Balena might be the only restaurant on earth with (a) a fully functional wood-fired oven and (b) pizza on its menu, but refuses to cook (b) in (a). I certainly can't think of another example in Chicago where a chef would go out of his or her way to shun a freshly built brick oven in favor of the consistent (if still very high) temperatures in a conventional oven. But this does help explain what kind of pizza Balena serves. So put away any dreams of a blistered Neapolitan-style crust; that's not the kind of pizza you can find here. Okay, all gone? Instead, the crust has all the qualities of Neo-Neapolitan: a very high cornicione, impressive structure development, and a texture that balances between a crisp exterior and chewy insides. Basically, this is good bread.
Before now, I had associated this style with pizzerias known for obsessive behavior. In fact, if you squint your eyes, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was a pie from Great Lake. Thing is, everything else about the place is drastically different. Whereas Great Lake does business in a tiny shop in Andersonville with usually no more than three people in the kitchen, Balena is an absolutely gargantuan, Italian-inspired restaurant formed from the partnership of chef Chris Pandel and his team at The Bristol with the Boka Restaurant Group (Girl & The Goat, GT Fish & Oyster). This place wants to serve as many people as possible. So, can Balena serve an artisanal-style pizza for the masses?
For the time being, Great Lake has nothing to worry about; its intense attention to detail can't be duplicated. But I hope the comparison shows how much thought has gone into Balena's pizza program, especially since it's just one part of a much larger menu. Though consistency has been an issue on the two occasions I went, that's to be expected when you're serving as many pies as this restaurants does in one night.
Whenever the crust is the star, the pizzas are superb. That's especially true of the mortadella, pistachio, red onion, mozzarella pizza ($14), where thin and creamy slices of mortadella are offset by the crunchy pop of pistachios. Though the crust gets very thin in the middle, a light hand with the toppings ensures that it stays crisp throughout. But it's the cornicione that is the real story here. On this pie, the end measured two to three inches tall, and yet it was more crackly than crusty. These aren't crusts you let sit around, especially since each is drizzled with oil and dusted with a hard cheese.
Even though the sturdy crusts could stand up to an avalanche of ingredients, Pandel exhibits real restraint, and instead focuses on combining just a few very flavorful ingredients. Even a pizza as hefty-sounding as Spicy Sausage, Red Onion, Tomato, Mozzarella ($14) comes with only a few hunks of the fatty sausage thrown in per slice. Yet, I never felt like he was being stingy.
Pandel also loves to work with in-season produce. A bracing rhubarb pizza has already come and gone (without me getting a picture of it, sadly) as has a very good buffalo mozzarella and broccoli rabe and pancetta pizza ($16).
But the fresh produce isn't just tossed on the pies randomly. Each component is carefully cut and positioned, so that the slices never get too watery or weighed down. Sometimes the crusts don't rise as much as I'd like, but hopefully this can be sorted out.
Balena has one inexcusable quirk that threw me off each time: the tomato sauce is cooked. It could just be that it tastes cooked because of the longer time spent in the oven, but the red sauce has a distinct sweet and condensed profile that is one step away from tomato paste. What's especially frustrating is that each red pie could benefit from the tang of freshly crushed tomatoes. When there are other ingredients at play, the sauce isn't as noticeable, and, obviously, this isn't an issue on the generally excellent white pies, like the mortadella one. But on a pizza like the Mozzarella, Basil, Tomato ($10), the sweetness is hard to shake.
There is a saving grace, of sorts. Each pizza I ordered came with a side dish of chili oil, which helped perk up the flavors of each without scorching my tongue.
Beyond that, you're only left with deep, existential questions like, "Should I be eating pizza at a restaurant with spicy grilled 'Korean cut' short ribs" on the menu?" And that's not the only menu item hoping to lure you away. Prawns with roasted grapes. Tuscan kale with sardines. I haven't even gotten to the remarkable pasta section. Is it right that other options besides the pizza sound equally, if not more enticing? Is it possible to enjoy pizza from a place that just happens to do a lot of things well, including a whole roasted fish with a peanut gremolata, which as it so happens, does spend some time in that wood burning oven?
I feel like this is a question that is going to come up more often as more and more chefs take a crack at making pizza. Regardless, it's hard to shake the fact that Balena and Nellcôte are doing some serious work pushing the pizza scene forward in Chicago.