A big part of this weekend’s Valentine’s Day plan: one night in Chicago, with dinner at Lou Malnati’s.
Ask virtually any native of Chicago where to find the best pizzas, and he or she will usually say, “Lou Malnati’s.” (In fact, we asked that very question, and got that very answer, from several Windy City locals.) Suggesting Giordano’s as an acceptable substitute earns you a frown and a look. Chicago-style pizza has one king, and his name is not Giordano.
So we walk six blocks in fifteen-degree weather — passing Giordano’s — to get to Lou Malnati’s. We’re early (and it’s brutally cold out), so: no waiting. Soon, though, every seat around us is taken, and we’re munching on fried calamari while waiting the required thirty minutes for our Lou’s Classic (lean sausage, a thick layer of mozz, and about a gallon of marinara) to be created just for us.
Lou’s classic sits high and proud on the plate, like an actual wedge of pie. The hotter it is, the less successfully it resists the pull of gravity, bulging out on all sides and sinking lower to the plate. But served at the perfect temperature, the slice is firm and resolute.
Push a fork down into it. The thick layer of cheese resists you a bit, but then the sweet, red sauce begins to pool. The crust — Lou’s “butter crust” — is both crisp and flaky, somewhere between a pizza crust and a croissant. The flavors are pure, simple, artful: sweet tomato, buttery cheese, mildly spicy sausage.
It deserves its reputation. And it is, on the MadeByMark.com Pizza Scale (TM), where one is a year-old, freezer burned, plastic wrapped $1.98 frozen generic pizza topped with “cheese products” and ten is, well, Lou Malnati’s — Lou’s is a perfect 10. It’s the best pizza in America; it may be the best pizza in the world.
A day further down the tracks, we are approaching Shelby, Montana. Shelby is an unassuming crossroads town: many trailers along the ragged edges, a tidy Main Street, a hamlet boasting 3500 (or so) souls. Normally, AmTrak zips right through; today, we’re ahead of schedule, so we’re told we’re getting a bonus stop — fifty whole minutes.
On a whim — and a bit weary of AmTrack’s fare — I decide to see if there’s a restaurant in Shelby close enough to the station for us to check it out.
We missed a similar opportunity first thing this morning. We stopped in Minot (pronounced like “Why Not”), North Dakota, for a full hour — plenty of time to take a taxi to Charlie’s Main Street Cafe and back. But we hemmed and hawed about it, and, ultimately lingered on the platform.
I do not want to make the same mistake in Shelby. With the town twenty-five minutes away, I check Trip Advisor, and see enthusiastic local reviews for The Alibi Lounge — a local bar with a pizza restaurant attached. I tap their number, phone them up, and order a Deluxe minus onions.
“Ready in twenty-five minutes,” the cheerful woman on the other end of the line replies. I’m serious about the cheerfulness. In fact, you can hear her smile over a cellular phone connection.
When the train pulls into town, Clyde and I leap out the door, cross the tracks, and invest seven of our fifty-five minutes in the walk to Main Street. The Alibi is easy to find (there’s even a sign inviting you into the back door). The bar itself is amazing in unexpected ways: high ceilings, the bones of a century-old historic building, a massive and well-stocked bar slathered in evergreen garland and tiny white lights, and a tidy, well-lit pizza join through the archway on the left.
The three locals at the bar — the owner, as it turns out, plus a regular and an employee — greet us pretty much like family.
“You’re Mark,” the server says. “We saw you check in here on Facebook, and it was weird, because there was nobody in the bar!”
My pie is hot and fresh and ready. The crust is thin and crunchy. (Previously a frozen shell? Maybe.) The toppings are generous: lots of cheese, a good sauce, plenty of sausage and pepperoni and bell pepper and mushrooms. This is, as all the reviews suggest, a very respectable and tasty pie; Shelby’s lucky to have The Alibi.
And for me, of course, having pulled up in a train to pick up my to-go order, the Deluxe pie tastes of adventure and victory — and that’s a flavor that’s hard to beat.
We had planned to run the pizza back to the train, but we have forty minutes to spare. Soon, we’re tucked into a high-top table, noshing on our pie and chatting with locals. One fellow tells us Montana is so wide, that if you rotated it ninety degrees, it would stretch from Maine to Florida. (He’s the same fellow who gooses us a bit by joking that our train is about to leave early, so I don’t know whether to believe him or not.)
In short: friendly folks, a fast-paced adventure, and little slice of Montana I’ll always remember fondly.