Pizza is my ride or die. I’ve been obsessed with it pretty much since birth.
It is, after all, the perfect marriage of bread and cheese, with the freewheeling ability to morph styles and flavor profiles, happily incorporating nearly any ingredient in its path (I am not now, nor will I ever be, down with pineapple on my pizza — some things are just beyond the pale). But shrimp and pesto? Sure. Gorgonzola and fig? Yes, please. Bacon/pancetta/prosciutto/sausage/pepperoni? Do you even need to ask? Better living through pork products, I always say. I’m not a snob or a purist about pizza (I will, on occasion, dip it in ranch dressing!), but I do require a few things: real cheese, fresh ingredients, and a calorie-worthy crust, preferably blistered and a little charred, with a substantial chew, able to support the aforementioned ingredients.
I’m an eternal fan of Piece Brewery & Pizzeria — that’s the New Haven college girl in me talking — and I especially love their collabs with local chefs like Christine Cikowski and Josh Kulp of Honey Butter Fried Chicken or Doug Sohn of Hot Doug fame. Likewise Coalfire (the Pepperoni and Whipped Ricotta is a must), and the deep-dish wonders of Burt’s Place, Pequod’s, and The Art of Pizza. Looking for tavern-style pizza? Get yourself immediately to Vito and Nick’s Pizzeria, now in its 70th year of serving true Chicago-style thin crust. If true Neapolitan pizza is your weakness, Spacca Napoli is the cure.
But this year’s list visits some newer places worth discovering, because there’s no end to the variety of pizza in this town. As long as there’s a pizzaiolo with a paddle standing at the ready near a searingly hot oven, you’ll find me waiting in line or at a table for that first whiff of pizza, whether it’s topped with tomato sauce or béchamel, mozzarella or feta. I’m an equal-opportunity pizza consumer and proud of it.
605 N. Wells St., Chicago
This River North hotspot from Anthony Stefani of the Phil Stefani Signature Restaurants group makes a serious go at Roman pizza with a custom flour blend shipped directly from Rome and a 96-hour cold rise on the dough, resulting in a thick, but light, and crispy crust. The piccolo serves two, while the grande will feed three to four people. We loved The Roman ($22/$38), a riff on pasta carbonara with crispy slices of pancetta, pecorino, mozzarella, and egg yolk, and the CBT ($23/$39), loaded with chicken, bacon, avocado, cherry tomatoes, cheddar, and mozzarella. A drizzle of ranch sends it over the top, just where I like it.
1521 N. Fremont St., Chicago
Haven’t made it here yet? I’ve got to wonder why, because it’s terrific. Thin-crust pizzas with a fantastic chewy crust, market-fresh ingredients, prepared with love by Zach and Rachel Smith and their talented team, including executive chef Jeff Lutzow, plus they’ll do a half and half, so you can try two different types even if you’re dining solo. There’s not a pizza here I wouldn’t chow down on happily, but I am a particular fan of the White Squall ($22), a white pizza with clams, bacon, and plenty of garlic, dressed with fresh lemon zest, chopped parsley, and a little Crystal hot sauce. And don’t sleep on the special Market Pizza ($22), an inventive creation featuring whatever is currently in top season. A recent version with mozzarella, parmesan, zucchini, sungold tomatoes, stracciatella, roasted garlic, and fresh basil is a primo example of that.
161 N. Sangamon St., and 1566 N. Damen Ave., Chicago
Roman pizza king Gabrielle Bonci, often referred to as “The Michelangelo of Dough,” has more than 1,500 unique pizza combos in his repertoire, a mind-boggling amount of delicious. How lucky Chicago is that we were chosen as the site of his first outpost outside of Rome, and now we have two (West Loop and Wicker Park)! Stop in to this fast-casual spot and behold a counter filled with at least a dozen varieties of the long, rectangular pizzas with an ethereal focaccia-like crust. Choose a few to try, and they’ll snip a portion with scissors, then send it to the scale (you pay by weight). One of my most favorite combinations is the Roman classic potato with rosemary, or the roasted zucchini with ricotta, lemon zest, and plenty of black pepper. Occasionally you’ll even find a spicy pizza topped with tender octopus! It must be experienced to be believed.
444 Fullerton Parkway, Chicago
This Lincoln Park resto boasts the “healthiest pizza in Chicago,” and they just may be right. The crust of their pizze di pinsa is thin and light — it’s ultra-hydrated and made from a special mix of organic flours including rice, soy, and wheat — but it still stands up to the toppings. The Capricciosa ($17), their spin on the classic trattoria pie, is crowned with mushrooms, artichokes, olives, prosciutto, and fresh mozzarella.
1840 W. North Ave., Chicago
Not surprisingly, Maple & Ash’s Danny Grant built the concept of his second restaurant, the more casual Etta in Wicker Park, around a wood-fired hearth oven. That cooking style of course lends itself very easily to pizza, which crisps up quickly at such high temperatures. The Wild Mushroom ($19) is one of their best, a tangle of tender spring onions, tangy goat cheese, the meltiest raclette, and a hint of truffle.
1119 W. Waveland Ave., Chicago
When James Beard Award-winning super-chef Tony Mantuano (Spiaggia) is involved with the pizza, you know it’s worth eating. He’s joined forces in Wrigleyville with former Cubs manager Joe Maddon to revisit food inspired by their heritage (Italian and Polish, respectively). Sadly, the incredible clams-and-greens pizza I enjoyed is no longer available, but the dark, blistery crust characteristic of a wood-fire still surrounds high-quality ingredients, like the Joe’s Pizza ($17), which sports sausage, green olives, mushrooms, and mozzarella on a tomato base.
822 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago
When in Naples, do as the Neapolitans do. So, when we dined at this Italian import where they make the cheese on site every day — from local organic milk — we went straight for the hard-core Italian pizzeria choice: the Saporita ($22) pie, topped with fior di latte mozzarella, pistachio crema, huge slices of mortadella, fresh basil, and a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.
1125 E. 55th St., Chicago
Hyde Park scored big time when Neapolitan-trained pizziaola Nella Grassano opened this spot last year. She and her husband, Francesco, embrace the Italian pizza tradition, using D.O.P. mozzarella di buffalo, San Marzano tomatoes, and double 00 flour imported from Italy. The wood-fired oven reaches temperatures of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Her Prosciutto e Rucola ($17), a mozzarella pie brimming with ruby slices of prosciutto and mounds of fresh arugula, is an instant classic, but I also love the Fiorentina ($15), topped with ricotta and spinach.
317 N. Clark St., Chicago
Hand-stretched, thin-crust wood-fired pizzas are the name of the game here, and the vibe is definitely beachy Italian Riviera. It might be the Chicago River just outside the expansive windows and patio, but inside it’s pure Italian sunshine. The pizzas are perfection, but the real star of the show was the Focaccia di Stefano, which is a Ligurian specialty of thin, crispy sheets of dough stuffed with Stracchino cheese, which we topped with prosciutto. That’s one to write home about.
465 N. McClurg Court, Chicago
Hidden away in the back of the River East Art Center on the Promenade (on the north side of the Ogden Slip) is the new iteration of Robert’s Pizza & Dough Company, the brainchild of pizza savant Robert Garvey. His obsessive journey toward creating the perfect pizza took him from New York to Chicago, with a stop at the Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli along the way, and involved a lot of experimentation and cold fermentation. But it led to this gorgeous specimen, the Fennel ($22), strewn with braised fennel, fennel fronds, fennel salami, fennel pollen, fresh mozzarella, and a drizzle of honey … so it was worth the effort.
3159 N. Broadway, Chicago
The team at DryHop Brewers just opened Roebuck Pizza in Lakeview, and it’s safe to say that the beer, as good as it is, will be taking a backseat to their Neapolitan-inspired pizza. The dough rises with wild-fermented yeast, the toppings are inventive, and the names are punny: the Sun God (sungold tomatoes, mozzarella, Parmesan, Pecorino Romano, roasted garlic, and sweet and hot cherry bomb jam, $15) and Bank Raaber (tomato sauce, chili oil, mozzarella, crumbled meatballs, charred broccoli rabe, and lemon zest, $15) can give you a little insight to that.
1954 N. Halsted, Chicago
Chef Jeff Mahin uses only organic, sustainably farmed produce, flour, cheeses, and meats in his delectable pies. This is my favorite stop before a show at Steppenwolf, especially when I can order the Butternut Squash pizza ($17.95). Taleggio, a slightly funkier cheese, combines with shaved squash, candied bacon, and Fresno chiles, dusted with fresh parmesan and torn basil leaves. Such a lovely balance of sweet, hot, herbal, and salty flavors! Haven’t tired of this one yet.
3473 N. Clark St., Chicago
Be still, my heart. Union Full Board — much like their older Evanston sister, Union Squared — makes a mighty fine Detroit-style ‘za, and it makes this Detroit girl very, very happy. This pan-style pizza, baked in an 8” x 10” black steel pan, gets super crunchy on the sides, but is much lighter than a standard Chicago deep-dish pizza. The Greektown Spinach ($16), topped with Kalamata olives, tomato, feta, mozzarella, red onion, and dill, really delivers the full Detroit experience, and the Burrata Margherita ($17) is a thing of beauty.
Julie Chernoff, Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless, and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and counts Northlight Theatre and Les Dames d’Escoffier International as two of her favorite nonprofits.