107 E. Delaware Place Chicago, IL 60611 (map); 773-736-1429; thewhitehallhotel.com
Pizza Style: Thin crust, though billed as "Milanese"
The Skinny: Not bad, not particularly good, though one toppings combination stood out
Price: Pizzas range from $12 to $15
For a pizza lover, even pizzas that are just ok can be a wonderful thing, especially in an area where the rest of the pizza is average at best. I suppose it's the pizza version of "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king." Of course, the reverse is also true. One-eyed men generally don't rule where everyone can see, and mediocre to good pizzerias are not going to shine when surrounded by great pizzerias.
I think you can see where this is going: The Gold Coast/Magnificent Mile, where Fornetto Mei is located, is chock full of great pizzerias. So to standout, pizzas have to be better than average.The restaurant, which features a nontraditional menu that is primarily pan-Italian but with some Asian options thrown in, has garnered some good press over the years, but as far as I can tell, it's largely the domain of guests at the Whitehall Hotel.
If the menu explicitly tells me I'll like something, who am I to doubt a reliable source like that? So when the pizza called "Our Signature Pizza" includes the words, "Try It, You'll Like It!" I was sold. The pizza comes topped with sausage, grapes, mozzarella, goat cheese, and "fine herbs." I've enjoyed every pizza I've had with grapes on it and this one was no exception.
The mozzarella and goat cheese were fine, but I would have preferred a topping with a little more bite to balance the sweet grapes (like the tallegio cheese and grape combo at La Madia—reviewed here). There was some Parmesan-like cheese sprinkled on top, but it was not particularly flavorful. The sausage, squares cut from a pre-made link, was loaded with fennel flavor but didn't add a ton of pork flavor.
The Pizza D'Asti, which has no apparent qualities that link it to the Italian city or province of Asti, comes with sausage, prosciutto, sopressata, fresh and aged mozzarella, tomato sauce, and some shredded basil. Unlike the Signature Pizza, nothing at all stood out on this pizza. None of the meats were particularly good and the sauce and cheese were fairly non-descript, though the fresh mozzarella was on the chewy side. Not bad, but not worth $15 given the multitude of options, pizza and otherwise, in the immediate area.
The crust continued the theme of "meh" for the evening. The soft crust was rolled out rather vigorously with a rolling pin before being put on a tray and put into the oven. The oven, incidentally, is touted on the restaurant's website as being wood-burning. While I'm sure it's physically possible for wood to burn in that oven, gas was the sole heat source on my visit. It's too bad; a little smoke (or, better yet, more heat) could have made something better out of the crust.
In retrospect, the Milanese pizza billing at Fornetto Mei should have tipped me off. I know enough about the history of pizza in Italy to know that's a meaningless phrase. But ultimately, it wasn't the silly marketing technique that did the place in. In an area with plenty of options (Due's, Giordano's, Cafe Spiaggia, Lou Malnati's, Pizano's, Bar Toma, etc.), there's just no reason to visit Fornetto Mei until it moves into a pizza desert where it can earn a "good for the neighborhood" designation.
About the author: Daniel Zemans is so devoted to Chicago that he covers pizza for Slice and burgers for A Hamburger Today. When he's not focusing on expanding his waistline, he works as a lawyer on behalf of employees and tenants.