I lean away from reviewing popular joints. I would much rather find the great out of the way place that has a good thing going than to either heap more praise on a well-established location or be disappointed with said place. But sometimes I’m even drawn in by the hype… under the thought of “if there’s a line a block long, it must be good.” Yeah, right.
We had just arrived in Chicago on a Thursday afternoon where the temperature hovered around 40 degrees. It had been a long trip. We weren’t interested in going far from our accommodations at the Palmer House Hotel. My photographer knew about this place that served up good burgers and ribs, though, so we headed a block and a half down Wabash to The Exchequer Pub.
When we entered there was a small wait, but it wasn’t bad. We sat up front at a table in the bar area while we looked through the menu and figured out what we were going to have. Not five minutes later our names were called and we were shown to a four-top table in the back.
Our waitress was right there, ready to take our drink orders when we arrived. She returned moments later for our order -- but not before we’d seen a procession of great dishes come from the kitchen -- racks of ribs, nachos, burgers, salads. Big portions.
We ordered the Baked Goat Cheese Marinara ($7.50) while we tried to decide on our dinner. It came out piping hot, four three-inch-square sections of goat cheese in a bath of marinara sauce, served up with garlic toast. Though it appeared to be solid, the cheese had become a smooth spread-able mass in the hot sauce, perfect for smearing on the garlic toast. The marinara was brilliant, fresh yet mature with slivers of mushroom and onion, tiny bits of red and green bell pepper, plenty of fresh basil and thyme and garlic. I could have just dined on it and been happy.
But when we received the dish we went ahead and ordered a large Veggie #3 deep dish pizza. The waitress just looked at us, then asked “how many more are joining you?”
“What?” I asked.
“It’s a big pizza. You’ll need at least four people to eat it. It’s very big.”
“Then… what about the medium?”
“It’s a lot.”
“We don’t mind leftovers.”
“That’s good, you’ll have them!” she told us, heading back to the kitchen.
We knew it was going to take a while on our pizza (which, for those keeping score, was $18.25). But it was still less than 15 minutes before we received it. Our waitress brought out the pan with a pair of pan clamps and a hot mitt. She arranged the table items and put it down before quickly doling up that first slice of pie.
Now, I’d been prepared to see a Chicago style deep dish pie with the sauce on top. This was something different, something gooey and thick and decadent. The cheese went on forever. When our waitress picked up that first slice she couldn’t reach quite high enough to pull free of the cheese strings. They hung down, still attached to the rest of the pie while she picked it up a good two to three feet above the table. She ended up sliding a plate under the edge of the pizza and using the spatula in hand to sweep the cheese strings onto the plate as well. She did this deftly with much experience, not losing a single string of cheese in the process.
We snapped away with cameras as she performed this motion. On her second slice she paused just as she started to lift the piece, allowing us to get several more shots of the hot pizza as the cheese slowly slid to each side. Underneath the raised slice the overload of cheese on the remaining pie started to fill in the space left behind.
Once served, we were left regarding the hefty inch-thick slices of piedom that graced the little plates we were given. There was no picking this pizza up. It was hot and gooey and there was very little sauce. The sauce itself, what little there was, was similar to the marinara but without the chunks of vegetables in the sauce. That was all right, because there were vegetables in-between the layers of cheese in the pie. It’s as if portabella mushrooms and zucchini had been layered in-between doses of four cheese blend.
The crust below was crisp, not quite a cracker crust but just as crisp, more like a fine Eastern flatbread. I marveled at how crisp it managed to be despite its heavy payload of cheese and toppings. It was quite simply one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had. I’ve only had one finer.
We learned during our visit that the pizza at the Exchequer Pub was Roger Ebert’s favorite pizza. Later on I’d find the great reviews from some of the most well known names in the food world. But I had no idea. That lack of a line and the sweet courtesy of our waitress belied any big-city major-success sensation, that lack of care that comes with a critical mass of good words.
I wish I could have said the same about Gino’s East. Several of my Facebook fans had contacted me about it and told me I had to go while I was up north, and I had marked it on my book. It was right next door to the Affinia Hotel Chicago, where we stayed on the final leg of our visit. When we arrived at the hotel, there was a line a block long of people waiting to get into the pizzeria. With our mutual aversion to long lines, the chances of actually sampling the cuisine there seemed small.
Except, on our final full day of work (Memorial Day), we happened to be headed back to the hotel around 3 p.m. and noticed the doors were open -- and there was no line. Perhaps it was a sign.
We went in, waited five minutes for a table (which seemed curious, since we could see a number of empty seats around the restaurant) and then were ushered into a back section, where I kid you not, 16 cops were seated. I took this for a good sign; Chicago’s finest were enjoying the eats at Gino’s, it should be a good deal, right?
We were told right off the bat that if we wanted a deep dish pie it’d be a 45 minute wait for the pie to cook. So we went ahead and ordered a Bacon Cheeseburger ($23.95) pizza with mushrooms instead of bacon (it was easier than ordering a ground beef and mushroom burger). And we proceeded to wait.
We noticed all the graffiti. In fact, when you come through the door there’s a sign that tells you “Write On Our Walls! Not On Our: Dishware, Tablecloths, Picture Displays, Neon Signs, Restrooms, The floor, ceiling, windows or chairs and, most importantly, don’t write on our servers!” Neither of us had the appropriate tool for the trade, but a bartender gave us a black Sharpie to make our mark.
That was entertaining for a few moments. The men in blue in our section started receiving their orders, and I noticed that every one of them with one exception had ordered a sandwich. The sole exception had picked up a personal thin crust pie that fit on a plate. They ate hurriedly and left.
We ordered a couple of meatballs, just curious to see what they were like, and received them -- two big round meatballs covered in a bright low-spice tomato-packed sauce and Parmesan cheese, almost two inches around. Later we found we were charged $2.50 for the meatballs.
They were all right, and they at least allowed us to have something in our gullets instead of sitting there on empty stomachs drinking soda or iced tea and waiting for this pizza.
It took the entire 45 minutes and a few more before our pie came out. Our waitress argued with us about where to put it down -- we had halfway decent lighting on one side of the table but not the other, and we wanted to be able to shoot it. She finally dropped it, started hacking at it with her spatula and then grabbed the slice center-first with the spatula, slapped it on the plate and started to cut the other one. I noticed that the yellow crust hadn’t been sliced before being brought to the table.
There was no great pull slice on this pizza. And maybe that’s ignorance on my part, not having a traditional Chicago style pie before with the sauce on top. The cheese pulled about an inch with the pie and then fell free. The crust was so yellow.
I can’t get over that. The crust was freakin’ yellow, almost Crayola yellow-orange yellow, crusty like a biscuit and a little hard. The same marinara that had accompanied the meatballs was present here on the pizza, on top of a layer of mozzarella and Cheddar cheeses. It was a very chunky sauce, just like the menu had said, but it was also a bright flavored low-spice sauce that just imparted a lot of tomato and a little flavor of fresh onion to the pie. Under the cheese huddled bits of hamburger meat and canned mushrooms, a little bit of a disappointment.
Gino’s East is supposed to be known for its golden yellow crust. I get that. But it was weird and it was disappointing. It was almost hard in places. It reminded me, God help me, of the old Jiffy Brand pizza crust in a box mixes I bought when I was a poor starting-out TV producer in the mid 90s. I kept thinking that it must have just been me.
That was, until my photographer sighed and blurted out “it’s not as good.”
“As good as what?” I asked, thinking he was referring to the pizza at The Exchequer Pub.
“As what I used to get in the grocery store.”
Turns out, Gino’s East sells a frozen variety of their pies at select Chicago-area grocery stores. And Grav felt this pizza wasn’t as good as what he’d had before.
I did eat it. My slice, that is. I was plenty hungry and I kept thinking it would get better. It did not. It was warm, sure, but between the tough crust and the spice-light sauce there was just no soul to the pizza for me. We decided to box it up and try it later -- because pizzas always get better later, right?
Well, that was easier said than done. We waited for our waitress for more than 20 minutes. Another waitress saw us peering around for her and fetched us a box and a check, and then we waited another 10 minutes to have the check picked up. Grav finally got up, found the second waitress and had her process our ticket. We never did see that first waitress again.
Did it get better? No. We tried it the next morning, thinking it would be an easy breakfast before we took off… but it was not. Maybe I’m a little thankful for that -- if it had been any good I would have never walked the three blocks to Leonidas Chocolate Café to pick up some primo chocolate croissants for breakfast. If anything the pizza was worse. The crust had tightened up and become dusty and bricklike despite all that sauce on top.
So there you go. My photographer will go on for hours about how distressed he was about Gino’s East, but I’ll just think about that really good pie from The Exchequer Pub. We had it for breakfast the next morning and for an early dinner, too. It was so good.
So you know my recommendation.
You’ll find The Exchequer Pub at 226 South Wabash, a block and a half south of the Palmer House and a couple blocks over from the Art institute. They have a neat website, or you can call (312) 939-5633.
And if you must, you can search out Gino’s East we dined at (there are only about a dozen or so locations) at 162 East Superior, a block off Michigan Avenue to the east. They also have a website, or you can call (312) 266-3337. Perhaps it’ll be your thing. It certainly wasn’t mine.