Is Chicago's La Madia a Pizzeria or Restaurant? Who Cares?
Jonathan Fox was the CFO at Maggiano's Little Italy when decided to go back into the kitchen. Trained at the Culinary Institute of America, he had previously spent time working in a variety of cuisines, including French, Greek, and New American. He did not have a professional background in pizza before opening La Madia last October, but you wouldn't know that after trying his pizzas.
Fox did extensive research and travel, particularly in Italy, before opening La Madia, but he was surprisingly slow in answering when I asked what his favorite pizzerias were. He eventually settled on Da Michele in Naples, Italy; Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix; and 2 Amys in D.C. When I asked whether he liked deep-dish, he dismissed the notion in a way that would make many readers of this site proud. While I question his taste, I cannot doubt his abilities: Fox has built a nice pizzeria that offers one of the better thin crust pies in Chicago.
As La Madia is located on a busy commercial street in the northern part of downtown Chicago (about a block and a half southeast of the Rock N Roll McDonald's ), I was surprised to discover there was outdoor seating and large open windows at the front of the restaurant. I'm not a stickler for ambience, but the sounds and smells of three lanes of traffic might get in the way of pizza enjoyment. Once inside, I was happy to discover that the design of the space is such that the traffic did not affect the space at all (I still have doubts about the outside seats).
I'm not sure whether to call La Madia a restaurant or a pizzeria. The sleek interior design is nicer than any pizzeria I have ever entered, there is a more extensive wine list than I've seen at a pizzeria, and there are plenty of nonpizza items on the menu. At the same time, the biggest section of the menu is devoted to pizza and the restaurant's slogan is "A Contemporary Pizzeria." I suppose it doesn't matter how it's categorized, only that the food is good. And I am pleased to report that everything I tried was better than good. I actually had a number of nonpizza items because I was there for La Madia's monthly tasting menu, which includes wine pairings and special attention from the chef for a very reasonable $25 per person.
There are only 12 spots available for the tasting menu, and everyone was seated at the "pizza bar," which gave us a great view of the wood-burning oven. Of the seven courses in the tasting menu, two were pizzas.
The first pizza came with shaved artichoke, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and garlic. There was mozzarella on the pizza but no sauce. All the ingredients were top-notch and worked well together. The oven is heated between 740°F and 780°F degrees, and the pizzas cook for a little more than three minutes. Toward the end of that time, the cook (not Fox—he didn't cook a single pizza while we were there) lifted up the pies inside the oven, presumably to give a little crispness to the tops of the pizzas.
The crust had a great flavor, but was a touch underdone for my taste—too much chew and not enough crisp.
The second pizza was the triple pepperoni with white truffle oil. This was the first Neapolitan-style pizza I have ever seen that was completely covered with meat. That absolutely beautiful site was accompanied by an equally impressive taste; this was not your regular neighborhood pizzeria's pepperoni. Unlike the artichoke pie, this pizza came with tomato sauce. The sauce, made from San Marzano tomatoes, was delicious.
Unfortunately, and this is a consistent failing of Neapolitan-style pizzas, there was not enough sauce. The only reason I was able to taste it well enough to report on it was because I made a conscious effort to do so by lifting up the cheese and pepperoni and dabbing my finger in the sauce. The crust on the triple pepperoni was just as flavorful as that on the shaved artichoke, but it was cooked better and came out of the oven with the appropriate amount of char.
As my friends and I chatted it up with Fox after the meal was officially over, one of them brought up the sausage, knowing full well that it is my ultimate pizza topping and I would not be able to resist asking him questions about it. He was clearly very proud of his house-made sausage, and I was convinced I had to return to try it out. They tried to get me to order one, but since I had already eaten significantly more than my share of the tasting menu, I declined. A few minutes later, Chef Fox put a sausage pizza down in front of us and said it was on him. Since there is a huge difference between being too full to buy more pizza and too full to eat free pizza, I dug in and was glad I did. The sausage, which is made with a good amount of fennel, was absolutely stunning – a perfect combination of flavor and texture. As with the pepperoni pizza, the crust was cooked just right and there was insufficient sauce.
La Madia is a welcome addition to the Chicago pizza scene. The menu changes periodically as the restaurant focuses on seasonal foods and wines and places some emphasis on using locally grown products, but a number of pizzas have been there since the beginning. The prices are reasonable, with pizzas ranging from $9.50 to $14.50, and one pizza is more than enough for most diners. I look forward to my second trip to La Madia when I will try the sausage, mozzarella & mascarpone calzone, which I suspect will blow me away.