• Michael Gebert
  • Pie-Eyed Pizzerias owner Ian Muellner with the Monster

After mentioning (parenthetically) last week the lunchtime pizza buffet at Ricobene’s in Bridgeport, which can have a good dozen different types of pizza out at peak times, I got to wondering about other places that went above and beyond the standard pizza-slice paradigm as it existed almost universally in Chicago even half a dozen years ago; the boring choice of cheese, sausage, or pepperoni, all kept in a plexiglass pizza rewarmer till the cheese turned to Naugahyde. Thankfully, our slice scene has gotten better since then, with at least the most important thing—actually reheating the slice in the pizza oven, not keeping it in what was effectively a pizza dehydrator—becoming much more common. Anyway, a little Internet poking around brought me to Pie-Eyed Pizzeria in West Town, which I knew of (it was our readers’ pick for best pizza in Chicago in 2010) and had driven by at Chicago and Milwaukee many times, but never eaten at.

At first glance I saw disappointment: they had cheese, sausage, and pepperoni. But owner Ian Muellner explained that they were about to hit their lunch rush, and advised me to wait for the Monster, which would be out in about ten minutes. It was good advice.

But first, let’s talk about the base. This is pretty much classic Chicago thin crust, a little thicker than D’Agostino’s tavern-cut cracker-style pie, but still a flat crust, rolled out rather than tossed, with some crunch as you chew. The tomato sauce has more than a hint of sweetness to it, like a lot of red gravies in 50s-era Italian-American restaurants. Some people object to sweetness in tomato sauce, but unless you order straight cheese, the point is that you’re going to balance it with sharper and saltier ingredients. And that the Monster has in abundance. A lot of old-school pizza places have what gets called a meat-lover’s pizza, basically every kind of meat in the house (sausage, pepperoni, ground beef, ham, etc.) all thrown on the pizza. They’re usually unbalanced and just there to be a gut bomb; hamburger seems pointlessly flavorless next to something like pepperoni on a pizza.

But the Monster, despite the name, isn’t all that excessive, and there’s balance between (not too much) sausage, pepperoni, bacon, and soppressata, plus some strips of red pepper with a little sweetness to them. The thin slices of soppressata—an imported brand that Muellner gets from Greco & Sons in Bartlett—in particular add more funky, cured meatiness than a week of hamburger could.

It’s a heck of a good slice to run across just sitting out waiting for you at lunchtime, but I was even more curious about another ingredient on the menu—cactus. How do you use cactus on a pizza, I asked Muellner? He brought out a jar of pickled cactus slices and said that, typically, it’s used on a pizza with pepperoni and jalapeño. There isn’t a big demand for it—maybe six or seven pizzas a week, ordered by a few regulars—but it’s enough to make it worth keeping a fresh jar in the fridge. Any of chance of getting a slice of it, I asked? “We don’t do it as slices at lunchtime,” he said. “Nobody would order it. Most people getting a slice, they want the classics.”