Caffe Florian: A Tourist-Free Gem in Hyde Park, Chicago
1450 East 57th Street, Chicago IL 60637 (Hyde Park; map); 773-752-4100
Each year, nearly two million people visit the Museum of Science and Industry. And though I don’t have the numbers to back it up, I think it’s safe to say a significant number of those visitors decide to enjoy a Chicago-style pizza during their stay in my hometown. But I would guess that virtually none of the out-of-town visitors to the museum know that there is an outstanding pizzeria just a few blocks directly west of the museum.
I grew up in Hyde Park, and Caffe Florian opened before I left for good, but I had not set foot in the place until recently. That was a mistake. I really do have a good excuse: Caffe Florian opened in a space that had previously been occupied by Medici on 57th and I was not a fan of their pizza. I assumed the location was tainted with bad pizza juju, so I never tried Florian. Turns out, that was an error in judgment and I am now committed to making up for lost time (and pizza).
Hyde Park is a unique neighborhood unlike any other that I have encountered. Home to the University of Chicago, it is a mixed-income, interracial enclave that is bordered by Lake Michigan to the east and neighborhoods that are virtually 100 percent lower-income and black on each of the other three sides. It has been an independent (and fairly left-wing) political bulwark in a city that has long been dominated by machine politics. The neighborhood has been home to notables ranging from Swami Vivekananda, who introduced yoga to the U.S., to Hugh Hefner, who introduced something else (link intentionally omitted from this family-friendly site). Muhammad Ali and Saul Bellow used to live there, and Sara Paretsky and Barack Obama still do. Fun fact: Louis Farrakhan lives in a part of the neighborhood that is heavily Jewish. And for architecture buffs, highlights include Promontory Apartments, the first high-rise designed by Mies van der Rohe, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House.
Enough reminiscing about the place of my youth (and possibly future); this site is about pizza, and Hyde Park has a lot of it. In addition to Caffe Florian and Medici on 57th, Giordano’s, Edwardo’s, Pizza Capri, and Leona’s all have locations there.
On to the Pizza…
The first pizza was a thin crust pie with pesto and artichoke. I’m generally not a fan of pesto because I find that it overpowers most other flavors; that was not the case here. The crust was quite good – not as thin as more traditional Chicago thin crusts, but it still had a cracker-snap and a nice amount of butter.
The pesto was good, and may well have been made there. The artichokes were definitely from a can or jar, but if you show me a pizzeria that uses fresh artichoke hearts, I’ll show you a pizzeria that’s losing money, so that transgression is forgiven. What was nice about the pizza, and what stopped the pesto from overwhelming the pie, was the use of tomato sauce. In my experience, when a pizza comes with a special sauce, there is either no or virtually no sauce. The outstanding flavor of the thin, smooth sauce balanced the pesto very well, making this quality pie. For the uninitiated, please note that most thin crust pizzas in Chicago put the toppings under the cheese.
While the thin crust is good, deep dish pizza is the reason to go to Caffe Florian. Before I go on, I need to discuss the terminology. What I am calling deep dish, Caffe Florian refers to as pan pizza. The pizza looks like a typical deep dish pizza, but with a substantially thinner crust than the traditional ½ inch a la Uno’s or Lou Malnati’s. I think of pan pizza as being a thick pizza with a regular crust and with the cheese on top, like those found at Pizza Hut or the aforementioned Medici on 57th.
Regardless of what name is more accurate, the thick pizza at Caffe Florian is outstanding. The butter crust is excellent – flavorful, strong enough to hold the heavy toppings, and perfectly crumbly upon eating. The sauce is simply spectacular. Made from 7/11 Ground Tomatoes from Stanislaus , it is chunky, tangy, sweet and more chunky. It is one of the best pizza sauces I have ever tasted.
There was, unfortunately, one significant flaw in the pizza: the sausage. If there is one pizza topping that should always be good in Chicago, it’s the sausage; we like our pork in this town. Given that I always expect good sausage here, and given how good the rest of the pizza was, I was absolutely stunned that my pizza held uniform nuggets of processed, flavorless meat. Because the pieces were flavorless and were smaller than the chunks of tomato in the sauce, the sausage did not detract from the overall pizza. But psychologically, this was tough for me to handle.
I wholeheartedly recommend a sausage-free pizza from Caffe Florian to anyone who finds themselves in Hyde Park.