Ian's Pizza: Built for Drunk College Students, But Good Enough for the Rest of Us
"Drunk customers would be far more likely to think that pizza toppings like mac and cheese are a good idea."
Serious Eats contributor Daniel Zemans checks in with another piece of intel on the Windy City pizza scene. Daniel also blogs about Chicagoland pizza with his friends on the Chicago Pizza Club blog. —The Mgmt.
3463 N. Clark Street, Chicago IL 60657 (map); 773-525-4580
Getting There: Red line to Addison, walk one block west and one block south; or Brown or Purple line to Belmont, walk 3 blocks north, including soft left onto Clark from Sheffield; or #22 Clark Street bus
Pizza Style: Defies categorization, but structurally most similar to standard New York slices
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny: Much more than a gimmick, Ian’s puts out surprisingly good pizzas with odd combinations of ingredients that may have been designed for drunken customers, but are happily eaten by the sober
Price: Most slices are $3.75; whole pies range from $9 for a 12” plain or pepperoni to $28 for a 20” 5-topping specialty pizza
Here is the history of Ian’s Pizza, as entirely made up by me: A couple of guys were hanging out in Madison, Wisconsin in 2001, treating their glaucoma with medicine procured from a community pharmacist. Being pacifists, they were lamenting the tension that existed between first-year students of different socioeconomic classes. On one side were the residents of the privately owned Statesider and The Towers, elite enclaves of wealthy children from the East Coast and Chicago's North Shore. On the other side were the residents of the original Ogg Hall, the public dorm that was home to huddled masses of first-year students who correctly suspected that communist countries offered students better housing than did the University of Wisconsin.
That night, these two upstanding citizens decided that there was no better way to bring Madisonians together than through pizza, so they decided to open a place that was equidistant from the two rival camps (and a very short walk/stumble from each). As the night progressed and they continued treating their glaucoma, they decided that they would not put out just any pizza, but they would top their pies with an unprecedented variety of ingredients and they would target customers in their most intoxicated states. The logic behind the business plan was twofold. First, drunk students were much more prone to violence so that was the ideal time to focus on distracting them. Second, drunk customers would be far more likely to think that pizza toppings like mac and cheese are a good idea.
While my version of Ian’s history may be inaccurate, there is no question that the company pegged its market perfectly. Ian’s rapidly achieved legendary status among Madison college students. But it turned out that these unique pies that used an abundance of locally-grown ingredients, were actually pretty good. And a few years later, Ian’s expanded its market to include sober adults when it opened a second location near Wisconsin’s capitol building. Last July, two longtime Ian’s employees opened a shop in Chicago, where they have returned somewhat to the company's roots by operating in the very frat-friendly Wrigleyville neighborhood. Slice readers got a a little teaser about Ian's Pizza from Adam last year, but the time has come to give Ian’s the full Slice treatment.
On Monday afternoon, after watching the Cubs win in what was surely the most enjoyable 3 hours I have ever spent sitting outside in constant rain and 30-something degree temperatures, I walked just over a block south from Wrigley Field to try Ian’s. I thought I would be taking one for the Slice team, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover, under the influence of absolutely no alcohol, that Ian’s puts out thoroughly enjoyable pizzas.
Well-prepared for the Opening Day rush of happy Cubs fans, Ian’s had about 8 people working behind a counter that was covered with well over a dozen different 20-inch pizzas. Service was quick and the staff was incredibly friendly (possibly due in part to the fact that Ian’s, like any good company from the People’s Republic of Madison, is actually committed to paying its employees a living wage, and offering health benefits and an optional 401(k). A couple of minutes after walking in, I had a couple of reheated slices in my hands and I sat down at one of the large communal tables to start eating some very unique pizza.
I had no choice but to start with Ian’s infamous Mac n’ Cheese, which is Ian’s top-seller. The Mac n’ Cheese counts as a 3-topping pizza (cheddar, macaroni and mozzarella). For slices, the number and variety of toppings are largely irrelevant as every slice other than pepperoni and plain cheese costs $3.75, but whole pies are priced differently based on the quantity of toppings. The first thing I noticed after taking a bite was that there is actually a well-made crust in a pizzeria that has made its name on its toppings. The crust is a little more crisp than chewy, but the texture had both characteristics. The bottom of the crust had some nice browning and the cornicione was very crisp and had a few large bubbles. As is befitting Ian’s Wisconsin origins, the layer of mozzarella is substantially thicker than the crust. As you might expect, the Wisconsin-made cheddar cheese was the dominant flavor on the pie, but it worked well because a) cheddar cheese is delicious, and b) it was applied moderately enough that it did not overwhelm the slice.
Choosing my second slice was surprisingly easy; once I saw the BBQ Steak and Fries pizza, I knew I had to try it. The 4-topping pie (barbecue sauce, chopped thinly-sliced steak, fries and mozzarella) is certainly among the more unique pizzas I have had. The meat was, as thin-sliced beef cooked on a griddle tends to be, very well-done, and the fries were devoid of crispness. The cheese was pretty average mozzarella and the crust was identical to the one on the Mac n’ Cheese slice. But despite those overall pedestrian elements, I could not stop eating this slice. The reason: a very generous supply of Sweet Baby Ray's barbecue sauce. The sweet, tangy sauce played really well with the salty beef and the greasy fries, and made the slice oddly irresistible.
While I opted to try two of Ian’s nearly 40 different specialty pizza offerings, customers are welcome to come up with their own combination of cheeses (6 choices), sauces (8 options, including crème fraiche and Greek olive puree), and toppings (nearly 30). Figuring it out requires some advanced math, but I’m pretty sure that comes to over half a trillion choices (although that includes getting as many as eight sauces on one pizza, which I don’t think anyone would do). The point remains: Ian’s has a whole lot of toppings to choose from, many of which may not be offered by any other pizzeria in the country.
Ian’s, not surprisingly, caters to the late night crowd, and typically does not open until 5:00 PM on weekdays. On days when the Cubs are in town, however, the bars fill up early and Ian’s is kind enough to open their doors an hour or two before the game starts. Fans who are more interested in drinking with their pizza rather than before eating it will be happy to know that Ian's is BYOB. Another perk for Cubs fans is that on the rare occasions that the Cubs lose a home game, Ian’s will help fans feel better by offering a free brownie to anyone who brings in a ticket stub and buys two slices.
Ian's is not close to being in the top tier of pizzerias in Chicago, but I don't think that's their goal. The food is fun and is made of decent quality ingredients. I'm not in any hurry to go back, but I would not mind eating it again next week. I thoroughly enjoyed my pizza, though not nearly as much as the grossly overserved gentlemen sitting at my table. They clearly enjoyed their slices about as much as any human can appreciate any meal.
There are no pizzas related to Ian’s; it is in its own little corner of the pizza universe.