|« Recipe Roundup: Labor Day Edition||Fair Fare at Francesca's Forno »|
Review Sat Aug 30 2008
There are two kinds of New York City pizza: the good kind; and the kind my mother warned me about during my Queensborough childhood. They're both authentic. Trouble is, oftentimes in the Chicago area, eateries settle for serving up the latter. On an accidental road trip today, I sampled the best and the worst Gotham-style pizza on offer in Chicagoland.
My foodie friend, Jamie, and I had intended to end up at the Botanic Garden in Glencoe. Ninety-degree weather in the northern suburbs had us ditch that plan fast. We opted for a North Shore lunch, instead. I had been meaning to try the lately much-ballyhooed New York-style pizza at Highland Park's recently opened New York Slices and Jamie, a recent Cincinnati expat, had never had the experience of a good Gotham slice. So we pulled up the pizzeria's Yelp listing, pointed our iPhone Google Map apps to it and off we went.
The press on the place promised a pizzeria experience like I had grown up with: floppy thin crust pies; garlic knots; black-and-white cookies; and Marino's Italian Ices, complete with their cute little wooden tongue depresser-shaped spoons. Walking in, the place looked like home. Pre-cooked slices sitting behind a glass counter shield, waiting for the order to be warmed up.
My, how looks can be deceiving.
We shared two slices of pepperoni pizza, four garlic knots, a B&W cookie, and a cherry ice (pictured above). I should have known when the cashier handed me paper towels instead of napkins that things were about to go downhill. Starting with the pizza. The worst pizza in New York City is usually found in a rickety storefront sharing a block with a barrio bodega in a downtrodden part of town. Its too-thick crust and too-thin layer of weak sauce cover a film of plastic-tasting rubbery mozzarella, and if any pepperoni is present, it's there in name only, its flavor having long been trumped by age or covert substitution with a cheaper meat product.
Imagine my surprise to find this pizza sitting in my mouth at New York Slices, bite after every disappointing bite.
I looked to the other items we ordered to ease the pain. Silly me. Garlic knots were dry and under-buttered. The cookie (pictured) turned out to be a biscuit-dry, obscenely thick round cut from a sheet pan and covered in a paper-thin layer of frosting, not the squat, moist, frosting-laden Brooklyn delicacy I and my midriff have known all too well.
As for the Italian ice? Obviously melted and re-frozen--into a solid brick. Once I was able to pry the product out of its little yellow cup, I found the cherry syrup pooled on the bottom, as if cowering from the flavorless mass of rock-hard freezer burn above.
We gave up in mid-meal, threw our food in the trash and walked back to the car. As we weaved our way south through the construction on Sheridan Road, I made a command decision: "Go to Hollywood and take the Drive to North Avenue. We're going to Santullo's."
I used to work down North Avenue from Wicker Park's Santullo's Eatery. Like New York Slices, it lays claim to serving real, authentic NYC-style pizza. Unlike the Highland Park pizzeria, Santullo's gets it exactly right.
We walked in, announced ourselves as pizza refugees and ordered two pepperoni slices. The place isn't upscale--we weren't expecting John's super-crispy, red-tablecloth gourmet pie, mind you.
What we got, however, was the essence of every properly floppy, stringy-cheesy, crispy-crusted, spicy-pepperoni, tossed-in-the-air, cornmeal-on-the-bottom, thin-crust slice (pictured) from my childhood that you better fold in half and make sure the grease-dripping far end sits far away from your pants. To a native New Yorker like me, this is comfort food. Not fancy, but filling, tasty, messy and available by the slice.
Things aren't always perfect at the Wicker Park pizzeria. Yelp reviewers decry the occasionally soggy slices. It's true, sometimes the pizza is proper, sometimes the crust is tossed too thin to be manageable in your hands. Ask for your slices to come out of the oven a bit early to avoid the most extreme floppage.
The place also offers made-to-order oven-baked sandwiches (leave the Italian to Potbelly's and opt instead for the Roast Beef, made luxurious by roasted red peppers and carmelized onions and swimming in a spicy horseradish sauce), but most cash-starved hipsters know the place for its $2 happy hour pizza slices (4p.m. to 6 p.m., eat-in only). Choose from cheese, pepperoni or sausage slices or order special combinations by the pie.
Next time, I'll think twice about two-timing my Windy City thin-crust love. Thanks for the memories, New York Slices. Mostly of bad hometown pizza. I'm good on taking my New York slices from Santullo's Eatery from now on. If only they'd hand out paper weights to keep the cyclonic ceiling fans from blowing your napkins on the floor every five seconds, this place would be heaven.
New York Slices
1843 Second Street (Highland Park), 847-432-6979
1943 W. North Avenue (Chicago), 773-227-7960