IT’S NEWS THAT FANS HAVE BEEN expecting for some time, but Burt’s Place, the Morton Grove pizza joint that seemed like a forgotten relic of the 1960s even more than most old pizza parlors, has closed for good. According to a poignant post by Jeff Sanders (aka Buddy Roadhouse) on LTHForum, after some health problems led to a hiatus in the summer, owner Burt Katz has confirmed that the restaurant will not reopen.

The late-in-life blooming of Burt’s Place, thanks to internet attention in the last decade, is a weird and emblematic story of how the internet has changed how we eat—and talk about what we ate. Burt’s went from utter obscurity to TV fame, with Anthony Bourdain proclaiming it the first deep dish (actually pan) pizza he’d ever actually liked. But as Lindsay Lohan discovered, fame and happiness may not be the same thing. And the risk of an internet community that seeks out the obscure is that it may destroy what it exposes to the world.

It was Sanders, who works in TV but gets his online name from the line of barbecue sauces he markets, who brought Burt’s to LTHForum’s attention way back in 2006. He popped up in a thread on Pequod’s, a two-store pizza chain founded, but long ago sold, by Burt Katz, to point out that Burt was still in the business and making even better pizzas than Pequod’s just around the corner of their Morton Grove location.

The assertion was greeted with skepticism, a closeknit community closing ranks against a newbie with a tall claim, but a few also reacted with sufficient curiosity to check it out. They were impressed: like Pequod’s, it had the unique caramelized cheese crust, hard enough to slice your finger on, but it seemed subtler, more artisanal than the Pequod’s version. In no time, Burt’s was a board favorite, one of “ours.”

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Beyond the pizza, though, Burt’s was a strange place—like having hippie grandparents who baked pizzas in their living room. Which was decorated with old radios, circus toys, Esco statuettes of vintage movie stars and other quirky, slightly creepy collectibles. Eccentricity by no means stopped there; Burt stopped shaving one day in the 1970s, and his long gray beard hasn’t been trimmed since. When it got busier you had to call ahead to reserve a place—not for yourself, but for your pizza’s time in the oven. Which was an act complicated by the fact that the place had no listed number (it wasn’t precisely unlisted, but to find it you had to know to look up Katz, Burt).

But it wasn’t busy at first. The first time I went (with my fellow LTHForum co-founder Gary Wiviott), we had Burt and his wife Sharon to ourselves, with enough time between making pizzas for him to demonstrate the toy ferris wheel that hung high on a shelf. That would soon change, as more and more LTHers frequented the place, first making it locally famous, then nationally when Anthony Bourdain was referred to it by Louisa Chu (who’d appeared in his Paris episode) and a dinner was shot there with the background full of LTHers. (To be precise, members of one faction of LTHers by that point.) Around the same time, a Burt’s pan pizza was the symbol of Chicago on the cover of a Chicago issue of Saveur.

The problem was, Burt was already past retirement age the day we first walked into a forgotten, infrequently visited Burt’s Place, with the air of a place that might turn out never to have existed at all. In this joint out of time, a few pizzas a night seemed a good retirement pace—but suddenly Burt and Sharon, well into their 70s, found themselves running a hot restaurant which was packed every night. Our attention and the amplifying power of the internet had given them a new chapter in their lives that, in retrospect, they may not entirely have wanted. On later visits they were invariably busy but rarely seemed happy; they could be exasperated with customers, impatient with the niceties of serving people. We only meant to tell our friends about it, but we found we had the power to tell the whole world.

And with new business and new visitors came a backlash. People complained about the unlisted phone number, about the strict pizza timing which rivaled an air traffic controller assigning gates on Christmas Eve, about whether the pizza really was all that, or as good as it once was. I remember someone on LTHForum hilariously suggesting that Burt needed to hire some teenagers to help out with the allegedly poor service, as if any Morton Grove teen wouldn’t have run screaming from it. If ever there was a place you had to be willing to take on its own terms, it was Burt’s—which of course was the charm for many of us.

I hadn’t been back in several years when the restaurant closed earlier this year. The good news is that Sanders/Buddy Roadhouse, who helped out at the restaurant on weekends, reported on LTHForum that Burt, after several months off and some physical therapy, seems rejuvenated:

Burt is fine and seems to be in good health. He’s been seen repeatedly working out at the gym, and he and Sharon have been spotted dining out at various places around the area.

All I can tell you is, during the few months he’s been off, he gained some new perspective. Although he’s physically able to keep on making Pizzas, he just feels it’s time to call it a career.

So congratulations to Burt and Sharon on a deserved, and foodie enthusiasm-delayed, retirement. I hope they enjoy it.

I hope they can forgive us.


Michael Gebert is deep dish, not pan, as editor of Fooditor.

COVER IMAGE: Burt’s pizza, by Stu Spivack.

CORRECTION: The Saveur cover was a little before No Reservations, not after, as originally stated.


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