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).
960 Skokie Blvd., Northbrook; 847-498-3900
Ordered: 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 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).
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 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.
6821 W. Pershing Rd., Stickney; 708-788-2944
Also locations in Lockport, New Buffalo, MI and Chesterton, IN
12”, 14” or 16”; Ordered: 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.)
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.
8433 S. Pulaski Rd.; 773-735-2050
Small or large; Ordered: 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 also contributed reporting for this story