Hip To Be Square: Apart is the Huey Lewis of pizza, and that’s a good thing

Michael Nagrant / 09.13.10

If you were semi-conscious in the eighties, you probably read the title of this column and thought of Huey Lewis. Or, if born later, maybe you recalled the film “American Psycho” adapted from Bret Easton Ellis’ novel, wherein Christian Bale as investment banker/serial killer Patrick Bateman hacks a dude up with an axe while jigging to the cute organ fills on Lewis’ song.

I don’t really like “Hip To Be Square.” I prefer Lewis’ “Power of Love” from the “Back to the Future” soundtrack as it recalls my old bromantic worship of young Michael J. Fox and also because it’s a simple confection. “Hip To Be Square” is a confection too, but Lewis pretends it’s more by using the song to explore what it means to give up on a dream and sell out to the man. He also interweaves the idea that pretending like you sold out to the man while being a rock-star, i.e. not selling out, is now cool. Lewis is pretty much Billy Joel without soul—and the alcohol problems and hot wives. His music, a formulaic brand of funk and blues mixed with secondhand soccer-mom-friendly Talking Heads is sell-out packaged pop of the greatest vintage and is not particularly complicated.* As such, Lewis comes off as trying too hard.

I recognize if you made it through the last two paragraphs and the footnote below, the same can be said about me. There are worse things than to be the Huey Lewis of food writing. Though I assure you, were I really like Lewis, I would never sue Ray Parker Jr. if he had cribbed a bass line from me for his 1984 hit single “Ghostbusters”—one, because I was already a gazillionaire, and two because I’d hate for people to look too deeply and think maybe I stole that lick from someone else (ahem, “Pop Muzik” by M) for “I Want A New Drug.” But, I wanted to write about how my favorite culinary ‘hood in Chicago is Lincoln Square and though my distaste for Lewis is strong, the title fit.

To blatantly misquote Rick Blaine from “Casablanca,” if I could end up at any gin joint in any town in the world to get my eat on, it would be Lincoln Square. Including the #10 Lemongrass Banh Mi at Nhu Lan, the sticky-glazed tocino and crispy lumpia at Isla Pilipina, the Thai Fried Chicken and Issan Sausage at Spoon Thai and the carne asada taco at El Asadero, I estimate the neighborhood is home to at least ten percent of the best things I’ve eaten in the city. It is also a bratwurst’s toss from Sun Wah BBQ’s Beijing duck, the pho joints on Argyle, and the Middle Eastern treats of Semiramis in Albany Park. There’s also the great Gene’s Sausage Shop with its apple brats and peppery salami on Lincoln Avenue.

Though Lincoln Square earned its merit badge for culinary supremacy long ago, it reinforced its potency last week when I discovered Apart, a tiny pizzeria on Montrose with an ugly brown awning that makes the place practically invisible. Though I’d been getting my carne asada tacos next door at Asadero for years, I’d never noticed Apart. I probably never would have, if not for a fortunate Twitter heads-up from local writer Claire Zulkey during an exchange whereby I derided the quirky obstinate owners and fussy tiny $25 organic pies of Great Lake pizza (their crust is awesome though).

I do not, like many, think Great Lake is the best pizza in the universe. I do not think Apart is either. Objectively, Great Lake is superior to Apart. But, Apart is what I crave. My palate is not smart enough to lust after the farmers’-market zucchini, aged goat cheese and smoked paprika combo served at Great Lake. Even if it was, that craving would happen once a year at best.

Caveman that I am, I’d conservatively want the Cacciatore—ham, pepperoni, bacon, onion and garlic crispy-crusted pizza at Apart at least once a week. The spicy pepperoni and other bits of succulent pork melt in to a salty smoky rich bomb cut by the acidic zip of tomato sauce and mellowed by the sweet glow of slivered onions and a tiny snow of roast garlic. The dough, a hybrid of Spacca Napoli’s blistered Neapolitan-style and Chicago’s crispy thin crust has very little rise, but great textural contrast. Like Great Lake, the owners at Apart pay close attention to quality ingredients and their crust, just not as much. Which is to say, Apart’s triumph is that its pies represent what most of us through late nights at college or Friday family dinners recognize, however primordial that may be, as pizza. In that sense, it is, I guess a little more like the Huey Lewis of Chicago Pizza to Great Lake’s Steely Dan. Maybe Lewis deserves another listen?

Apart Pizza, 2205 West Montrose, (773)588-1550, apartpizzacompany.com

*This is not a commentary on Lewis as a man. He did study engineering at Cornell. This seems vaguely cool and interesting since we tend to underestimate entertainers, mostly I think because we can’t bear the idea that people who are richer, better-looking and insanely more talented at one thing than us, might be good at everything. Then again Dolph Lundgren, aka Ivan Drago from “Rocky IV,” has a chemical-engineering degree and received a Fulbright scholarship to MIT, and yet he played the dumb Russian boxer in Rocky so well that it’s hard to imagine he’s very deep. Either way, if you measure a man by his film roles, Lewis definitely demonstrates a propensity for douchery. Not because he starred in that trainwreck mockumentary on karaoke competitions, “Duets,” rather because Lewis chose to record a song with his co-star—the macrobiotic evangelist, mediocre actress and even worse singer, Gwyneth Paltrow—for the soundtrack.