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Burt Katz, legendary pizza maker and owner of Burt’s Place, dies at 78

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Burt Katz. (Nuccio DiNuzzo, Chicago Tribune.)

MORTON GROVE, Ill. — Burt Katz, the pizza maker and co-owner of Burt’s Place restaurant in Morton Grove, died Saturday at 78, according to his daughter, Andi Bannister.

Katz, of Skokie, who owned the pizzeria with his wife Sharon, found worldwide fame after a visit from Anthony Bourdain for his TV show “No Reservations.” But Burt’s Place was already locally famous, beloved by generations of regular customers who followed Katz throughout his 52 years in the pizza business.

“Burt was one of my favorite characters in the 15 years of “Check, Please!”, said David Manilow, creator and executive producer of the WTTW restaurant review TV show. Burt’s Place was featured in a 2012 episode.

“He made an honest, handcrafted, crunchy, balanced, memorable pizza filled with fresh ingredients and devotion,” said Manilow. “Going to Burt’s and having the pizza he made was unlike any other.

Reached in Rome, Italy, food writer and TV food star Bourdain, said, “His was the only deep dish pizza I ever loved.”

Burt’s Place pizza was widely recognized for its caramelized crust that was thick yet light and flavorful, a result of long fermentation. Katz called it simply pan pizza, and considered it different than the classic Chicago-style deep dish pizza.

“Perhaps not since Ike Sewell and Rudy Malnati has there been a figure in Chicago pizza as towering as Burt Katz,” wrote former Tribune reporter Kevin Pang when Katz officially announced the closing of Burt’s Place on Oct. 29, 2015, after 26 years.

Katz closed what he called “the store” due to his declining health. In a recent interview for the podcast Chewing (co-hosted by this reporter), Katz said that his condition remained undiagnosed. But Katz previously had two open-heart surgeries, and closed temporarily to recover after each.

At the time of the permanent closing last fall, Katz told this reporter, “Time has taken its toll on health and what have you. Regrettably we have to take a step back at this time. We appreciate everything our customers have brought to us. Things are in a state of flux but progressing.”

Gary Wiviott, pitmaster of Barn & Company in Lincoln Park and a friend of Katz’s, said “Burt was the kind of guy who calls you every Rosh Hashanah and wishes you a healthy and happy new year. It was mind-blowingly considerate.

“One of the most important lessons I learned from Burt was to do one thing and do it as well as you can, as far as occupation or vocation,” said Wiviott. “But actually he did a lot of things well.

“He was a sweet complex person and extremely modest on all the stuff that he’s done, like his traveling.”

Burton Katz was born on July 7, 1937 in Chicago. He grew up in the Wicker Park neighborhood. His mother died when he was 10. His father died when Burt was in the U.S. Marine Corps. He studied history at Roosevelt University. He had no culinary training. He was a romantic.

Long before Burt and Sharon Katz welcomed Bourdain to Burt’s Place, they themselves had travelled the world in a trip that made headlines. On Dec. 6, 1962, they started a year-long, around-the-world honeymoon road trip in Japan. They bought a rare Toyopet Stout truck, an original Toyota, then drove through several countries including Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Photographs show the then 24- and 25-year-olds with their truck, on which they stenciled their many stops. In Lisbon they shipped the truck to Chicago, but never drove it again. Katz donated it to a friend’s auto museum which closed and sold it for scrap. When the salvage yard owner saw the stenciled country names, he could not bear to crush the truck, so again it sold.

Two years ago Ivan Shkirev, an IT project manager in Albuquerque, N.M., bought the truck on eBay. Last Thanksgiving, Shkirev finally met the Katz family in Wichita, where daughter Andi lives. They lent him thousands of photographs, a journal and scrapbooks that contained foreign newspaper clippings about the young American student couple driving around the world.

“I was amazed by this person,” said Shkirev. “He was one of the deepest people I have met in my life.

“I asked them, why didn’t they travel much after? Burt said, ‘we were done with it, it was time to make money and raise kids.’”

Katz was also a notable collector of vintage radios, some of which were on display at the restaurant, along with a framed 1980 Chicago Tribune article about his collection.

In 1963 Katz bought into the Inferno in Evanston, but got out in 1965. He then opened his first solo pizzeria, Gulliver’s on Howard Street, which he sold in 1968.

He tried working in the corporate world but that didn’t work out so he left, and last shaved that morning of April 12, 1971, eventually growing his trademark beard. That year he opened the restaurant which would make his name in the local pizza world: the original Pequod’s in Morton Grove.

“I was putting in 80 to 90 hours a week for 15 years,” said Katz, “I just burned out.” He sold Pequod’s in 1985 “with a non-competition clause which I respected to the letter,” he said.

In 1989 he opened his final and most famous restaurant, which was originally called Starback’s. The name Starbucks had just been taken by the then start-up Seattle coffee company. Burt Katz manned the kitchen while Sharon worked the front of the house.

A slice of Burt’s Place pizza was on the cover of Saveur magazine’s Chicago issue in October 2007. Katz hung a nearly five-foot high board-backed copy of that cover over a corner booth, where on the table the business’ primary phone, a working rotary, rang.

Burt’s Place was famous for its so-called ordering rules which were widely misunderstood. They asked for pre-orders simply because Burt was the only pizza maker, who only made so much dough each day, and only had so much room in his single Blodgett pizza oven. When a customer arrived, their pizza was ready and always served on the International House of Pancakes plates bought years ago at a closeout sale.

Katz loved working and serving his customers, from longtime regulars to first-time travelers, and the bound guestbooks they signed, which he left for his grandchildren, “and maybe their kids someday,” he said.

During a recent interview, Katz spoke of a young couple who had traveled far to eat at Burt’s Place. “They said they came 12,000 miles just to eat my pizza,” said Katz. “From Saudi Arabia. And they came back the next day to give me and Sharon a gift. They said if we were ever there or Qatar they would show us all around.”

To a suggestion that when he gets better he should plan for a Burt’s Place in Saudi Arabia or Qatar., Katz responded, smiling, “Why (not) be greedy and do them both?”

A sale of the restaurant is pending.

Katz is survived by wife Sharon Katz, daughters Ean Katz-Woodbury and Andi Katz Bannister, and son Adam Katz.

Funeral and memorial services are pending, said his daughter Andi.

— Louisa Chu, Chicago Tribune reporter. 

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