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Pizza Pilgrimage: Burt's Place outside Chicago

Some claim that they've never had a bad piece of pizza. And though my childhood memories of roller rink concessions prevent me from agreeing wholeheartedly with that sentiment, I'll concede that it's difficult to make such a great food truly bad. Not only that, but decent pizza can be found in just about any town, big or small. But for our pizza obsessed nation, finding a "decent" pie is not good enough. Countless blogs, forums and sites across the interwebs are dedicated to the discovering the best new pizza parlors and upholding the merits of the most legendary pie purveyors. Of the latter, there are a few places held with particular reverence. Some combination of obscurity, eccentricity, meticulousness, and (usually) undeniable quality makes these places irresistible to pizza pilgrims willing to wait in long lines, put up with odd hours or venture off the beaten path for transcendent pizza. I've waited out the line at  Frank Pepe in New Haven for ultra-thin crust tomato pies and the white clam pizza from the coal-fired ovens. I've made the trek to Midwood (Brooklyn), only to arrive at Di Fara during Dominic DeMarco's naptime (when the restaurant closes for 2 hours). I waited. It was worth it. My latest pizza adventure with a high degree of difficulty/obscurity took me to Burt's Place in Morton Grove, a suburb northeast of Chicago. 

Just a few quick words on the Burt behind Burt's Place. That would be Burt Katz, the white-bearded septuagenarian who has been in the Chicago pizza making racket since the 1960's (his beard dates back almost as far). Most notably, he started Gulliver's and Pequod's before selling them and opening Burt's Place in 1989. Katz and his friendly wife Sharon by and large run the kitchen and dining room with the help of a few others. 

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There was no line spilling out the door at Burt's Place. If you aren't looking for it, you might not even notice it, tucked away on a relatively quiet suburban street. There was no line because Burt's Place is reservations only (a week in advance is suggested). And if you think that's peculiar pizza protocol, they take it a step further: you're supposed to place your order in advance as well. From a practical perspective, Chicago-style pizza takes an eternity to cook, so this merely cuts down on the customers' waiting time. The procedures in place do add to the mystique and slightly exclusive feel, though. This theme continued as the host shot us an incredulous look at the door when we incorrectly guessed the name under which the reservation was made (the guy who secured our reservation came late). Mercifully, we got it right on the third try, and the man allowed us to proceed into the small, dark dining room and to our booth. The walls are covered with old telephones, clocks, microphones and ancient radio equipment. Only 7 or 8 booths line the walls with a couple of tables in the middle where no one sat. After a round of beers arrived, as well as a large salad for the whole table, our pre-ordered pies arrived a mere 10 minutes after we had been seated. After the server doled out slices, he placed the pizza pans on the tables in the middle of the room, where he could access them whenever he spied an empty plate. As for the pizza, it's not quite like any other Chicago-style pie you'll encounter. Sure, the caramelized crust shares some similarities to that of Pequod's (which I'm still a big fan of, for the record), perfectly browned around the edges and medium-thick. But it's less buttery than your average pan pizza, and it retains its delightful spongy texture, unlike some Chicago-style pies which collapse under the weight of toppings piled high. They also don't cover their pies with layers and layers of cheese. In fact, there might have been more sauce than cheese on any given slice - no complaints here: I'm a sauce guy. Toppings were also top-notch, from pepperoni and fresh cut vegetables to their superior sausage. Perhaps the best part: this hefty Chicago-style pizza did not result in a food coma or regret. Though certainly a hearty meal, the members of my dining party and I did not leave feeling like we required a nap or wouldn't be able to eat for days. This is a testament to their superior ingredients and light touch with the butter and cheese. 

Needless to say, there are plenty of great pizza joints in and around Chicago. You might find a pie you like as well or better than the ones you'll find at Burt's Place. And if you want to watch a Blackhawks or Bears game while sharing pitchers and pizzas with a large, rowdy group of friends, Burt's is not your place. But for a pizza pilgrim, it's well-worth at least one trip for the slightly bizarre but nonetheless delicious experience.

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