First of all, a Happy Birthday to Marcia Schroeder today. And in her honor I'm going to write about the night we went to Burt's Place in suburban Morton Grove, IL. (see map)
Marcia and her husband, Scott, as well as Dave and Pat Heusmann, went into Chicago with us for the Iowa/Northwestern football game one weekend earlier this fall. I had been talking about going to a pizza place on the Friday night before the game and suggested either Pequod's or Burt's Place. Everyone was saying, "Whatever, you're the driver."
So we went to Burt's. I have been to Burt's a couple times prior to our visit a few weeks ago. Compared to many other Chicago area pizza restaurants, Burt's is pretty obscure. But he may have the best pizza in Chicagoland.
70-year-old Burt Katz is a legend in Chicago pizza history. Ike Sewell is credited with coming up with the first deep dish pizza in Chicago at Pizzeria Uno. But Burt came up with his own way to may deep dish pizza in the early 60's when he was a pizza chef at a place called the Inferno in Evanston. When everyone else was making their pizza crust come up all the way to the top, Burt decided to make the top of the crust out of cheese, which would caramelize during the baking process. It was an immediate hit.
Burt started two other restaurants that still use the caramelized cheese crust recipe today - Gulliver's Pizza and Pequod's. Burt sold Pequod's in 1986 and opened Burt's a couple three years later, literally just around the corner from Pequod's, in an old pizza restaurant that used to be called Starback. Burt's pizza isn't as deep as you'd find with other Chicago area deep dish pizza places. And the caramelized cheese crust on the top is to die for.
The other key feature of Burt's pizza is the freshness of the ingredients. Each day, he gets the freshest possible toppings and sauce for his pizza. The sausage he uses is some of the best I've ever tasted. I'm still trying to figure out where he gets his sausage.
Burt's Place is literally in a residential neighborhood. If you didn't know Burt's was there, you probably would have trouble finding it. It's three blocks off of Dempster Ave. near the Metra train station in Morton Grove. It's situated in an old building on a corner and it's not very big. There's no parking lot at Burt's except for in the street.
Six of us walked into Burt's Place around 8:15 on a Friday night not knowing if we'd have to wait a long time or not. Burt's doesn't accept reservations - heck, he doesn't even have a published phone number. And here's also a big tip - don't forget to bring cash. Burt's doesn't take credit cards.
We stood in the small vestibule and Burt, a skinny man who has a long beard and balding head, came over and said, "Folks, I'm sorry but it's going to be about a 45 minute wait." We agreed we were going to wait.
I said, "Hey, Burt, is it possible to get some beer while we're waiting?"
He turned around and asked in an incredulous tone, "You want to stand while you're drinking?"
We all kind of looked at one another and collectively said, "Yeah, sure!"
A couple of the ladies in our group were wondering why we couldn't sit down. There was a number of booths open and there was a big table in the middle of the room where no one was seated. I had to explain to them that it was just Burt and his wife running the place. The oven can only handle so many pizzas and Burt makes 'em all by hand.
Then Burt's wife, Sharon, who is the defacto waitress, brought out a couple deep dish pizzas and set them on the big table in the middle of the room. Pat Heusmann said, "Oh, that's why we can't sit at that table. They use that as a serving table."
In addition to the radios, he has old phones, clocks and other antiques. There's a propeller from a bi-plane hanging on the wall. He also has this huge whisk hanging from the ceiling area. I should have asked where he got that, but it was just fun to see it.
Burt's also has a number of pictures of celebrities adorning part of the wall. Here's a picture of Arden Weiner, the daughter of my friend, Steve Weiner, who first turned me on to Burt's four or so years ago. Arden has starred in commercials and even had a bit part in a movie about three years ago. I thought it was funny that her picture was up there as she was, by far, the least known of the people whose picture was on the wall.
Burt's pizza was featured on the cover of Saveur magazine for the October issue this year, along with an accompanying article. Since the magazine came out, Burt told me that he's had people come from as far as Pennsylvania to try his pizza. For a guy who eschews publicity, Burt seemed to be reveling in the hoopla as he had reprints of the Saveur cover all over the restaurant, including a huge reprint on the wall next to the kitchen entry way.
We finally sat down around 9:00 p.m. and Sharon was still trying to keep up with the three or four other parties in the place. We knew we were still 45 minutes from eating so we ordered our pizzas up as soon as Sharon was ready for us. Each of us got the 12" medium deep pan pizza. We figured we could eat a couple pieces each and have the leftovers for breakfast.
While we were waiting, we just kept having Sharon bring us pitcher after pitcher of beer. The anticipation of having arguably the best pizza in Chicago was the thing that kept us going.
Finally, Sharon brought out the first pizza, followed by the other two. She set them on the big table in the middle of the restaurant and served us our pieces. Cindy and I got a sausage, pepperoni and garlic pizza. It was as good as I remembered it from before.
I think the others were a little curious how the caramelized cheese crust would taste. But from the exclamations of how good the pizza was, I could tell they were digging it.
Here are the pizzas lined up on the table after Sharon had dug out a couple pieces for us. Just as we all thought, we each had a couple pieces each before the night was over. It was more than enough. They look pretty damn yummy, don't they?
Cindy made the mistake of asking Burt how he made his sauce. He gave her the same answer that he gave me when I asked him about his sausage the first time I came in: "If I told you, I'd have to kill you."
Here are the satiated diners still working on the beer after the dinner. I got a 100% satisfaction rating by all on the pizza from Burt's. Check out some of the old antiques he has on the wall and shelves.
Burt came out and sat at the booth behind us in front of the big poster of the Saveur magazine cover. We kibitzed back and forth with Sharon and him, and I took this picture of the couple before we left. Burt is a crusty old hippie and if you get past the gruffness of his exterior, you'll see a guy that loves his craft. And Sharon - God love her - she's going to heaven just for putting up with Burt.
With tip, the bill came to about $140 bucks. We had the three pizzas and 6 pitchers of beer. The beer added up fast at $11 bucks each. But we didn't care, it was great fun and great food.
Here are some insider tips - if you ever want to get a pizza at Burt's it's best to call ahead and order. And here's Burt's phone number - 847-965-7997. Burt or Sharon will tell you how long it will be and when would be the best time to come to eat it.
Burt's is open for lunch Wednesday thru Friday from 11:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; and open for dinner Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings from 4:30 to 9:00, and to 10:00 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. He's closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. And don't forget - bring cash.
Burt and I are best friends now, once I told him that I'd been in with my buddy, Steve, a couple times before, then brought in my wife and friends this time. In fact, I think the women even hugged Sharon before we left.
Burt's Place is hard to find, but well worth it the trouble. I've had a lot of pizza from the Chicago area over the years, but Burt's is arguably the one of the best - if not THE best - pizzas in town.