“I knew that a crowd that early in the evening at Lou Malnati’s meant we made the right choice among the Chicago deep dish pizza options.”
It was a suddenly sunny Sunday in West Bloomfield, Michigan when I’d innocently dropped by to wish my son Harrison a Happy Easter.
He was at his mother Vera’s happy yellow home – the one he grew up in – and when I walked up after parking on the street, I found him helping her with some Spring gardening.
The grown-up Easter Basket I’d carried up to him, though he was 23 years old, included a package of Sour Patch Kids – the tart, colorful candies he’d favored all his life. Harrison frequently found them on the front seat of my car when I’d pick him up; or he’d discover a package that had been secretly tucked into his carry-on bag after buckling in next to me for a flight (with apologies to the TSA.)
Sometimes I’d wait until we arrived in our hotel room at sneak a bag under his pillow at whatever far-flung destination, we found ourselves. Imagine, for instance, a bag of Sour Patch Kids happening to turn up in an overwater bungalow at the Four Seasons Bora Bora…where the water was more colorful than the candy? Or tucked next to his gold-rimmed plate in Paris during dinner at Fouquet’s?
Monaco, as sophisticated as it was, was a stretch. If you happen to get to Hotel Paris next to Casino de Monte Carlo please never tell Chef Alain Ducasse that a bag of Sour Patch Kids made it into Louis XV, his Michelin-starred restaurant where the famed dessert of choice is traditionally a hazelnut dacquoise, feuilletine praline layer, chocolate mousse and dark chocolate ganache glaze.
As god as my witness, I presumed Harrison had finished the bag of candies on the seven-minute helicopter ride from Nice Cote d’ Azur Airport to the Monaco heliport near the Princess Grace Garden. I felt much less conspicuous at Chef Mickey’s in Walt Disney World’s Contemporary Hotel where a smuggled bag of candy is hardly noticeable because, by comparison, that restaurant’s décor is a pronounced palette matches the pre-teen palettes.
Pizza Pie in the Sky
In addition to the Sour Patch Kids, the other item in the “Easter basket” I brought 23-year-old Harrison in the driveway that day was a frozen Lou Malnati’s pepperoni pizza – shipped from Chicago via mail order overnight. In addition to being a deep dish of decadence, the pizza was a saucy slice of symbolism because over the years we’d enjoyed two memorable trips to the Windy City together.
On our second and most-recent Chicago trip, about seven years earlier, we stayed at the 5-star Peninsula Hotel – the city’s best lodging – for St. Patrick’s Day weekend. The original Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong (which Harrison would ironically visit six years later) was known for its fleet of “Peninsula green,” Rolls Royce courtesy cars.
Chicago’s Peninsula has a pair of identically colored MINI Coopers in which to zip guests around the busy streets to drop them at the city’s iconic locations and shops. Young Harrison found it fitting that we rode to the river in a green car to see the river turn green on St. Patrick’s Day. The Peninsula driver dropped us that morning near the Wrigley Building…and we were ready to both drop by the time we made it back to the Peninsula in the evening.
Harrison and I, under-dressed but excited, had spent the entire cold, March day exploring the city center and festivities on foot including the parade and plenty of time in, around and under the massive, reflective, stainless steel sculpture known as “The Bean” in Millennium Park. Sticklers will insist the giant bean is named “Cloud Gate,” but there’s no denying the urban artwork is a civic selfie star.
Sure, we saw squid in Shedd Aquarium; the summits of both the Willis and Hancock Towers; and even further into the sky at Adler Planetarium.
Warm Welcome at The Peninsula Hotel
By the time we’d hoofed it back up Michigan Ave. it was almost dark. We turned onto Superior St. to catch the familiar sight of the two, white, stone, dragon-like lions on either side of The Peninsula’s doors.
Between the lions the uniformed, but friendly, doormen were keeping warm from the heat lamps radiating from the awning above. I felt the touch of heat and, for a moment, considered beating a retreat up to our 18th floor Jade Suite, crawling between the Egyptian cotton sheets or firing up the Jacuzzi bathtub and order a cart full of room service.
After all, our dinner the previous night upon arrival in The Peninsula’s restaurant called The Lobby (which is an understated name given its soaring 20-foot ceiling and windows overlooking the terrace and city), was perfecto.
But I knew down deep that repeat cuisine, tempting as it was, was not how Harrison and I rolled in our travels. I had to feed the kid, but it was our last night in Chicago.
There was still one more iconic experience to wring from the fabric of the increasingly (due to the lake breezes) Windy City. And I knew if we went up to that magnificent suite with its corner view over Michigan Ave. for a rest, we’d never extract ourselves back down.
“Can we get just one more MINI Cooper ride?” I asked one of the doormen.
Spotting the frozen boy beside me the doorman moved toward the little green car to open its door before he even answered in the affirmative. Harrison jumped into the back seat as did I after I tipped the doorman with great gratitude and a little green.
The driver was dressed in black and I asked him if he could take us to Lou Malnati’s on State Street.
“It’s not far.”
“I know,” I said. “I promise we will walk back after dinner.”
“You’ll need to after eating that pizza. It’s amazing.”
Crowds Crunch for Popular Pizza
As smoothly as it was all going, my heart sank a touch when we rolled past neighboring upscale Chicago classic restaurants like Hugo’s Frog Bar, Gibson’s and Rosebud to find an overflow crowd at Lou’s. Of course, I knew that a crowd that early in the evening meant we made the right choice among the Chicago deep dish options, but I was worried Harrison (or I) might get “hangry” waiting.
Lou Malnati’s vibrant, textured décor, surroundings, televised sports and professional people-watching made the bustling wait interesting until Harrison and I were given a table.
Then it turned out we waited…to wait.
“We should have your pizza up in about 45 minutes,” the waitress pronounced.
That length of a wait for a pizza was not due to the size of the crowd or a lack of efficiency – it was because Lou’s handcrafts their pies like a Renaissance-era artisan.
Pope Julius II urged Michelangelo to finish those frescoes he was painstakingly painting on the Sistine Chapel ceiling from the floor below by calling to him up into the scaffolding with the question, “When will you make it done?” Lou’s pizza chefs answer in the same sentiment Michelangelo did: “When I am finished.”
Some quick emergency appetizers kept Harrison from pulling a Pope Julius and asking the eternal backseat kid question “Are we there yet?” I feared the appetizers sated me more than they should have given that I had some notion of what was to come. But I could not have been prepared when it did.
The Eventual Verdict
Chicago’s true culinary celebrity arrived like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in on a server’s tray: buttery pizza crust; savory sausage; bright, plum tomatoes and Wisconsin cheese – all piled up baked down into a seasoned pizza pan.
It was a magnificent mile of calories and carbohydrates. The Lou Malnati’s server had brought out a pure Gold Coast treasure chest of cheese. It was a “creation” that Michelangelo would have envied.
The waitress literally pushed the knife through the crust to carve out a chunk and then hoisted it onto Harrison’s plate. He wasn’t waiting to watch another archaeological extraction to get a piece to me – he dug in.
I watched him chew the cheese and crust combination as if he was dangling the keys to my cell at Joliet Penitentiary near the bars. After Harrison swallowed – and I did, too vicariously and reflexively – I waited, wide-eyed, nodding my head to encourage his review as if he were King Solomon were about to speak pizza.
“Lou Malnati’s is not pizza. Lou Malnati’s is its ‘own thing!’” Harrison pronounced.
Indeed, it is. And it was ever thus. (Since the now late Lou himself began working in Chicago’s first deep dish pizzeria in the 1940’s.)
Harrison’s mother founded Ambrosia Gourmet Catering, so he grew up in kitchens and restaurants. The little epicurean teenager knew from whence he spoke. And there wasn’t a Sour Patch Kid in sight.
Those outside the Chicago-land area can experience Lou Malnati’s Famous Chicago-Style Deep Dish Pizza via nationwide mail order at TastesOfChicago.com. The mail order site also offers other Windy City traditional treats including Chicago Dogs and Garrett Popcorn.
Contact Travel Writer Michael Patrick Shiels at [email protected]