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Chicago: On the Road to Pizza Greatness at Nellcôte
Note from Ed: Slice'rs have gotten to know our man in Chicago Dan Zemans for the lastfour years. Our community could always depend on Dan for forthright assessments of pizza driven by his unabashed passion for the subject. He'll be moving on from his pizza-writing duties, but no worries. He's not disappearing. AHTers will still be inhaling his take on burgers, and we're happy about that. Thanks for all the slices you ate on our behalf, Dan. We appreciate it. —Ed Levine
833 W Randolph Street, Chicago, IL 60607 (map); 312-432-0500; nellcoterestaurant.com
Pizza Style: Neapolitan-ish
Oven Type: Wood burning
The Skinny: This Chicago hot spot is aiming high with in-house flour milling and top notch, housemade charcuterie toppings.
Price: Pizzas range from $10 to $12
I began my time with Slice four years ago this week with a review of Uno's, one of the oldest pizzerias in Chicago and the birthplace of deep dish pizza. Even though thin crust pizzas were and are more numerous in town, deep dish is what made Chicago a globally important pizza city. But over the past few years, other than the ongoing expansion of Lou Malnati's (reviewed here), there haven't been a lot of new developments in that scene. And there has been even less movement in the realm of traditional Chicago/Midwestern thin crust. Instead, like the rest of the country in these pizza-crazed times, the real growth has been tilted heavily towards higher end pizza, with each new restaurant offering some kind of twist in an effort to stand out from the crowd. Given that trend, it's only appropriate that I finish my run on Slice with a review of Nellcôte, one of the newest kids on the block and purportedly the only restaurant in the country that mills all of its own flour in-house.
Nellcôte, which opened three months ago, is the latest project from Chef Jared Van Camp, whose Old Town Social has deservedly gotten a lot of coverage on Serious Eats. Nellcôte, named after the French villa where the Rolling Stones lived while recording Exile on Main Street, does have a trendy see-and-be-seen vibe to it, but it's not enough to scare away people only interested in getting a great meal.
The heavily Mediterranean restaurant offers 9 pizzas, 3 red and 6 white, and they are the most popular items on the food portion of the menu. In fact, even though about 3/4 of the menu consists of food unfit for coverage on Slice, Chef de Cuisine Ray Stanis estimates that between 60 and 70% of guests try a pizza when they visit. One bite of the fennel sausage pizza ($11) and it's pretty clear why these pies remain a crowd favorite.
Few people in Chicago are in Jared Van Camp's league when it comes to making charcuterie, so it's no surprise that his fennel sausage is both delicious and unlike any I've had at a pizzeria (or anywhere else for that matter). Rather than stud the pork with fennel seeds, Van Camp relies on a combination of fennel pollen and ground fennel seed for an intense flavor that works particularly well given the use of small bits of sausage that are sprinkled across the face of the pizza. Thanks to a little added sugar, the sausage has a slightly sweet undertone that works well with the tangy tomato sauce.
Speaking of the sauce, it's a particularly vibrant, but basic, San Marzano version that left me wishing a lot more than a third of the pizzas were red. Finishing off the fennel sausage pie are meaty hunks of hen of the woods mushroom, Parmigiano, and mozzarella. Taken together, this is one really delicious, earthy pizza that has me looking forward to a return visit.
The mortadella pizza ($10) comes with pistachios, shaved red onions and ricotta, in addition to the housemade emulsified meat. Mortadella is a grossly underutilized pizza topping and I was excited to see what Van Camp did with his version of the lightly spiced treat. Perhaps I'm overly influenced by the the stellar mortadella pie at Great Lake where the meat is applied at the end of the cook, allowing it to melt into the rest of the pizza, but I was surprised to see it is cooked with the rest of the pie at Nellcôte. The crisp edges were wonderful, but the heat left the mortadella a shade too chewy for the pizza.
Very minor textural issues aside, this fragrant mortadella was so delicious that it had me wishing the Old Town Social Butcher Shoppe would start selling it, and made me a little sad that Van Camp only offers a handful of his housemade meat toppings on the pizzas at Nellcôte. In any event, the mortadella obviously worked well with the pistachios (the nuts are an ingredient in many versions), and the extra crunch was balanced nicely by the creamy globs of ricotta. Throw in the touch of sweetness from the red onions and this is one immensely satisfying combination of toppings.
As I previously mentioned, Nellcôte's claim to fame is that the flour is milled in the kitchen. What would possess the owners to make that kind of investment? Van Camp claims in this video that, as is the case with spices, freshly ground flour is far more flavorful than commercially available options. So he buys his Hard Red Winter Wheat from Breslin Farms in Ottawa, Illinois, a mere 80 miles from the restaurant, and grinds it into 00 flour in a specially built mill from Meadows Mills.
Unlike the white flour used in most pizzas, Van Camp explains that a lot of the bran makes it into the finished product at Nellcôte, giving the extra thin crust a brown tint and a flavor closer to whole wheat. Nellcôte also defies tradition by typically putting its flour to use the day it's ground, skipping the aging stage that some people who know a lot more about flour than me say is wrong. I won't pretend to know if the aging or the freshness of the grind make a lick of difference, particularly in a pizza crust that's going to be covered with a wide array of toppings. But I can report that the dough, made with a grape starter and fermented for 48 hours, 24 at room temperature and 24 in the refrigerator, cooks into a damned flavorful piece of bread.
I'm generally not a fan of anything resembling a whole wheat crust, but I thought the subdued earthiness stood out in a good way and paired nicely with the two vastly different pizzas I had on this visit. On the down side, the crusts were too dry, something particularly apparent on the pizza that didn't have the moistening advantage of sauce, and they were too far on the chewy end of the crisp/chewy spectrum. But the flavor is there, and given Van Camp's patience and willingness to utilize trial and error, as evidenced by his mastery of cured meats, I expect that Nellcôte is on the way to becoming a true pizza destination. After all, as this video shows, Van Camp didn't make his first pizza at Nellcôte until just over a week before the restaurant opened; he's still a baby in pizza-making years.
I can't imagine what burgeoning pizza madman out there is going to outdo Nellcôte milling its own flour, but I look forward to seeing the next leader in the ongoing game of one-upmanship in the world of Chicago pizza. I can only hope that whoever does come next follows in the footsteps of Jared Van Camp and his team and realizes that all of the showmanship is for naught if the pizza isn't delicious.