(Update Great Lake is closing at the end of January 2013. Rumor is they are moving to a new location. If so, I will update the listing.
We walked. We ate. We drank. We even suffered a bit. But 22.6 miles after starting our journey, we hit the end of the Death March by arriving at Great Lake Pizza.
The interesting thing about “pizza” and “Chicago” is that most people instantly assume that if you are talking about both of these in the same sentence, you’re talking about deep dish pizza. And hey, while I like a good deep dish pizza (although it’s not necessarily something I mentally file with my other pizza thoughts, to me, deep dish pizza and regular neo-Neapolitan pizza are like lasagna and spaghetti; there’s a lot of similarity, but it’s really a different foodstuff…), there actually is quite a bit of excellent pizza activity going on around Chicago that doesn’t involve deep dish. For every Lou Malnati’s or Gino’s East, there’s a decent place in Chicago that’s also churning out a classic thin-crust pizza, and doing a great job at it. One of the best is Great Lake Pizza.
Great Lake is one of the sorts of places you need to know about, either from online lists, newspaper articles, or word of mouth, since it’s not the sort of place you’re likely to stumble upon (I’m not sure how our host Kevin found out about Great Lake, but I’ll call this word of mouth). Great Lake sits behind a very modest storefront just off Clark St in Andersonville, and the place is small. It doesn’t even really look like a pizza place, more like a neighborhood bakery. There’s basically only 3 tables in the joint, with seating for about twelve. You can see the entire kitchen from the tables, and it basically consists of a prep table and a gas deck oven. They’ve also got a fairly small menu, with four seasonally adjusted pizzas and a few specials (upon most of which they don’t seem to encourage substitutions, based upon the conversations with the large banquet table of hipsters attempting to order heavily modified pizzas revealed… “No, if we g food), but the pizzas focus on top-quality cheese and local ingredients. The overall feeling here is more like visiting the house of a pizzaiolo on their day off, not that of a place churning out hundreds of pizzas to satisfy the hungry masses.
But that’s not without its perils. We also discovered that getting an actual table at Great Lake, without any sort of advanced planning, is highly unlikely, since they have so little seating, no reservations, and limited capacity. The woman at the register gave me one of those “I’m humoring your lack of experience” sort of chuckles when I asked about seating, informing me instead that, if we were willing to wait 45 minutes for a pizza, they might be able to actually make some pizzas for us, but that there’s no way we’d get seating. However, we’re far from the first people to be in this predicament, and the staff at Great Lakes has an arrangement with Simon’s Bar down Clark Street, who will happily let you bring your to-go packed pizza there for some off-site enjoyment.
The menu at Great Lake is designed to showcase the ingredients. They pay a lot of attention to their crust, making them from organic unbleached wheat flour. Most of the cheeses are lamb or goat cheeses from family run farms. The meats are are locally-source, humanely raised meats. And most of hte the veggies are fresh veggies from the current season (with some use of hothouses… ). With all these great pizza options, it took us a bit to settle on two pizzas: a #1 (Tomato Sauce, Dante Lamb Cheese, and Fresh Herbs) and a #4 (Bacon, Onion, Creme Fraiche, and Black Pepper), and sent Carol and Martin to hold down a table or suitable bar surface for pizza consumption, Kevin and I sat down on a bench outside of Great Lake to wait for our pizza as our Death-March-abused limbs started to fossilize. But 40 minutes later, when we went in to check on our pizza, it was ready. We took the still piping hot pizzas two blocks down to Simon’s to enjoy with some beer. Here’s where I’m going to apologize for the crappy photos, since Simon’s Bar is extremely dim, so I had to do what I could with ambient lighting).
The lousy photos are a shame, since both of these pizzas are now on my list of the “10 best individual pizzas I’ve ever had”. While none of these quite came to the level of unseating my current best pizza (the off-menu fig and prosciutto pizza I’ve had twice from Pizzeria Bianco), they were still in the same neighborhood. The primary reason was the crust. Not just a substrate for the toppings, the crust at Great Lake is one of those phenomenal crusts that shows that great pizza really is the product of a baker, this crust had all the hallmarks: crisp exterior that’s almost smokey, a crunchy and robust presence, and a chewy and hearty texture. Furthermore, Great Lake appears to do this without the wood-fired or coal-fired ovens that most other places use to get this kind of crust quality, they do it in a simple gas deck oven. But the rest of each pizza was phenomenal as well. For the #1, this was an expression of simplicity: the tomato sauce was a basic, rich tomato sauce that wasn’t overly salty or spiced, still tasting like tomatoes, and not burying any of the wonderful flavors of the crust or cheese. The fresh herbs were rich in flavor. And the cheese was a nice semi-soft lamb cheese that was almost nutty in flavor, and added some nice earth-tones to the overall dish.
The #4 was similarly good. A white pizza, the primary saucing here was creme fraiche, and it worked rather well. The meat was bacon, and this was some excellent bacon, with nice little parcels of salty, fatty, and smoky pork goodness. Adding on some nice, fresh onions that were crisped up nicely in the oven, some black pepper for bite, and this was a rather delightful little pizza.
Overall, I love Great Lake. This is seriously one of the best pizza places I’ve been, and to me, it’s in the same league as Bianco, Pepe’s, and Lombardi’s. They are churning out solid pizza with excellent crusts and good toppings. Sure, they’ve got some logistical issues (lack of seating, long waits, some inflexibility), but they more than make up for it with the quality of the end product. I would have been happy even with twice the wait.
I’ll definitely go back to Great Lakes, hopefully with some more advance planning, and maybe some better lighting for photography.