Although many claim the crown, nobody really knows for sure who invented the deep-dish Chicago-style pizza. "It's an enigma wrapped in a pie crust," according to pizza historian Jeff Ruby.
But, regardless of who claims responsibility for this gut-busting bit of culinary glory, one thing seems certain: That first heavy-duty pie came out of the kitchen at what would come to be known as Pizzeria Uno, located at 29 E. Ohio St. on Chicago's north side, in 1943.
A lot of tomato sauce has gone under the bridge since those halcyon days. Uno begat a second Chicago restaurant, Due, in 1955 and then an enormous chain of restaurants in over 200 locations known as Uno Chicago Grills, one of which is found at Clearwater Crossing.
The first thing to note about Uno Chicago Grill is that, unlike its progenitors up north, the word "pizzeria" is not included in its name. According to the menu, the franchise "broadened" its menu in 1994, placing its emphasis on being a full-service, casual dining destination. Pizzas are still on offer, but now they are joined by a wide array of other grub, ranging from buffalo chicken quesadillas to grilled mahi-mahi with mango salsa.
But Uno Chicago Grill didn't stop with its something-for-everyone menu makeover. It also brought a new attitude to its food preparation.
This new regime is reflected in a couple of awards the chain has received. In the past couple of years, Uno Chicago Grills have been named America's No. 1 Healthiest Chain Restaurant by Health Magazine
and ranked No. 4 Family Friendly by Parent Magazine
These kudos do a pretty good job of reflecting the dining experience that Uno Chicago Grills aim at providing. The diverse spread of its menu and the price points therein appear to be intended primarily for families with kids.
On the rainy March evening when we stopped by, the air conditioning seemed switched to high, perhaps for cooling youthful energy levels. Although my companion and I are both crazy about pizza in all its forms, we were particularly interested in putting Uno's healthy offerings to the test.
My companion opened with a bowl of veggie soup ($4.89), a commodious bowl of a light, low-fat, tomato-based broth full of sliced carrots, zucchini, onions, corn, spinach and more. The serving was generous, but the flavor was noncommittal.
I tried a house salad ($3.49) with Caesar dressing and an order of onion strings ($6.99), drawn as I was to the promise of a horseradish/ jalapeño dipping sauce. The strings of sliced and fried onion were moderately greasy; the sauce was a disappointment, lacking the sinus-clearing zing its ingredients promised.
As stated, my companion and I couldn't bring ourselves to stray too far from the stuff that made Uno famous. We decided, though, to explore updated variations on the chain's venerable theme. My companion ordered an individual deep-dish Farmer's Market ($9.49) and I tried the Mediterranean flatbread pizza ($9.49).
Of the two, the Farmer's Market had an edge thanks to its substantial but surprisingly light crust. It lacked the buttery quality associated with its Chicago cousin. And the inclusion of carmelized onions, along with eggplant, sun-dried tomatoes, pesto, spinach, mozzarella and Romano cheeses, made for a satisfying, if somewhat suburban combination.
The same could be said for the Mediterranean. The crust was on the soft side for my taste, but the toppings -- tomatoes, spinach, kalamata olives, pesto and feta -- were all fresh. The menu promised a topping of fresh basil, but this usually aromatic herb seemed AWOL -- or perhaps the spinach overwhelmed it. In both cases, the pesto could have used a healthy dose of garlic.
Margaritas, one mixed with pomegranate, in particular, are now a point of pride at Uno (though the menu doesn't list a price; it's $8.99). We tried one for grins. It was tasty, but, like so many fruit-flavored cocktails, not really recommended for anyone who likes their liquor sincere.
But don't go to Uno to drink. Introduce the kids to one of the wonders of the gustatory world instead -- and make sure to include the sausage.