Sky Full of Bacon

Once Every Ten Years #1: Toni Marie’s Pies, Hinsdale

The first in a new series of posts devoted to returning to places I haven’t been to in a long time.

So I went out to a western suburb to interview a chef, only he was in the midst of buying a house and when his inspection got scheduled for the same time as our shoot, he forgot about it. He was abjectly apologetic when I reached him by phone, but really, I said, don’t worry, I’ll come back in two hours. I’ll happily take any excuse to toodle around some section of Chicago I haven’t been to in a while, and see what I find. It was a gift, even if it would have been hard to explain why in a way that wouldn’t have sounded cracked to a normal person (which is why I’m telling you).

Well, there’s not all that much around the Hinsdale area, really, but I did remember one thing. At a holiday party for my wife’s previous job, years ago, someone brought a pie from a bakery in Hinsdale, called Toni Marie’s. Here’s what I wrote about it at Chowhound, note that the hyperbole is a little tongue in cheek, imitating the way RST, the Shaolin Master of Chowhounds back then (sadly MIA as we really changed the nature of food coverage in Chicago), would rhapsodize about every new find as the best imaginable of its kind:

The greatest pie of my life: Toni Marie’s (plus gen’l bakery thoughts)
Perhaps I exaggerate. But can you afford to take that chance and go on believing that transcendence eludes the pie category when I, yes I, say I have tasted it this very night?

Let me back up. There are some foods that seem to offer limitless opportunity for subtle gradations of goodness and greatness— and some that don’t. I always find it hard to answer “where is the best breakfast”— how much better can one set of scrambled eggs or pancakes get than another? It’s more like, ask me for the name of a reliably competent breakfast place near you, and the ones you absolutely should stay away from.

That’s basically how I think of pie. There’s generic pie, like you’d buy at Jewel. It’s fine. There’s a class of pie above that, like the Achatz ones you find at Whole Foods. You know you’re eating real crust and not a styrofoam-based crust substitute, as may be the case with Jewel’s pie. But I did not believe in transcendent pie experiences… until tonight, when I had a sliver of apple-raspberry pie from a place called Toni Marie’s in Hinsdale.

I know nothing about this place or what else they make or what they’re most famous for; it was simply a pie that someone brought to a Christmas party (in Hinsdale). Not until I did about five Google searches did I find the correct spelling (see below). But the sliver, the thin dietarily correct holiday season sliver I had, was magical. The combination of apple and raspberry– brassy, immature raspberry mellowed out by the relaxed, grownup bass of baked apple– was inspired; but there was more, a concentration of flavors, subtle spices existing just beyond my tongue’s ability to identify them, that moved it into the realm of the sublime. All of that between the covers of an honest, styrofoam free, flaky crust.

(I have to admit something now. I have held my tongue when people like RST have talked about the lack of support for the surviving Viennese model bakeries and whatnot. But the fact is, I’ve tried a lot of these old places and never been that thrilled. I get my kids’ birthday cakes exclusively at Dinkel’s out of neighborhood loyalty, and they’re very good, as are their chocolate bismarcks. I hit Swedish Bakery this time every year for cookies and weird peppery coffeecakes to take home for Christmas. I buy a six-pack of Ann Sather cinnamon rolls on occasion. But I have to admit, I am rarely delighted with the results when I pick up the usual coffee cake or danish or a loaf of storemade bread in a randomly selected old school bakery. The newer ones, the yuppie ones you might say like Red Hen, beat them hands down for imagination, flavor, texture, everything. Maybe there are ones that are truly transcendent, or at least as intermittently excellent as Dinkel’s is— Reuter’s? Roeser’s? I don’t know. If you do, tell me. In the meantime, check out the pie at Toni Marie’s.)

Toni Marie’s
51 S Washington St
Hinsdale IL 60521

Many things have happened since that post in 2002— I’ve become a serious and fairly accomplished pie baker (I even judged a pie contest once). And of course, Chicago now has its own range of artisan pie bakers (Hoosier Mama, Bleeding Heart, etc.) we didn’t have back then. (I don’t only buy my birthday cakes at Dinkel’s any more, either.)  So if Toni Marie’s was still open, and if I could find it, would it measure up to my hype of 6-1/2 years ago?

I actually didn’t even remember the name offhand, but Hinsdale’s commercial district is small and within a minute of driving around I’d spotted it. I went inside and at first I couldn’t spot pie— the place was filled with the muffins and cookies that are, I expect, its bread and butter in a burb with lots of non-working housewives gathering over coffee. But a small metal rack held two apple-blackberry pies, so I bought one, a not-cheap $18.95.

Since I make crusts with leaf lard and a bit of whole wheat, sometimes I find the sturdily fluffy all-butter crusts too thick and, well, structural, next to the meltingly tender butter-leaf lard combo. There was a little too much crust rolled up at the end, but it was well made of its type. What really stands out about Toni Marie’s is that they have the same philosophy I have about pie filling— as little sugar as you need to make it sweet, as little corn starch as it needs to not be runny, let the flavor of good fruit shine through. The combination of apples and blackberries and just the slightest hint of apple-pie-seasonings was dead on, tart and homey. It’s really good pie. Greatest in the universe, that may have always been in jest, but very good indeed. If fate ever deals you a chance to wander the Hinsdale area looking for something, anything to do, don’t miss it.

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