Kinda cranky pizza guy
Better just let Burt Katz do his thing
Burt Katz on his pizza philosophy: "Here's why I think it works: It's not too much of any one thing. It's not too much cheese or spice. Overwhelm it with any one ingredient, you kill the whole meal. Life is balance." (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune)
Burt, who was in his early 30s, explained that he had words with his boss, that he threw the guy up against a wall and shouted at him, and so, though fascinated with business, he hated the institutional sensibilities of white-collar work and abruptly quit. He had three kids, a mortgage and no plans. He also stopped shaving on that day, slightly longer than 40 years ago — April 12, 1971.
He has not shaven since.
Burt is 74 now. He's still married to Sharon; they've been married since 1962. Her hair is still dark and wavy; and like Burt, Sharon seems young and quick, the result of a busy life. Burt's beard, however, is white, sparse and long now, so unusual that it doesn't quite resemble a beard; it explodes outward, unkempt and chaotic. If such a thing as hair coral existed, that's what his beard would be called.
Anyway, here's what Burt did once he decided what he was going to do with the rest of his life — he opened a pizza place in Morton Grove and named it Pequod's for the whaling ship in "Moby Dick." He named it that simply because he liked Herman Melville. Also, years earlier, before leaving the restaurant business for his ill-fated corporate detour, he opened another pizza place with a literary pedigree, Gulliver's in Rogers Park, named for "Gulliver's Travels"; and also, the pizza place Burt owned before Gulliver's, The Inferno in Evanston, had been a nod to Dante.
In fact, since 1963, Burt Katz has owned so many pizza places in the Chicago area that in 1989 — a few years after he burned out on Pequod's and sold that one too — he opened his next and final pizza place and named it simply Burt's Place. He named it that because by the late '80s he had a cult following — or rather, a lineage, a pizza DNA that, 50 years after Burt started making his pizza, continues today.
Sharon describes this style, matter of factly, as "pizza in the pan," meaning pizza made in a thick, round skillet — not entirely deep, not quite thin. Except pizza in the pan, of course, is not a Burt Katz creation; the phrase "pizza in the pan" is often used interchangeably with "deep dish." A Burt Katz pizza is more of a "medium-dish pizza," said devotee Gary Wiviott, one of the founders of Chicago-based food site LTH Forum. "I think of it as medium crust — not low, not high — a skirt of caramelized crust. That's Burt."
Indeed, this caramelized crust, accomplished by ringing the pie with a touch of cheese and baking it until it becomes oil-black, is Burt's signature — a craggy halo that begins halfway down the back of his pizzas then leaps above the lip of his crusts, creating flaky stalagmites of char.
Remarkably, if you want to taste how that style has evolved since 1963, the DNA is mostly out there: Begin with the original Gulliver's on Howard Street, which Burt opened in '65. Next, head to Morton Grove for the original Pequod's, which opened in '71. And finally, order a pizza at Burt's Place, just a block away from Pequod's.
Burt owns only Burt's now, but Gulliver's and Pequod's (the Inferno has been closed for decades) carry his distinctive touches: caky crust, blackened grace notes, ingredients that are more embedded than placed.
Asked how much this style evolved between, oh, opening Pequod's in 1970 and opening Burt's Place in 1989 —
"I opened Pequod's in 1971," he said, interrupting.
"Their menus say 1970," I said.
"I don't care what they say. They don't know what the hell they're talking about."
Asked, instead, what a Burt Katz pizza tastes like, Burt Katz's back lowers and he replies earnestly, "It's all one thing. I make my pizzas myself, only me, so I don't see the evolutionary aspects, to be honest. I've been busy making it, adjusting it, playing with it, until I arrived at a pizza where frankly I can't see the point of doing any more research on it. But here's why I think it works: It's not too much of any one thing.
"It's not too much cheese or spice. Overwhelm it with any one ingredient, you kill the whole meal. Life is balance. So this is balanced. You concentrate on overall taste. The crust is not a platform for the ingredients. To taste my pizza, you have to eat the crust of my pizza. Eat the whole damn thing, please! Otherwise don't eat it."
A handful of tweaks, to accommodate for how Pequod's and Gulliver's later fiddled with Burt's formula — Gulliver's is more of a yellow cornmeal crust now; Pequod's sauce is now much sweeter than Burt's — and Burt's pizza philosophy is also not a bad description of a Burt-style pizza. It also jibes with what University of Denver history professor Carol Helstosky, author of "Pizza: A Global History," calls the "Ur pizza mentality of purists who feel the beauty of pizza is found in the combining of separate tastes into one big taste."
And yet, to borrow a term from music producer Phil Spector, credited with "wall of sound" pop song arrangements so dense that no single element overwhelms the final mix, a Burt Katz-style pizza is a kind of Wall of Pizza.
On the other hand, there's one thing that only Burt's Place offers, and that is Burt himself. Or as Wiviott said, "I like the care he gives to food, and I like the freshness, but what I really like is Burt, who refuses to change for anyone. Burt is his own person"