As part of its 40th anniversary menu, Old Chicago is selling a pizza-burger.
Do not confuse the pizza-burger with burger-pizza, like what you might find at Knolla’s. This is not crust topped with ground beef, mustard, lettuce and pickle. That mostly tastes like burger.
A burger-pizza may be served to you on real pizza dough but the pizza has surrendered its saucy soul and left only the shell of the thing: It comes in a shape that looks like pizza in every way, like a joke played by a hamburger disguised as a pizza.
Knolla’s hamburger pizza is a favorite in The Eagle newsroom on election night: during the delirium of the late-night hours as the votes roll in, we feel liberated to throw up our hands and laugh: Hah, a pizza that tastes like a burger. How crazy, how hilarious, how wonderful. Normally, no. Tonight, yes, sure, why not?
What Old Chicago is attempting is much more serious. It is attempting to merge the two food behemoths into one without sacrificing the integrity of either. They nestle a real hamburger between two real pizzas: It costs $18.99.
Like Batman versus Superman, part of the joy is the anticipation of which of the two giants of American cuisine would prevail: the red meaty Midwestern deliciousness and greasy fast food gratification of a fat burger on a white bun? Or the cosmopolitan, vaguely Italian, precision of raised dough, layered with tomato, cheese and topping, melted together into a single pie, like the diverse big cities it thrives in, New York and Chicago?
By joining pizza and hamburger together, we might unite this divided country behind a single food choice. People would no longer have to fight over whether they want pizza or burger for lunch, they could say, merely, pizza-burger.
That was the fantasy. Then it arrived at my table.
And I realized to my horror that the correct movie comparison was to “Kong: Skull Island.” It was enormous. It was intimidating. It was scary to behold. And the lurking thought surfaced: Did we really need this?
The answer is, objectively, no.
But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try it out. Or at least send off someone adventuresome to get close enough to the monster to see if, not only it’s possible to survive the encounter, but perhaps come out the other side with, at the very least a story to share, and perhaps even some deeper wisdom. About the meaning of pizza and the meaning of burger. And whether the two can coexist together simultaneously.
Old Chicago plays into this suspense: The menu comes with a warning that they need extra time to prepare it.
When it arrived, I didn’t know what to do with it. My instinct was to flee and return with a fork and knife: With better weaponry I might be able to attack small corners of it and see if I could make any headway.
But this felt like a cheat. The goal was not just to take bites of pizza and bites of hamburger and swirl them together in my mouth at the same time. The goal was to eat pizza like a burger.
So I moved in. But I had to immediately retreat: The pizza-burger was too hot to hold. Had they baked pizza and the burger together in the oven, I asked my lunch companion, rather than making them separately and then stacking them? It couldn’t be! Would this mean I would have to contend with burger juices?
The answer was most definitely yes.
Messy doesn’t do it justice. Messy is the extra mayonnaise and ketchup that squirts out the side of your Whopper. Messy is the bits of lettuce and onion that slip out of your Big Mac.
This was a whole new category of experience, akin to eating hot wings, where saucy fingers are part and parcel of the experience, but more intense.
After every bite I wiped the grease off. But after the very next bite all 10 of my fingers were once again dripping with a translucent sheen. I held them up to my lunchmate to show how unusual it was: I was like the Lady Macbeth of hamburger grease, unable to wash away the memory of the cow whose life had been sacrificed.
It was not a whole cow, but it felt like it: A whole pound of beef was sandwiched between the two personal pepperoni and sausage pizza buns. I had been so distracted by the idea of combining the two foods I hadn’t realized that eating a pound of ground beef was itself a challenge worthy of a mid-afternoon nap.
My one consolation, as grease dripped dangerously close to my chin, was how heavy the thing was to lift. It felt more like lifting a small pan or a jug of milk than pizza or hamburger.
I tried to find how many calories I was eating on the Old Chicago website, but like a government experiment gone awry, there appeared to be no record it had ever existed.
The dish is supposed to be served with French fries and onion rings but, since the goal was to not just eat the thing but to live to tell the tale, I asked for vegetables instead of onion rings. They gave me vegetables and onion rings.
And like when the troops tried to apprehend Kong, it wasn’t pretty. Carrots and celery fell off the side as I tried to get my hands around it. Bits of ranch and blue cheese dressing spilled over onto the burger.
After awhile I was able to take a closer look at its innards. In the pictures I’d seen, both the top and bottom pizza looked buoyant, as if they were two equal bodyguards standing guard on either side of the meat.
But the reality was that the bottom pizza had been deformed and mangled: the cheese and meat, ripped off and stuck to the hot burger patty. The dough was drenched with grease. And the weight of the burger pressed the pizza back on itself, like a compressed couch cushion. It was the most delicious part.
The top pizza retained its dignified stature, resting atop the burger, but with little flecks of black char stuck on the bottom of the dough.
I asked for them to cook the meat medium. But the thickness of the meat and the time constraints must have given them no choice but to char the top and bottom. The flavor reminded me of my mother’s burgers, which were too fat and ill-shaped to cook evenly, and according to Mom, better to cook them too much than too little.
Halfway through I reached two pickles and a piece of pepperoni, speared by a toothpick in the center. It was a funny touch: As if, like a club sandwich, the gargantuan pizza-burger’s parts were mere slices of ham and tomato, which if the toothpick hadn’t been there, would have fallen apart.
By now the parchment paper that the burger was served on had torn irreparably. And because it was so drenched in grease, I couldn’t tell if I was also eating paper.
It didn’t matter. By this point I had lost all pleasure in the pizza-burger: It was just a matter of whether I had the fortitude to see it through to the end.
If the burger had been half its size, I think I could have. I stuffed the final slivers of pizza in my mouth but I didn’t have the temerity to eat the final bites of char and beef.
I was no match for the pizza-burger.
It may have been more appropriate for a romantic night out.
Hear me out.
My pepperoni-pizza loving companion looked perplexed by my quixotic undertaking.
But shared challenges can bring couples together. Can you imagine holding greasy hands across the table, each finger sliding nervously but frictionlessly, as you stare into the eyes of a new romantic interest?
The point is not to enjoy Kong but to get someone else into a seat next to you while you watch it. The pizza-burger, like Kong, is escapism, an explosive diversion from the realities of ordinary life such as boring old pizza by itself and burger by itself. This is not something to eat by yourself.
This is the wisdom I gained from venturing deep into the heart of the pizza-burger: Rather than trying to fuse all food into kimchee tacos, bacon chocolates, and cronuts, sometimes we just need to appreciate how wonderfully unhealthy each food is on its own.