Tavern-style thin from Villa Nova, in Stickney
I realize there are pizza joints on nearly every corner in practically every neighborhood and suburb in Chicagoland. When a metropolis of some seven million people spreads across the plains, they sprout like tribbles on the Starship Enterprise. But I didn’t have all year, and my doctor was already warning me about the acid reflux I was suffering from due to all of those tomatoes, so initially, I whittled my list of pizza joints down to about 30 places. Some were based on my own research, and unfortunately, some were based on the over eager fan clubs of others, who more than likely had some type of connection – either financial or family – to the place in question. But I also took recommendations from trusted followers and colleagues, and in the end, wound up with a list of 76 pizzerias that I just had to try; about 50 of them specialized in thin pizza. I tried to triangulate reviews and comments with critical, unemotional assessments, so that I could know that the place I was visiting indeed had merit.
Based on the pizzas I tried, the thin categories – as I’ve defined them for the Pizza Quest – are as follows:
- Tavern-style: thin, crispy, almost cracker-like crust; square-cut
- Artisan Thin: unique, artisan-made toppings, long ferment time for dough that contains higher percentage of water; usually a puffy, blistered edge, or cornicione
- Thin: You know what this is already
- Neapolitan: 00 flour, San Marzano tomatoes, wood-burning brick oven, fior di latte (domestic mozzarella) or buffalo mozzarella imported from Italy
I’ve listed every one of the places here alphabetically, so as not to reveal my top 5 lists just yet; those will be forthcoming in the days ahead. In all cases, the name of the restaurant is also the link to their website. A note on methodology: if the place specialized in Neapolitan-style, or had a more artisan approach, I would always order the margherita as a baseline; if they were anything else, I would always order a small, half pepperoni-half sausage as a baseline. I felt this approach would allow me to compare and contrast without comparing wildly different styles of pizza with too many types of toppings to consider. For more information on my methodology, see my initial Pizza Quest post. You can also check out my off-the-cuff findings from my Instagram account, just search #ChicagoPizzaQuestThin. But first, a map pinpointing every thin pizza I tasted in Chicagoland:
812 Church St., Evanston; 224-307-2803
You choose Neapolitan, crispy or gluten-free crust; then choose base of margherita, bianca, marinara or verde (pesto); ordered a Neapolitan crust with margherita base ($6.85)
This California-based chain just opened in Evanston a few weeks ago, and in some ways, it’s like a more upscale Blaze Pizza concept: you make a few choices (crust, style, toppings) and then their pizzaiolo/teenager cooks it in their giant, wood-burning (as opposed to Blaze’s gas-fired) oven in a few minutes. (They also have an impressive gelato case, fyi). I liked how my pizza looked as it emerged, the misshapen cornicione, the leopard spotting/splotching and the fresh blobs of mozzarella notwithstanding; every pizza gets a gentle sprinkling of coarse sea salt around the middle as well, just before serving, but even that couldn’t save a dough that was both tough and dense. I can’t imagine the fermentation process is more than 12 hours or overnight. It just didn’t have any of the chewy character you would expect. Also, I would suggest adding more salt to the dough before baking, rather than trying to save it after it comes out of the oven. My friend and I left the edges of the crust on the plate, both somewhat disappointed this was a truly bland pizza. But for $7, hey, the perfect remedy for a college kid on a budget.
6431 W. 127th St., Palos Heights; 708-897-0003
Ordered: Margherita ($9.99)
The name of this Greek/Italian diner is somewhat misleading. But first, some background. It’s a family operation, led by a Greek and an Italian, hence the hearty breakfasts with Greek yogurt, frothy frappes and baklava. The Italian side features sandwiches, antipasti and a half-dozen or so pizzas, all baked in a wood-burning oven. They launched an aggressive campaign to get me to pay them a visit, touting their “Neapolitan” pies. You can imagine how psyched I was to hopefully discover a hidden gem in a restaurant wasteland. I knew there was trouble when our server (one of the owners) asked if I wanted an American or Italian-style margherita. Uh oh. Seeking the Italian ideal, our pizza was whisked out about three minutes later, but what landed on our table was a far cry from what you would call “Neapolitan.” One lonely basil leaf sat next to a tiny ball of fresh mozzarella at the pie’s epicenter; scattered throughout the mid-region, decent-sized blobs of fior di latte, but everything rested on a thin, crispy crust with none of the chew that a Neapolitan demands nor the “leopard spotting” around or underneath. There was no fermentation, little, if any cornicione around the perimeter, and a serious lack of complexity or textural contrast. When I asked the owner about this, he admitted this was not a Neapolitan pie, per se, but he had no choice: in the first few months after opening, locals demanded shredded mozzarella instead of circular orbs, and couldn’t understand why their pizzas drooped in the middle, telling their servers their pizzas were underdone. How sad. I understand if it’s your business, you want people to be happy. But compromising your ideals to the point where you have to serve something that’s actually not Neapolitan (despite the name on the front door), just to keep the customers happy, is a sacrifice that seems too extreme for a true pizzaiolo.
5663 N. Clark St.; 773-944-1492
Ordered margherita, approx. 12” ($12.95)
This Andersonville restaurant underwent a minor remodeling – adding a bar and fixing the tin ceiling – but the wood-burning oven at the center of the restaurant is still the centerpiece. Opting for a basic margherita, my standard barometer in any Neapolitan joint, I enjoyed chewing the center of the pie, redolent with luscious tomato sauce and large, wide swaths of fresh mozzarella, but the crust – especially the outer rim, or cornicione, was quite tough, and I couldn’t see any leopard spotting on the perimeter or the undercarriage. You can see in the picture how tight and dense it is, and a far cry from the fluffy, puffy, air pocket-filled wonders at Pizza East and Spacca Napoli. I didn’t dislike this pizza, I was just disappointed by it.
2205 W. Montrose Ave.; 773-588-1550
5624 N. Broadway; 773-784-1550
Comes in 10”, 14” and 18”; got a 10” Queen Margherita at Montrose location ($10)
Several people told me this was a dark horse, and that I would be pleasantly surprised. They do sell quite a few specialty pies, with several combinations of toppings, but I went with the margherita since it was the first item listed. My first concern: the slices of fresh tomato (slightly out of season, or maybe purchased from a store) scattered all over the super thin-and-crispy pie. The cracker-like crust – kind of like Candlelight’s – was o.k., but the thinly-applied sauce, desperately needing salt, was just bland. There were generous blobs of fresh mozzarella and quite a few fresh basil leaves rained over the diameter, but they couldn’t save a pizza that suffered from boredom. Even some olive oil across the top would have helped. If you’re in a rush, and the kids are demanding something, anything, right now, then getting a 10” pulled from their Baker’s Pride oven only takes about five minutes. But if you’re really hunting for great, conversation-worthy thin crust, move along.
105 W. 1st St., Elmhurst; 630-782-5800
Ordered small half sausage-half pepperoni ($12.95)
This family favorite was a mainstay in Elmwood Park for decades. In 1956, the owners took over the Victory Tap there, and started serving pizza. Ironically, a new concept in the Yorktown Mall, called Armand’s Victory Tap, is a throwback, and a nod to their roots. So when I asked the manager what style of thin they had, he replied “thin,” but really, this is more of a tavern-style pizza, with a super-thin, cracker crust that borders on crunchy, thanks to the handfuls of cornmeal that are tossed on the base of the oven deck, to keep it from sticking (and thus find themselves on the bottom, much like at Barnaby’s). Whole, canned tomatoes are ground in-house then topped with oregano and parmesan to order. Sliced, whole milk mozzarella is featured on every pie. “My grandfather discovered a long time ago that shredded mozz clumps up and the cheese levels vary depending on who is making the pizza,” said Mark Cecola, the grandson of original owner Mike Caringella. “One guy has a bigger hand, one guy is more generous. It’s human error and it’s hard to regulate, so we use so many slices per pizza to cover evenly and melt evenly, creating a really nice melted top.” The sausage is mild – a result of coarsely-ground pork butts with fennel and red pepper from their butcher on Taylor Street – while the pepperoni is more assertive; cheese is slightly browned in spots on the top and biting into a square-cut slice, you get a hint of maltiness (dough has flour, extra virgin olive oil, yeast and tiny bit of shortening and rises overnight), plus the slightest amount of sweetness from the tomato sauce, which is applied as thinly and delicately as a painter brushing a canvas.
18162 Harwood Ave., Homewood; 708-798-8050 – several other locations
Ordered 10” thin, half pepperoni-half sausage ($11.50)
Since 1959, families have been piling into the soaring, barn-like structure, hung with Tiffany lamps and old photos of Homewood VIPs. Located just a few yards from the Metra line, the restaurant has its charms. My colleague at ABC 7 – Ben Bradley – is a proud local boy, always touting Aurelio’s alleged superiority when I see him in the hallways. With 42 locations – mostly in the suburbs, downstate and even a few in Florida, Georgia and Las Vegas – I knew that I would have to visit the mothership in Homewood where it all started, in order to get the most accurate assessment. We ordered the usual – half sausage, half pepperoni – and I remembered to ask about using the “old oven,” a reference to the stone deck oven vs. the quicker conveyor belt oven that Ben is always saying makes the difference. About 10 minutes later we were served a small circular pie on a wire cooling rack (triangle cut, since it was a small), a nice even golden brown hue across the entire bottom, with tiny, blueberry-sized sausage balls on top. Since the company is so big, they can’t make the sausage in-house anymore, so they simply purchased their sausage supplier. Sadly, there is hardly any detectable flavor in that sausage, hardly a whisper of fennel or even a note of garlic. There is a slightly raised ridge on the outer edge of the pizza (kind of like Pizano’s), which holds in the well-done baked cheese crisp that reminded me a little bit of Pequod’s. A bit of dried oregano is scattered over the top, but the thing that sunk this pie (and my dining companion agreed) was a crazy amount of salt. Whether it was in the cheese or the thinly-sliced pepperoni, or quite possibly the sausage that’s trucked in, after one slice I was reaching for my water. Aurelio’s is one of the best examples of the theory of birthplace preeminence, aka PIGUE Syndrome, that is, the best pizza in the world is the Pizza I Grew Up Eating. I can imagine generations of Little League teams and dance recitals and birthdays here, all gobbling up this thin crust and co-mingling it with their fondest memories later in life. But come here as an unbiased eater, just seeking some really good pizza, and you’ll leave far less satisfied.
114 S. Washington St., Hinsdale; 630-654-4600
Got a small margherita from the “brick oven” ($9)
I just didn’t get this place. The owner, and most of his extended family, kept telling me on Facebook that I just had to visit (without informing me that they were the owners). Unless you truly believed you had a remarkable product, why go through all of this? He assured me via a Facebook post (again, as an anonymous poster) that “Baldinelli pizza in downtown Hinsdale has a Neapolitan pizza too. A must try.” When I asked if it was legit – the wood-burning oven, 00 flour, San Marzano tomatoes, long ferment of wet dough, he responded, “Yes. 00 flour, Grande mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes, and long fermented dough. Steve, this place is good.” Well, I respectfully disagree. The pizza I had would never be considered even remotely Neapolitan. Everything – including the cheese – slid right off; there was no brick oven, but rather, a large stainless steel box behind the prep line, gas fired. The cheese tasted funkier than it should have and the tomatoes couldn’t have been San Marzanos (if they were, I’d give hell to my vendor for switching them out), they just tasted like the out-of-season variety you find at Jewel in November. The biggest offense was the crust, which any self-respecting Neapolitan fan would agree just had no business being in a conversation about Neapolitan anything. Funny enough, I had just come from Parkers’ in Downers Grove that morning – a VPN certified Neapolitan pizza place – and if you look at their picture vs. this one, you’ll see what I mean.
960 Skokie Blvd., Northbrook; 847-498-3900
Got a small, half sausage-half pepperoni ($10)
Talk about PIGUE (Pizza I Grew Up Eating) Syndrome, after I posted a picture following my unannounced visit, Facebook and Instagram lit up with breathless melancholy. “I went there all throughout high school,” and “been going there for 20 years” came the reactions to my nattily-crimped thin, tavern-style pizza. No question it’s a good pie (although despite North Shore myth, they do not make a cornmeal crust, they simply use cornmeal – as many other places do – beneath the pizza to keep it from sticking to the oven deck). There are now a few other locations on the North Shore and in the NW ‘burbs, but of course everyone still claims the original in Northbrook is center of the pizza universe, and just like I insisted I visit the original Aurelio’s in Homewood, if I was going to get the true Barnaby’s experience, I would have to visit the Northbrook mothership. The sausage side (covered in cheese) was respectable – it’s a proprietary recipe made by Scala’s since Day 1, and has since passed to Battaglia – much more so than the weak, mass-produced pepperoni (placed on top of the cheese). The crust is what you’re coming here for: thin, crispy and when you take a bite, the sound is actually audible. That’s a pretty good sign. I saw some air pockets in the cutaway section of the pie, indicated there might be some fermentation, or at least a decent period of resting for the dough. The sauce is innocuous; I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it, I don’t really remember it. Is this the Best Tavern-Style Crust in the region? Probably not. Is it worth a detour if you’re heading down the Edens and you feel the urge to devour a pizza? Sure. There’s a reason generations of families have been coming here since 1968, but that’s also the reason so many people who grew up on the North Shore still think, incorrectly, this is the best the region has to offer. (Interesting note: of all of the places we called to get additional information, Barnaby’s was the most secretive. No comment on cheese, dough, sauce or process).
110 E. Pearson St.; 312-266-3110
Style: Artisan Thin
About 10 specialty pizzas; tried margherita ($13)
This massive, Mag Mile restaurant – owned by Levy Restaurants and fronted by chef Tony Mantuano – was closed for part of the summer, undergoing a major rennovation. They moved their two giant wood-burning brick ovens up to the front space, all the better for tourists to more easily see the live fire cooking as they pass by the window, on their way to/from Water Tower Place or the Hershey’s store. Part of the redesign features new menus and a new giant mural on a brick wall, claiming the restaurant made the list of “one of the best pizza places in America” and more importantly, in that coveted list, they were “the only one in Chicago,” which I found absolutely stunning. Then I read the attribution, which was from Food & Wine Magazine. I know some of the editors there, but c’mon guys (and gals), no offense to Levy, but really, was it that your exhaustive search through Chicago yielded not one other destination-worthy pizza joint? Or was it more likely a case of, gee, I’ve only got a few hours in town; what’s the most convenient pizza place near my hotel?
Bar Toma’s pizzas aren’t bad. They have about a dozen or so with plucky, tongue-in-cheek names like The Gold Coaster and Pineapple Express. As is the rule on this quest, if they do a classic margherita, I gotta get it. The outer ridge, or cornicione, wasn’t half bad – there were some decent little air pockets and some scattered blistering from the high heat oven (although not the leopard spotting you want to see). There’s also the slightest tang from the fermented dough. The middle, however, was less impressive: a veritable lake of mozzarella, melted into the pie like an impressionist painting (interesting note: GrubHub lists fior di latte, perhaps from the old menu, but the new menu simply says “fresh mozzarella”); there is very little sauce to speak of. It’s a cheese pizza served from a killer oven. I loved all of the giant, fresh basil leaves, but there was something missing here, and I think it was that magical hybrid of chew, char, salt, cheese, tomato and herb, all co-mingling perfectly. A ratio issue perhaps? This pizza is a safe bet for the tourist hoards sure to drop-in looking for a tasty snack, but I’m not sure it rises to the level of best-in-class. As for that Food & Wine listing, well, I can think of a few other destination-worthy pizza joints in our fair city that belong there, but as usual, no one asked me.
1763 Freedom Dr., Naperville; 630-799-6860
also locations in Lombard and Wheaton, and soon in Lincoln Park
Got a 12” Neapolitan ($11)
This mini-chain has roots in the Western suburbs, and it’s extremely convenient if you suddenly get the urge for a pizza while cruising down Interstate 88 or just doing some shopping in the nearby malls. During lunch, office workers pop in to grab a fast, fairly tasty pizza made to-order, then baked in an enormous, round, copper, wood-burning oven. The pizza has a nice, light crust – not much of an outer lip – and is mottled with blackened bits of char underneath; there are fairly decent splotches of fresh mozzarella and the middle isn’t wet, like a lot of “Neapolitan-style” pizzas. Unlike traditionalists, they also scatter a chiffonade of basil around the surface, rather than placing four giant leaves down. The sauce, however, was a big disappointment on my visit. Under seasoned to the point where I almost asked for a salt shaker, it tasted nothing like the vibrant, bursting-with-acidity tomato sauces I’ve had at places like Freddy’s and Pizza Barra.
2548 N. Clark St.; 773-404-0200
Style: Thin/NYC Style
Offer thin, thick and stuffed, but claim that NYC style is their focus. Got a small half pepperoni-half sausage ($17.34 – among the most expensive for size)
I just don’t get this place. Several readers were claiming how it was the best thin crust in the city, imploring me to go try it. To them I say: how very sad that you still think this is among the city’s best thin crusts. If you like greasy orange, floppy slices with flavorless dough, supporting crumbled sausage or pepperoni that is most likely unwrapped from a plastic package off the back of a Sysco truck, and you need something to soak up the alcohol after bar time, then by all means, go go go to Luigi’s. If, however, you want to eat great thin crust, read on.
7452 N. Western Ave.; 773-465-0087
Got a small, half sausage-half pepperoni ($9.78)
Candlelite has been a family favorite for more than 60 years. Clearly, if you grew up in Rogers Park, you or your friend’s Little League game, dance recital or birthday party ended up here, to dive into some traditional Chicago tavern-style (cracker thin) crust. The sports bar got a major renovation several years ago, and the night I was in, a family was celebrating a woman’s 97th birthday. I had only been once before, and was hoping for something along the lines of a Vito & Nick’s, or even a Barnaby’s, but was sadly underwhelmed. Like so many pizzas out there, they are now made by cooks or teenagers who don’t have the same pride as, say, the original owner, and thus, are usually hurried out or served underdone, like mine was (if you look closely, you can still see the strands of mozzarella that haven’t even melted yet. Had I sent it back it wouldn’t have improved a cracker crust that, frankly, had no flavor; the sausage seemed inconsequential. This pizza is all cheese, and if it’s underdone, with a minimal amount of sauce, the experience is just depressing. “You gotta get it well-done,” said more than a few readers on Facebook afterward. Sure, now you tell me. But tell that to the unsuspecting shmoop who just wants a good pizza and isn’t privy to inside information. This sort of thing happened frequently when I was on the Italian Beef Quest a few months ago. People would say I ordered wrong, or the regular guy wasn’t there or they still haven’t trained their staff, but to that I say, why isn’t it consistent? If the product is supposedly so good, and so legendary, how about making it the same way you did 30 years ago (Johnnie’s, Original Mr. Beef, Vito & Nick’s) rather than make excuses?
7419 W. Irving Park Rd.; 773-804-9024
They also offer deep dish and stuffed, as well as panzerotti, but specialize in thin, as they have a wood-burning, brick oven; 12”, 14”, 16”, 18” – got both a small margherita as well as a half sausage-half pepperoni ($16).
I’m sure the Association Against Italian American Stereotypes would take issue with Caponie’s interior decorator. The Belmont Heights trattoria has more pictures of mobsters than an Untouchables Tour. Tony, Fredo, Michael – they’re all here up on the walls, led of course, by the big black-and-white of Alfonso himself at the entrance. The other notable piece of equipment here is the large, wood-burning oven, at the back of the dining room, across from the bar, baking pizzas at around 800 degrees. They specialize in thin crust, but there is a notable difference between the baseline – a Margherita Napoletana – and their other thin crust options. The margherita was uniformly thin, with barely any cornicione; the chew non-existent; it was more cracker than real crust, with hardly any black spots below. Topped with a fair amount of plum tomato sauce and generous blobs of fresh mozzarella, it was sprinkled, inexplicably, with dried basil (!!). But when we ordered a second pizza, made more traditionally, with sausage and pepperoni, it arrived on a much more interesting dough (Ceresota flour, salt, yeast, oil, sugar and proofed overnight), slightly blistered, yeasty and chewy, with a decent amount of heft and a fair number of air pockets inside the edge. Why didn’t they use this same dough for their marg? I couldn’t quite understand our server, but it had something to do with them cutting the dough in half to make an ultra-thin pizza, which made no sense. Their ratio of crust-to-cheese was spot-on (they use a Wisconsin whole milk mozzarella) and both the sausage and pepperoni had great flavor (both from MC Foods on Harlem Ave.). I managed to eat two slices, despite my one slice rule (often flouted). Now, if they could only use this dough (and fresh basil) when they made their margherita, we’d be onto something a little more special. (Note: their website has never been updated, so despite the hours listed, best to call ahead; they typically don’t open until 5 p.m.)
8820 S. Commercial Ave.; 773-768-7242
They offer x-tra thin, thin, double dough, deep dish and stuffed, but they insisted they are known for their thin. Got a small 10” half pepperoni-half sausage ($11.70)
Yet again, duped by loyal fans and/or the business itself, which likely engineered a lobbying effort that worked (sort of). It did get me in the door – and you need to know if it’s the take-out only or the “dining room” – a ramshackle, dimly-lit room featuring four hard booths, a pay phone, a TV and an Eagle Exhaust swimsuit calendar; for a second, I thought I was going to really get to discover something unique, located in a restaurant no man’s land in the 8800 South block of Commercial (3000 East!). But this thin pie was like so many others in Chicago: an overabundance of cheese completely obliterating the imperceptible, tiny pieces of sausage, all resting on a bland, oddly soft-ish crust with practically no flavor (certainly no crunch), save for the cheese grease that somehow made it past the thin layer of canned tomato sauce.
1321 W. Grand Ave.; 312-226-2625
3705 N. Southport
All pizzas 16” – got a half sausage/half pepperoni ($16.25); Margherita ($15)
Priding themselves on their oven, fed by coal and reaching floor temps of 800-900 degrees, up to 1200 degrees higher up, this West Town favorite recently opened a second location in Lakeview on Southport Avenue. A few years ago, they upgraded their toppings by using some sausages (specifically the Calabrian ‘nduja) from Publican Quality Meats, and things improved quickly. The pizzas arrive with a nicely charred cornicione with odd-shaped nooks and crannies; there’s a good one-inch border of nothing but crust. But I thought the dough on both pizzas was far too thin, in fact, underneath the pies, there was barely any blistering. I recall earlier pies being far more complex, with a good chew, but these were sadly lacking. The sausage, however (from N’duja Artisans) had a nice bite to it, with the slightest amount of heat; we couldn’t stop eating it. The margherita isn’t a true Neapolitan, in that it’s too wide and too evenly thin across the entire diameter. Five giant basil leaves, each carefully placed over the large blobs of stark white fresh mozzarella added aroma. Sadly, the slices on this visit were limp, lacking any chew or character – as if they had been deprived of important fermentation time. But their sauce is wonderful – a purée of California plum tomatoes from Modesto (Alta Cucina); low-moisture cow’s milk mozzarella doesn’t kick off as much water as so many other pizzas in the region, and prevents super-sogginess.
1252 N. Damen Ave.; 773-442-7238
Style: Neapolitan American East Coast/thin
14” and 18” – Got 14” margherita ($14)
Everything at Craft screams “farm to table” and they attempt to highlight the ingredients, like the fact their sausage is made by Anichini Bros., but they’re light on details for the other items on the menu, rarely, if ever, listing their provenance. They may want to tweak the name to Craft Dough, since the dough is the real star here. Using Harvest King Winter Wheat flour, they told us the dough gets a 48-hour proof, then a cold rise, but when I asked the cook on the day I visited, he said it gets a three-day proof. Either way, it develops incredible texture and a nice, even chew, despite the fact it emerges from a standard Baker’s Pride steel gas oven, with stones on the deck (much like the late, lamented Great Lake, which produced great pies despite the electric oven) and they only take a few minutes to bake. The margherita was excellent – they combine vibrant Italian plum tomatoes and a bit of tomato paste to intensify the sauce – and the fresh, whole milk shredded mozzarella is combined with some fresh mozz, as well as Pecorino Romano and Grana Padano, to give the pie some zing. There are also quite a few fresh basil leaves and a healthy drizzle of olive oil, and each slice was a thing of beauty, holding its shape and integrity without drooping. Does it need the whole milk mozz? Probably not, but since they prefer crafting their own style, it goes with the territory.
17704 Oak Park Ave., Tinley Park; 708-633-1144
Got a small, half sausage-half pepperoni ($12); they also make deep dish.
The only reason I schlepped to Tinley Park (and believe me, it’s a schlep) was because I got a very sincere note from Bernie Laskowski. The South Side native used to work at The Pump Room and mk, as well as the Park Grill. He said he had opened a tiny neighborhood bar with his cousin, and was pretty proud of the pizza they were making. He should be proud, although I managed to avoid the Buffalo version and the chicken BBQ pizzas. As I gazed up at the giant screen TVs, looking over at the roped-off video poker games, my friendly server set down before me a pie with generous pieces of housemade, sweet Italian sausage bursting with fennel, putting it in rare company. His sauce – again, like so many on the South Side – was both thickish, deep red and slightly sweet (a sweetened tomato paste?); it has two components: crushed and ground tomatoes. “We add basil when tempering the sauce,” said owner Dennis Suglich. “It’s the way we grew up with it on the South Side. The key is not to put on too much sauce so it doesn’t overwhelm everything else.” Fresh, whole milk mozzarella from California (shredded in-house) covered pretty much everything, both sausage and lean pepperoni, but not exceedingly so; there was still a good ratio in each bite. The kitchen really lays on the pepperoni – mine was layered one on top of another like the shingles on a roof, and managed to pack a slightly hot bite. As for the dough, it comes from a high-gluten flour that gets a warm rise, then a second rise overnight in the cooler. Pizzas are gas-fired in an old stone deck oven at about 500-600 degrees for 10 minutes. Would I drive 30 minutes out of my way for this pizza? Probably not. But if I lived in the Southland, I’d probably make this my go-to if I wanted to watch a big game and grab a bite.
193 E. Butterfield Rd., Elmhurst; 630-782-5700
Ate small, half sausage-half pepperoni ($12.25)
This was my first experience getting pizza punk’d. That’s the only rationale I can come up with why someone would even think for a minute this pizza was worth a trek. Surely, it was suggested by the friends/family of the ownership. Way too much cheese that slides right off of a crust fit for the Cardboard Hall of Fame. Absolutely no flavor to speak of in either the dough or the toppings, which is why they must be overloading it with cheese. I took three bites then tossed the rest in the garbage.
1551 N. Wells St., (312) 202-0302
Ate margherita ($15)
Thank you Reenie O’Brien King! I was getting dozens of recommendations during the Quest, and King’s – imploring me to check out Dinotto – made a strong case for their Neapolitan. First, the beautiful red tiled, wood burning oven, custom-built in Naples, sits in the back of the open kitchen, like a new Ferrari the owners get to take for a spin every few minutes. “The oven is very heavy and very big,” said owner Dino Lubbat. “When it showed up, we couldn’t get it through the front door, so we had to unpack it in the street.” The pizzas that emerge from it are nicely-blistered throughout, showing nice leopard spotting and have a wonderful chew. That’s probably due to the Caputo 00 flour used to make their daily dough, with a minimum 24-hour warm rise, but typically 36 to 48 hours. “The recipe changes according to humidity levels,” said Lubbat. “We make it two days before and wait for it to rise, but if it’s too busy, you just go through [the 24-hour rise] and keep making more.” They buy curds from a Wisconsin farmer, then make their mozzarella balls in house each day. Hand-crushed San Marzanos are drained slightly, providing a zippy, brightly acidic tomato sauce that I couldn’t stop eating. More importantly, the texture of the triangular slices was spot-on – the middles were appreciably wet (like any self-respecting Neapolitan should be) but not to the point of soupiness, like Spacca Napoli in the early days. I had already eaten a few slices of pizza prior to my visit here on this particular day, but I had no problem eating half of our margherita. Would I like a little the edges to attain more stature and heft, with the accompanying air pockets? Sure. But I wouldn’t let that stop me from eating another pizza here.
43 E. Ohio St.; 312-521-8700
Standard pies about 12” – classic margherita ($14)
There are several stations or restaurants to choose from inside the massive, 60,000 square foot behemoth in River North, so naturally, I visited the La Pizza & La Pasta up on the 2nd floor. My margherita emerged from their wood burning ovens looking (and tasting) like someone was in a hurry. Yes, there was decent blistering and leopard spotting, but not only was the interior edge of the dough slightly wet and chewy, one side of the pie actually lacked tomato sauce. Fresh mozz was throw on haphazardly and barely a note of basil was detected. I know kitchens have “off” nights, but if you’re going to carry the mantle of Batali & Bastianich, you better improve the training and quality control procedure. A picture is worth a thousand words.
445 W. Lake St., Addison; 630-628-0088
Got a margherita ($10.75)
I had been to this location a few years ago, doing a story for ABC 7, and figured since the sister restaurant of the same name was just awful (and has since closed, I believe), I owed it to Elio Bartolotta to give his flagship location another try. He rests his dough for less 24 hours, in the refrigerator, so as you can see, there isn’t very much yeast activity going on in the cornicione, and few air pockets. The pizza is also very evenly cooked around the perimeter, bordering on crispy, and there is no leopard spotting; he says he cleans the deck of the oven after every use, which is one of the reasons the undercarriage is also pretty splotch-free. I wish the dough had more character and chew, frankly. Despite the fact he uses both fior di latte and bufala mozzarella, as well as the usual San Marzano tomatoes and a drizzle of olive oil, the few scattered shards of basil can’t save a pizza crust that is simply not craveable. There is not enough salt in the edge either, at least for my taste. At least he keeps one tradition intact: not cutting the pizza, unless you ask for it. “The Italian people don’t like it cut up, but the Americans want it cut into slices,” he says.
3719 N. Harlem Ave.; 773-295-5697
All pizzas 12” – got the margherita ($12.95)
Nick Nitti has been a student of Neapolitan pizza for some time, and when I interviewed him a few years ago for ABC 7, I recall him telling me how he looked up to (and visited) gurus like Chris Bianco in Phoenix, before deciding to open his own place in the Dunning neighborhood on the northwest side (he’s planning on opening a second location on West Randolph soon). “A lot of people say their pizza is Neapolitan these days. I have friends who get really angry over it – how could you govern anything like that?” says Nitti. “I like to keep it very traditional.” Typically, tradition means 75 seconds in the oven in Italy, but “here, customers just want that extra 10 seconds that makes a world of difference,” says Nitti.
His Caputo 00 flour is used to make a dough that rests a minimum 24 hours, and never sees a refrigerator. The cornicione here is magical and majestic: slightly charred from the heat of his wood-burning, Stefano Ferrara beehive brick oven, which is made with biscotto di Sorrento (cookies of the soil) from Mount Vesuvius. It burns up to 1000 degrees with average temps of around 800 – 900 degrees. That means pizzas arrive slightly blistered, covered in generous blobs of fresh, imported Italian fior di latte from La Mozzarella, flown in twice a week (drained and sliced) and a half dozen fresh basil leaves. The tomato sauce – San Marzano Italian Pomodoro tomatoes milled by hand with sea salt – is simple, fresh and evenly applied. The drained mozz, thin sauce application and extra 10 seconds in the oven result in slices that hold their shape when lifted. The bottom crust has a decent amount of char, as does the undercarriage, while the perimeter is soft-yet-chewy. Take a look inside that crust – you’ll see air pockets, revealing a decent amount of fermentation; this is a crust you want to finish off. One note: this is a fragile creation. Don’t get it to-go or you’ll miss the entire experience. Eat it as soon as it hits your table!
1600 S. 61st Ave., Cicero
There are several types of pizzas sold here, including their legendary Sicilian-style, which is listed under the “thick” category in this Pizza Quest. But in terms of thin, they offer a few types, like a rectangular sheet of margherita ($19) or a more standard round pizza. I got one of each.
The margherita is typically sold by the slice ($3) but getting a full sheet will feed a small army. It’s a different dough than the one they use for the Sicilian, and the key is fermentation – at least a day and a half. Baked in a giant, 60 year-old Blodgett deck oven, the pizza emerges charred on the edges and bubbling in the middle, with more fior di latte than most delis have in their entire cheese section. Basil is sprinkled liberally, and the sauce, made from California tomatoes, is obviously homemade. I liked this pizza. It’s not really a classic VPN or DOC Neapolitan, but the owners – who just returned from a trip to Naples – say that locals sometimes don’t want one of those soggy/wet pizzas, and prefer something with more heft. This certainly delivers. Same goes for their “thin” pizza, which beats most other thins in town. The slices are puffy and generous, and the toppings are solid, but still, the bottom crust retains crispness, and one of the reasons you find yourself reaching for another piece, is that slight tanginess and sourness that comes from a pre-fermentation, called a biga – used in ciabatta doughs - which is fed with flour, water and salt and left to proof for a couple of hours. There are also some interesting little air pockets here, which lend the pizza even more character and chew. Their sausage is made for them by Greco, while the cheese is strictly whole milk mozzarella from Wisconsin.
9655 Grand Ave., Franklin Park; 847-451-0100
Thin, Thick and Stuffed offered, but thin is what they’re known for. Sizes come in 10”, 12”, 14”, 16”, 18” and 20”. We opted for 12” thin, half pepperoni-half sausage ($12.25)
Located almost across the street from Grand Stand Pizza, we came in during lunch, when most people were getting the daily buffet. This tavern-style pie arrives with just a few air pockets, a result of a dough that had been mechanically rolled out and baked in an electric oven. The chew was just o.k., but not the cracker crust I was hoping for. The cheese blend had an orange hue, hiding tiny knobs of tasty, juicy sausage that was pretty mild. Good if you’re hungry and just came from the softball game.
9718 W. Grand Ave., Franklin Park; 847-451-1155
Thin, Double Dough, Pan and Stuffed come in 12”, 14”, 16”, 18” and 20”
Got a 12” thin, half sausage-half pepperoni ($12.50)
In what must be some sort of “pizza row,” this section of Grand Avenue had a number of pizza joints, clearly a sign of the Italian immigrants who’ve settled here over the years. The owners are Cubs fans – the pictures of players past and present grace one of the walls – and the thin pies emerging from the Blodgett gas-fired ovens are standard Chicago tavern-style. Ours had more chew than say, Villa Napoli, but the precision of the circumference (a perfect circle) is made by hand and rolled on an electric roller, then cut by hand with a pizza cutting wheel; on our visit, we felt there might have been excessive rolling which could have rendered the dough – like many tavern-styles – too tough. The Greco sausage is a standout, torn into rough chunks beneath the layer of mozzarella, but the sauce is insignificant and while it’s certainly a pleasant pie to enjoy if you live close by, I wouldn’t schlep 30 minutes and deal with navigating traffic for it.
1433 N. Dayton St.; 312-642-6700
Comes individual (lunch only), medium, large, jumbo, family, party, stadium, super stadium. Got a medium half sausage-half pepperoni ($13.45)
I really thought I had a discovery on my hands with this one. Walking up Halsted, near the British School, I saw the sign tucked way back along Dayton. With a name like “Italian Pizza Kitchen” it had to be great, right? Once I saw it was mostly a slices-to-go place with a second location in Roselle, IL, I should have probably bolted, but I soldiered on. Total fail. Not only was there too much of the three-cheese blend over the top, obliterating any possible flavor that might have emerged from the proteins, the bigger crime was the dough. Run through the sheeter four too many times and lacking salt, oil or anything that might impart flavor, each bite was like chewing a salt-free Saltine. Congrats IPK, you’re officially in my bottom three.
7411 W. Madison St., Forest Park; 708-771-7476
Got a small, half pepperoni-half sausage ($14.50)
Jeff “The Sandwich King” Mauro tipped me off to this casual family restaurant, where Fenwick High pennants and Hawks jerseys are the main decorating accents. He insisted I give it a try, saying it was the real deal for tavern-style pizzas in the region. Since Mauro is a local boy – there are several newspaper clippings tracking his career on the Food Network, laminated and hung on the wall – I was afraid that his PIGUE Syndrome would get the best of him. It did. There are tidy little sausage balls with o.k. flavor; the pepperoni is indistinguishable, barely registering beneath the über-salty cheese blend. The crust? Meh. Very average without any discernable chew or crunch. I think Jeff is a great guy, and there’s no doubt he’s talented when it comes to sandwich assembly (I look forward to his Pork & Mindy’s shop near my house), but I’d leave the pizza recommendations to someone else.
4127-4129 W. Lawrence Ave.; 773-725-1812
Thin or Double Dough; known for thin, so got a medium, half sausage-half pepperoni ($13.45)
Talk about a throwback. You almost expect the ghost of Studs Terkel to belly-up next to Nelson Algren at the bar. The vintage mirrors showing the Chicago skyline and the decorative ceiling lights over the bar, casting shadows on the red vinyl booths would be right at home in a Mad Men revival (if Matthew Weiner had grown up near Pulaski and Lawrence). It’s all about the thin crust here, which many of my readers stated matter-of-factly was the best in town. I take exception, and like most of the pizzas in Chicago, chalk it up to nostalgia. Our pizza arrived nicely well-done, so there were no puddles of grease, and the sausage was top-notch – you could see the fennel seeds. But like most tavern-style pies, the dough is simply a sturdy vehicle for transporting the cheese, sauce and meat to your pie hole. It’s so sturdy, in fact, that it doesn’t absorb anything – not sauce, not cheese and certainly not the fat that’s been rendered from the sausage. This is the difference between long fermented, hand-tossed-and-formed pizza, and the shortcut mechanically-formed pies you see in most bars. Sure, it’s nostalgic (there’s a reason they’ve been in business for 75 years) and it even tastes pretty good with a few beers, but I’m not sure it changed my life, and it certainly wouldn’t cause me to send an out-of-towner here.
6654 W. Archer Ave.; 773-586-2828
Ordered: Small half sausage, half pepperoni ($9.88)
Cruising down Archer Avenue, the long, diagonal commercial street the runs down the Southwest Side of the city, parallel to the Stevenson Expressway, you see plenty of Mexican taquerias and Polish restaurants. I had several readers tell me that Obbie’s was a must; a favorite in the neighborhood. They sort of laughed at us when we called ahead and asked to eat-in (it’s carryout only) and when we did walk in, we saw five guys just completely focused, rolling out dough, toppings large discs of it with tomato sauce, filling pans with homemade sausage and checking on pizzas in the enormous rotating deck ovens. The phone kept ringing and people kept streaming in and out, and it was only 5 p.m. on a Thursday. We took our small pie outside to the car, opened up the tailgate and plopped it down, tearing the paper bag off, revealing a bubbly, cheesy disc, embedded with nice little irregular balls of sausage and thin, slightly spicy pepperoni. The bottom of the crust had that telltale sign of slightly blackened corn flour, giving it a nice texture; the crust itself, however, proved a tad too soft; there was absolutely no chew here, and I think if you wait the 10 or 15 minutes it takes to get home until you eat it, you’ll have an even soggier bottom. The only remedy would be to eat it as soon as it comes out of the oven, but I’m not sure how practical that is, and how much fun is it to eat in your car?
4849 W. 95th St., Oak Lawn; 708-425-6262
Got a small “thin and crispy” half sausage-half pepperoni ($14.60); they also have regular thin, deep dish and stuffed.
For more than 35 years, Palermo’s has been a Southside institution, serving the same local families, watching their children grow up, then go on to college. Lasagna, pasta and pizza are their calling cards. Popping in unnoticed on a Wednesday afternoon, the brick-arched dining room with grapevine wallpaper was pretty quiet. Tony Bennett crooned on the speakers. My server said without a doubt “thin and crispy” was their specialty, so I ordered the usual half-and-half. 15 minutes later, after spending time in their rotating bread ovens set to 525 degrees, he set a beautifully crisp, square-cut pizza in front of me, set on top of a cooling rack that was placed over the pizza pan. This elevation keeps that bottom crust crisp, just like the Japanese tonkatsu houses do for their breaded-and-fried pork cutlets.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen tomato sauce this red. It was almost like tomato paste, and like so many other South Side joints, it had a hint of sweetness (definitely a regional differentiation within Chicagoland); the only thing they’d confirm was that they use San Marzanos, but they insisted the recipe was a secret. However, I did have a reader chime in after they heard me on the radio this morning: “The sweetness comes from grape jelly. I swear, it’s grape jelly – a friend used to work there and found the secret to their sweetness.” Hmmm. The sausage – made in-house from 100% pork butt – was hidden beneath a substantial (but not overwhelming) layer of oregano-flecked part-skim shredded mozzarella and cut into large, amorphous hunks. It tasted very good. I ate about three pieces, including a good edge slice, so I could really taste the cracker-thin crust. Made from a combo of whole wheat and all-purpose flour, with just a 12 hour warm rise, it’s quite different from Vito & Nick’s, but still, worth a try. I hesitate to call it tavern-style, since it’s served in a proper restaurant with a wine list and uniformed waiters, but there’s no denying that square-cut, thin, light-as-a-cracker-crisp crust – a true hallmark of the Chicago tavern-style.
3702 N. Broadway (entrance on Waveland); 773-472-620o; also locations in Park Ridge and Evanston
Several specialty pies available, including ones with burrata and buffalo mozz, but went with basic margherita ($13)
Panino’s also has locations in Evanston and Park Ridge, but the city location is really two different restaurants within one. On the Broadway side (facing the mall), it’s a standard-issue thin and deep pizza joint, as well as by-the-slice, with pies baked in gas-fired ovens. On the Waveland side, a completely different personality emerges. Here, it’s Panino’s Pizzaiolo, a reference to the fact they are putting their Neapolitan hats on, and indeed, the giant red tiled, Stefano Ferrara wood-burning oven (700 degrees on the deck, 1000 degrees in the dome) has a “master pizzaiolo” spelled out in white tiles, indicating they take the pizzas a tad more seriously here. The key is their mother starter, a strain of yeast that is recycled and re-used, integrated and “fed” with more water and flour, then kneaded and aged, left to ferment, developing serious air pockets within the dough. It gets a three-day cold rise. “It’s totally different than using standard instant dry yeast,” said owner Bruno Brunetti. “It adds texture and flavor.” Just last week, in fact, their pizza with burrata cheese took #1 in the National Pizza trials in Ohio, which means their pizzaiolo won a trip to Italy where he’ll compete in The World Pizza Games (may the ovens be in your favor).
The raw dough is topped with healthy blobs of Galbani fresh mozzarella that have been drained overnight, plus zesty tomato sauce containing imported Italian plum tomatoes, lightly ground, with evoo and salt. As tradition dictates, a few basil leaves are added, along with a drizzle of olive oil. The margherita emerges with beautifully charred edges as well as blackened splotches above and below; there is good chew here, with wonderful texture and a homey, misshapen cornicione. “Many places are stuck on this 90-second cooking thing,” said Brunetti. “We know for a fact that there’s no possible way you can cook raw tomato and dough in 90 seconds – it just doesn’t happen. Our dough needs just a little more than usual to add crispness and more char.” My only complaint is not enough salt in the dough, because after you worked your way to the edge, and got past the last bits of cheese and sauce, the resulting plain crust just didn’t have the same craveability as versions at Spacca Napoli, Forno Rosso or even Stella Barra. That said, it’s still one helluva delicious pizza.
1000 31st St., Downers Grove; 630-960-5700
To abide by my previous rule about not checking out restaurants that happen to have pizza ovens, I can’t go into much detail. But the reason I checked out this sprawling suburban restaurant that actually specializes in seafood, was due to the fact they have a VPN (Vera Pizza Napoletana) certified Neapolitan pizza, which is sort of like a D.O.C. rating, in that the organizing body in Italy says essentially that this pizza meets their strict culinary standards (dough, flour, sauce, cheese, oven, etc.). A few years ago, Serious Eats tackled this subject, and wrote a very funny, geeked-out response to VPN-rated places, saying many of them may check off the boxes, but in the end, aren’t really that great. Purists won’t mind how wet and soggy the middle is, but I’m not a fan. The cornicione, however, does look (and taste) pretty good. #leopardspotting
2679 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-248-0168
Thin or Pan options, in 12”, 14” or 16”; had a 12” half sausage-half pepperoni ($12.30)
The legend that is Pat’s – I remember hitting it up on Sheffield, across from The Vic – has always been about its thin crust. When the pie arrives at your table on a stainless steel disc, you can tell immediately how thin it is. Almost caramelized on the edge, the pizza is nicely browned and blackened all over its undercarriage. In an interesting architectural note: the sausage side was covered with cheese, while the pepperonis rested above the cheese. That part-skim shredded mozz is baked until it’s nice and golden, but there was so much of it, it dominated the entire piece. Sauce was hardly notable, but I liked how it was spread all the way to the edge. The crust is where Pat’s excels: so perfectly crispy, almost like eating a salty cracker that had been dipped in cheesy tomato sauce. Made from King wheat flour each morning, it rises one day, then it’s refrigerated at the end of Day 1; warmed then rolled to size on Day 2, then back to the fridge, where it rises a third day and is used on the Day 4. I can’t think of another pizza joint in town doing a consistent 72-hour rest. Baked in a 4-shelf, rotating Faulds gas oven, you can actually hear when you bite into the crust, which is rare among thin crust and tavern-style competitors.
1927 W. North Ave.; 773-772-4422
Style: New Haven Thin
Ordered large half pepperoni-half sausage ($20.49)
Piece has won several awards for its beer, and rightly so. Its pizza, however, suffers from an identity crisis. They claim they serve New Haven-style pizza, which means a thin, oblong pie, topped with oregano, tomato sauce and some grated Pecorino Romano. Mozzarella is considered a topping, like sausage or pepperoni, except in New Haven, Connecticut, you’re more likely to find a white pie topped with littleneck clams (this was the style many readers told me to get – the white with clams, as it hews to the East Coast inspiration, but remember, unless it’s a Neapolitan, I had to get the same order: half sausage-half pepperoni). The other distinguishing feature of a New Haven pie is a coal-fired oven, along the lines of Frank Pepe’s or Sally’s Apizza. Piece, however, strays often from this New Haven mandate, and brings in celebrity guests like “Hot Doug” Sohn, to collaborate on things like the “Atomic Pizza.” Honestly, my biggest issue was with the crust. When I ate at Frank Pepe’s, I recall not only an oven the size of a school bus, filled with coal, I can still picture (and taste) that charred edge, misshapen cornicione and great chew that can only come from super high heat and a fairly moist dough that’s allowed to rest for some fermentation.
Unfortunately, Piece’s ovens never get that hot, and for whatever reason, their crust just isn’t nearly as craveable. Most friends at the table would stop just short of finishing off their crust edges, one of the surest signs there’s an issue. (I can imagine the forlorn look on a pizzaiolo’s face, seeing all of those uneaten crust edges scattered on the plates coming back to the kitchen, like a pasta chef at Scarpetta seeing plate after plate of barely-touched short rib agnolotti). Toppings are fine here, but after seven minutes on the table, the crust becomes significantly tougher, and unless you’re really hungry, I’m betting most of those thin, triangular pieces are going to end up in the refrigerator, to see another midnight snacking opportunity down the road.
Six locations; I went to 2056 W. Division St.; 773-252-1777
Style: Deep and Thin
Thin comes in medium or large; I got a medium, half sausage-half pepperoni
Does anyone still put a lot of stock in brands that were “voted the best _______ by the Oprah Show”? Apparently the O (or more likely, her producers) really liked Pizano’s thin crust several years ago, so they’re running with it. This thin was certainly the thickest of its kind, mainly because the edges are slightly higher on the sides. In fact, it looks as if it’s a thicker pie from the side, but when you pick up a piece, you can see that it’s truly thin. The crust is dynamite. Same version you’d find in their thick pie (which I also tried, and preferred) – slightly crispy, a tad buttery and rich, but not too heavy. Clearly homemade. The Wisconsin whole milk mozzarella is applied with a heavy hand, always covering the fine Anichini sausage or zesty pepperoni. One thing I wished there was more of was the crushed and whole tomato sauce. Like a lot of thin pies I ended up tasting, they skimp on the sauce in favor of covering up the ingredients with a mountain of cheese (even though it was baked to a nice golden brown in spots, courtesy of the Blodgett deck ovens that are kept at 600 – 650 degrees).
3011 Butterfield Rd, Oak Brook; 630-861-6177
Style: Artisan thin
Also sells Chicago thin and deep dish, but specializes in coal-fired artisan thin
Rich Labriola knows dough. The guy built his eponymous bakery, sold it, and has since moved on to licensing UCLA’s Stan’s Donuts, which is quickly gobbling up retail space around the city. His namesake café has kept humming along in a semi-fancy Oak Brook strip mall, and last year, he opened up a branch off of Michigan Avenue. Even though they have a pizza oven at both, and they manage to churn out good Neapolitan-style pies, I decided not to include them as part of the Quest, since I had made a rule early on about prohibiting restaurants that didn’t focus on pizza (otherwise this Quest would never end; sorry Piccolo Sogno, Balena and Quartino). Labriola recently took over a vacant space near the Oak Brook location, setting up his pizza fantasyland. He recruited Chris Macchia, a Coco Pazzo vet, and the two have spent the past year or so stuffing their faces with various crusts, trying to come up with something truly unique.
The massive restaurant offers three types of pizza: thin, Chicago deep dish and their signature: a coal-fired artisan pie that emerges from the brick ovens with some of the most beautiful corniciones in the tri-state area, the result of a 48-hour pre-fermentation process, or biga, and a really wet (75% water) ciabatta-like dough, plus olive oil. As much as I like Coalfire downtown, this is the kind of dough I want putting up an eight-minute fight in the blistering heat – it’s got a great open crumb, lots of air pockets, plenty of olive oil-kissed blistering around the top and a puffiness that allows for a good, hearty chew. The middle is still as thin as can be, supporting any number of artisan toppings, roasted vegetables or even ‘nduja from West Loop Salumi. Their “basic” margherita-style isn’t a margherita at all (although I had them make me one, just for comparison sake). It’s called a Dante, and it has some of the freshest Bianco organic tomatoes, seasoned with olive oil, salt and basil, spread across the middle, seasoned with a bit of fresh marjoram. The giant blobs of cheese are really a blend of a few sheep’s milk cheeses (I found them a little too barnyard-y) but that crust…oh that crust. Definitely a pizza you’ll be devouring no matter what’s on top.
3256 W. 55th St.; 773-776-1075
Got a small (10”) half sausage-half pepperoni ($8.95)
There was quite a bit of love for the Castle, located in the Gage Park neighborhood, on the city’s Southwest Side. It’s hard not to adore it – the kitchen is small, but certainly not any smaller than the dining area, which is basically a counter against the window (it’s mostly takeout). Chicago allegiances are on display – they have giant framed posters of da Bears, Hawks, Cubs and Sox hung directly in front of the pizza counter, where they top their dough with some of the better toppings around. Both the sauce and sausage were especially good. Unfortunately, I had a feeling after seeing the guy run the dough through the mechanical sheeter a number of times, that it would essentially squeeze all of the flavor and texture/gluten out of it. It did. As much as I liked the toppings, the bland bottom crust sunk it for me.
113 – 125 N. Green St.; 312-521-8000
Style: Artisan Thin
Got a margherita, about 12” ($16)
It says something when the standard, house margherita uses buffalo mozzarella, but this pizza and antipasti restaurant in the Soho House – one of the three options open to the public – really loves its wood-burning ovens. There are several tempting toppings here (burrata, anchovies, black truffle) but for the purposes of this study, we stuck with the basic, entry level margherita. Let’s talk crust for a second. I don’t know if it’s the German flour or the long fermentation, but this crust was divine. Actual air pockets for a change, evenly salted and offering one of the best chews of any cornicione in town. Sadly, the middle diameter, where all of the sauce and cheese live, is a tad too small, ratiowise, and is certainly overshadowed by the high and round edges. Each slice does tend to hold its shape, a remarkable achievement considering the middle is so thin; they must drain their mozz otherwise everything would droop considerably. If I could merge the interior qualities of Forno Rosso or da Nella with this outer crust, we’d be pretty close to perfection.
1707 W. Division St.; 773-993-1351
Small, Medium, Large or slices; got a small half pepperoni-half sausage ($7.70)
This West Town/Wicker Park pizza shop specializes in “Roman-style” pizza, which simply means a rectangular pie (like Pizza Rustica) but it looks and feels more like a tavern pizza, with its thin, square-cut pieces; they emphasize their specialty pies with potato and rosemary, or ones simply with anchovy. There are just a few seats at the counter inside, and it took all of 13 minutes to get my small, which was really the perfect size for one relatively hungry person. The crust is seriously thin, almost like a Vito & Nick’s, and the crumbled sausage, buried beneath a snow drift of cheese, certainly had me coming back for extra slices. The pepperoni is standard stuff, but I liked how simple and yet tasty this pizza was, especially how good the ratio of toppings-to-cheese-to-crust was. Not a bad option if you’re nearby and craving a snack, but also not quite up to the caliber of the city’s top tier thin joints.
3908 N. Sheridan Rd.; 773-404-8955
Half or Whole; got a half with half sausage-half pepperoni ($10.25)
Served on a wooden pizza peel, the Rustica pizza has a beautifully crisp edge that continues underneath the pizza, resulting in extremely delicious bites. The dough is created with 00 flour and gets fermented in a warm rise, is patted down, then rests again and punched down a second time before spread out in pans for the final rise – about 3.5 hours total, plus a “secret process” they wouldn’t divulge. The housemade fennel-laced sausage – made from pork shoulder and seasoned with thyme, garlic, parsley and white wine – was a pleasure to eat, roughly crumbled and buried beneath a perfectly respectable layer of mozzarella that comes from a small Wisconsin producer and is shredded in-house (you can ask for fresh mozz as well); it comes nicely browned in splotches. We thought this pizza lacked any discernible amount of sauce, however, which might have helped it a bit (the basis is Italian San Marzanos). The pizzas take about seven minutes to bake in their Imperial convection ovens, set to 450 degrees.
1708 W. Belmont Ave.; 773-525-0600
Got a small (11”) margherita ($13) and a small half sausage-half pepperoni; also comes in large (16”)
They make a very big deal about their gas-fired, brick oven dome at Serio, and they want you to know they are serious about their pizza, even though the oven is gas-fired, not wood-fired. I actually thought the margherita held up pretty well, when removed from the pie the slice was pretty stiff, not wet (interesting, because they use a Grande fresh mozz, which tends to have more moisture than the mozz they use at Craft, their sister restaurant). Despite a slightly sweeter-than-normal sauce, consisting of Alta Cucina whole, peeled plum tomatoes from California, there was decent char and chew, with lots of nice little air pockets in the dough, which indicated either a fair amount of fermentation, a wetter-than-normal dough, or both. “We use a higher heat and a quicker cook time,” said owner Scott Toth, who uses a 50/50 blend of high and low protein/gluten flours, with a cold rise of 48 to 72 hours. “You definitely get char if you’re doing it right, but it’s hard to get a nice crispy bottom all the way through.” The Anichini Bros. sausage-pepperoni version had a ton of oregano on top (ease up guys), but I was really struck by how good the chew was on this version, and while it was soft enough to enjoy, there was also a decent amount of crispiness on the outer rim, giving it a pretty enjoyable textural contrast. Who says you need wood to make a good pizza?
1443 W. Fullerton Ave.; 773-281-6600
Got a margherita ($12.99)
What a pleasure it was devouring this pizza. I’m sure the ones topped with arugula or prosciutto are equally as enjoyable, but just inhaling the smell of the dough – made from imported 00 Italian flour, with an 8-12 hour rise (depending on season) – baked to exact specs in the handmade, wood-burning oven that averages 800 degrees, forming one of the city’s best Neapolitan pies with a textbook cornicione…mmm. These pies are nicely charred above and below, and I loved how the middle was just thick enough to withstand the blobs of domestic whole milk fior di latte mozzarella and fresh tomato sauce made from San Marzanos. Rather then falling over limp at the first touch, the pieces actually held their shape as I brought them to my mouth. That chew! One of the hallmarks of a great pizza – and a compliment to the pizzaiolo – is not only when you finish off the interior, but devour the entire slice, all the way to the edge.
404 N. Milwaukee Ave., Libertyville; 847-367-4992
Style: Artisan Thin
Got a margherita ($13)
I had been to this place once before, during lunch, but was told that they don’t really make anything from their main menu featuring the wood-burning oven, until dinner; naturally, I had to go back. The lineup is impressive: homemade sausage (excellent, by the way), sopresatta, whipped ricotta…the usual artisan lineup of goodies. I started with a margherita (called the Queen’s Pizza here), featuring Grande fior di latte from Wisconsin, tomato sauce that combines Rao’s NYC tomatoes – consisting of Italian cherry tomatoes – as well as San Marzanos, plus fresh basil. The key, of course, is that dough, made from a 50-50 blend of Caputo 00 and King Arthur’s Sir Galahad flour, plus a little bit of dough from the day before; it gets a cold fermentation overnight, then formed into balls and sits another day or so, resulting in a 48 – 72 hour total rest time. “When we’re slow, it nears that 72-hour mark,” said owner John Durning. “That’s my favorite, when it gets a little sour, it adds such a nice flavor.”
The dough emerges from the wood-burning Mugnaini oven beautifully charred and knobby, with an impressive undercarriage of blackened but not overdone crust. This is most likely due to the fact the temperature inside the oven averages 800 degrees on the deck, 1100 degrees in the dome. There is a nice chew to the edge – perhaps not as salty as it could be – but still, definitely craveable to the point I ate almost three pieces. I also tried a half sausage-half sopresatta, and sadly, this version was drowning in cheese (my server insisted it was the same fior di latte as in the margherita, but I find that hard to fathom, as it would have jacked up the food cost by 100%). The cheese for pizzas other than the margherita is, according to Durning, an rBGH-free mozzarella from Wisconsin Natural Direct. I thought it obliterated this pie, which was sort of depressing, considering the quality of the Purely Gourmet sausage ground in-house with red wine, fennel, garlic and allspice; his cured meats, like the sopresatta, come from Creminelli Meats in Utah, but mine was hidden beneath the milky, melted blanket. Regardless, this is a must-visit if you’re in the area, as I’ve had a hard time finding wood-burning ovens this far north in Chicagoland that produce pies of this caliber.
434 W. Ontario St.; 312-944-4340
Small half pepperoni-half sausage ($17)
Definitely off the radar for most pizza aficionados, Pranzi is located in a no-man’s land on West Ontario, near Reza’s, in an area known more for martinis and shots than decent pie. They do offer pan, as well as extra thin, but our server told us the thin is their specialty. We also tried a margherita, which needed salt in the worst way, but had our usual half sausage (purchased from Greco) and half pepperoni. The cheese is actually a blend of provolone and mozzarella, and while it was typically greasy, I didn’t love the crust. I shouldn’t say I disliked it, it just didn’t pull me back for more. If you’re out late, and you’re in the area and you’re craving pizza, Pranzi is a fine choice. Would I tell you to drive 10 miles out of your way for it? Probably not.
1924 W. Chicago Ave.; 773-645-4949
Style: Thin (via the Quad Cities)
Got a small half sausage-half pepperoni ($16)
I’d be willing to bet I’m the only food writer in town who has actually logged time in the QC (although it’s often referred to as the Quint Cities, since East Moline has become its own little micro Metropolis, thanks to John Deere HQ, but I digress). I lived there in the early 90s, and while I have fond memories of standing in line for ice cream at Whitey’s after devouring the matzo ball soup at the Duck City Bistro in Davenport, I don’t really recall a distinctive local pizza style. Roots is sort of a sports bar-meets-neighborhood hang – large booths, TVs, you’ve seen it a million times – and they go all-in on the QC style, the most unique element being the dark roasted malt that’s used in the dough. Other “Quad City style” hallmarks allegedly include hand-tossing the dough, using a thin sauce and top quality ingredients (they make their own sausage) and cutting the pies with scissors (?) but honestly, the only difference I detected was that dough. When you first encounter this pizza, you’re met with the aroma of oregano, which you can see resting like so many boats on Lake Geneva, in a lake of thick, melted cheese. Slightly spicy crumbled sausage rests beneath it all (a tad spicier than most) and underneath, enough light and dark cornmeal flecks to make it look like an everything bagel. In fact, if you bite the outer crust, where there isn’t any cheese or sauce, the dough tastes like a crispy bagel or pretzel. Not that that’s a bad thing, but I’m just not one of those folks who craves this sort of pizza. Like Freddy’s, it’s one of the thicker “thin” pizzas in Chicago, with a pretty puffy outer ring. But the problem is if that outer rim gets a little overdone, as mine was, it just tastes like burnt bagel, and again, that might be what they’re going for in Rock Island, Bettendorf or Moline, but I’d rather go up the street to Craft for a different interpretation.
1201 W. Grand Ave.; 312-666-3444
Thin or Regular, comes in 8”, 10”, 12”, 14” or 16”; got a 12” half sausage-half pepperoni
This family-friendly restaurant in West Town has been around since 1966 – they have another location in Oak Park. Pizzas take about 25 minutes, but they’re worth the wait. Normally, smaller pizzas are cut into wedges, but if you get a 12” or larger, they cut it into squares, a la tavern-style. The crust here differed from many of the usual tavern-style pizzas, in that it actually had some dimension and some cracker-like qualities. They let the raw dough sit in the mixer, uncovered, for a few hours, allowing for a warm rise; after punching down the dough, they transfer it to a cooler where it continues to rise overnight. It wasn’t one solid mass throughout, but rather, contained tiny layers of delicate crust inside, and you could actually chew it; it also absorbed the zesty tomato sauce (California plum tomatoes) and the shredded provolone-mozzarella blend, which, incidentally, covered the entire pizza like a shiny yellow shield. Pepperoni had a slight bite to it, but the mild, homemade sausage was the star. Even though I had tasted six pizzas previous to this one on that particular day, I still managed to eat a full three pieces, which says a lot. They bake their pies in a gas-fired, rotating deck oven that can hold up to 80 pizzas at a time, baked at 550 degrees. “Electric does not cook it,” says owner Pete Lia. “We tried, but it doesn’t cook the meat, so we turned back to gas. Michael Jordan used to tell me, ‘you make the best pizzas in the world. Not just Chicago, the world!’” Take that, Oprah.
1456 W. George St.; 773-327-1127
Got a small half sausage-half pepperoni ($10.50)
“If you win the lottery, do they pay you all at once, or do you get it in installments?” asked the older gentleman sitting at the bar one afternoon at the Side Street Saloon. The afternoon news was on one TV, ESPN on the other, and with the exception of the bartender and my friend and I, the place was empty. There are, of course, dozens, if not hundreds of neighborhood taverns like this, and it’s what makes Chicago so damn wonderful. Sure, you’re in a big city (in Lake View, to be exact) but walking into a joint like this in the middle of the day you could just as well be in Kenosha or Escanaba. Tempting as the pool table was, we opted for a small pizza (our third of the day). When it hit the table, I was reminded of both Northbrook’s Barnaby’s (crimped edges) as well as Pizano’s (butter crust), although the crust here is made with white flour and is left to rest overnight. The sausage, from Greco & Sons, was pleasant, the pepperoni slightly greasy, as it sat in a pool of slightly underdone melted mozzarella. Since it’s baked in an electric oven at 500 degrees, my recommendation would be to ask to have it well done. My friend liked both of the toppings, and I could easily see polishing one off as I played pool or watched TV, contemplating the machinations of the Illinois Lottery system on a quiet Tuesday afternoon.
1582 N. Clybourn; 773-255-1122
Style: Artisan Thin/Sicilian
Got margherita ($14)
Listed on the menu with just fiore di latte and basil, the basic pie here reveals quite a bit. First of all, it’s an unapologetic Sicilian pie; they don’t claim to make a Neapolitan-style, and the dough is only fermented a day. I wish it was more than that, because once you chew from the tip to the outer edge – which is pretty dense and thin – you reach a sauceless crust that is lacking in both chew and flavor. There needs to be salt here and I dare say something more than just crispy texture. Honestly, the middle is where the excitement is, but I found myself leaving the edges remaining on the plate, which is never a good sign.
1769 W. Sunnyside; 773-878-2420
Got a margherita ($12.50)
So much has been said about Jonathan Goldsmith’s Ravenswood pizzeria, most of it glowing, of course, since he lectures frequently, travels to Italy regularly, and has made the art and tradition of Neapolitan pizza his mission since he opened on the quiet corner of Sunnyside and Ravenswood 10 years ago this winter. All of the hallmarks are here: the 00 flour, the 24-hour rise, bufalina and fior di latte cheeses (plus a blend of Parmesan and Sardinian Pecorino), oozing and creamy-sweet, placed haphazardly about the hand-formed spheres, and the imported San Marzano tomatoes, crushed into sweet/acidic oblivion; the tell-tale crust – puffy and blistered with leopard spotting on the cornicione as well as the undercarriage – with a remarkable chew that comes from a long fermentation; the final flourish – a healthy perimeter drizzle of olive oil imported from Vesuvio.
Early on, I had always felt the centers were too thin and too wet (I know true Neapolitans adore this tomato-cheese puddle) and while I enjoyed the cornicione, I rarely praised the interior. Things have changed (Goldsmith says the recipe has been tweaked) and those droopy interiors are a thing of the past. The dough has a little bit more structure these days, and the other dozen or so pizzas all feature top-quality arugula, prosciutto, sausage and rapini. For those who remember my consternation at having to choose the best Italian beef between the Original Mr. Beef in Homer Glen and Johnnie’s in Elmwood Park, I’m faced with a similar conundrum here: Forno Rosso and Spacca Napoli both make excellent pizzas, and if blindfolded, I’m not sure I could tell the difference.
1954 N. Halsted St.; 773-634-4101
Style: Artisan Thin
Got a margherita ($13.95)
With locations in Hollywood, Santa Monica and Bethesda, MD, this Lincoln Park sibling to Summer House Santa Monica is part of the Lettuce Entertain You empire. Chef Jeff Mahin oversees both menus, and has created a pretty lovely lineup of pies that take a more farmer’s market approach. Among the homemade sausage and fresh mozzarella, you’ll also spot fennel pollen, fresh ricotta and peppery arugula, plus an outstanding mushroom pie with truffle oil, but I digress. The star here is the crust, and I can’t overstate its importance enough here. Too many pizza fans rave about places that have substandard crusts I wouldn’t serve at a 6 year-old’s birthday party, mainly due to misguided loyalty, and I’m sure those same fans will berate me for touting a pizza joint in Lincoln Park that has leather couches and hand-crafted cocktails. But if you consider yourself a pizza lover, you have to give this crust a try. It’s everything I want in a chew: salty, slightly textured (is that cornmeal on the bottom?) with an enormous cornicione, revealing air pockets the size of edamame beans, proving this dough gets a lot of rest and time to develop its signature flavor. Even after eating a few pizzas that day, I still managed to eat the entire piece – a compliment to the person who did the baking. Mahin says the dough begins with 100% organic California wheat (red & white) from a farm less than 200 miles away from their California location. The high ash content in the red wheat yields subtle notes of cinnamon. The dough is fermented about 36 hours, half of the time in a bulk ferment, portioned with a unique “jar system” and when near completion, it’s transferred to the fridge. “This lets the dough create its own ecosystem to build a complexity of flavors,” said Mahin.
The middle of the pizza is also impressive, with its sturdiness, despite its width: only a millimeter or two, and yet, able to hold up the fresh mozzarella thats been weighted down overnight to remove excess moisture. His tomato sauce had more intensity than most, as if the kitchen had first reduced it and cooked it down, before adding it to the dough. Mahin says he begins with organic California tomatoes with no citric acid (they’re not preheated before canning); they’re pulsed in-house. “Tomatoes grow sour when overcooked,” he said. “We want sweet and vibrant with a little tang.” That means they’ll cook it with stems of herbs used for other purposes in the kitchen, plus fennel, garlic and peppercorns, strain it through cheesecloth, rest it for three days (squeezing daily) then adding extra virgin olive oil to it on Day 3.
Mahin says he tried coal, wood and started with gas, but moved to electric which provides more consistent heat – the coils heat fast and stay hot. They take about 15 minutes at 540 degrees. My only complaint: not enough cheese. Believe me, I’ve bemoaned the overkill on many pizzas in town, where they rely too heavily on cheese (looking at you, Art of Pizza), but Stella was a little weak with the fresh mozz, and needs to bump it up about 20%. That said, get thyself to the corner of Halsted and Armitage and dive into one of Chicago’s best artisan thin crust pizzas.
2210 N. California Ave.; 773-276-5625
Got a half sausage-half pepperoni ($21)
(Note: whole pies come in one size – about 20”; there is also a pretty brisk by-the-slice program. Cash only.)
From the fine folks who brought you Simone’s in Pilsen, this recycled DIY aesthetic showing old Twilight Zone episodes behind the bar puts their pizza program front-and-center. As you peer in through the front window, you can see the pizza guys tossing their dough to get ready to make a ton of pies that will eventually be sold by-the-slice. I wasn’t interested in slices (that’s a different Quest) so I opted to go with a whole pie, as usual, half sausage-half pepperoni. There are plenty of other whack-a-doodle options here, including Thai cream cheese sauce, curry, serranos, beet bruschetta – but for this Quest, I had to stick to either basic margheritas or the half-and-half rule. My friend and I literally let out an audible gasp, as our server placed a comically large 20” pizza in front of the two us. Even if we hadn’t been planning to try other pizzas on this day, I would have been bringing plenty home.
First, just look at this beauty: on the pepperoni side, wide circles covering every possible bit of real estate; on the other side, crumbled, beautifully seasoned sausage from Anichini Bros (a spicy-garlic mix) that doesn’t fight with the melted provolone-whole milk mozzarella cheese blend; everything is tucked into a sauce consisting of diced and pureed tomatoes. Beneath it all, a delicate, cornmeal-flecked, high-moisture dough that gets a minimum two to three-day rise, maintaining a crispy edge, unlike, say, Piece, which has a superior oven, but clearly, not a better dough recipe. Each of these giant, hand-tossed pies are placed into a Rotoflex rotating, gas-fired, stone deck oven, set to a constant 600 degrees.
3656 N. Central Ave., 773-736-1429
Ate small half sausage-half pepperoni ($13.75)
I took a beating on this one, mainly because several people came forward early on, telling me to visit, after they’d seen some of my other recent pizza posts. I’ve tried to avoid visiting restaurants that also happen to make pizza (I’m trying to make this Quest all about pizza places) but Porretta certainly qualifies, as its been slinging pies for decades. At first, it was people like @forzapizza, who initially wanted me to promote his pizza map/website, then slyly recommended I visit Porretta, not telling me until later, it was actually his family’s business. But then others followed, so I figured I would give it a try. The person on the phone told me they are known for their thin. I ordered the usual half and half, but got stuck in traffic and arrived 10 minutes after the pizza had been finished. Does this disqualify it? The pizza was still plenty warm, but three elements caused me to put it into my second tier: 1) The dough was simply sad; no chew, no crunch, no distinctive flavor that would make me want to devour it all. 2) The sauce bordered on too sweet, like something you’d have at a national pizza chain. 3) They don’t even use whole milk mozzarella, but rather, Sorrento brand provolone. Can you see the picture accompanying this summary? It looks – and tastes – like 80% of the tavern-style thins out there. As @knutson2 chimed in on Instagram: “I used to live down the street from there. Made the mistake once. Horrid pizza.”
I did like their sausage, however. Somewhat juicy and buried beneath the oregano-sprinkled cheese, it comes from Joseph’s Finer Meats. But I couldn’t get over #1 – 3 as stated above, and it just didn’t do anything for me. I should have known there would be vitriol to follow. “I’m appalled by this so called reviewers [sic] critique…” began one angry fellow (nevermind that all my post said was “sad crust & sweet sauce can’t be saved by awesome sausage.”) And then the obvious revealed itself: “I am a fourth generation Porretta patron…” he went on to scold. Well, of course you are. There’s no way anyone who had been on this quest would have objectively ranked Porretta in their top 5, or even top 10, but there’s something about longevity (and PIGUE Syndrome) that somehow makes people think restaurants get immunity from criticism. You know what? Geja’s has been around for decades, do you still like going there and leave smelling like burnt oil and chocolate? There are plenty of restaurants that have had loyal customers for generations, and that’s amazing – I’m sincere when I say ‘good for them’ – but that doesn’t mean I’m going to suddenly give them a pass. I didn’t grow up eating this pizza, so I don’t care how invested the regulars are. My only concern is: does it taste amazing? Do the flavors burst? Did they get the ratio right? Is the crust craveable? Would I tell my best friends to drive 45 minutes to eat this? In this case, the answers to all of the above: no.
1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston; 847-475-2400
Style: Artisan Thin
Got a margherita ($15)
Not a ton of comments here, but certainly this place is on pizza fans’ radar. One of the most impressive ovens on the Quest, the earthen/clay dome looks like the one the Hobbits prepare their meals in. The pizzas here take just a few minutes, since they come from a wood-burning hearth, but this was one of the most Jekyll and Hyde pizzas I’ve seen: the top looks just beautiful – full of freshly-torn basil and large discs of fresh mozzarella. Underneath, however, is an all-white, underdone crust that doesn’t do the top any favors. An extremely small cornicione indicates a short resting time (or a dough that’s not wet enough before baking), and results in a dense chew. It didn’t take a pizza scholar to analyze the undercarriage and discern it needed at least another minute or two; that just shows whomever was manning the pizza oven that night needs a bit more training with the peel.
8546 W. Lawrence; 708-456-5022
Menu offers thin, pan and stuffed, but they said specialty is thin, so got a 14” (medium), half pepperoni-half sausage, for $13
Tucked away in an unremarkable Norridge strip mall, next to a liquor store, this no-frills joint has been around since 1984, so I figured there was a good reason a few readers suggested I visit. The vinyl booths and red-and-white-checkered tablecloths are vintage, and I loved seeing pictures of the owner with Frankie Valli and Tony Esposito behind the front counter. The only reason I can guess why people implored me to try this place was nostalgia. The crust – pressed through a machine enough times to render it completely tough – was as hard as cardboard. We loved the homemade sausage, and I would have been happy eating that with some of the greasy mozzarella and homemade tomato sauce and calling it a day. But each square slice brought with it that impossible-to-chew crust, which just made me feel bad for the people who were raving about it, because they clearly have never had pizza with a beautiful texture. A somewhat sheepish Brian Roman sent me a message on Facebook privately a few weeks after my visit, then later wrote this more public post on my page: “I grew up on Villa Napoli pizza, loved it and recommended it for your list. Unfortunately the other night I must sadly agree with your negative assessment of it – especially the poor tasteless crust. I hope they can bring it back as so many people I know love/loved it.”
6821 W. Pershing Rd., Stickney; 708-788-2944
Also locations in Lockport, New Buffalo, MI and Chesterton, IN
12”, 14” or 16”; Got a small, half sausage-half pepperoni ($12.55)
I have no idea if there is a connection between the Universitas Villanovana in Philadelphia and this Stickney legend, which has been specializing in thin, tavern-style pies since 1955. What I do know – after having experienced more than my fair share of slightly underdone pizzas on this Quest, is that you have to order it “well done,” otherwise the bottom dough remains a tad too soggy and underdone (why can’t the kitchens of these places – Pizza Castle, Aurelio’s, Beggars, etc. just bake them long enough so that there doesn’t need to be a special order?) Oh, but that edge! That glorious, crispy, cracker-like edge… it’s a remarkable thing, and results from an overnight rest and then a pass or two through the dough sheeter to get it super thin. It’s topped with beautifully melted part-skim mozzarella and Pecorino Romano, and I’d recommend their fennel-jammed sausage which is formed into tiny meatballs and placed as meticulously as a jeweler around the pie, dusted with oregano. The sauce – like many of the South and Southwest Side joints – leans a bit sweeter and darker (their comes from a full red purée via Stanislas in California), but I don’t think it would turn off a purist from elsewhere. Baked in a 475 degree, rotating oven, this is what Chicago pizza was a half century ago, and remains so, in many pockets of the city today.
(Note: several followers and readers told me I had to specify the doneness of my pie, after I thought it was a tad underdone. I’m not a fan of special orders, since first-timers won’t be armed with this information. The kitchen told me customers order “regular,” “brown,” “crispy,” or “well done” (is this a steakhouse?). I told the owner, Stanley Adamczyk about this insider info. He replied a few days later: “I have ordered retraining on the proper preparation of the pizza center, and lectured my managers on cooking them,” so hopefully this issue will resolve itself for first-timers.)
8433 S. Pulaski Rd.; 773-735-2050
Small or large; we had a large half sausage-half pepperoni ($15.65)
There’s a reason they’ve been in business since 1932, and it’s not just the nostalgia on the walls. PBR and Old Style are on tap, the vinyl booths are still turquoise and the formica tables have the worn patina of a faded era. Families in Hawks T-shirts, grandparents celebrating birthdays and softball teams have made Vito & Nick’s their go-to pizza joint for generations, and I can see why. The pizza crust is ultra-thin, still bearing the blistered burn marks from the hot spots in the giant Blodgett deck ovens that are kept at a constant 450 – 475 degrees. There is a thin sheath of semolina scattered across the bottom edge to prevent sticking. The harmony (yes, I said harmony) between the mozzarella (from Joliet’s Mancuso), chunky, whole fennel seed sausage made in-house (they go through one to 1.5 tons of pork each week) and the zesty tomato sauce is a pleasure to eat; thankfully they haven’t gotten lazy like so many others who simply pile on the cheese and call it a day. This is pizza with balance, not overkill, and since it’s so thin, you could easily polish off a large with a friend a few PBRs, and still have change left for the jukebox (cash only, no delivery).
Kristine Sherred contributed reporting for this story