Carla Meyer

Dining review: Chicago Fire still holding its own in pizza

Video dining review: Chicago Fire still a solid choice

Local chain does thin-crust, deep dish and "stuffed" well, and its Buffalo wings are exceptional. Photos and video by Carla Meyer. The Sacramento Bee
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Local chain does thin-crust, deep dish and "stuffed" well, and its Buffalo wings are exceptional. Photos and video by Carla Meyer. The Sacramento Bee

Sometimes a meal out calls for familiarity rather than discovery. When catching up with an old friend, or sharing emotional news, one might not want the flow of conversation halted by the server’s description of every heirloom ingredient on one’s plate.

So you go somewhere everyone in your party already knows and likes, a place that is clean and offers consistent food and service. Then you order the same thing you always do.

But viewing old reliables as old reliables might be doing them a disservice. I was picky about restaurants – ingredients, food temperature, service, where I was seated and the proximity of that seat to the bathroom (farther away, the better) – long before I was a restaurant critic. The ability of any restaurant to draw me back year after year means something.

So instead of taking them for granted, I will occasionally spotlight them with a new review. And I won’t just stick with the menu’s sure things.

We kick off with Chicago Fire, because 1) it’s the tail end of Sacramento’s first weeklong Sliced pizza celebration, and of National Pizza Month; 2) there’s recent movement within the chain, which is adding an Elk Grove location early next year; and 3) the charms of its thin-crust and deep-dish pizzas, baked on stones in a Ferris-wheel-style gas oven, often get lost in wood-fire-crazed Sacramento.

Though this review focuses on the J Street Chicago Fire, I have visited the two Folsom locations enough times to know food and service are consistent across the chain.

Since the J Street location opened in 2007 (Sutter Street in Folsom was first, in 2003), the wood-fired wave of Hot Italian, Masullo, Pizza Rock, Federalist Public House and others has redirected the conversation, in culinary circles, toward mentions of blistered crusts and pizzaiolos. Also, a Major League Soccer team and a TV show got the same idea as the local chain in naming themselves.

But within circles of people who like to dine family-style, with kids and grandparents, the 280-seat midtown Chicago Fire remains a favorite. Eight years in, it’s still hard to snag one of its high-backed booths.

Chicago Fire’s thin crust, which is not noticeably blistered but uniformly crackerlike and flat from center to perimeter, first won my heart because it reminded me of (don’t judge) Round Table’s. The latter set my personal standards for crust in those youthful days before artisanal pizza was a thing.

As one matures, the palate begins to reject bell peppers that taste like too many days in the walk-in. Yet more essential preferences do not change. I’ve always been more drawn to pizzas with a high topping-to-crust ratio and base coat of sauce. Chicago Fire’s stellar thin-crust combination pizza, the dough for which is covered by a lively tomato sauce, hits that Round Table sweet spot. Except everything tastes higher-quality and fresher.

Chicago Fire CEO and corporate chef Eric Schnetz grew up in a Chicago suburb and studied Chicago’s famous pizzerias closely before opening his first restaurant here. Schnetz gets his sausage from a Chicago purveyor who supplies famous Windy City restaurants.

That sausage retains its moisture on the combination pie because Chicago Fire blankets it with mozzarella before the pizza hits the oven. This is a Chicago approach, Schnetz said, as is cutting thin-crust pies into party-size squares that lend themselves so handily to group outings.

Layering the cheese atop the meat also draws more attention to the Italian seasonings applied after it. That herbaceous finish helps lend distinction to a pie whose initial appeal is familiarity.

The comfort factor extends to the decor of the J Street Chicago Fire. Bricks walls, and the reds and blacks dominating the color scheme, reflect the hearty design aesthetic favored by Midwestern restaurants and, more locally, by the just-opened Iron Horse Tavern.

But whereas Iron Horse is a sun-strewn, indoor-outdoor affair, Chicago Fire feels, all year long, like a dimly lit respite from the winter weather outside – a place into which one ducks to escape the brutal Chicago wind.

Buffalo, N.Y., sits about 530 miles northeast of Chicago, but all demands of regional specificity vanish when one tastes Chicago Fire’s Buffalo wings. The coating, made from hot sauce, butter and vinegar, runs deep before turning spicy and bright, and the lightly breaded wings are cooked perfectly.

Like the thin-crust combination pizza, the Buffalo wings fall into our order-every-time category. So we expanded, on our recent visits, to menu items never previously tried, including a deep-dish Great Chicago Fire pizza (most house pies come in deep dish and thin-crust versions).

A flaky crust holds a mix of toppings – sausage, roast beef, giardiniera peppers and a touch of habanero sauce – that flirts with being overly intense before sticking with highly flavorful.

We missed that intensity in the deep-dish “spin and shroom” pie, which combines mushroom, spinach and five cheeses without adding up to much flavor. This pizza shows none of the personality of Zelda’s signature vegetable pizza, the “spinoccoli,” though I prefer Chicago Fire’s plainer crust to Zelda’s, which can taste too much of cornmeal.

In a bid to enliven Chicago Fire’s spinach-mushroom pie, we added sausage from our baked rigatoni. And though we were reluctant to sacrifice ingredients from a satisfying dish – the precisely al dente rigatoni showed off the kitchen’s baking skills – we were on to something with the sausage.

When we later spoke to Schnetz about Chicago Fire’s “stuffed” pies – deep-dish pies with more cheese and a second crust – he recommended ordering the stuffed spinach-mushroom, then adding sausage. So we did.

In this almost lasagnalike form, the spin and shroom triumphed. The sausage added peppery flavor and welcome chew. The toppings’ substantial weight seemed to make the crust more porous. It became a receptacle for other flavors while asserting a buttery flavor of its own.

This is why it’s good to reassess those sturdy local restaurants whose consistent quality we take as a given. When viewed with fresh eyes, the familiar yields its own discoveries.

Chicago Fire

2416 J St., Sacramento, 916-443-0440, www.chicagofire.com

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Beverage options: Specialty cocktails include the refreshing “Chicago Linen,” with Bulleit bourbon, fresh cucumber and ginger ale, and “Second City Cosmo,” which sounds very 2003 (when Chicago Fire started in Folsom) and Carrie and Samantha. The primarily Northern California wine list is long for a pizza place. Beers include the house Stockyard Red amber, brewed by American River Brewing from the restaurant’s recipe.

Vegetarian friendly: Yes

Gluten-free options: Yes. There’s a (non-housemade) gluten-free crust available, though it’s cooked in a kitchen where, as Chicago Fire’s Eric Schnetz pointed out, “flour is in the air.”

Noise level: Moderate to loud. Sports fans in the bar sometimes scream in unison. The place is big enough that you can sit far away from them.

Ambiance: Dimly lit, and darkly colored but still festive, with a mural of the Chicago skyline on one wall. We saw diners of all ages on our visits.

Overall

The place is comfortable – especially in those nice, high-backed booths, and the food consistently good. (It’s worth noting deep-dish pizzas take 35 minutes, and “stuffed” pizzas 40 minutes, to prepare.)

Food

The Buffalo wings and combination thin-crust pizza are personal favorites for years running. The intensely flavored Great Chicago Fire deep dish pizza and the nicely al dente rigatoni with sausage, both of which we tried for the first time recently, also impressed. Although the deep-dish spinach-mushroom pizza lacks character, its “stuffed” counterpart offers plenty of it, especially when one adds sausage.

Service  1/2

Attentive and friendly, though on one occasion, there was too much chit-chat among employees.

Value

Prices are reasonable, ranging from $7.75 for a personal thin-crust cheese pizza to the $25 range for the largest deep-dish and “stuffed” pizzas – and those pizzas can feed three people easily. Chicago Fire also sells a range of family-size salads for $15 or less, and pizza by the (substantial) slice at lunch, for $3.95.

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