When asked about his recordings, the late trumpeter Miles Davis used to say: “I always listen to what I can leave out.” There is perhaps no better culinary representation of this mantra than Great Lake, an Andersonville pizza shop run by Lydia Esparza and Nick Lessins. Opened in 2008, the shop has garnered praise from chefs Grant Achatz (Alinea, Next), Charlie Trotter (Charlie Trotter’s), Paul Kahan (Blackbird, Avec, The Publican) and some of the most well- known food critics; Alan Richman of GQ named it the best pizza in America, and The New York Times has featured it several times in its Dining section. But more than just the good reviews, the shop represents a complete dedication to small shop ideals: sustainability, locally sourced products, and a commitment to doing just a few things well.
Walking into the shop is a completely visceral experience—the decor and smell of the pies are overwhelming even to those put off by the smallness of the space. The shop only has 14 seats, eight of which belong to a single communal table, and the open kitchen is even smaller than the dining area. While Esparza waits on customers and prepares salads, Lessins makes every pizza by hand. Most ingredients used in the pizzas are homemade—Italian sausage, chorizo, and cheese are made on-site during off-hours (the shop is only open 18 hours a week). But the star of every pizza is its crust, a recipe developed by Lessins over several years. The end product fuses the crackling crunch of a French baguette with the textural density of a wood-fired flatbread, all done in a traditional gas oven, no less. The wait for each pizza can be lengthy, but the quality of the pie demands a deliberate production. For this reason, Lessins only has three to four options per night, chosen based on whatever happens to be in season or what ingredients work well together. When finished, each pizza is a work of art, combining ingredients as diverse as Gunthorp Farms smoked bacon, homemade crème fraîche, and tropea onion, or at other times fresh arugula, farmer’s cheese, and roasted tomatillo salsa.
But more than just fine dining, Great Lake is an educational experience. Esparza and Lessins have always believed in a business philosophy rooted in natural ingredients and local economy. Their menu boasts the use of no CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations), and supports farms and dairies from nearby states. They regularly peruse the stands of neighborhood farmers’ markets searching for fresh produce, and Esparza stocks shelves in the store with products from other small businesses that uphold the same dedication to quality. The two want their restaurant to be as much a reminder of small business sustainability as it is a celebration of pizza. Yet just as important as what’s there is what isn’t; they never overstock (even running out of dough some nights), and keep their waste to a bare minimum. They fill one medium-sized trash can and three large recycling bins per week. Their operation is an ode to what small business should be in a world of diminishing resources and low-quality mass-production.
Great Lake rejects the kind of sensationalism associated with food blog elitism and user-review sites like Yelp. What is important to Lessins and Esparza is not pleasing every customer, but rather presenting a carefully constructed picture of what food means to them. Like Davis’s jazz, Great Lake is about preserving the essential, about mastering the art of control. When asked what’s next for the shop, Lessins didn’t hesitate: “We’re opening on Wednesday.”