Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Barnaby's Family Inn


Multiple Disclaimers----

I'm born and raised in Chicago. I do enjoy "Chicago Style Pizza" (deep dish) and could (and probably will) do an entire blog entry micro-analyzing the differences between Chicago pan, stuffed, and regular thin-crust pizza.

But this entry isn't about Chicago pizza. I mean, I like the big, meaty slabs that places like Gino's East and Malnati's cook up. And I'm a big guy and do like my "sassich".

But my all-time favorite pizza is the wonderful, cracker-thin stuff served up at Barnaby's Family Inn. Specifically, the Barnaby's on Caldwell in Niles.

For me, pizza is all about the crust. And Barnaby's is hands-down the best crust EVER. It's wafer thin, incredibly crispy and crackly, has a light dusting of cornmeal on the bottom for texture, and outer rim has this kind of braided, crimped quality that you remember from your grandma's homemade apple pies. In fact, the crust on a Barnaby's pizza really does have kind of a buttery, pastry crust kind of feel to it.

Going to Barnaby's (or at least the one in Niles, which I frequent) is an *experience*. It's almost always crowded. Any night you go in the summer, there are almost surely going to be scads of kids in sports uniforms because everyone goes there after little league games. There's a system. A protocol. And if you don't know it, you'll feel like an outsider. Your order and pay for your pizza at the register up front. If you're lucky, the surly, tanned, muscular guy will take your order and your money. He'll grunt at you, shift his toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other, and look you up and down somewhat disdainfully. Don't take it personally--he's like that to everyone.

If you want something to drink, you'll need to make your way over to the bar area, where you'll order and pay separate from your pizza order. Everything's self-serve. Place your orders, haul your drinks back to your booth, and wait for your pizza number to be called. Or, if you're like me, you can order by phone when you leave your house and then your pizza is generally ready right when you get your drinks.

As you sit and watch the kids running around, comment on how this is probably one of the last restaurants in the Chicago area in which people are still allowed to smoke, and wonder aloud about the ancient, hobbled busboy who you almost feel compelled to jump up and help when you see him try to clear tables, you'll eventually start getting impatient as you see others chowing down on their pizzas. Finally, you'll hear the unmistakable sound--"Number 83, your pizza is ready! 83!"

Once you get it back to your table and stock up on paper napkins, little cups of parmesan cheese and crushed red chiles, and those lovely four-inch in diameter paper plates they furnish you with, you'll be tempted to just tear in to your wonderful Barnaby's pizza.

STOP.

DO NOT EAT THE PIZZA. It is *insanely* hot. If you eat it right away you will sear multiple layers of skin off the top of your mouth which will hurt for days. And you won't even be able to taste the pizza. Force yourself to sit and wait for five minutes before you start eating. You can do it.

Barnaby's pizza always passes the 'crust test', where, when you hold just the edge of the crust, the whole piece stays sticking straight out. It's that crispy. Unless, of course, you load it down with too many ingredients. We always order one with pepperoni only and one with sausage and mushroom. They're both great, but very different. The pepperoni is the purist's Barnaby's pizza.

The other thing that's great about Barnaby's is that it has this weird kind of old-school pub-like atmosphere. Dark wood everywhere. A vague nautical theme. Some very strange stained glass and bottom-of-the-wine-bottle-type windows. And they keep it so dark in there. I've been there during the day sometimes and it's so dark inside that you kind of forget that it's daytime outside. Then, when you go out, the sun almost whacks you upside the head back to reality. It's surreal.

The best thing about Barnaby's is that, even in Chicago--a city known for its pizza--it's one of a kind. It's not Chicago-style--it's not any style. It's Barnaby's. It's been the same ever since I was a kid (although they got rid of the automated table signs where your number lights up when your pizza's ready), and it's just downright amazingly good pizza served in a wonderful, family-friendly setting.

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