A trip to Burt's is an appointment.
"We don't do this because we're selfish but because we don't you waiting around," Burt said. And also because Burt and Sharon are normally the only two employees.
Incidentally, that phone you call? It's a rotary phone. The restaurant's phone number is unlisted (but easily found online, 847-965-7997). Burt doesn't own a cell; doesn't have cable; when Anthony Bourdain profiled Burt on a 2009 episode of "No Reservations," it was the first time Burt had even heard of the celebrity chef. When I ask about his lack of a website, he picks up a pencil and waves it: "I have paper, and I have a pencil. What do I need a computer for? My computer is a pencil and piece of paper. OK, write that down."
Random but perfect
The building that houses Burt's Place was built in the late 19th century. It was a blacksmith shop; there's a picture of it from the 1880s on the back wall. After he bought the building, to retain some link to its history, he accented the facade with a cascade of rounded logs, which gives the outside of Burt's Place the incongruous appearance of a semi-completed log cabin in the middle of a residential neighborhood. It's random, but perfect.
Because Burt's Place is pretty random. The front window features several Marx Brothers figurines, a Hamilton Beach blender, old radio microphones. The dining room is a riot of frayed rugs and antique technology, most of it collected by Burt: old telephones, shortwave radios, radios from military destroyers, old radio microphones with the station call letters still attached. Ancient projectors. A post-war TV with a 3-inch screen. A giant whisk and a giant ruler. Ham radio frequency cards. A souvenir bat from the 1932 World Series (Chicago Cubs versus New York Yankees).
On the ceiling, a rendition of Michelangelo's painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: the famous image of God giving life to Adam, except someone put Burt's wizened face over God's wizened face.
"I like real things," Burt said. "I like stuff that's real, people who are real." He ran his hands over a large, life-size doll, the face sewn on, the clothing clearly handcrafted. "Someone spent months on this, for the love of doing something right, which is always better than something stamped out. I don't understand that mentality. I like real things. That's what I understand."
Burt grew up in Wicker Park; his mother died when he was 10, his father died while he was in the Marines. He studied history at Roosevelt University. He has no culinary background. He said he ended up in the pizza business because it was "one of those things. You see a sign, and one day later you're a NASCAR driver or a pizza shop owner."
Despite the long beard and anxiety over corporate sensibilities, his son, Adam, a Chicago homicide detective, said, "Don't let the beard fool you; he's no hippy. I just think he takes the attention his pizza gets in stride. He's flattered, but not the kind who needs to be patted on the back to be proud of what he accomplished."
Ric Lindahl, a retired schoolteacher from Skokie, said he actually prefers Gulliver's now to Burt's, but he can't stay away from Burt's, "because when I was in high school, I was in rock bands and we would go to Pequod's after practice, and at this stage in my life, Burt's a reminder of that time. But it should be said, the Pequod's called Pequod's is not Burt's Pequod's."
In fact, if there's irony here it's that despite Burt's iconic status in Chicago pizza annals, Gulliver's and Pequod's now feel like intentional, not-entirely-friendly repudiations of Burt and his philosophies. Gulliver's, which Burt opened with Jerry Freeman (who died in 2006), expanded from its tiny storefront into a sprawling, pseudo-Greek-ish revival pizza joint/antique shop/quasi salute to Liberace, with enough gilded mirrors and lamps to give Versailles a headache. (Burt left soon after opening: "I was more interested in what was on the plate than being a great host.")
And as for Pequod's, Burt said he simply burned out. He sold it in 1986 to businessman Keith Jackson, who, when asked about Burt, said, "I never had the displeasure of being Burt's partner." Asked to elaborate, he said Burt's famous crust is actually the result of Burt's being "a sloppy individual." He also said that comparing Pequod's pizza now to Burt's pizza is "like comparing a French dining experience to a meal of Kraft macaroni and cheese."
Besides tweaking Pequod's pizza recipe, he also tweaked the old whale logo that Burt created for Pequod's. Which was a whale. Now it's a whale in a thong. Asked if his distaste for Burt had anything to do with Burt's opening around the corner, Jackson said that Burt was within his rights to do that but that his moving so close to his old place was "disappointing."
'You chew slow'
On a Sunday night, I watched Burt come out of the kitchen, survey the room, examine the pizzas. "I'm watching your chew rate," he said to a surprised diner. "You chew slow. You chew slow in relation to the amount of pizza you're eating."
"Huh?" the man said, confused.
"You do," Burt said, then walked off.
The kitchen in Burt's Place seems like the kitchen you would find on a submarine — built 70 years ago. It's dark and spotless, and there's a single light illuminating the table where Burt makes pizza. Above this table is a row of clothespins, which is how Burt tracks orders. His oven looms behind him. And on a shelf overlooking everything is a darkroom timer, used for each pizza; like the rounded black pans stacked across the top of the oven, the timer is coated in grease so thick and gnarled it's now a rough outline of its former self.
Burt has had two heart attacks, two open-heart surgeries and three angioplasty operations. So every morning at 5:30, he works out at a gym. Then, around 7 a.m., he comes in and starts making dough. Once that's started, he heads to local markets and buys tomatoes for sauce, mushrooms, fresh spinach. The only corporate food supplier you will ever see pull up out front in a truck, he says, is his beer distributor.
When I asked if he would ever consider expanding, he scoffed: "It would destroy this. I don't want anything bigger. I want to do this well, and I would only want someone involved in it who has the heart for it."
When I told him Pequod's is moving next year from his old 1,600-square-foot shanty of a restaurant into a new, two-story 7,000-square-foot McMansion, he said nothing. He walked over to the foyer and found the guest book and brought it back.
Note after note read: "Great pizza!" "Best pizza ever!" "My favorite!" "Incredible pizza! Thanks Burt!"
He has three thick books of comments like this, but he said he never reads them.
"Why? This is not for my ego," he said, smoothing the pages, his dark knitted cap sinking to his brow and a slight crack creeping into his cranky, no-nonsense steamroller of a voice. "You know why I have this? For my grandkids, and their kids, who will never know my wife or myself. So they know what I built. So they will see what people wrote, and it will all make sense and maybe has some meaning."
Burt by the numbers
- 74: Years of age
- 49: Years married to his wife, Sharon
- 48: Years in the pizza business
- 4: Number of pizza shops owned since 1963
- 40.5: Years since his last shave
- 2: Number of open-heart surgeries