My trip to Chicago was very brief, by design – I flew in on Saturday morning, had lunch, went to the Under Armour All-American Game, had dinner with Old Hoss, and flew home that night – so time was short and I had to leave a few Chicago places I’d love to try for a future trip. In the meantime, I at least accomplished two small goals: I got to one of Top Chef wniner Stephanie Izzard’s restaurants, and can cross yet another pizzeria off that Food and Wine list.
Izzard is most famous for her flagship restaurant The Girl & the Goat, which I still have yet to try, but I’d heard good things about her diner, The Little Goat, in the same neighborhood but offering more comfort-food fare while serving breakfast and lunch as well as dinner. I popped a photo on Instagram of my meal, the Fat Elvis Waffles – two waffles with sliced bananas, peanut butter butter (a compound butter with peanut butter blended into soft unsalted butter), small bits of bacon, and maple syrup. It sounded amazing, looked great, and was thoroughly disappointing – only the peanut butter butter lived up to expectations. The waffles were dense and soft, difficult to cut with a butter knife, and lacking flavor. Waffles should be airy inside and crispy outside, period. If you don’t use enough fat, you won’t get that. If you skimp on leavening, whether it’s an acid/base reaction or yeast or an egg white foam, you won’t get that. The Little Goat didn’t. Even the bacon fell short, as I thought I was going to lose a filling when I bit down on one piece. I’d take a pound of the peanut butter butter to go, though.
Dinner with our favorite syphilitic pitcher was more successful, at Bar Toma, one of three Chicago places on Food and Wine‘s best U.S. pizzerias list. (The others are Burt’s Place, which does that vile thing called “deep dish” pizza, and Great Lake, which has since closed but may reopen this fall.) The odd thing is that Bar Toma doesn’t get high marks from locals – I’ve not gotten great feedback from readers or friends in Chicago, and its ratings online (not that any of those are terribly reliable) aren’t strong. I thought it was solid, and that’s without adding points for Lucy, our rather gorgeous Irish server who probably received a few more questions from our table than was appropriate.
We ordered two pizzas, the August special, with duck sausage, goat cheese, and red chili flakes; and the off-menu burrata pizza, recommended by our darling Lucy. The burrata pizza was by far our favorite; it’s topped with burrata (large balls of fresh mozzarella with cream inside), truffle oil, and arugula, and the crust on this pizza was better than the one on the duck sausage pizza, crispier at the edges and underneath as well. The duck sausage pizza was a little unbalanced, with too much red pepper, too much tang from the goat cheese (which was soft like chevre but tangier than goat’s milk feta), and nothing on the other side. The duck sausage even got lost a little beside those other ingredients.
We started with a kale salad, which was topped with a medium-boiled egg and contained bread crumbs and an anchovy vinaigrette; it was outstanding as well as moderately healthful and actually quite pretty with the mix of purple and green leaves. Bar Toma also makes about a dozen flavors of gelato in-house; I went with the chocolate and amaretto, both with excellent texture, served just warm enough to begin melting at the table (that’s a good thing – gelato shouldn’t be too cold). The chocolate was a little underflavored for me, with texture and flavor like Belgian milk chocolate, but the amaretto was like tipping the Di Saronno to the head like a forty. I’m not sure why its local reputation is mixed – it’s good, probably a 55 if we’re rating the burrata pizza, a 60 if we give points for Lucy, and infinitely preference to that tomato-cake nonsense Chicagoans like to eat instead.