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Tony Priolo makes everything from scratch, including his pies, at Piccolo Sogno.

Upper Crust

by Steve Dolinsky | Men's Book Chicago magazine | September 13, 2012

In terms of timeless questions in our culinarily blessed metropolis, the stakes just do not get any higher: Who makes the best pizza in town? While a definitive answer to Chicago’s greatest philosophical conundrum may never exist, we checked in with Steve “The Hungry Hound” Dolinsky for a pretty damn fine crack at the city’s best ’zas, 2012.

1. Barnaby’s
I’m often criticized for not showing the ’burbs enough love. Well, here you go, North Shore. I love Barnaby’s cornmeal-dusted crust and easy-to-fold slices so much that I insist on making a detour anytime I’m near. 636 E. Touhy Ave., Des Plaines, 847.297.8866; 7950 Caldwell Ave., Niles, 847.967.8600, barnabys1.com

2. CoalFire
I’ve always thought the toppings here never quite lived up to the splendidly charred crust. There’s a mountain of coal back in a storage facility, which lends incendiary heat to the pies. I just wish they’d upgrade to San Marzanos and get their sausage from the likes of a Publican Quality Meats; we’d have a contender for tops in the city. 1321 W. Grand Ave., 312.226.2625, coalfirechicago.com

3. Great Lake
It’s been said (by GQ’s Alan Richman) civilizations have risen and fallen in the time it takes Nick Lessins to make a pizza. That’s not a bad thing. The pies are delicious, whether they have fresh herbs and hand-crushed tomato sauce or sliced cremini mushrooms with Dante aged cheese. The outer crust is a work of art, worthy of a textbook on how to rest, proof and develop character to your crust. Lessins does it all in an electric oven; a sign of true craftsmanship. 1477 W. Balmoral Ave., 773.334.9270

4. Pizzeria da Nella
Naples native Nella Grassano cut her crusts, so to speak, at Spacca Napoli. I never loved their soupy middle section, but her new namesake in Lincoln Park is producing very good pies using imported cheeses and firing them in a brick beehive oven fueled by fire. It has a very D.O.C. vibe to it, but she wisely keeps her ingredients simple and doesn’t use inferior product. 1443 W. Fullerton Ave., 773.281.6600, pizzeriadanella.com

5. Pizzeria Serio
“Serious brick oven pizza” is the mantra here, and I was happy to see the cord of wood in front of the oven. Then I saw it was gas-fired. While they don’t quite get the char or the heat necessary to create transcendent pies, the margherita I did have—naturally sweet tomato sauce, giant blobs of fresh mozzarella—had me going back for more. 1708 W. Belmont Ave., 773.525.0600, pizzeriaserio.com

6. Balena
Yes, there are restaurants not devoted to pizza still making pies worth the drive. Balena has a wood-burning oven and a wood-fired grill, but they bake their pizzas in a standard deck oven. Whoever is making their dough should get a raise. It’s an eat-the-edge-first pizza; the outer ring is a chewy, scented pleasure. 1633 N. Halsted St., 312.867.3888, balenachicago.com

7. Piccolo Sogno
Tony Priolo prides himself on making everything from scratch here, even the breadsticks. His pizzas are also noteworthy. Thin, slightly blistered and loaded with more imported ingredients than a Kardashian’s makeup bag, the pies are a wonderful way to begin a meal. 464 N. Halsted St., 312.421.0077, piccolosognorestaurant.com

8. Antica Pizzeria
The chef may be from Sicily, but the thin and blistered pies here have a Neapolitan look to them. Using buffalo milk or fresh mozzarella, they’re baked in a wood-burning oven for two minutes, until the sides and base are perfectly charred. 5663 N. Clark St., 773.944.1492

9. Burt’s Place
Don’t bother asking Burt, now well past 60, about his pizza. He’s too busy making his addictive pan pizzas in back, filling orders for customers and pickups. The well-seasoned, 2-inch-thick pie plates are as black as a new Mercedes, holding peppers, sausages, cheese and that signature buttery crust. Devouring two or more pieces will qualify you for a nap when you get home. 8541 Ferris Ave., Morton Grove, 847.965.7997

10. Elio Pizza on Fire
You’ve gotta love a guy who still splits his own wood. Elio Bartolotta both chops wood and makes dough each day, lets it rest, then hand-forms it into pliable discs with a few ingredients: San Marzanos, fresh mozzarella and giant basil leaves lead the way to a classic margherita. The crust has a decent char with a very good chew. 445 W. Lake St., Addison, 630.628.0088, eliopizzaonfire.com