Top 5 Chicagoland Artisan Thin Pizzas

'nduja, olive and onion pizza at Pizza East

‘Nduja, olives and onion pizza at Pizza East

Over the course of eating in 76 different pizzerias for this #ChicagoPizzaQuestThin, I discovered a category that was, up until a few years ago, non-existent in Chicago: the “Artisan Thin” style. It lies somewhere between the thin and Neapolitan styles – typically made with a much wetter dough and a longer fermentation time than the typical thin or cracker-crisp tavern-style pizzas in Chicago. The ovens tend to be fired by wood or coal, or at the very least, are jacked up to their maximum heat levels, and often have stone decks to maintain heat. The toppings are the most obvious point of departure though, with upmarket offerings like soppressata, ‘nduja, burrata and prosciutto, to name just a few. There are also roasted vegetables and in some cases, no sauce at all. To call them merely “thin” and attempt to rank them among the Salerno’s and Roots of the world wouldn’t be fair. If you’re curious as to the methodology for this Quest, check out my initial Pizza Quest post. To see all of the pizzas I tried, here’s my Thin Pizza A to Z. And now…my Top 5 Artisan Thin Pizzas in Chicagoland. (Note: in all cases, the name of the restaurant is also the link to their website).

Honorable Mention:

Pizzeria DeVille

404 N. Milwaukee Ave., Libertyville; 847-367-4992
Style: Artisan Thin
Margherita ($13)

Pizzeria DeVille

Margherita at Pizzeria DeVille

I had been to this place once before, during lunch, but was told that they don’t really make anything from their main menu featuring the wood-burning oven, until dinner; naturally, I had to go back. The lineup is impressive: homemade sausage (excellent, by the way), sopresatta, whipped ricotta…the usual artisan lineup of goodies. I started with a margherita (called the Queen’s Pizza here), featuring Grande fior di latte from Wisconsin, tomato sauce that combines Rao’s NYC tomatoes – consisting of Italian cherry tomatoes – as well as San Marzanos, plus fresh basil. The key, of course, is that dough, made from a 50-50 blend of Caputo 00 and King Arthur’s Sir Galahad flour, plus a little bit of dough from the day before; it gets a cold fermentation overnight, then formed into balls and sits another day or so, resulting in a 48 – 72 hour total rest time. “When we’re slow, it nears that 72-hour mark,” said owner John Durning. “That’s my favorite, when it gets a little sour, it adds such a nice flavor.”

The dough emerges from the wood-burning Mugnaini oven beautifully charred and knobby, with an impressive undercarriage of blackened but not overdone crust. This is most likely due to the fact the temperature inside the oven averages 800 degrees on the deck, 1100 degrees in the dome. There is a nice chew to the edge – perhaps not as salty as it could be – but still, definitely craveable to the point I ate almost three pieces. I also tried a half sausage-half sopresatta, and sadly, this version was drowning in cheese (my server insisted it was the same fior di latte as in the margherita, but I find that hard to fathom, as it would have jacked up the food cost by 100%). The cheese for pizzas other than the margherita is, according to Durning, an rBGH-free mozzarella from Wisconsin Natural Direct. I thought it obliterated this pie, which was sort of depressing, considering the quality of the Purely Gourmet sausage ground in-house with red wine, fennel, garlic and allspice; his cured meats, like the sopresatta, come from Creminelli Meats in Utah, but mine was hidden beneath the milky, melted blanket. Regardless, this is a must-visit if you’re in the area, as I’ve had a hard time finding wood-burning ovens this far north in Chicagoland that produce pies of this caliber.

 

5. Pizza East

Soho House
113 – 125 N. Green St.; 312-521-8000
Style: Artisan Thin
Margherita, about 12” ($16)

Margherita at Pizza East

Margherita at Pizza East

It says something when the standard, house margherita uses buffalo mozzarella, but this pizza and antipasti restaurant in the Soho House – one of the three options open to the public – really loves its wood-burning ovens, which reach temps well over 800 degrees. There are several tempting toppings here (burrata, anchovies, black truffle; they make all of their sausage in-house) but for the purposes of this study, we stuck with the basic, entry level margherita. Let’s talk crust for a second. I don’t know if it’s the Italian Le 5 Stagioni flour or the three-day long fermentation, but this crust was divine. Actual air pockets for a change, evenly salted with Maldon sea salt and kissed with olive oil before baking, offering one of the best chews of any cornicione in town. “If it doesn’t have the right spotting, I never send the pizza to the table,” said Head Chef Daniele Cauli. “The underneath is important too.” Sadly, the middle diameter, where all of the sauce and cheese live, is a tad too small, ratiowise, and is certainly overshadowed by the high and round edges. Each slice does tend to hold its shape, a remarkable achievement considering the middle is so thin; they get deliveries of Italian bufala mozzarella twice a week, but they must drain it pretty well, otherwise everything would droop considerably. If I could merge the interior qualities of Forno Rosso or da Nella with this outer crust, we’d be pretty close to perfection.

 

4. Craft Pizza

1252 N. Damen Ave.; 773-442-7238
Style: Artisan thin/Neapolitan American East Coast
14” and 18” – Got 14” margherita ($14)

Craft Pizza

Margherita at Craft Pizza

Everything at Craft screams “farm to table” and they attempt to highlight the ingredients, like the fact their sausage is made by Anichini Bros., but they’re light on details for the other items on the menu, rarely, if ever, listing their provenance. They may want to tweak the name to Craft Dough, since the dough is the real star here. Using Harvest King Winter Wheat flour, they told us the dough gets a 48-hour proof, then a cold rise, but when I asked the cook on the day I visited, he said it gets a three-day proof. Either way, it develops incredible texture and a nice, even chew, despite the fact it emerges from a standard Baker’s Pride steel gas oven, with stones on the deck (much like the late, lamented Great Lake, which produced great pies despite the electric oven) and they only take a few minutes to bake. The margherita was excellent – they combine vibrant Italian plum tomatoes and a bit of tomato paste to intensify the sauce – and the fresh, whole milk shredded mozzarella is combined with some fresh mozz, as well as Pecorino Romano and Grana Padano, to give the pie some zing. There are also quite a few fresh basil leaves and a healthy drizzle of olive oil, and each slice was a thing of beauty, holding its shape and integrity without drooping. Does it need the whole milk mozz? Probably not, but since they prefer crafting their own style, it goes with the territory.

 

3. Stella Barra

1954 N. Halsted St.; 773-634-4101
Style: Artisan Thin
Got margherita ($13.95)

Stella Barra

Margherita at Stella Barra

With locations in Hollywood, Santa Monica and Bethesda, MD, this Lincoln Park sibling to Summer House Santa Monica is part of the Lettuce Entertain You empire. Chef Jeff Mahin oversees both menus, and has created a pretty lovely lineup of pies that take a more farmer’s market approach. Among the homemade sausage and fresh mozzarella, you’ll also spot fennel pollen, fresh ricotta and peppery arugula, plus an outstanding mushroom pie with truffle oil, but I digress. The star here is the crust, and I can’t overstate its importance enough here. Too many pizza fans rave about places that have substandard crusts I wouldn’t serve at a 6 year-old’s birthday party, mainly due to misguided loyalty, and I’m sure those same fans will berate me for touting a pizza joint in Lincoln Park that has leather couches and hand-crafted cocktails. But if you consider yourself a pizza lover, you have to give this crust a try. It’s everything I want in a chew: salty, slightly textured (is that cornmeal on the bottom?) with an enormous cornicione, revealing air pockets the size of edamame  beans, proving this dough gets a lot of rest and time to develop its signature flavor. Even after eating a few pizzas that day, I still managed to eat the entire piece – a compliment to the person who did the baking. Mahin says the dough begins with 100% organic California wheat (red & white) from a farm less than 200 miles away from their California location. The high ash content in the red wheat yields subtle notes of cinnamon. The dough is fermented about 36 hours, half of the time in a bulk ferment, portioned with a unique “jar system” and when near completion, it’s transferred to the fridge. “This lets the dough create its own ecosystem to build a complexity of flavors,” said Mahin.

The middle of the pizza is also impressive, with its sturdiness, despite its width: only a millimeter or two, and yet, able to hold up the fresh mozzarella thats been weighted down overnight to remove excess moisture. His tomato sauce had more intensity than most, as if the kitchen had first reduced it and cooked it down, before adding it to the dough. Mahin says he begins with organic California tomatoes with no citric acid (they’re not preheated before canning); they’re pulsed in-house. “Tomatoes grow sour when overcooked,” he said. “We want sweet and vibrant with a little tang.” That means they’ll cook it with stems of herbs used for other purposes in the kitchen, plus fennel, garlic and peppercorns, strain it through cheesecloth, rest it for three days (squeezing daily) then adding extra virgin olive oil to it on Day 3.

Mahin says he tried coal, wood and started with gas, but moved to electric which provides more consistent heat – the coils heat fast and stay hot. They take about 15 minutes at 540 degrees. My only complaint: not enough cheese. Believe me, I’ve bemoaned the overkill on many pizzas in town, where they rely too heavily on cheese (looking at you, Art of Pizza), but Stella was a little weak with the fresh mozz, and needs to bump it up about 20%. That said, get thyself to the corner of Halsted and Armitage and dive into one of Chicago’s best artisan thin crust pizzas.

 

2. Coalfire

1321 W. Grand Ave.; 312-226-2625
3705 N. Southport
Style: Artisan thin
All pizzas 16” – got a half sausage/half pepperoni ($16.25); Margherita ($15)

Coalfire

Sausage + Pepperoni Pizza at Coalfire

Priding themselves on their oven, fed by coal and reaching floor temps of 800-900 degrees, up to 1200 degrees higher up, this West Town favorite recently opened a second location in Lakeview on Southport Avenue. A few years ago, they upgraded their toppings by using some sausages (specifically the Calabrian ‘nduja) from Publican Quality Meats, and things improved quickly. The pizzas arrive with a nicely charred cornicione with odd-shaped nooks and crannies; there’s a good one-inch border of nothing but crust. But I thought the dough on both pizzas was far too thin, in fact, underneath the pies, there was barely any blistering. I recall earlier pies being far more complex, with a good chew, but these were sadly lacking. The sausage, however (from N’duja Artisans) had a nice bite to it, with the slightest amount of heat; we couldn’t stop eating it. The margherita isn’t a true Neapolitan, in that it’s too wide and too evenly thin across the entire diameter. Five giant basil leaves, each carefully placed over the large blobs of stark white fresh mozzarella added aroma. Sadly, the slices were limp, lacking the usual chew – as if they had been deprived of important fermentation time. But their sauce is wonderful – a purée of California plum tomatoes from Modesto (Alta Cucina); low-moisture cow’s milk mozzarella doesn’t kick off as much water as so many other pizzas in the region, and prevents super-sogginess.

 

1. Pizza Barra

3011 Butterfield Rd, Oak Brook; 630-861-6177
Style: Artisan thin
Also sells Chicago thin and deep dish, but specializes in coal-fired artisan thin

Pizza Barra

Margherita at Pizza Barra

Rich Labriola knows dough. The guy built his eponymous bakery, sold it, and has since moved on to licensing UCLA’s Stan’s Donuts, which is quickly gobbling up retail space around the city. His namesake café has kept humming along in a semi-fancy Oak Brook strip mall, and last year, he opened up a branch off of Michigan Avenue. Even though they have a pizza oven at both, and they manage to churn out good Neapolitan-style pies, I decided not to include them as part of the Quest, since I had made a rule early on about prohibiting restaurants that didn’t focus on pizza (otherwise this Quest would never end; sorry Piccolo Sogno, Balena and Quartino). Labriola recently took over a vacant space near the Oak Brook location, setting up his pizza fantasyland. He recruited Chris Macchia, a Coco Pazzo vet, and the two have spent the past year or so stuffing their faces with various crusts, trying to come up with something truly unique.

The massive restaurant offers three types of pizza: thin, Chicago deep dish and their signature: a coal-fired artisan pie that emerges from the brick ovens with some of the most beautiful corniciones in the tri-state area, the result of a 48-hour pre-fermentation process, or biga, and a really wet (75% water) ciabatta-like dough, plus olive oil. As much as I like Coalfire downtown, this is the kind of dough I want putting up an eight-minute fight in the blistering heat – it’s got a great open crumb, lots of air pockets, plenty of olive oil-kissed blistering around the top and a puffiness that allows for a good, hearty chew. The middle is still as thin as can be, supporting any number of artisan toppings, roasted vegetables or even ‘nduja from West Loop Salumi. Their “basic” margherita-style isn’t a margherita at all (although I had them make me one, just for comparison sake). It’s called a Dante, and it has some of the freshest Bianco organic tomatoes, seasoned with olive oil, salt and basil, spread across the middle, seasoned with a bit of fresh marjoram. The giant blobs of cheese are really a blend of a few sheep’s milk cheeses (I found them a little too barnyard-y) but that crust…oh that crust. Definitely a pizza you’ll be devouring no matter what’s on top.

Kristine Sherred also contributed reporting for this story

4 Comments

  1. Terry johnson

    October 29, 2015 at 8:50 pm

    None of these pizzas look thin..just sayin…

  2. Jaclyn Nakashima

    October 30, 2015 at 6:17 pm

    I agree, none of these are thin and only a handful of pizzas in the other “thin” pizza categories are even close.

  3. Weston T

    November 5, 2015 at 3:25 pm

    You specifically mention that you need the artisan category to build on the high quality fancy ingredients, but then the only pizza’s you try in this category are the standard sausage and pepperoni. I think that defeats the purpose of creating the extra categories.

    • Steve Dolinsky

      November 5, 2015 at 4:09 pm

      Good point, but wanted to try to compare apples to apples as much as possible. But I see your point.

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