Thursday, November 10, 2011
There is little dispute that Chicago is a pizza town. As a kid, I ate a lot of frozen pizza (Tombstone or Tony's were our mainstays) and a fair amount of delivered thin crust (from a place in Mt. Prospect called Rosati's), especially on Saturday nights when Mom was getting ready to go out with the girls and didn't want to fuss in the kitchen. Every other month or so, as a special treat, we'd pick up our favorite - deep-dish sausage from Geno's East, which conveniently opened a restaurant in Rolling Meadows not more than 10 minutes from the house (prior to that, if you wanted Geno's, you had to go to the original Superior St. location). This was the pizza I dreamed about when I was away at college or living in Dallas, where the best pie one could get (not to mention afford) was Pizza Hut or Domino's (shudder). Now back in Chicago, as a middle-aged adult with deeper pockets, I've had the pleasure of branching out a little beyond Geno's to try other great pizzas that the city has to offer, several of which I've written about in this blog (Louisa's, Pequod's, Stop 50, and Apart, to name a few).
A recent (September 29, 2011) article in the Tribune, however, reminded me that there are still plenty of untried options out there, for example, Burt's Place in Morton Grove. Burt's first appeared on my radar screen almost 3 years ago when watching a No Reservations episode filmed in Chicago. In the segment, Burt Katz (owner and head chef) comes off as something of a cranky crackpot, moody and seemingly unconcerned with small details such as consistent operating hours for the restaurant or even bothering to answer the phone for orders. In spite of these rough edges, Anthony Bourdain loved the pizza, speaking about it in hushed, reverential tones. I'd lived here almost my whole life and fancied myself something of a pizza expert - how had I not heard of this place, in the Northwest Suburbs (my neck of the woods), no less? Needless to say, I was intrigued and I filed the notion away for future reference that we needed to eat there sometime. Fast forward to September 29. The Tribune article is released and I get the vibe from reading it that Burt, now 74, may be starting to get the retirement itch. If this local elder statesman of the pizza arts (who opened his first place, Gulliver's, way back in 1965, and the original Pequod's, around the corner from his current place, in 1971) were to hang up his apron before I'd had the chance to try his food, would I be able to live with myself? Absolutely not. Would my readers ever forgive me? Don't answer that. Thus, I made the executive decision that Mrs. Hackknife and I would be going to Burt's for pizza as soon as possible, writing down Friday, October 21 as the date.
Burt's has no website, so I trolled the foodie boards looking for advice on how to secure a reservation. Since Burt does everything himself, you can't simply show up and demand to be fed, you need to call ahead a day or two in advance with your order. Many people posted that the line was always busy or just rang continuously. I tried getting through on the Tuesday before the 21st and got a recorded message that the restaurant is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Undaunted, I tried again on Wednesday at about 11:30a - Burt himself answered the phone (apparently, they run a lean operation). He wasn't cranky. He wasn't moody. He didn't spout off gibberish about how Kraft is controlling the world's population by dispensing inferior Mozzarella. He was cordial, polite, and patient, even as I hemmed and hawed over how many jalapeno poppers to get as an appetizer (2 or 4? No pizza for me?). I gave him my pizza order (pan style, sausage, bell peppers, and onions, extra large) and he told me to arrive 15 minutes before my requested reservation time of 7 pm so he could "get your drinks and get you drunk". I hung up the phone feeling relieved. It was almost charming to talk with him. I couldn't wait until Friday.
Friday night arrived and I drove to Morton Grove (about 45 minutes from the Commissary) to meet Mrs. Hackknife. I was early, so I made a little detour into a large Asian marketplace (much like Mitsuwa in Arlington Heights) in Niles that I happened to pass, stopping just long enough to pick up an 8-pack of little ping pong ball-sized walnut cakes from a food stand inside (dessert, you know). Burt's is located in an old blacksmith's shop (circa 1880) near downtown Morton Grove on a relatively-quiet residential street - it could be a neighborhood bar in any town anywhere. Upon entering, you can see why they want you to call ahead. It's small. The dining room fits about 10 mismatched tables that are pretty much on top of one another. There's a coat rack, a table to hold finished pizza pans (no room for them on the dining tables), and a plethora of clutter (old radios, model trains, autographed pictures) conjuring images of a long-departed elderly relative's basement. Some bloggers have complained that the place isn't clean, but I thought of it more as dusty character, no different than a hundred taverns/pizzerias that I visited as a kid all throughout the Midwest.
Burt's wife (who waits tables) came by to get my drink order. Not wanting to come off as elitist in this homage to lowbrow dining, I ordered a Miller Lite - she chuckled a little, explaining that they only offered better beers, like North Coast's Scrimshaw Pilsner (which I was happy to take in its place - the dining may be lowbrow, but the beer selection isn't). Out came the poppers and they weren't bad, but clearly this isn't why you come here. By this time, Mrs. Hackknife had arrived (she was about 10 minutes late) and a relieved waitstaff brought out our pizza. I think they were starting to get nervous and I suspect I know why - I had read in the Tribune article that Burt's kitchen is about as big as one might find on a submarine, so I suspect that they were taking up valuable oven space keeping our pizza warm. In any case, it arrived at our table fresh, hot, and, pardon my French, f^&*%#g delicious (see photo above). Most accounts I've seen regarding the characteristics of a Burt pie say that it's somewhere between thin and deep dish (sort of a "medium" dish) and I would call that accurate. The peppers were bright and flavorful, as was the sausage, which was randomly scattered atop the crust in large chunks. The sauce had a bit of sweetness to it and the cheese was well-distributed, not overly thick like you'd find in the typical deep-dish variety. The crust was rich, but not cloyingly so, and the signature band of burnt caramelized cheese was there, encircling the rim of the pie (subtly, I might add, not as prominent as Pequod's version). Every bite was perfectly harmonious - if there ever were a pizza that was precisely balanced between the crust, cheese, sauce, and toppings, this was it. It was so harmonious that I didn't think twice about downing two gigantic slices, behavior that would normally keep me close to a restroom the next day after eating deep-dish (no gastrointestinal distress here). Lucky for us, we had ordered the extra large, so there were precious leftovers to bring home.
Towards the end of the meal, I happened to glance towards the kitchen door and saw Burt standing there, briefly surveying his dominion before retreating back to the galley. Did it matter that he resembled an indigent Santa Claus? Did it matter that his pizza was served on plates bearing the IHOP logo? Did it matter that I had to jump through a few minor hoops to get this experience? Heavens, no. My only regret is that I can't eat this amazing pizza every week and I might only be fortunate enough to have it a time or two more before the ovens go cold and Burt wanders off into the sunset. Do yourself a favor, dear readers - get this pizza, get it now, don't wait. There may not be another chance....