Chicago knows thin crust. We have our “artisan thin” and our legendary “tavern-style” with its square-cut, cracker-crisp thin crust. We also have a good number of Neapolitan-style pizzas with their leopard spotting and puffy/chewy cornicione. But when all you crave is a simple, hearty piece (or two) of reliable thin crust – not too soft or crispy, not too sweet and just the right amount of topping-to-crust ratio – I’ve done all of the legwork for you. I sampled 76 pizzerias in two months, and while I ate plenty of underwhelming pizza, I also had a few remarkable pies that I still think about today. If you want to see all of the thin pizzas I tried, check out my A to Z list. To read more about the methodology behind this Quest, read here. After considerable thought and analysis, these are my top 5 thin crust pizzas from within the city limits. (Note: in all cases, the name of the restaurant is also the link to their website).
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 (!!).
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.)
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?
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.
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.
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.
Kristine Sherred also contributed reporting for this story