Overall Experience - 8.9
Summary : This tiny, family-run pizza spot has garnered national accolades. Their unique, seasonal pies are unlike anything I've had before and are an especially welcomed addition to the Chicago pizza scene.
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.
In order to ensure some sense of order, the restaurant allows no parties larger than four people. There’s a communal table in the middle of the restaurant which can accommodate up to eight people. And then there are three additional tables for two. Not much wiggle room. You have to walk through the kitchen to find the bathroom.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.
2) The kitchen is open, so you can watch all of the preparation.
3) There are no physical menus. Everything that’s available is posted on the wall. Their offerings change frequently.
As you can see, on this particular night there were three pies available. Despite their size (these aren’t personal Neapolitan pies we’re talking about here!) we had to try them all. First up was a zucchini pie with mona aged cheese and black pepper. It was followed by a more standard pie with tomato, homemade fresh mozzarella, mona aged cheese, herb, and cremini mushrooms. And our final pie contained sweet corn, fresh cream, and fresh garlic.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.
Next up was the mushroom pie (below). Once again, the main topping captured the essence of the pie as the flavor of mushrooms permeated through my mouth and taste buds. They were fresh and juicy, and served as a nice complement to the mona cheese — a cow and sheep blend from the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative. All ingredients are from local vendors. And you can even hold the folks at Great Lake to their promise of using ingredients that they purchase directly from farmers. Their suppliers are listed at the bottom of the menu board.
Our final pie was the sweet corn pie. I don’t even like corn (I know…) but I really enjoyed this pie. Although the mona cheese provided creamy undertones on the first two pies, the fresh cream provided an even creamier taste to this pie. Corn is another topping I’ve never seen emphasized so heavily on a single pie. To take so few ingredients and turn them into something so delicious… well, you have to be doing something right.
Blogs have raved about the crust. It was like no other crust I’ve had before. It was airy, yet thick — almost like a loaf of bread that happened to have some toppings on it. Between our three pies there were some inconsistencies in the extent that the crust was cooked (ranging from lightly charred to slightly burnt), but it didn’t take away from the taste.
The restaurant is BYOB which should help curb some expenses. Our bill came out to $30 per person. Many people might consider that expensive for pizza. But a couple of things to consider. First, we ordered more food than we could eat. Certainly two pies should be sufficient for three people, so had we ordered an appropriate amount of food, our bill would have come out to $20 per person. A bit more reasonable. Then consider that you can drink a bottle of wine for the price you paid at the liquor store down the block and all of a sudden $20 and change doesn’t seem so bad for as much delicious pizza as you can stuff down and a few glasses of wine.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.