When I was mapping out a recent roadtrip to the Midwest, there was one activity around which I planned our entire itinerary: dinner at Great Lake in Chicago. Since the shop — located in the Andersonville neighborhood — is only open Wednesday through Sunday, I wanted to make sure we could squeeze in an outing. In fact, considering what I’d hear about the waits, I wanted to make sure that we’d be able to block out an entire evening to ensure that we were able to try what many people consider some of the best pizza in this country.
As you might have previously read, our trip began with uninspiring stops at We, The Pizza in Washington DC and Pizza Oven in Canton, Ohio. In Chicago, I enjoyed Lou Malnati’s for what it was — a delicious classic deep dish pizza place. But it wasn’t what I’d consider pizza of high quality. Great Lake — on the other hand — takes quality to a new level.
You might be wondering what accolades could have possibly resulted in Great Lake being a “must see stop” in a city with thousands of pizza places. Three articles I’d read particularly resonated with me. First, a New York Times interview with the shop owners — Nick Lessins and Lydia Esparza. High quality? Well consider this:
The couple wanted to start a business that reflected their values: a neighborhood shop that purchases top-quality ingredients directly from farmers, makes every pizza by hand and serves great food at affordable prices. They also wanted to make sure their business did not take over their lives. The 14-seat shop is open only four days a week and does not take reservations. Deliveries? Yeah, right.
Fascinating stuff! A few months after that piece ran, Adam from Slice put together a March Madness bracket of 64 pizza places for a feature in Everyday With Rachael Ray. I’m sure you can guess which pizza place made it into the final four from the “Midwest” bracket. There was Great Lake … alongside heavyweights Motorino, Pizzeria Bianco, and Pizzeria Mozza. That’s some impressive company. It’s worth noting that the owners used to work with Chris Bianco in Arizona before opening their shop.
Finally, Chicago Magazine recently came out with a list of the 25 best pizzas in Chicago. Number 1? The Cremini Mushroom and Dante Cheese pie at Great Lake. So it was with great anticipation (and expectations) that we set out to see what all the hype was all about.
We decided that our best shot at avoiding a wait would be to go on a Wednesday about one hour before the restaurant opens at 4:30PM. When we arrived, we were the first party in line. But as opening time approached, more people joined the line. At precisely 4:30PM, the doors open and the crowd piled in. All of the restaurant’s 14 seats were filled immediately and a number of people placed orders for take-out.
Like any master pizzaiolo, Lessins takes his time with each and every pie. On this particular night his wife was helping prepare the toppings and his son was waiting tables. Especially given the size of the space, it was nice that the staff moved at a relaxing pace. Nothing about our dining experience felt rushed.
There were a couple of other notable characteristics about the space:
1) One wall contains shelves featuring products for sale. Many are cooking related.
No other pizza place I’ve been to has put so much emphasis on the toppings. The focus of each pie was one specific topping by which the pie was characterized. This topping — whether it was zucchini, mushrooms, or corn — ruled the pie. There is no skimping at Great Lake.
Aesthetically, the zucchini pie (below) was one of the most beautiful pizzas I’ve ever seen. It was almost too pretty to eat. You could tell how much care was put into preparing it. I’d also never had zucchini on pizza before — at least not as the primary topping — so this was a new experience for me. It turned out to be a good one. This was my favorite pie of our meal.
One final note regarding the wait. When we left — around 6:30 — there were people gathered outside, but it was by no means a madhouse. Reviews on Yelp would indicate that’s more the exception than the rule. One reviewer writes, “If you can’t serve potential customers due to lack of space/staff/stock, etc., you’ve failed the principal and practice of business!” Another reviewer didn’t even get to try the pizza: “REALLY?!? Are they trying to be a speakeasy? I have never rated any restaurant a 1 in my life, but when you walk in and the doucher behind the counter doesn’t even acknowledge you when you say hello (twice), one star at best is my review. I didn’t even try the food, I’ve heard it’s good, but I couldn’t get past doucher and the smarmy 1hour and 45 minute wait for a table for 2 on an early Thursday night. Even in new York you couldn’t get away with this horrible service. I hope the food is good, because if not, their in real trouble.”
Clearly, the existence of Great Lake has hit a soft spot for some. Since it opened in February 2008, it has risen to the top of the Chicago pizza scene and even garnered national media attention. And with that comes labels like “pretentious.” But one thing is for sure — the pizza is damn tasty. And damn beautiful too. Our leftover slices were combined into a single pie that was almost too beautiful to eat. Somehow though… it didn’t last for long in the refrigerator.