Saturday, May 13, 2017

Review: The Boiler Room, Chicago IL

While Chicago is known as the home to deep-dish pizza, there's plenty of thin-crust pies too, including some legendary stuff like the party-cut bar pies at Vito & Nick's, on the south side. On a recent Chicago trip, I sampled the deep-dish at Pizano's, Pequod's, and Exchequer. But the trip wouldn't be complete without sampling a thin crust pie.
In 2017, you can go to any city in America and get a reasonably good rendering of a Neapolitan pizza cooked in a 900 degree oven, so we set out instead for something with a distinctly local flavor. That pointed us to the Boiler Room in the Logan Square part of town - just a short blue line ride from the Palmer House, our hotel in the Loop.
We arrived to a large and hip space that has that revamped industrial warehouse feel. We passed the pizza ovens near the entrance; even on a weeknight, the place was busy with happy and animated patrons enjoying the hipster vibe.
The kitchen
Our party of three considered sharing one of their huge 20" pizzas, but to permit each of us to have our preferred toppings, we opted to share an appetizer and then order individual slices. Our starter course of poutine was well-executed, but I'm still not sure why anyone prefers to ruin the texture of a french fry by soaking it in gravy. 
Poutine appetizer
When I learned that the Boiler Room uses pre-cooked sausage (raw is always better), I chose my second-favorite topping for one slice, pepperoni. Because the menu features a lot of curious special pizzas, for my second slice I decided to experiment and order a veggie slice, featuring mushrooms and black olives.
I could not resist the "PBJ" special, which includes a slice of pizza (otherwise about $4.50), a tall can of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, and a shot of Jameson whiskey -- all for $8.50. I imagine the Boiler Room sells a lot of that special!
Pepperoni slice
Because the pies are 20" around, you get a huge portion for $4 - $5 per slice, depending on the topping. Both of my slices featured a thin crust, crisp yet flexible without being droopy. 
Al dente

The underside was dusted with cornmeal, and the top showed several nice bubbles along with just the right amount of char at the cornicione. The crust had a great flavor and texture, with an al dente chewiness.
The pepperoni slice was the star of my meal. The sauce was flavorful, but it stayed in the background with the blend of mozzarella and provolone cheeses. The success of this pie is built around that excellent crust and then the harmony and balance of the stuff riding on top. 

The tasty but understated cheese and red sauce was the right palette for top-shelf cupped circles of pepperoni. There in Chicago, I sat eating a classic NY slice.
Thin, crisp, sturdy crust
The veggie slice was much less successful, because the mushrooms and olives were mild like the cheese and sauce. It was still tasty and balanced, but it lacked the punch of the pepperoni slice. My dining colleagues also reported that their chicken topped slices were more interesting than those with Alfredo sauce or vegetable toppings.
With that in mind, it's never a bad time to review the Kenji Alt-Lopez theory of pizza toppings:
Whatever is added to my pizza must be more flavorful than the last thing I put on it, and no single topping shall be so strongly flavored that it masks the flavor of those that come before it.
In other words, things like cauliflower and squash, fine vegetables in other settings, only serve to dilute the flavor of a pizza. And Kenji nails it when he explains why pepperoni helps your pie and chicken takes it down a notch:
Sure, pizza and chicken cook in the same oven, but they remain largely unrelated to each other. Pepperoni, soppresata, or a good chunk of sausage, on the other hand, cooks not just on top of the pizza, but with the pizza. They release salty, flavorful fat that mingles with the melted cheese, drips into the sauce, and flavors the whole pie. They crisp up on the edges, adding salty, crisp bits of texture to match the crunch of the crust underneath.
I gambled on my veggie slice and regretted it. Still, the pepperoni slice shows just how good Boiler Room pizza is when the proper toppings are selected. When you add in the electric vibe and the $8.50 PBJ special, the Boiler Room qualifies as destination pizza. 
It's not easy to get a worthwhile NY slice if you aren't in NYC or north Jersey. We had a spectacular one at North of Brooklyn in Toronto, and few others. Joining the ranks now is Boiler Room; this is a thin-crust pie you should try in this deep-dish town.

The Boiler Room Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, May 12, 2017

Review: Exchequer Restaurant and Pub, Chicago IL

Prior to a recent trip to Chicago, the only memorable deep-dish pizza I'd ever had was the wonderful pie at Louisa's Pizza & Pasta, about 10 miles south of Midway in Crestwood. Read the review HERE and get that pizza if you can!

This spring, I experienced an excellent pie at Pizano's (review HERE) in the Loop, which offers the basic deep dish style: a bowl-style crust, where the bottom and high sides are relatively equal in thickness. 

While I didn't sample a Chicago stuffed pizza with a layer of dough on top of the cheese, at Pequod's (review HERE) I had a disappointing pan style pizza which featured a thicker crust, shorter walls around the edge, and caramelized cheese around the perimeter.
The bar as you enter; we ate in the rear dining room
The thick pies at Exchequer, nominally an Irish pub, don't fit into any of the standard Chicago styles. I suppose the closest relation is the deep dish as served at Pizano's, but the traditional Chicago deep dish pie features a sea of red sauce or crushed tomatoes on top. The pie at Exchequer instead is topped with a thick molten layer of cheese. Let's examine how it stacked up.

With a colleague at lunch time, we ordered a medium deep dish pizza with sausage and spinach, which took about 35 minutes (fast, by deep dish standards) to reach our table. 

The crust had the high side walls and a modest thickness all the way around. The outer cornicione and the underside had a near-perfect golden hue, and it had a buttery flavor with a texture somewhere between crumbly and flaky. 

The most striking feature - visually - was the cheese. The thick layer of cheese on top of this pie smothered everything and was ideally browned on top. Slicing into the pie revealed a bright red and chunky sauce that also contained big pieces of sausage and some very green spinach that seemed barely cooked. 

If it wasn't so hard to imagine, I would have thought that the spinach was added after the pie had baked because the spinach - full leaves - seemed almost fresh enough to be in a salad.
Beautiful color and texture of the crust
While the mozzarella was typically mild, it was nonetheless delicious as a stretchy and stringy belly bomb. The chunky red sauce was vibrant and in generous proportion to help balance the mass of cheese, yet it did not make the crust soft or soggy.
Rich and chunky sauce
The sausage was superb in both flavor and texture, certainly on par with the excellent pie I'd had at Pizano's. The spinach was a terrific final touch to this pie, even as it was almost negligible in weight and mass relative to the sea of sauce and the lava flow of cheese.

This was a decadent pizza-overload experience as we cheerfully ate the entire pie, which likely had enough calories to feed a family of four. Everything about this pie was on the mark and in harmony. 

This was Roger Ebert's favorite deep-dish in Chicago, and because the cheese rides on top as most people experience on conventional pizza, it probably has more appeal to tourists too. 

In the final analysis, I enjoyed this pie and Pizano's about equally. I didn't visit the deep-dish superstars like Lou Malnati's, Pizzeria Uno, and Giordano's, but it's good to know that two very different deep-dish pies are easy to find and enjoy right in the downtown loop.

Exchequer Pub Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Monday, May 8, 2017

Review: Pizano's, Chicago IL

Pizano's is a Chicago based mini-chain of 6 pizzerias offering both deep-dish and thin crust pie. Although the thin pie is their biggest seller, I came in to the downtown loop location on Madison Street at lunch time to try the deep-dish pizza.

Pizano's offers the basic deep dish style: a bowl-style crust, where the bottom and high sides are relatively equal in thickness. It differs from the Chicago stuffed pizza with a layer of dough on top of the cheese, and from the pan style which features a thicker crust, shorter walls around the edge, and caramelized cheese around the perimeter.

I ordered a personal-size pie with sausage and mushrooms, which came to $9.55 before tax. We had waited an hour the night before for the deeply disappointing pan pizza at Pequod's (review HERE), but this pie came out in less than 30 minutes. 

The large and airy space had a lot of old-time charm, decorations with a Hollywood theme, and a good overall vibe. Start to finish, service from Sam was attentive and friendly.

The side walls of this pie were thin and golden brown, sporting crisp edges all around. Like a lot of the traditional deep-dish pies in Chicago, the crust had a buttery quality.

The top revealed a sea of chunky crushed tomatoes. This layer of fresh and vibrant uncooked sauce was in generous proportion but it did not overwhelm the dense shell, which remained crisp on the outside and firm on the inside where it was properly moist but not wet.

There was a well-proportioned amount of mozzarella cheese under the crust, mixed with the mushroom and sausage. The mozzarella was both surprisingly flavorful and ideally stringy.

The mushrooms were fine if a bit overwhelmed by the sauce and cheese; the big chunks of sausage were a true standout in both flavor and texture.
Crisp and golden underneath
This little pizza was well-balanced, ideally seasoned, and fully flavored. My sense is that there is plenty of belly-bomb deep-dish pies in Chicago that offer little beyond heft and calories, but Pizano's is a gem. I ate the entire pie without feeling especially stuffed or decadent. 

In this loop location, Pizano's offers a genuine deep-dish pizza that is convenient for tourists but good enough for locals. Bravo.

Pizano's Pizza & Pasta Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato