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Remembering Master Pizza Maker Burt Katz

Photo from Katie Falzone

Remembering Master Pizza Maker Burt Katz

I originally wrote this article in October, 2015, after Burt Katz announced his retirement. Katz died Saturday, April 30, 2016. The story has been updated to honor his legacy.

You could get the impression that all the fuss over Burt’s Place was about the experience of eating there. Hidden on a residential street in the Chicago suburbs and with an unlisted phone number, it had the aura of a secret club. You didn’t need to knock three times but you did need to call ahead — preferably days ahead. Show up on a whim and Sharon, Burt’s wife, would kindly but firmly turn you away. Even if the tiny dining room was half empty.

So you called ahead, in your hand a paper menu given to you by someone already initiated into the ways of Burt’s. It said “Burt’s Place. Pizza for Adults. Call Pizza Order in Ahead!” If you didn't get a busy signal, Sharon, or perhaps Burt, answered, took your order, and assigned you a time. That was the exact time your pizza would come out of the oven and be served. So, if you wanted to settle in with a beer before the main course, you had to be early to be on time.

Once you were in, where were you? Your eccentric uncle’s basement, perhaps? It had that look. The rafters were stuffed with old ham radios and tube amps. A giant’s whisk, as long as a man is tall, hung as decoration. A plaque emblazoned with a Latin motto: when translated, it read “Jews make the best pizza.” Perhaps at another table was a family that lived around the corner. And across the dining room, tourists from Australia for whom Burt’s Place ticked a box on their “must do” list. They wanted a photo with Burt. He gruffly refused, busy making pizzas. He was the entire kitchen staff, after all.

But later in the night, he’d return to the Australians’ table, apron still on but hairnets removed from his head and beard, and pose for their photos, visibly tired but satisfied with another night's work done. He was undeniably an old man, his beard older than you, unless you’re over 40. He’d pose right next to the blown up cover of Saveur Magazine that featured a slice of his pizza. Then he’d sit in their booth to chat for a moment. The same booth Anthony Bourdain had sat in when he came to profile Burt for his television show.

Sharon came by to offer you another piece of your pizza. Because at Burt’s you do not help yourself to another piece, you wait for Sharon to come back around and get it for you.

So you could get the impression that all the fuss over eating at Burt’s Place was about the experience, but that was secondary. The great thing about Burt’s Place was the pizza. It was the greatest pizza I have ever eaten.

Others have described it better than I can. It had a thick crust, but it wasn’t typically heavy Chicago deep dish. The long-fermented dough produced a light, bready crust, the outside edges nearly black with crunchy carmelized cheese. The toppings carefully chosen and judiciously applied to create a Platonic ideal of pizza. In a time when the word “artisanal” has nearly lost meaning, Katz was truly a pizza artisan. He spent his life making great pizza, his resume a 52-year history of great Chicago pizza places: The Inferno, Gulliver's, Pequod's, and finally 26 years running Burt's Place. At Burt's, he made a certain amount of dough each morning for that day’s pizzas. He procured the produce and meat and cheese and tomatoes he needed for that days’ sauce and toppings. Later in the day, he assembled and baked every pizza himself, at just the right time so it would come out of the oven at the very moment the person who ordered it was sitting down to eat. That’s why you had to call ahead: so that Burt could serve you a perfect pizza.

Burt Katz made perfect pizzas. That’s what he did.

Burt’s Place closed in July, 2015, allowing time for Burt to recover from back pain that had been bothering him. Word broke in late October that he would not be returning. He was doing fine, we heard, but he had decided it was time to hang up the apron. Less than a year later and he is gone. 

The question arises, could I have eaten there more often? Should I have? As many times as I ate there, the answer will always be yes.

So long, Burt, and thanks for all the pizzas.