn’t really peg the nationality (nationalities?) involved.  The chef looked Mexican, the waitress could have been from anywhere between Baja and Afghanistan.  The card I picked up at the end had an owner’s name that is probably Turkish, or Bosnian, or an alias.  The atmosphere of the fairly attractive interior was certainly more that of a culture where people go to cafes to smoke and drink twelve cups of coffee, rather than one where they go for pizza and a beer.

Rather than devote a great deal of money or time to this increasingly improbable enterprise, I decided to try a couple of slices, and figure that it could only get better if cooked fresh.  Very much in the classic Chicago slice place style— a thin, grease-soaking dough— but by no means bad of its type.  The cheese was decent quality, not gluey-funky like cheap cheese; the sauce was actually spiced rather nicely, not too sweet, some flavor of fresh herbs.  If anything, it was the sauce that redeemed it, if it comes out of a can, at least they picked the right can, if they season it up themselves, so much the better.

Is this a notable new pizza place?  No, I wouldn’t say that.  Would it serve if you lived close by, following my old friend Sue Brichetto-Smith’s rule that everyone should have a delivery pizza place so close that at least its pizza, no matter how mediocre, will have the virtue of freshness?  Yes.  For somebody, that will be enough. You can look at the address and decide if it’s you.

Pizzeria Calzone
5858 N Lincoln
Chicago, IL
(773) 907-0917

(What’s the number in the title? This is #10 in my quest to visit 50 restaurants that haven’t been talked about on LTHForum and are generally little known in the Chicago food community/press. To find more, click on “Restaurant Reviews” in the right-hand bar.)

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