In Chicago, Thin Is In

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Waiting an hour for a table at any of downtown Chicago's famous deep-dish pizza parlors is par for the course on many nights. But in the city's neighborhoods, lines are also forming at another kind of pizza joint. In a town where deep dish is king, a thin-crust revolution is in the works.

A few established thin-crust pizza restaurants -- such as Wicker Park's Piece (1927 W. North Ave., 773-772-4422) and Pizza D.O.C. (2251 W. Lawrence Ave., 773-784-8777) in the Lincoln Square neighborhood -- suggest that the trend has been percolating for years.

But then Spacca Napoli (1769 W. Sunnyside Ave., 773-878-2420) opened last year in the Ravenswood area and seemed to stoke the popularity of thin crusts. Standing on a corner amid a mixture of light industry and homes, Jonathan Goldsmith's restaurant uses a wood-burning oven to turn out pizzas with serious Neapolitan credibility. The oven was assembled by Neapolitan builders from materials shipped from Naples, and the toppings are traditional -- think mozzarella di bufala, tomatoes, basil and olive oil. Be warned: The intense fire of the oven will probably blacken your pizza in spots. Grab a table on the patio and listen to the city's L train rumble by as you enjoy pizzas and a glass of wine, which will run about $50 for two.

For a less traditional take on thin crust, head to the wide sidewalks of Wicker Park's Division Street, humming with restaurants and bars. Thin-crust temple Crust (2056 W. Division St., 773-235-5511) opened in the spring and is one of a handful of certified organic restaurants in the country, and the first in the Midwest. The flatbreads (the restaurant prefers this term over "pizza") include such offbeat options as the "Mexicali Blues," topped with wood-fired shrimp and pico de gallo, or the "Flammkuchen," a caramelized onion, caraway seed, slab bacon and b?chamel combination. Sandwiches and salads are also available, but diners instantly grasp the restaurant's focus: You must pass the pizza oven in the entrance room to enter the sleek dining room or the expansive back patio.

Wash down the flatbreads with something from the eclectic list of organic drinks from around the world. Depending on the crowd, the sound of diners munching organic pizza and talking can range from a pleasant buzz to a load roar. Dinner for two with salads and an organic English hard cider runs about $55.

The vibe at another new thin-crust joint, Coalfire Pizza (1321 W. Grand Ave., 312-226-2625) is low-key; the West Town neighborhood isn't the hot spot that Wicker Park is. Coalfire opened in May selling a New Haven, Conn.-style coal oven pizza. At first, it could barely cope with demand, but it seems to have settled into a comfortable, casual groove.

The coal oven, which can reach 800 degrees, glows from the open kitchen, and an infrared thermometer rests near it. Fourteen-inch pizzas serve one to two people, and the kitchen has no problem doing each pie half and half, meaning two diners with an appetite could try four pizzas. The tomato sauce is a winner, sweet and a little spicy, and the crust is for the most part pliable, with a little crispness creeping in at the edges. The BYOB policy means you should come prepared if you want wine or beer. It also means dinner for two doesn't need to set you back much more than $20. The restaurant also does a steady carryout business.

Where should you go for deep-dish? Ask three Chicagoans and you'll probably get three different answers. Wherever you end up, the deep-dish standbys are still worth a trip. But for a second pizza outing, it pays to think thin.

-- Daniel Shumski

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