For years, folks have been feverishly forecasting what the next great Chipotle could be; what fast-casual restaurant business model could succeed the way Chipotle's customizable, fresh, affordable format has. Many have tried, many have failed. I still haven't forgiven Wicker Park for allowing that Covo Gyro Market to slip through the cracks, and I probably never will. But a new contender has entered the ring, and it's full of promise. Blaze Pizza is already popular in various sectors of the country, but it recently opened its first Chicago location in Lakeview. The concept is similar to Chipotle in that customers approach the assembly line-style counter and customize their pizza to their liking. Or they can just pick one of the specialty flavors off the menu. Either way, Blaze Pizza staffers assemble the pizza a la minute, whisking it off to an oven to cook for a few minutes. In the wrong hands, the concept could falter, but Blaze is doing it right, from the high-quality dough to the pristine toppings, thoughtful accents, and s'mores for dessert. Here are a few reasons why Blaze matters:
(Barbeque chicken pizza at Blaze)
1). Blaze Pizza boasts some top-tier investors such as Maria Shriver, movie producer John Davis, and Boston Red Sox co-owner Tom Werner. And when Maria Shriver tells you to eat something, you shut up and eat it. And you'll like it.
2). The made-from-scratch dough sets the basis for the pies. Dough undergoes a 24-hour fermentation period, which produces a crust that is light, tender, and delicately crisp around the exterior once it cooks. It holds up well to any toppings, which aren't overloaded.
3). Speaking of not overloading, sauces and accoutrements are assembled with care and precision. For once in my life, I actually enjoyed a barbeque chicken pizza because there was no treacly barbeque sauce bastardizing and usurping the entire thing. At Blaze, all the ingredients are added atop the dough aside from the sauce, along with the welcome addition of Gorgonzola. After it's cooked, the sauce is added as a modest drizzle, just enough to enliven the pie without inundating.
4). Pizzas cook fast. 180 seconds to be precise. Sip on some blood orange lemonade while you wait.
5). Blaze also offers gluten-free dough and vegan cheeses, so as to accomodate a wider swath of clientele.
6). S'MORES. This is perhaps the first instance in a restaurant where I've actually enjoyed s'mores. There really isn't anything that can compare to a fireside s'more, unless of course the restaurant has the capacity to cook s'mores fresh in a pizza oven, as they do at Blaze. The simple, classic sandwich of graham-y cookies, marshmallow, and chocolate are placed in a small paper bag on the edge of the oven and left to get warm and gooey for a few minutes.
Bonus: Blaze has big plans for Chicago. The burgeoning pizza empire aims to open upwards of 15 more outlets in the city, starting with locations in Streeterville and near Presidential Towers in the West Loop.
- Matt Kirouac