There are a lot of pizzas in Chicago, but few them are served in swank hotels that offer members-only boxing rings and film-screening rooms. But that’s exactly what you get with the fourth location of Pizza East restaurant (the other three locations are located in the United Kingdom) in the new Soho House hotel. While you have to be a member or a Soho House guest to hit the heavy bag in the glamorous fight club on the second-floor gym or watch a fancy French flick in the fourth-floor screening room, in theory, anyone can partake of the offerings of Pizza East located on the first-floor mezzanine. I say “in theory,” because on a recent weekend, I couldn’t find a reservation available before 10 p.m. But scarcity produces yearning, so I persisted and snagged a 9 p.m. reservation that popped up on opentable.com at the last minute. Is the pizza quality befitting of the hotel’s exclusivity?
The crust:Â Wood-fired and featuring a puffy edge dotted with bits of carbon and a crispy, golden center, thisâ€”along with Stella Barra andÂ Nellcoteâ€”is one of the better Neapolitan-style crusts in Chicago right now. When I asked chef Kyle Boyce his secret, he declared, “Everything we do is made with a little bit of love.” Sure it is, chef. As it turns out, the secret is an Italian wheat flour that Boyce found through a Chicago supplier that resulted in a better, crispier crust than the German wheat flour used at Pizza East’s other locations. He liked it so much, in fact, that he’s rejiggering the recipe in the U.K. to use this new flour, too. As in the U.K., the Chicago dough undergoes a two-day rise; the long fermentation allows more bubbles to form in the dough, resulting in a satisfying chewy and airy interior.
The toppings:Â The basic margherita pie ($13) features a sprinkle of tomato and a handful of basil leaves on a bed of molten buffalo’s milk mozzarella. Often, the mozzarella on a margherita stays confined to dense, jiggly circles that don’t distribute to the rest of the pizza, but the hot ovens at Pizza East ensure that the creamy cheese oozes like lava over the whole pie. The Portobello pizza ($13) was covered in inky black roasted mushrooms and finished with a shower of oregano and gooey taleggio cheese. The earthy richness of the portobello mushroom was really enhanced by the funk of the taleggioâ€”a tasty contrast to the clean, fresh flavor of the mozzarella on the margherita pie. The pie of my dreams turned out to be a white pizza with veal meatballs, crispy prosciutto and a cream-based sauce baked into the crust ($16). The meatballs were so moist and tender and light that I joked with my friends that they likely were held together by the tears of an Italian grandmother; Boyce said grinding the meat fresh in-house is the key to the moistness and texture.
The sauce:Â The red sauce was a bright, well-seasoned blend of crushed tomatoes that added a bit of acidic pop to the pies, but didn’t overwhelm any of the excellent ingredients. The cream on the veal pizza was light, with a touch of salt and pepper that complimented the spice in the meatballs.
The service:Â My friend was happy to see “gluten-free options available” stated on the menu, but unfortunately our server couldn’t name any. To her credit, she brought one of the cooks to our table, but even he was noncommittal. My friend had to point out different dishes and ask explicitly to get the lay of the land. Likewise, when we asked the server to recommend some meat options for a charcuterie board, she wasn’t able to explain the difference between any of the six types of salumi on the menu. That’s pretty sad for a restaurant with breathtaking displays of prosciutto and other cured meats hanging over the bar. (“I think we have about twenty five thousand [dollars] in meat hanging there,” Boyce said.) The night ended on a weird note when the restaurant’s credit card machine was down and our server left us hanging out in the meanwhile. Luckily it was only for 10 minutes, but my tablemates and I joked that we might have to wash dishes since we didn’t have cash to settle our bill.
The wine:Â Wine with pizza is a no-brainer, but Pizza East’s wine list makes ordering it way more confusing than necessary. The first section features by-the-glass and 17-ounce carafe selections that state a grape varietal and region, but not the name of the wine producer or vintage. The second section of the menu is made up of full bottle selections featuring the name of the wine producer, but no vintage years. The two sections aren’t separated from one another very well, so my tablemates and I made the mistake of ordering a carafe of the house chianti ($45), thinking it was a full bottle. When the server brought the tiny carafe (17 ounces, or about two-thirds the size of a typical full 750-millilter bottle), we thought she’d brought the wrong size until we realized the mistake we made. And while not everyone’s a wine expert, many diners do want to know the vintage or the producer of the wine they’re drinking. Though not providing that information allows a restaurant to switch vintages (and perhaps make more margin on their wine selections, if you ask me), they do so at the expense of customer service. If there had been a producer or vintage listed, I might have had a better shot avoiding the bitter, acidic juice passed off as chianti.
The scene:Â With its chipped and worn industrial red seats, pipe railing fixtures and warehouse-style pendant lamps, Pizza East feels a bit like a dimly lit Chipotle. Another wall lined with cans of tomatoes and bags of flour adds a touch of a Potbelly vibe. Although, there is a touch more glam over both those places found in the flickering wood-fired ovens or the white subway tile that line the Pizza East kitchen.
The bottom line:Â The table and wine service need some work, but Pizza East is already turning out some of the better Neapolitan-style pizza in Chicago.
Pizza review:Â Pizza East
113-125 N. Green St. 312-754-6940
This article first appeared in Redeye Chicago in a different form.