Top 5 Chicago Thin Pizzas (Suburbs)

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A few thin pan-style pizzas from Freddy’s in Cicero

I really wish visitors would stop calling Chicago a “deep dish” town. I realize there are tourist hoards lining up outside of Giordano’s and Uno’s nearly everyday, kind of like those lost cheesesteak pilgrims, still lining up outside Pat’s and Geno’s in Philly, for the most substandard cheesesteaks wit whiz I’ve ever had; locals here know Chicago is really more into the thin than the deep. I know there are generations who’ve grown up on Lou’s and consider that true Chicago pizza, but I would be willing to bet more locals eat more thin more often then anything else. As I scoured the region for the best (hitting 76 places in two months), I discovered some surprises, of course, like a Tinley Park strip mall and a Cicero grocery store where I’ve eaten in dozens of times, savoring the gelato and the pasta, but never the pizza – until now. We have our “artisan thin” and our legendary “tavern-style” with its square-cut, cracker-crisp thin crust. We also have Neapolitan-style pizzas with their leopard spotting and puffy/chewy cornicione. On this #ChicagoPizzaQuestThin, I was looking for pies that weren’t too soft or crispy, not too sweet (although the South Side versions tended to have more sugar than normal) and just the right amount of topping-to-crust ratio. 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 the suburbs. (Note: in all cases, the name of the restaurant is also the link to their website).

5. Bricks Wood Fired Pizza & Café

1763 Freedom Dr., Naperville; 630-799-6860
also locations in Lombard and Wheaton, and soon in Lincoln Park
Style: Thin/Neapolitan-ish
Got a 12” Neapolitan ($11)

Bricks

Margherita Pizza at Bricks in Naperville

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 2nd 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. I’m hoping this was just a one-time lapse, because if not for that weak sauce on that particular day, this pizza would have ranked higher.

 

4. Cuzin’s

17704 Oak Park Ave., Tinley Park; 708-633-1144
Style: Thin/tavern-style
Got a small, half sausage-half pepperoni ($12); they also make deep dish.

Cuzin's

Sausage + Pepperoni Pizza at Cuzin’s in Tinley Park

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.

 

3. Armand’s Pizza & Pasta

105 W. 1st St., Elmhurst; 630-782-5800
Style: Thin/Tavern
Ordered small half sausage-half pepperoni ($12.95)

Armand's Pizza

Sausage + Pepperoni Pizza at Armand’s in Elmhurst

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.

 

2. Palermo’s 95th

4849 W. 95th St., Oak Lawn; 708-425-6262
Style: Thin/Tavern
Got a small “thin and crispy” half sausage-half pepperoni ($14.60); they also have regular thin, deep dish and stuffed.

Palermo's

Sausage + Pepperoni Pizza at Palermo’s in Oak Lawn

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 that 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 the recipe was a secret. 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.

 

1. Freddy’s Pizza

1600 S. 61st Ave., Cicero
Style: Thin
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.

Freddy's Pizza

Sausage + Pepperoni / Margherita at Freddy’s in Cicero

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.

Kristine Sherred also contributed reporting for this story

8 Comments

  1. Jake

    October 31, 2015 at 6:09 pm

    I highly recommend Joe’s Pizzeria in Wheeling.

    • Larry Schmid

      November 1, 2015 at 5:40 pm

      I agree………..Joe’s Pizza in Wheeling best thin crust ever !

  2. gary Prindle

    October 31, 2015 at 11:43 pm

    I have noticed that when you cover eating places in the burbs they are almost always in the south or west burbs. There is life north of North Ave, we have lots of people who listen to an read your opinions.

    • Steve Dolinsky

      November 1, 2015 at 7:26 am

      You’re kidding, right? I hit Addison, Libertyville, Skokie, Lincolnwood, Northbrook, etc. Tried Morton Grove but Burt’s was closed (is now closed for good).

  3. Rich Daly

    November 1, 2015 at 1:27 am

    Let me get this straight…
    Tinley Park it S a schlep to get to..
    South side pizza is sweeter than “NORMAL”….
    And 4 of 5 pies are from south of Madison, with the 5th a few blocks north.
    How do you define ” normal” and what are your qualifications, other than you are paid to do this?

    • Steve Dolinsky

      November 1, 2015 at 7:25 am

      I live in Wicker Park, so yes, T.P. is a schlep.
      On average, considering the 76 pizzas I ate, the ones that were tasted south of, say, 87th street, were indeed sweeter-tasting (sugar added to sauce). My “normal” is probably not your normal, but you’re right, I’m the one who eats for a living. My qualifications were spelled out pretty clearly on Day 1 of the Quest: http://www.stevedolinsky.com/ultimate-chicago-pizza-quest

  4. laura

    November 1, 2015 at 11:26 am

    Thank you for your reviews. Very detailed, thorough, and makes me crave a good pizza. I especially like that you are brutally honest!

    • Steve Dolinsky

      November 1, 2015 at 8:20 pm

      Thanks Laura.

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