Top 5 Chicagoland Tavern-Style Pizzas

Barnaby's

The classic at Barnaby’s, Northbrook

 

Ask an old-timer what they think Chicago pizza is, and they’ll respond with a unanimous “thin” rather than “thick.” Why is it out-of-towners think Chicago is a deep dish town? Blame it on the media, I guess, and those giant Giordano’s billboards. Sure, Pizzeria Uno started here in 1943 and people from outside of Chicago come here curious, like a kid who wonders what it would be like to press his tongue against a cold flag pole in the middle of winter, so they can see, taste and poke around one of those deep dish things. But Chicago is a working class kind of town, and those immigrants who built our city also loved to stop off at the neighborhood tavern after work for a beer back in the day. Intuitive bar owners, realizing they could make ultra-thin pizzas for cheap, cut them into tiny squares then passed them around the bar (the better to get something salty into their customer’s mouths and thus, cause them to order more beer). This practice launched the tradition of the Chicago “tavern-style” pizza, which shows up at legendary places like Marie’s, Vito & Nick’s and Pat’s, not to mention suburban haunts such as Barnaby’s and Armand’s. There are entire swaths of the city that will claim true Chicago pizza is a thin one, not a thick casserole. As I laid out in my earlier post this week, setting up the ground rules for this Pizza Quest (in which I visited 76 pizzerias in two months), I determined there were actually four different thin categories in Chicago (plus deep and stuffed). Today I reveal my top 5 tavern-style pizzas in Chicagoland. Let the debate begin. (Note: in all cases, the name of the restaurant is also the link to their website).

5. Barnaby’s

960 Skokie Blvd., Northbrook; 847-498-3900
Style: Tavern
Ordered: small, half sausage-half pepperoni ($10)

Barnaby's Pizza

Sausage + Pepperoni Pizza at Barnaby’s in Northbrook

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 the center of the pizza universe, and just like I insisted I visit the original Aurelio’s in Homewood and the first Lou’s in Lincolnwood, 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. I found it much more interesting 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, no matter if it’s an end piece or a middle, the sound is actually audible. That’s a pretty good sign. I saw some air pockets in the cutaway section of the pie, indicating 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 thin places we called to get additional information, Barnaby’s was the most secretive. No comment on cheese, dough, sauce or process).

 

4. Side Street Saloon

1456 W. George St.; 773-327-1127
Style: Tavern
Got a small half sausage-half pepperoni ($10.50)

Side Street Saloon

Sausage + Pepperoni Pizza at Side Street Saloon in Lake View, Chicago

“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 early 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.

 

3. Villa Nova

6821 W. Pershing Rd., Stickney; 708-788-2944
Also locations in Lockport, New Buffalo, MI and Chesterton, IN
Style: Tavern
12”, 14” or 16”; Ordered: small, half sausage-half pepperoni ($12.55)

Villa Nova Pizza

Sausage + Pepperoni Pizza at Villa Nova in Stickney, Illinois

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.)

 

2. Pat’s

2679 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-248-0168
Style: Tavern
Thin or Pan options, in 12”, 14” or 16”; had a 12” half sausage-half pepperoni ($12.30)

Pat's Pizza

Sausage + Pepperoni Pizza at Pat’s in Lincoln Park, Chicago

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.

 

1. Vito & Nick’s

8433 S. Pulaski Rd.; 773-735-2050
Style: Tavern
Small or large; Ordered: large half sausage-half pepperoni ($15.65)

Vito & Nick's

Sausage + Pepperoni Pizza at Vito & Nick’s in Ashburn, Chicago

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 also contributed reporting for this story

20 Comments

  1. Joe Marzec

    October 28, 2015 at 1:29 pm

    Just my opinion: Perrys Pizza Joint on north avenue in northlake is the absolute best pizza. Why doesn’t it get recognition on any poll? Someone really needs to get out there!

  2. Peggy

    October 28, 2015 at 2:37 pm

    I grew in the nw suburbs, the best thin crust is Rosati’s, the best deep dish is Malnati’s, no matter what you say.

    • NUBobby95

      October 29, 2015 at 10:47 am

      Peggy, You need to venture south…Vito & Nicks, Palermos, Roseangelas, and Barracos all blow Rosati’s away. Agree on Malnati’s. Would throw Pequods in for their pan pizza as well.

  3. Diane

    October 28, 2015 at 5:05 pm

    Best “bar pizza” in Northwest suburbs is at Countryside Saloon! (Not counting their “salad pizza”, but many swear by it!)

  4. Robert Vanderbrugen

    October 28, 2015 at 5:20 pm

    I love Home Run Inn Pizza. I’ve found surveys about pizza always comes up short. We all have varying opinions on pizza.

  5. Peter

    October 28, 2015 at 10:42 pm

    Thanks for the list.

    I’m wondering if anyone remembers Santucci’s from the Midway area. Definitely an example of PIGUE, but I have truly never had another like it. I’m curious if anyone has suggestions for similar pizza. Alex and Aldo’s in the Western burbs had been recommended, but not really the same.
    Santucci’ had a crust that was a mix of cracker and doughy, and I remember the cheese being perfectly melted and attached to the dough.
    There is not much online about it- closed shortly before the Internet took off, but it’s a place that is worth remembering.

    • Mike

      January 5, 2016 at 3:43 pm

      Santucci’s was my family’s favorite pizza until the restaurant closed when I was 11 or 12 years old. My mom is from the neighborhood and ate there growing up. Santucci’s used to serve their rectangular pizzas on wire cooling racks perfectly slotted into old fashioned fiberglass cafeteria trays and, like you said, the crust had a perfect amount of cracker crunch to it. Alex and Aldo’s in La Grange Park became our go-to after that. If you went on a night when Aldo was still making the pizza, it could be really good. Now that Alex and Aldo have both passed and the restaurant sold, the crust (and sauce) are much more hit and miss. And now that I live in Los Angeles, I’d kill for my local pizza place to as good as the worst Chicago thin crust place. There is one place worth visiting for thin crust out here, Steve, should you ever visit – Casa Bianca Pizza Pie in Eagle Rock. The family that owns it hails from Chicago and their pizza is definitely a descendant of the tavern style.

  6. Peter

    October 29, 2015 at 8:13 am

    Great article as always, Steve! Love Candlelite at Western & Touhy!

  7. Larry Jaderberg

    October 29, 2015 at 1:56 pm

    Vito and Nick’s are tops from the old school of pizza making…but family feuds have taken its toll. One opened in Plainfield on Rt 59 @127th St. but closed in less than a year. My son found it for us and hence had a chat with the manager. She was from the original but there only to help with the start-up.. Guess she wasn’t there long enough!! Another is in the plaza at 95th and Roberts Rd. (oak lawn? worth?) (far SW corner of the plaza) This one comes very close to the original and the decor is old Italy and I always sit and wait for something to happen!!!!

  8. 2utah2

    October 29, 2015 at 4:23 pm

    I’m with you on most of these but have to disagree on Pat’s. Had it about a month ago and for me the crust was too thin to the point that it became soggy/greasy bc it was so unsubstantial with zero crunch to it.

  9. Ron Bailey

    October 31, 2015 at 12:12 pm

    Congratulations Cuzins! Well deserved, fantastic pie, I work across the street but I would drive 30 min for this pie….

  10. Derrick Tung

    November 1, 2015 at 6:36 am

    I mentioned it before, and I’ll say it again: Al’s in Warrenville is worth a visit… I’ve only been there twice, but they serve up some amazing tavern-style pizza.

    And now I’ve got to check out Side Street Saloon… never heard of the place, and the only one I haven’t tried on your top 5!

  11. Kathy

    November 1, 2015 at 8:01 pm

    Been eating 788-2944 (villa nova) for over 55 years. Glad u included them. All I have to say on fb is that phone number and all my Cicero/Berwyn/stickney n forest view friends know what I’m talking about. Hasn’t changed in all those years. I’ll drive from Channahon to get one!!!

  12. Boris

    November 5, 2015 at 5:37 pm

    LaRosa on Golf and Crawford in Skokie.. Been there since late 50′s a north shore classic. Anyone?

  13. Chuy

    November 9, 2015 at 3:35 pm

    When did “Tavern-Style Pizza” come into use? Is that how it’s labeled and described on their menus? Or is just labeled Thin Crust?

    • Steve Dolinsky

      November 9, 2015 at 7:57 pm

      Not on menus that way, but it’s a known thing. Started in the 30s and 40s.

  14. Cookie Santucci

    May 19, 2016 at 9:18 am

    Mike-Peter- THANK YOU SO MUCH for your kind words and for remembering us!! Back then there were so many great restaurants- Chesdans-Palermo (very good artichokes) Vito n Nick -Orlando’s – Royalty-Midway Lounge-I could go on and on because the choices were endless. We left because my dad was sick (cancer) – we didn’t advertise or make a big deal about closing because we always thought that we would be back with a smaller place – but as so many of us know too well illness has a way of taking over. We never imagined how much we would miss it-even to this day we miss all the people !! So once again -we want to sincerely thank you both so much for remembering us -we wish you and your families happiness and Good Health!! Ironically out of the 3 of us left I am the healthiest and have the recipe and embarrassed to say I don’t know how to cook.
    Take care!!! Cookie Santucci
    -

    • Chris Devine Campbell

      May 11, 2017 at 2:45 pm

      Santucci’s was the BEST Pizza ever. Would go after bowling on Weds. & Friday nights. We all would burn the roofs of our mouths. John the bartender was the greatest & Mary worked the kitchen. Miss the Sausage & green pepper pizza. Had to eat it there. If you brought it home you lost the flavor somewhere on 63rd street. Miss all wishing you the best.
      Regards,
      Chris Devine Campbell

  15. Jeff

    August 16, 2016 at 7:04 pm

    I’ll throw some fuel on this fire. “Tavern” pizza. This will kill you. The typical tavern in Chicago does not have a “kitchen”. When they have a kitchen they are called a “Bar and Grill”. Enter Tombstone Pizza from Medford (Wausau), WI. For many, many years you could not buy a frozen Tombstone pizza at your local grocer. You had to go to a “real” tavern that had a Tombstone supplied convection oven that would cook the pizzas that the Tombstone company would sell to the tavern. I don’t know if the ovens were a freebie or a rental, all I know is that many taverns around the city had them.

    The Tombstone was a really poor copy of the real Chicago tavern style pizza, but at 1 AM when the bar was getting ready to close, and you’re hungry, it’s a pretty good pizza. I currently live in southeast Florida where New York pizza (yuck) is all you can buy. I eat at least one frozen Tombstone Original per week. It is the closest thing we have here to a Chicago tavern style pizza.

  16. Multilock Ronan

    March 29, 2017 at 7:27 am

    Thannk u so much………….

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