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Gino’s East serves traditional Chicago pizzeria fare in a kitschy setting. Photo by Jordan Ricaurte.

It’s a mystery why anyone who isn’t in the witness protection program would move from Chicago to Arlington. The world-famous pizzeria Gino’s East has gamely made the migration, but the reputation of the place is a double-edged sword.

On one side is a strong brand. For nearly 50 years, Gino’s has helped to shape, define, and defend true Chicago deep-dish — thick-crusted pie layered with cheese at the bottom, toppings in the middle, and rich, bubbling tomato sauce on top.

On the other side of the blade, though, is the grim reality that licensing your brand and your recipes to a franchise operator (Austin-based ATX Brands, in this case) is no guarantee that the finished product will be able to live up to the original place’s standard of quality.

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Next door to a FedEx Office in a space recently vacated by Bikini’s breastaurant, Gino’s East has made its Arlington home. It’s a prime location for a sports bar/pizza shop, on the access road to I-30 within spitting distance of both AT&T Stadium and Globe Life Park.

The franchisers have made an honest attempt to transport diners to Chicago, but the illusion falls a little flat. Walking inside you will see nods to the Chicago mothership: There are signed photographs of celebrities who have enjoyed a meal at a Gino’s East — just not the one in Arlington. They have even tried to replicate the edgy flavor of the floor-to-ceiling graffiti that generations of customers have left on every surface of the Chicago restaurants, though the Arlington location restricts customer tagging to a pitiful lattice of wooden slates at the center of the dining room. These kitschy touches are overwhelmed by the oppressive presence of a flat-screen television array that, on a recent visit, allowed me and my guest to watch 14 different commercials at once.

The food almost made up for the lack of ambiance –– “almost” because while the fare was good, even great in some instances, all of those televisions made the place feel like the set of a dystopian sci-fi movie.

[box_info]Gino’s East
1350 E Copeland Rd, Arl. 817-809-7437. 11am-10pm Sun-Thu, 11am-11pm Fri-Sat. All major credit cards accepted.[/box_info]

The menu is a broad but predictable offering of the usual suspects — appetizers, salads, sandwiches, and a variety of mix, match, and build-your-own pizza pies. There are a few stand-out starters, though. The crispy Brussels sprouts and pancetta appetizer was exceptional, with both the sprouts and the cured bacon salty and golden brown. The fried calamari was generously portioned and perfectly cooked into crispy ringlets, served with a lemon wedge and ramekin of tangy marinara.

We mostly enjoyed the Caprese Jar Salad. Full of fresh Buffalo mozzarella and cherry tomatoes marinated in balsamic vinegar, the dish arrived beautifully presented in a mason jar before being unceremoniously dumped on a cutting board with some dehydrated crostini. It tasted fresh, though, helped along with good herbs and decent olive oil. The overpriced house salad, on the other hand, was about as basic as a house salad can get. The limp spring mix with a few black olives and a garlic dressing couldn’t compete with our other selections.

The deep-dish pizza can take up to an hour to cook. Unless you are nicely buzzed (and Gino’s East has a well-appointed bar with some local craft brews on tap), this is not an environment where most people are going to want to just hang out. Then relax with some appetizers, and the wait will be tolerable. We ordered a large spinach margherita pie, and it took about 45 minutes on a Friday evening. It was worth the wait, with a crispy crust that tasted of semolina flour, loaded with fresh spinach, tomatoes, and cheese and smothered in tomato sauce. It was also enough to feed a family of four and still take some home.

The thin-crust pies are more crispy than bready, and they matched the place’s traditional Second City fare in flavor and freshness. The cracker-like crust showcased the quality of the fresh bacon, pepperoni, and jalapeño.

Our server was cheerful and efficient, not afraid to joke around and happy to answer questions about the menu. Though the atmosphere is all-Arlington, the food at Gino’s East didn’t disappoint.

[box_info]Gino’s East
Crispy Brussels sprouts w/bacon    $8
Fried calamari    $8
Caprese Jar Salad    $11
House salad    $9
Spinach margherita deep-dish (large)    $28
Thin-crust pizza (large, three toppings)    $27[/box_info]

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