We stepped through the door of Union Pizzeria and were immediately struck by their atmosphere of exposed industrial chic. A hanging garden of Edison bulb lights hover over the bar next to the entrance, casting a warm yellow glow. A lounge of comfortably worn mismatched furniture sits across from it. The walls are fashionably cracked, exposing red brick in places, and an impressive network of pipes rises to the ceiling in the corner. Back behind the bar, however, is the main event, a massive, wood fire, brick and clay pizza oven.
From the Small Plates menu, Tuscan Kale & Cauliflower was our first foray into Union’s cuisine. The cauliflower is perfectly roasted, teasing out a warm nuttiness, and the hearty texture plays beautifully against shredded leaves of Kale, oiled, and roasted crispy. A bed of sunflower tahini sauce adds a distinct Mediterranean undercurrent and a lingering spiciness. Tissue thin slices of roasted garlic clove round out the flavors on the plate.
Right off the bat, this introduced us to Chef Vince DiBattista’s philosophy of preserving and accentuating the natural flavors of each element on the plate. At Union Pizzeria, sauces are a delicious undercurrent; they’re not meant to alter, but to elevate.
The Burrata Small Plate is a creamy push and pull of delicious Italian flavors. The burrata itself is addictively fresh, soft, and warm, with slight mozzarella stringiness in the center. It’s exceptional spread over toasted and buttered cubes of ciabatta. A layer of tart Romesco red pepper sauce plays the role of marinara sauce but with a little more bite. The natural flavor of asparagus cuts through the sauce and slices of ramps bring a welcome element of garlic flavor. Combine every element onto one forkful to experience it at its best.
The Kale and Kohlrabi salad once again leans into the natural flavors of each ingredient crafting a complex flavor story in each mouthful. The greens provide a serious starting point, very earthy, with a pleasant bitter bite. The vinaigrette brings a Ceasaresque creaminess, accentuated by crumbles of Feta cheese, and offset by rye bread crumbs. This is the kind of salad that demands a place alongside the entrees. It’s not a menu afterthought or one of the standard offerings. It’s carefully considered, extremely healthful, and wonderfully distinctive.
The pizza menu is equally as unique. Classics such as four-cheese, margherita, and pepperoni and sausage are present, of course, but then you have potato & asparagus, shrimp & bacon, or a BLT pizza with béchamel sauce. A big part of the philosophy at Union Pizzeria involves locally sourced ingredients, and that’s very much at play with the pizza toppings. The Lamb Sausage pizza features lamb from southern Wisconsin at Pinn-Oak Ridge Farms. In addition to the melted fresh mozzarella, it’s topped with eggplant, Gaeta olives, and an herbaceous mix of rosemary and oregano that perfectly complements the savory sausage. The crust combines the crispness of a classic thin crust with a soft chewy center, which suggests a Neapolitan crust, as one might expect from the wood fire oven, but which is denser and buttery, like warm bread.
The Organic Salmon comes with a beautiful sear on the exterior and is prepared to be perfectly fork tender and flaky. Chef Vince pushes the natural salmon flavor, pairing it with rich organic spinach, the brightness of fresh peas, and a deliciously quiet lemon butter sauce. Another highlight of this particular plate is the addition of gnudi, blissfully pillowy ricotta cheese dumplings.
For dessert, we had the Chocolate Bread Pudding. Despite already being full from all that came before it, we couldn’t leave it alone. It has the tantalizing texture of bread pudding but the flavor profile of an upscale brownie sundae with an interior that evokes warm chocolate pudding. There’s a pool of caramel sauce underneath it and a scoop of vanilla gelato adding delicate vanilla bean sweetness to the decadent chocolate delight. Several nights a week, you can follow up dessert with live music at SPACE, an intimate concert venue at the back of the restaurant. There’s reserved seating at cabaret tables, general seating at the periphery, and standing room near the bar. They’ve got great sound, a cool atmosphere, and just the right vibe for a personal experience with the featured musician.
Soon, the owners of Union Pizzeria are launching a new concept, Union Squared, in two locations. The concept will feature Sicilian red-top pan pizza, wood-grilled meat and seafood, and an assortment of other menu items capitalizing on Chef Vince’s unique style. The Union Squared at 1307 Chicago Avenue in Evanston will also have a fenced-in beer garden offering local brews from Sketchbook and Temperance brewing companies and a full menu.
Union Pizzeria is located at 1245 Chicago Avenue in Evanston, 847-475-2400, unionevanston.com