It's difficult to remember what a relative pizza desert Chicago was 13 years ago. We've always had our deep dish and our cracker crust, but long before Spacca Napoli
, Pizzeria da Nella Cucina Napoletana
, or Great Lake came along, you had to have traveled to Italy to know what acceptable Neapolitan pizza was remotely like. And then in 1999 the late Cesar D'Ortenzi, owner of Lincoln Square's La Bocca Della Verita
, opened Pizza D.O.C. around the corner on Lawrence Avenue. Naming it for the Italian government's designation of standards and regional authenticity for wine and certain foods, D'Ortenzi backed up his pretensions by importing a massive wood-burning brick oven from Italy, and in short order began blasting out beautiful charred and blistered thin-crust pies the likes of which the city had never seen.
We're all a little bit spoiled now that every new restaurant that opens is required by law to install ovens carved out of the rock face of Vesuvius, and it's easy to forget that Pizza D.O.C. was first to get the dough rolling. But the place just kept quietly on, perfuming the 2200 block of Lawrence with the gentle whiff of wood smoke even after D'Ortenzi died and sisters Diana and Carol Himmel bought in five years ago. They kept serving the same pastas, salads, antipasti, and saltimbocca alla Romana too, but gradually began sneaking in specials that reflected their (and the neighborhood's) German heritage. A few months ago they made a major move by putting their name above the door and putting those German dishes on the menu permanently.
- Champignon rahm schnitzel
But it's not a major expansion. Dishes include veal and chicken schnitzel, roast duckling, Bavarian pork shank (just on the weekend), and an unlovely looking thing called champignon rahm schnitzel
. No, this isn't named for the mayor, who lives in the neighborhood. Rahm
means cream (though I might take to referring to His Honor as Mayor Schnitzel). The dish is four butter-seared pork tenderloin medallions slathered in the sort of thick mushroom cream sauce I've been a sucker for ever since my mom made beef stroganoff from ground meat and Jolly Green Giant mushrooms. It comes with a tangle of long spaetzle and some sweet red cabbage on the side, and it's the kind of rib-sticking cold-weather food I'm loving right now, but looking forward to ignoring once spring actually starts.
I am a little disappointed that Himmel's German offerings are so relatively few. No sauerbraten? No hackepeter? How am I supposed to eat pizza without a bowl of liver dumpling soup on the side?
But what about that pizza? It's still very good, with a smoky, charred, and pliable, if not crackly, crust. It may not touch the heights scaled by Nella Grassano, Reno, or the late Great Lake, but it is the forefather of the Chicago Neapolitan pizza revolution, and the right thing to do is respect your elders.
Himmel's, 2251 W. Lawrence, 773-784-8777, himmelschicago.com