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Seven Hills

Boston-area exploration, travel notes, crafty things, and other Somervillainy.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Pizza Chronicles: Lou Malnati's

The final note on our trip to Chicago has to be about pizza. It wouldn't be a trip to Chicago without deep-dish pizza, and we managed two rounds of it in just four days, a fact to which the straining waistband of my jeans can still testify.

I thought I knew it all about Chicago pizza, but even though its recipe dates back to 1943, somehow I had never heard about Lou Malnati's. Uno's, Due's, Gino's, Giordano's, Leona's, Bacino's, Edwardo's ... yes. Lou Malnati's, no.

So for the first night of our visit, we headed to the Lincoln Park branch for dinner. It was a quiet evening at Lou's ... we waited about ten minutes for a table, yet once we were seated there were only a few other parties in the dining room. The atmosphere of the restaurant was nothing to write home about - it kind of felt like someone's recently renovated rec room, brightly lit with a big sofa and TV screen smack in the middle of the room, but we enjoyed looking at the framed magazine covers of Chicago sports figures decorating the walls, mainly because it was fun to look at the names of various managers and employees on the address labels still stuck to the covers.

We ordered a plain cheese, deep-dish pizza with a butter crust - an option I had not encountered before at a pizza restaurant, but the menu said it was "Lou's favorite," plus I'm never one to argue with butter. It turned out this was our favorite thing about the pizza: crisp, crunchy, lightly butter-flavored. I found the tomato sauce a little bland, but it did taste very fresh. As for the cheese, I'm used to a bit more of it on my Chicago-style pizza, but that's really more the realm of the stuffed pie (my favorite of which would be Giordano's, our choice for Chicago Pizza Night #2).

All in all it was very tasty, but still didn't quite measure up (strike me down for saying so) to the similar style of pizza at San Francisco's Little Star. I don't know, I'll have to try it again next time I'm in the Bay Area and see if it's really as superior as I remember it, or if it had just been so long since I'd had the genuine Chicago article that any version would taste sublime. It's an experiment I will be happy to repeat as many times as necessary.

You'd think I would have gotten the Malnati's recommendation from a Chicago friend or relative, but in fact I read about it first on the blog of an L.A.-based Chicago native personally unknown to me, something I found because this blogger is also the brother-in-law of Jeff Tweedy, frontman of Wilco, a favorite band of mine. (The blog itself is quite good beyond its Wilco-related content, though that portion of Danny Miller's posts are very interesting, too, and part of a common, Los Angeles-influenced theme about the everyday lives of public figures.)

After that, I stumbled across an interview in which Jeff Tweedy listed his favorite Chicago eateries, prominently featuring Lou Malnati's (as well as the downtown diner Lou Mitchell's), and after that I was determined we would go. Yes, I like this band (and its singer's extended family) so much, I even had to try their favorite pizza. We also got to see them play on our last night in town at the spectacular Pritzker Pavilion, with the lit-up Chicago skyline all around. The perfect finale to a long weekend enjoying the many simple pleasures, cheese-laden and otherwise, of my favorite hometown.

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Dear Phlebotomist,

I like to think I'm not a whole lot more squeamish than the next person, but the truth is that I can get a little light-headed when I have blood drawn. I realize this problem may be "psychological," as so many of you have been kind enough to let me know, but as relaxed as I try to be about it, the fact remains that it still happens, and has ever since the time in high school when I went to donate blood, but couldn't make it past the point where the nurse practically wrung out my fingertip, trying to get a big enough drop to check my blood type. Ah, the sweet perfume of smelling salts!

I try to be brave, but when you complain about my "thin veins," then smack at my arm, ask to see the other arm, then doubtfully palpate the tourniquet-bound arm some more, it doesn't exactly inspire confidence that you know what you are doing. And after you've successfully located your vein and I've waited out the procedure, grimly staring at a little watercolor landscape postcard, absurdly repeating the artist's name to myself to maintain my distraction - "Prendergast, Prendergast, Prendergast" - if, after that, I tell you I'm a little light-headed and need to lean over and lower my head for a minute, please don't laugh at my cowardliness and tell me to stand up, go in the next room, figure out by myself how to make the big padded chair in there recline, and lie down ... even if you really need the chair where I am currently sitting.

Because as inconvenient as it might be for me to sit there for another 60 seconds with my head between my knees, it will slow you down even more when, on the way to that little room, I pass out cold on your floor. And who'll be laughing then?

Thanks much,

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

My Kind of Sole

It's years since I lived in Chicago, but in all the other cities I've visited I still haven't found a shoe store I love as much as Lori's, "The Sole of Chicago." Every time I go back I try to steal at least a half hour there, whether I really need new shoes or not.

The store stocks quite a range of shoe styles, from cheap and trendy to luxe leather designer, and that's what makes it great, but the reason I truly love it is this: all the sizes are right there on the floor, available for shoppers to try on at will.

It really bugs me to have to ask a clerk to go get my size when I'm shopping for shoes. You try a few pairs, they don't fit or look bad once they're on -- how many times can you send the poor person back to the stockroom? Once, as a teenager, I tried on nearly every shoe at the Parkway Slipper Box on Diversey, and I'll never forget the look of exhaustion and defeat on the face of the poor man who helped me, knowing long before I did that it was a lost battle. At some point, you have to stop trying stuff on, even if you're not done looking for your perfect shoe. At Lori's, you could try on shoes until the cows come home, kick over the lantern, and burn down Mrs. O'Leary's shed, and then try on shoes some more.

I've only ever seen this set-up at places like Payless and shoe outlets, never at a store that carries new, stylish, well-made shoes. If there are other places like this please tell me, because I want to go to them.

Incidentally, Lori's is where I experienced my first credit card rejection. I was 18 or 19 and decided I'd use the family "emergency only" card to buy an expensive silver necklace. (I presume I planned to pay my parents back for it, but our records of this transaction have conveniently been mislaid.) The sale didn't go through, perhaps because the card had only ever been used to purchase my flights to and from college. I was visibly mortified, but my salesperson, Lori herself in those days, was the essence of reassuring breeziness, thus passing on to me the womanly art of rationalizing credit card debt and charging it in the name of style. "Oh, that happens all the time," she told me. "It doesn't mean anything. Do you have another card?"

Apparently I did have another card, because I still have the necklace. Lori's still has lots of great accessories in addition to all those shoes, by the way: this time I walked away with a new fall bag. And, reader? I charged it.

The store has several branches now, but I noticed Lori there in the original Armitage shop on this recent visit, talking business with one of her associates, and she looked pretty much exactly as I remember her back then. How does she do that? It must be something in the shoes.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Museum of Fluffy Chicks and Dollhouses

Continuing our nostalgic tour of Chicago, Daniel and I made time to visit the Museum of Science and Industry one afternoon of our trip. It was a long, two-busride trip to the South Side, reminding me why I rarely got to go there when I was growing up (and why it was therefore my Holy Grail of most longed-for childhood outings).

It was also beloved by us kids for being the most interactive of Chicago's museums, with actual "rides": a crazy petroleum exhibit where you traveled slowly through a sort of crude oil Tunnel of Love, sitting in a space-age pod and learning about the life of hydrocarbons, as well as the Coal Mine, which counted as a ride because it involved a journey on a coal elevator. The lines for these attractions rivaled those at the most popular roller-coaster at an amusement park.

My memory of the place was as a massive palace of science, with level upon level of dazzling displays, more than could be explored in a week, much less an afternoon. Revisiting it, it still felt big, but we easily covered most of its square footage within a couple hours, and the overall science content was incredibly minimal. Its one standout technological feat, however, was as a time machine back to the early '70s. Very little, to my immense delight, had changed since my last visit. Let's begin our tour, shall we?

First up, the ever-popular chick hatchery!


Help, are these guys alive? Turned out they were just resting after the hard work of busting out of their shells. We saw a few feeble pecking motions from within still-unhatched eggs, but no actual hatching this time.

The giant heart was always a favorite on school field trips, but now I'm not quite sure why. It's just a giant heart that you can walk through, with a sonorous beating sound piped in. Perhaps the mere fact of its giantness was enough cause for delight.

And then there is the joy of the small: a model Chicago, with trains running through it.

Seattle was there, too.

Also my much beloved Fairy Castle, the dollhouse to end all dollhouses. As we were walking up to the museum doors, a little girl gazed up at me the way kids sometimes do, and in my own excitement I cornily asked her, "Are you going to see the dollhouse?" And she looked back at me like, "I have no idea what you're talking about, and please get away from me, crazy lady." Anyway, here's a dusky shot of the jewel-encrusted Princess's Bedroom. I hope the little girl did get to see it, though perhaps she's more interested in coal mines.

Yesterday's Main Street offers a convincing stroll through Old Chicago, also quite dusky ...

... and not a little spooky in its way.

And then there are the exhibits that aren't trying to be old, but have clearly reached their sell-by date, like this presentation having something to do with breakfast.

But that's part of what I love about this place. The building itself is a relic from the 1893 World Columbian Exposition, and so much inside it is a time capsule from a decade that I never would have dreamed would someday seem as long-ago and quaint as the era immortalized by the old-time Main Street facades.

Museum of Science and Industry, please don't ever change.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Threadless Central

We felt pretty lucky on our Chicago visit, catching buses quickly, happening to visit the pricey Museum of Science and Industry on free day, stuff like that. Among our lucky moments was stumbling upon the new Threadless retail storefront, the first of its kind, on its opening morning (a few days before its Friday Grand Opening).

I didn't know a whole lot about this company other than hearing about it from time to time, but the clean, stylish, techo-savvy decor of the shop had me instantly smitten. Each T-shirt design was stacked beneath a sleek new flat-screen monitor displaying it on various models and in different shirt/hoodie styles.

The pièce de résistance would have to be the set-up that lets you photograph yourself inside the store, then run outside to see your face appear on a screen atop one of the T-shirts in the display window.

Not easy to see with the daylight reflection, but it was there!

On a more practical note, the store even has dressing rooms - kind of unusual for a place that only sells T-shirts, but such a good idea. At least for me, I would otherwise have chosen my shirt in the wrong size.

The staff was super friendly and understandably excited about the store's opening. (They gamely posed for the photo above, even after I told them it was for a blog that gets "as many as ten readers a day." Whoohoo, major press coverage!) They were handing out reusable Threadless shopping bags - bring it back next time, and you get a dollar off your purchase. If we'd still been in Chicago last Friday we also could have gotten free tickets to a concert at the Metro celebrating the grand opening.

So which shirt did I get? It was a lucky week, so I went with this one: the Luckiest T-Shirt Ever.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Windy City Interlude

The last time I had a specific reason to go home to Chicago was five years ago for a cousin's wedding, and with no upcoming occasion in sight, it seemed time to go back for no reason at all. I guess I can't technically call Chicago "home" anymore, with my parents gone and not living there myself, but even so that's what it still feels like. We got into town fairly early on Sunday morning, though when you hop the train from the airport the CTA terminal feels like eternal midnight in some movie like "Blade Runner" or "Tron."

I did my high school speech class "informative speech" on the pretty sherbet-colored glass-wall construction at O'Hare, brand-new at the time, and chosen as my topic mainly because I liked the pretty sherbet colors. Daniel, my patient traveling companion, was treated to fun facts such as these throughout our visit. "That's where I went to camp, the one where all we did was play Red Rover all day! And this is the camp is where I was a camp counselor. This is the bad school my father threatened to send me to when I was being bratty. That's where Woolworth's used to be." And so on.

Is anything more tedious than the memory tour of someone else's town? Yet in spite of all the minutia I couldn't help but share, there was so much I kept to myself. The place where my babysitter took me after camp, where I had my first taste of frozen yogurt (chocolate, and with a strong yogurty taste that's so different from the bland soft serve of today). The stretch of Lake Shore Drive near where we lived at Melrose Street, which turns up as a recurring setting in my dreams, vast and deserted. Places where nothing of note ever happened at all, but seeing them again after so long triggered the memory of past feelings, the general mood of being twelve and coming home from school, the same way a smell memory transports you with such immediacy.

We had quite a few hours to kill before we could check in to our condo rental, and so, bags on shoulders, we trudged around the city, packing a week's worth of sightseeing into one day.

First a visit to Wicker Park, because the Blue Line of the L was stopping there due to construction. The first time I visited this neighborhood, about 15 years ago, it was still sketchy enough that my cab driver refused to drop me off at the intersection I requested, and instead turned off the meter, drove me around until we found the exact address where I was going, and waited until I went in the door. Not anymore - it's still super hip, but is crammed with glossy loft buildings and market-appropriate chain stores like American Apparel. I'm used to the upscalification of urban American neighborhoods, but it still felt strange and wrong to see women teetering by in expensive high heels clutching their status bags. At least for that morning it was to our benefit though - we had a fantastic breakfast of huevos rancheros at a loungy place called Rodan before hoisting up our bags and continuing on to kill some more time.

We took a bus towards the lake and spent a few minutes resting at North Avenue Beach (first fudgisicle, starting point of high school's annual fund-raiser walkathon along the lakefront) and then moved on to Lincoln Park Zoo, selected in part because we'd be able to sit down with our bags while we watched the seals. The seal habitat was a lot nicer since the last time I'd seen it, but I can't say the same for the Lion House, a sad hall of small enclosures in which paced large, frustrated felines, one to a cage.

Maybe there is more to these enclosures than I realize - time in an outdoor space for each big cat, or a feeling of security in the limited area - but to the uneducated eye it doesn't look good. The back wall of each exhibit area is decorated with a scenic vista designed to make the space look like the boundless reaches of the great outdoors, but they aren't fooling anyone. Just as we were leaving, the male African lion entered his den (at least he has a large outdoor area to share with some lady friends), stood facing the crowd that quickly gathered before him, and roared and roared. It didn't seem brave or majestic though, just really sad, especially with the faded '70s jungle backdrop behind him. I know that, given a chance, the beast could rip my head off, but at that moment all I saw was the helplessness of his plight. As the people all stood around pointing and exclaiming, swinging their children onto their shoulders to get a better look, Daniel commented, "I bet none of these animals ever thought they'd end up being captured by the monkeys."

(Unspoken Lincoln Park Zoo memory: at the end of my first day of school, being taken there by my dad, having my picture taken astride a glossy statue of a lion, and thinking school was great because it meant Dad would pick me up afterwards and take me to the zoo every single day.)

At last it was time to catch a bus up to the apartment where we'd be staying, the 151 Sheridan Devon, iconic in my youth because I took it back and forth to school every day for eight years (and if you read the Yelp reviews, yes, lots of crazy people rode it back then, too). A quick ride through the park and up the drive, and we were at the vacation rental building, an address I'd chosen in part because it was right in my old neighborhood, across from a nice part of the park, and with a gorgeous lake view as a bonus.

But what I didn't realize was that the view from our apartment would look right smack out at the last building my parents lived in before they moved away to New York. Even though I'd left for college by then, I still had my own bedroom (Mom and Dad were sweethearts), so it felt like I'd more or less lived there myself, too.

Sometimes you can go home again.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Back to School

My school days may be forever behind me now, but when September rolls around I can still watch "Freaks and Geeks" and it's just like being back in high school. The same excruciating pain, but a whole lot funnier.

Actually, the school in "Freaks and Geeks" isn't much like the one I went to. Mine was a private Catholic school, and comparatively small, and as I told my husband while we were watching an episode the other night, "we had subtler forms of social humiliation." But although subtle, they were no less effective. I guess I shouldn't complain - for most of my four years I had a nice, small group of friends, and nothing really truly bad ever happened to me - but we all have our battle scars. (Hiding in the bathroom to furtively eat your lunch, anyone? Oh the memories.)

I was thinking about how in many ways the defining theme of the show is how much Lindsay, the smart "good girl," has to learn from the bad kids she so wants to be accepted by. She might be a "mathlete," but there's a whole realm of human nature she doesn't understand, everything a sheltered good girl with nice parents doesn't learn until she starts hanging out with the streetwise "freaks." I myself didn't have much of a desire to hang out with "the bad kids" in high school (that came later), but I can relate to having felt desperate to fit in and hopelessly lost about how to do it.

I came across the blog of one of my high school classmates the other day - the only one I've ever found, actually. I was led there by Facebook, another school deja vu (I feel like half the people I know popped up on it all in the last week - Facebook, you're on fire!) and as I browsed through the blog's archives, full of interesting, expressive posts about her creative life and her young family, it made me happy to see what a nice life this woman seems to have. I remember her as very eccentric, rather extravagantly so, and occasionally paying the price for so unabashedly being herself. We were pretty friendly with each other, but I know I still gave her a hard time once or twice, and for what? Wearing a bindi on her forehead one day? And this was decades before Madonna did it. The girl had vision!

I don't know that she was particularly unhappy at the time - she had a group of friends of her own, and her own thing going on - but let's just say neither of us would have been elected Homecoming Queen if our school had such a thing. (Wait, did we? It's telling that I can't remember.) I guess I just felt good to know that being set free in the great big world had given her unique peculiarities the room they needed to unfold. High school just isn't big enough for some personalities - they need a bigger field in which to grow.

So high school classmate, I salute you. Remember the day you wore a veil draped over your face, and our history teacher made a crack about journeying in the Sahara? I do. You had a lot more nerve than most of us.