World famous pizza restaurant Gino's East will open its first location outside of the Chicago area on Thursday in The Woodlands. With the Houston area buzzing about the imminent arrivial, I joined an invite-only friends and family preview. Amidst a quarter full restaurant of locals checking out the new arrival, our group of three sampled some of the menu items to answer the all important question: Is this pizza worth the 40-minute drive from downtown Houston?
Based on two appetizers, a sandwich and two deep dish pizzas, I say yes. While I can't say how it compares to the Chicago original, Gino's already delivers a hearty, satisfying pie.
We particularly enjoyed the signature Chicago fire that features a layer of spicy sausage and generous amount of roasted red peppers. The heat balances out the somewhat sweet tomato sauce that's generously ladled over the toppings. BBQ Brisket Za is designed to appeal to Texans, but we were split on the combination of sweet barbecue sauce with caramelized onions and tomato sauce.
Due to that thickness, pizzas take 45 minutes to an hour to bake.
In addition to being thicker than standard Italian pies, Gino's dough, which is made fresh at the restaurant each day and proofed in a pizza pan prior to baking, has a more crumbly texture than traditional Italian dough. The thick, doughy slices are incredibly filling; two each was our limit.
Due to that thickness, pizzas take 45 minutes to an hour to bake. Best bet is to read the menu beforehand and select a favorite or two. Ordering them with your drinks will give you time to order and sample appetizers.
Of the appetizers, the best were the spinach and mozzarella sticks followed by the crispy Brussels sprouts with bacon. Mozzarella sticks can be pretty bland, but the spinach adds a welcome additional component that complements the cheese and crispy batter. Showing that the kitchen is still finding its groove, calamari arrived room temperature. Given the amount of food we sampled, the signature brisket nachos would have to wait until another time.
The interior is pretty standard pizza joint. A marquee with the restaurant's name in lights hangs over the bar. Wooden tables are covered with red and white checkered tableclothes. Large flatscreen TVs hang from walls and ceilings: Eight in the bar, four in each of the adjacent dining rooms. An all '80s soundtrack played along at a level loud enough to notice the songs but not so much as to intrude on conversation.
Our server was still learning the fine points of the menu, but her enthusiasm and good humor compensated for any shortcomings. Having already gone through training, she was able to express likes and dislikes about specific dishes and make recommendations.
A final verdict will have to wait until I have the chance to visit the restaurant when it's open and full of diners. Still, today shows that Gino's has a lot of potential.
Chicago ex-pats and pizza fans alike will want to make the drive north to check out the newcomer.