A visit to Burt’s Place in Morton Grove doesn’t start when you walk into the door of the man-cave-of-a-pizzeria. It begins the day before, or two days before, perhaps a week prior, when you call and place your order. I called about 30 hours in advance.
“I’d like to, um, request a pizza tomorrow night?”
The “um” and “?” are a result of my fear of being yelled at. See, the subject of Burt’s Place has come up a number of times in the past two years. It’s owned and run by Burt Katz, father of the “caramelized crust” and former owner of well known pizza joints Inferno, Gulliver’s and Pequod’s. He’s a pizza celebrity with nearly two decades of crustiness under his belt. He’s also a pizza personality, and the mention of Burt’s Place has always been followed by warnings and etiquette suggestions. “You have to call early.” “They won’t serve you if you just show up.” “Know what you want when you call.” “Don’t be late.”
Hence, my fear.
“Sure, what would you like to order?”
The ordering process turned out to be perfectly normal human interaction. I ordered a large pizza with half garlic and sausage (Neil) and half tomato and black olive (me).
“What time would you like to come in?”
“Is 8:30 too late?”
“Not at all. But get here at 8:15. Your pizza will be on the table at 8:30 whether you’re here or not.”
We got there by 8:10. As we were locking up our bicycles across from the restaurant, a garden-gnome of a man skedaddled out of the building, wearing a bright, white beard, a red shirt and blue jeans. Quick on his feet, he began messing around with the building, closing an awning or something. “I think that’s Burt!” I said, snapping a photo. His elfin moves defied the years that the beard implied.
We walked inside the cavernous restaurant. Crap filled every inch of every wall. This is what the flair-like chain restaurants (Cracker Barrel) aspire to be, but at Burt’s there was something genuinely hoarder-like about it all. We were greeted brusquely, by someone who was not Burt, and asked when our reservation was. There was a single table available, and it had a pizza on it–not ours, we were told. This pizza was for a couple who had yet to show. We waited about 15 minutes for the pizza orderers to arrive. Then, Burt came out. “Whose is this?” he asked. “Where are they?” he continued. When he found out they were a half hour late, he called it.
“Clear it away. Let these people sit.”
And so we sat. Soon after, our pizza came out. And with it, Burt. I did not expect Burt to be a table talker. With all the stories, all the warnings, we thought he’d be more of a kitchen dweller and a “finish your pie!” admonisher. But whatever Burt is, he took a liking to us. And for the next hour and a half, we got to know his story.
He told us about his daily routine (up at five, two hours at the gym, into work!), his dislikes (technology–no use for it!), his history with pizza (he only owned one of the Pequod’s, which is actually about a block away from Burt’s Place, and has nothing to do with the one in Lincoln Park.) He asked how we’d found out about the place, explaining that it’s small and he doesn’t advertise. Then he detailed his celebrity interactions with Anthony Bourdain (whom he’d never heard of prior to taping the show at Burt’s Place) and other television/news the place had received.
He talked about his guest book, and how he asks for everyone to sign in. “Have you ever heard of, what is it, Lord of the Dance?” he asked. Of course we had.
“Well that guy was in here.”
Me: “Michael Flatley?”
Me: “Wow. He owns a castle in Ireland, you know.”
“Well he signed the guest book.”
He then brought the guest book over to prove it, and, with his permission, I took a photo of Michael Flatley’s signature, “Great Pizza BURT!” it read, in almost girlish script. Then I asked to take a picture of Burt, and he was more than happy to oblige. He even had a spot picked out, near the kitchen, where he thought the lighting was best (the picture above might suggest otherwise, but how nice of him to try!), and asked his staff to snap the photo.
With full bellies (the pizza was so-so–the thick crust needed salt and the pizza was desperate for more cheese–but, still, well worth the experience) and photographic evidence, we biked back to the city, thinking about pizza, castles and elfin men the whole way home.