I went to Avec because I was embarrassed. Please don't judge me, but the last time I checked out the West Loop staple was about seven years ago, two years before I even moved to Chicago. It wasn't like I was ignoring the Paul Kahan empire out of anger—between eating all the sandwiches at Publican Quality Meats and devouring the tacos at Big Star, I had plenty to eat. It's just that I didn't know what else there was to write about Avec.
While shame took seven years to bring me back, the pizza had me return in less than a week.
Normally, I'm leery of any place that decides to randomly drop one pizza on a menu, because the dough never gets the attention it deserves. But then again, most restaurants aren't Avec. Paul Kahan's classic West Loop restaurant has managed to stay relevant, and packed, since opening in 2003, mostly by serving Spanish-inspired small plates. Up until a few months ago, pizza wasn't even an option.
But there it was in the "Large Plates" section, one lonely wood-fired pizza ($16) only available with Publican Quality Meat's salumi toscano, marinated broccolini, Parmesan, and a gorgonzola crème fraîche. It makes sense. The wood-fired oven has been roaring since Avec first opened, and the cooks obviously know how to use it.
But is this really a pizza? You could make the case that it is more like a flatbread, since the crust is first cooked by itself, before it's flipped and topped. This also means that the ends aren't quite as puffy as they could be. But there is no faulting the result. Crisp and crackly, not to mention exceptionally thin, the crust somehow remains airy and light at the same time. Though only one of a number of plates my wife and I ordered, we were still able to devour this whole thing.
This also allows you to focus on the mix of funky salumi, crisp broccolini, and the tart crème fraîche. Though each component is flavorful, none of them is able to take over completely. It genuinely works, which is what you could also say about the pizza in general.
But maybe I shouldn't be so surprised, because in some respects, Avec has been serving pizza since the very beginning. Though not technically called pizza, the "deluxe" focaccia ($15) has been a fixture on the menu for years, and it's close enough to warrant discussion here. Also cooked in the wood-fired oven, the very thin slab of focaccia is sliced in half crosswise and slathered with creamy taleggio cheese and ricotta. When the top is added back on, you're left with two crispy, crunchy layers with oozing cheese in the middle.
At first, it comes across as satisfying, if a little one note. But as you continue eating, it starts to open up in a remarkable way. A faint aroma of truffle oil slowly reveals itself. It haunts each bite, never overpowering the other components, nudging you to dig back in.
Of course, the thing about Avec is that just about every other dish on the menu is as astonishing as these two. But if you haven't been in a while, or have somehow managed to tire of the bacon-wrapped dates, use the pizza as an excuse to visit again.
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