Update: As of Dec 16, 2014, guests are reporting a two-hour wait for tables during the week. Combine that with 45 minutes to cook a deep-dish pizza, and you're not going to be eating in a hurry. Caveat diner.
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One of the culinary world's eternal battles is between the cities of New York and Chicago, and the topic is pizza. In one corner you have the svelte New York-style pizza, thin and flexible, topped only with sauce and cheese, and perhaps a meat or two. In the other corner is the burlier Chicago-style, a thin, pastry crust piled high with cheese, lots of toppings, and finished with a chunky tomato sauce. It's a classic battle, the scrappy wisecracking dancer vs the heavy, no-nonsense bruiser, both fighting for bragging rights and a place in your belly.
Residents of New York and Chicago will debate endlessly about which is better, with their home town version typically getting the nod. Those of us in other cities often make do with substandard versions of these regional favorites, in many cases showing little resemblance to the original. (Pizza chain "deep dish" pizza, I'm looking at you. No self-respecting Chicago deep dish would have a crust that's thicker than the toppings.)
In this epic battle, there are established combatants who have upheld each town's banner, often for decades. New York has Grimaldi's, Patsy's, Totonno's, Lombardi's, Di Fara, and other classic joints. Chicago favorites include Lou Malnati's, Gino's East, Uno, Pizano's, and Giordano's.
Here in the Woodlands, New York-style pizza has been well represented. Straight from Brooklyn comes an outpost of the Grimaldi's empire. RC's Pizza brings NYC cred due to RC Gallegos's decade in the pizza business in Brooklyn. And local favorite Brother's also serves pizza with a strong New York accent.
But Chicago-style pizza has been sadly missing from our community, and from the entire Houston area. Many years ago Pizzeria Uno opened a couple of stores in the Houston area, but they were disappointing, not coming close to the Chi-town originals.
But one of the big names in the Chicago pizza world has moved outside of Illinois, and their first location happens to be in Texas. Gino's East has opened in the Houston area, and the Woodlands is lucky enough to be the first stop. The brand new Woodlands store, located on I-45 between Woodlands Parkway and Sawdust, will be the flagship of the Texas operation, also serving as a training base for future locations.
So how's the food?
We visited Gino's East as their guest at a friends and family preview, two days before the grand opening. As expected, they were still working out some kinks, but Gino's East has been operating since 1966, so they've got their processes down to a science. For the Woodlands location, they've installed six (!) classic Blodgett deck ovens, the gold standard for pizzerias around the world.
One big difference between New York and Chicago-style pizza is the volume. A hungry pizza lover can easily eat half of a large NY-style pizza, but a small Chicago-style deep dish feeds two people easily, and a large feeds 6 or 8.
So on our recent visit, we ordered a small deep-dish, and selected the Meaty Legend,
one of Gino's East's most celebrated pies, and one that we'd sampled years ago in Chicago.
The Meaty Legend has mountains of pepperoni, Italian sausage, Canadian bacon, and bacon, in addition to the thick layer of cheese, chunky tomato sauce, and golden cornmeal crust.
These thick pizzas don't cook fast; our server estimated 45 minutes to an hour for it to cook. Since we ordered a small, it cooked a bit faster, but expect a wait when you order one of these pizzas made to order.
Ours appeared in about twenty minutes, and the server wrestled out a slice.
Biting into it, we were brought back to our last visit to Chicago. The generous portion of meats had a swanky, porky swagger; the spicy pepperoni and sausage offset by the milder Canadian bacon and smoky breakfast bacon. The rich mozzarella was smooth and melty, and the mild, chunky tomato sauce added a needed hit of acid to the rich toppings. The slightly crispy cornmeal crust brought a hint of sweetness to the mix, and the result was exactly how we remembered the Superior Street original; rich, flavorful, mild, balanced, and very tasty.
We also sampled a couple of starters from the surprisingly broad menu. Our favorite was the Crispy Brussels Sprouts & Bacon - roast Brussels sprouts seasoned with olive oil and garlic, topped with chunks of very thick bacon.
The dish was nicely earthy and tasty, with the slightly crunchy Brussels sprouts kicked up by the garlic and bacon. We couldn't help but want a little more seasoning; perhaps some kosher salt and cracked black pepper. But as presented, the dish was one we'd order again.
Gino's East is located in a building that has housed several different restaurant concepts over the years; the last was the unfortunate Bikini's brestaurant. But they've done a nice job of renovating the space, turning it into a warm, inviting setting.
Upon entering the building, you're greeted by a prominent bar, which looks to be a nice happy hour spot, or a great place for solo diners to enjoy a Chicago-style lunch or dinner.
We've been fans of Gino's East since we first sampled their pizza years ago in Chicago. We're excited to have an accurate version of this classic Chicago pizza joint in the Woodlands, and plan to return soon.