In a city where deep-dish is king, pizza-maker Nick Lessins is using local, organic ingredients to change minds—one bite at a time. Inside the tiny Andersonville storefront he co-owns with Lydia Esparza, Lessins painstakingly crafts each thin-crust pie by hand. He piles these discs with unusual toppings such as sheep’s milk cheese or swiss chard to create his unique menu, which an article in the New York Times calls “tightly-edited and fast-changing … featuring only three or four kinds of pie a night.” This sense of abbreviation extends to the restaurant itself, which holds 14 seats and is only open Wednesdays—Saturdays.
Lined with sepia-toned Italian newspapers and armed with a staggeringly large selection of cicchetti—or Venetian tapas—Ombra strikes the tone of a neighborhood bistro that, as the Chicago Reader put it, is "the kind of spot you might return to repeatedly." But inside the familiar surroundings, the restaurant’s dinner menu, along with its wine list, encourages experimenting. Diners work their way through $3 bruschetta, choose from a variety of cheeses made from cow’s, goat’s, and sheep’s milk, or bite into pizza topped with lamb sausage, dandelions, and salsa.
At Ranalli’s of Andersonville, a story populated by five styles of pizza and a range of gluten-free options continues to unfold on a menu created more than 70 years ago. The restaurant’s chefs lovingly dote on tasty morsels, hand-battering calamari appetizers and carrying scents from thin-crust, double-decker, and chicago stuffed pizzas directly to noses.
In the dining room, toppings such as imported genoa salami, mortadella, and pine nuts tumble from slices onto eager tabletops, and fresh herbs and vegetables crunch cheerily from slices cloaked in goat cheese and gorgonzola. Clinking glasses reverberate off chartreuse walls freckled with exposed-brick accents, the work of local artists, and a plasma television for watching athletic competitions. Laptops on gleaming hardwood tables chatter with free WiFi to maintain contact with offices and investors in transatlantic marinara pipelines.
Once upon a time, in the long gone year of 1904, a roadhouse opened to serve travel-weary merchants and farmers on trips between farms and the city’s bustling markets. That space is now home to Fireside Restaurant & Lounge, which treats its customers to home-style food with a Cajun twist, as well as a selection of nearly 100 beers. The family-friendly eatery includes a casual dining room complete with the namesake fireplace, plus a multi-level patio and a pup-friendly front sidewalk seating area. On the weekends, hearty brunch dishes such as French toast, specialty eggs benedicts, or country fried steak and eggs pairs with mimosas or Bloody Mary’s from the popular 250-ingredient build-your-own bar.
Papa John's may be a nationally recognized name in the pizza-making world, but at these Chicago-area franchises, local is the name of the game. Owned and operated by Chicago residents since 2010, these seven shops share more than just a city. At each location, cooks cover the signature hand-tossed crusts, made with high-protein flour and clear, filtered water, with tomato sauce from vine-ripened California tomatoes, then pile on locally sourced ingredients such as green peppers and onions. The emphasis on fresh ingredients extends to the 100% mozzarella cheese, beef, and pork, which are never artificially inflated with fillers or undeserved compliments.
In addition to delivering pizzas, Papa John’s reaches out to the community with charity involvement, including working with Chicago-area chapters of the Salvation Army and partnering with the Boy Scouts of America and Junior Achievement to teach US students about entrepreneurship and the best method of capturing a wild roma tomato.
Apart Pizza Company approaches pizza making with artistic care and diligence, training all their chefs for up to six months on techniques for hand rolling the housemade dough into ultrathin crusts and balancing optimal blends of sauce, cheese, and toppings. Each chef's personal style and unique skills shine through in the resulting pizzas—specialty pies with inspired combinations of tangy-produce, savory-meat, and gourmet-cheese toppings that have been described by the Chicago Tribune as "perhaps the best in the city."
The staff is as dedicated to their pizza as they are to their community, supporting local artists, theaters, and cultural groups through creative efforts, mentoring, and promotional partnerships. The pizza makers have their own plot in the local Montrose Green community garden, where they hope to grow their own organic produce. They also strive to create a communal atmosphere within the pizzeria itself, encouraging guests to stay and chat in the cozy seating area rather than taking pizzas to go and eating in the privacy of the Soviet-history section of the nearest library.