Diving in at Great Lake Pizza, the nation’s ‘best’

Today’s column from The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.)

Diving in at Great Lake Pizza, the nation’s ‘best’


Dec. 18, 2010

You’ve heard of Lou Malnati’s. You know Gino’s East. And you’re no doubt aware of Pizzeria Uno, Pizzeria Due, Giordano’s and the rest of Chicago’s famous pizza parlors.

But there’s a good chance that you’ve never even heard of – and an even better chance you haven’t visited – the pizzeria that might be the city’s very best.

And also its smallest.

Tucked inside a tiny storefront-turned-dining-room-and-kitchen, all in one, on the North Side of Chicago in Andersonville, sits Great Lake Pizza (1477 W. Balmoral Avenue). In May 2009, the hip-but-sleepy pizzeria went nuclear among foodies in the Windy City when GQ food writer Alan Richman named Great Lake’s mortadella sausage pie the best pizza in the United States.

Considering Richman’s declaration came after a journey of 20,000 miles, 109 pizzerias and 386 different pies, all in search of the perfect one, it’s probably safe to say that he knows his stuff.

And his stuffed.

Great Lake Pizza, however, goes against the grain of what’s considered Chicago-style pizza – it’s thin-crust, not deep-dish. But it is extremely delicious.

But we’ll get to all that. First, let me tell you a little more about Great Lake itself.

Founded by Chicagoans Nick Lessins and Lydia Esparza, Great Lake was never intended to be a pizza lover’s Mecca. The shop features just three tables capable of seating 14 (if you really squeeze them in), is open only four days a week (5 p.m. to 9 p.m., Wednesday-Thursday; 4 p.m.-9 p.m., Friday-Saturday), takes no reservations and makes no deliveries (it does, however, offer carry-out).

Every pizza at Great Lake is painstakingly handmade by Lessins, so much so that Richman wrote in GQ: “No man is slower. In the time he takes to create a pie, civilizations could rise and fall, not just crusts.”

Because of its limitations, the GQ stamp of approval has been a mixed blessing for Great Lake. After the magazine review the restaurant became mobbed, with lines often stretching down the block and waits lasting two hours.

“It’s nice that we got recognized for doing something we feel is good,” Lessins told the New York Times back in January. “The problem is GQ deals on a whole other scale than what our business is capable of handling. Everyone forgot we were this small operation and couldn’t serve everyone.

We never intended to serve mass quantities and have our product available 24 hours a day, seven days a week …

“We’ve had a few people get pretty flustered — ‘What do you mean we can’t be seated? We have to wait a couple of hours?’ Like somehow we’ve violated their human rights. Why is it a crime that we’re not open seven days and we’re not seating 100 people?”

It isn’t. Although, never getting a chance to sample Great Lake’s pie might be. Now, is it the absolute best pizza in the country? I have no idea. But it is darn good.

A week ago Friday, I ventured up to Great Lake about 5:30 p.m. and was thankfully able to snare a table without a problem. On this evening, the famed mortadella Italian sausage was not available – you can check out Great Lake’s rotating menu at – so I instead ordered a pie featuring homemade fresh mozzarella, mona cheese, fresh herb and the regular Italian sausage.

It was no less great. The bready crust was crispy and thin – but not skinny. The combination of the cheeses, herb and rich sausage was positively heavenly. And the pizza just tasted more original than any I’ve had in the city.

It even passed the ultimate test.

It tasted just as good the next day. Cold.