If you could picture the most unlikely place to serve deep dish pizza, the new Beatrix Market (23 E. Jackson Blvd.) in the Loop would probably be close to the top.
Next to DePaul's downtown campus, the space is approximately 80 percent vegetables -- imagine rows and rows of immaculate produce and all the arugula you'll ever need. The shop is an abbreviated version of Beatrix, a Lettuce Entertain You concept that has expanded rapidly around the city by catering to the kind of downtown crowd that favors salads over Chicago-style hot dogs.
Yet, there they are right upfront, adorable individual-sized deep dish pizzas, just begging for you to stray from whatever diet you're on. (Because, let's face it, deep dish pizza and diet have never belonged together.) John Chiakulas, chef and partner of Beatrix, says he crafted the personal deep dish pizzas to appeal to the DePaul kids: "Beatrix has a lot to offer for the health-conscious crowd, but we needed something a little extra for the college students."
This odd combo -- a healthy restaurant tackling one of the heaviest foods of all time -- has resulted in a strange beast: a deep dish that cuts dramatically down on the excesses of the original, while never losing the abundant nature that's at the core of the dish's identity. It's, to my mind, the best deep dish in the city right now.
They are handsome little things ($6.99 for cheese, $7.69 for sausage or spinach), with high golden-brown sides, dark lipstick-red tomato sauce, and bubbling cheese peeking around the perimeter. The slick of grease that normally accompanies deep dish is notably absent, even with the sausage pizzas. How'd he do that? "We par-cook the sausage and discard the grease," says Chiakulas, noting that most deep dish places layer raw sausage on deep dish before baking it, so all the fat pools on top of the pizza. Par-cooking also allows the sausage to develop crispy browned edges, making the nuggets taste even meatier than they would otherwise.
That said, the dish is not exactly low-calorie. "The goal was not to make a healthy deep dish pizza," says Chiakulas. "The goal was to make the most delicious version." Cheese is still abundant under the sauce, and it lovingly oozes when you bite in.
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More important, it still looks like deep dish, which is thanks to the excellent crust. Though it maintains a tall edge like other deep dish, the crust slopes down at a much steeper angle and is surprisingly thin where it meets the bottom. Somehow, it still stays crispy and crunchy, even though it's only about 1/2 -inch thick.
If you couldn't tell, I'm not exactly a deep dish fan, though I've tried hard over the years to form an appreciation. My resistance almost always has to do with the crust. Grab an individual deep dish pie from the downtown locations of Pizano's, as I did recently, and the first smell to hit your nose is one of over-fermented yeast, almost like someone spilled beer across the counter. Along with an oily sheen, the crust also mysteriously lacks salt. I find it maddening.
Beatrix Market's deep dish doesn't reek of yeast and, instead, brings to mind a crackly loaf of Italian focaccia. According to Chiakulas, Beatrix Market's crust contains "lots" of olive oil, but it luckily never tastes greasy. Plus, it's actually seasoned with salt.
This isn't Chiakulas' first go at the thick-crusted pizza. He developed the individual deep dish pies for Foodlife (another Lettuce property) in Water Tower Place. Though they look sort of similar, the pies at Foodlife are much heavier and greasier. "I've worked and worked on this particular recipe," says Chiakulas, "but I've been keeping it close to the vest for a while. I'm just introducing it for the first time."
Hopefully, Lettuce Entertain You knows what it has here: quite possibly the best deep dish in the city at a glorified college food court. I'd love to see what one of these pies would taste like in a larger portion, though this will do for now.