Sky Full of Bacon


Great Unknown Pizzas of the South Side (#1)

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The classic Chicago pizza oven: a Faulds oven. No longer made, you have to keep yours up and running by cannibalizing parts from others.

The great thing about food on the internet is that if you publicize something, lots of people wind up going to the same place. The bad thing is, lots of people wind up going to the same place… and never check out other places that might be good, too. This is especially true for certain iconic foods whose definitions are pretty clear— you could know Vito & Nick’s alone, say, and claim that you had a pretty good handle on old school Chicago thin crust pizza, such as is typically found all over the south side. In fact, that’s pretty much exactly where I was on the subject.

And yet, I wondered… could there be other, outstanding, undiscovered pizzas out there, unsung and unheralded? To answer that question, Daniel Zemans, who has written on classic pizza widely (including this definitive Serious Eats roundup some years back, in which I am quoted), and I scouted out some listings on Yelp that looked like they might offer something above the ordinary. (Almost nothing’s completely undocumented by now, but by the most obvious measure for pizza joints, mentions on LTHForum, these were pretty darn obscure— one mentioned merely in passing in a 2005 thread and not since, another in that thread and again parenthetically five years later, and the third (which is relatively new) had a similarly brief mention earlier this year.)

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Longevity is a good sign in a pizza joint.

How did we choose these three? We focused on a specific area— they’re all within a narrow corridor in the western section of Gage Park/West Elsdon, a once-white-ethnic, now mostly Latino section of town straight east of Midway Airport, the kind of neighborhood that should still have old pizza joints around. And we searched Yelp for clues, ignoring the typical Yelp hyperbole for signs that suggested a cut above— like that they made their own sausage, say. Anyway, we narrowed it to three, and settled on a single dish for all three— thin crust with sausage. (The thought there is that sausage is the meat which most shows the taste preferences and philosophy of the owner, versus meats like pepperoni which tend to be ordered somewhat generically and are also common around the country. Chicago pizza sausage is a fairly unique thing, fat little wads of ground pork heavily spiced with fennel, very different from the crumbled breakfast-style sausage which most of America eats on pizza.) Here’s what we found.

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Geneo’s

Few places quite live up to the name “hole in the wall” as well as Geneo’s. The brown paneling exterior and the ancient sign make it hard to tell if Geneo’s actually closed in 1977, and once inside you’re in a narrow little room consisting only of a window into the much vaster kitchen, and the almost comically large menu:

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All three of the places we tried had enormous menus like this, full of things which surely would go straight from many months of deep-frozen sleep to a fryer if you ordered them. We stuck to pizza, even as we were fascinated by cryptic offerings like the Fat Freddie sandwich (their version of this) or Bosco Sticks, whatever those are.

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Anyway, 20 minutes pass and we take the pizza to my car parked across the street and dine al hatchbacko. The pizza is maybe just a little thicker than we wish, certainly thicker than Zemans (whose perfect pizza crust is Pat’s ultra thin) wishes. Still, it has a nice Saltine-cracker taste like a pretty good Chicago thin. As for what’s on it— plain, straightforward tomato sauce; pretty good sausage with noticeable fennel; good quality cheese that doesn’t taste like the glue factory— for the price, about $11, this is quite a good neighborhood pizza. But we both agree it’s not a drive-all-the-way-to-the-south-side good pizza, and I can taste the things I’d do to brighten and heighten it (like introduce it to the taste of garlic, somewhere). If it’s what you grew up on, it’s still good, but it’s not noticeably different from a pizza near you almost anywhere in Chicago.

Geneo’s Pizza
2945 W 59th St
Chicago, IL 60629
(773) 767-5545

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Positano’s

It’s not clear how old Positano’s, 3 or 4 blocks east of Midway on 55th, is, but it’s plainly newer and spiffier than the other two we would visit. But our hope that we had found a proud new South Side Italian joint were quickly set straight by the owner’s accent… his Polish accent. He and the gal at the counter were very friendly, but as happens sometimes in this town with Eastern European businesses trying to reproduce other ethnic restaurants, they just don’t get it right. It’s not just that Positano’s crust was way too thick and bready for South Side thin, but the sauce tasted more like Paul Newman’s pasta sauce than pizza sauce, too far the other direction from Geneo’s plain tomato sauce. And the thick shelf of cheese was also overkill (and made it really hard to eat cold the next day). Now, all those things are probably virtues for many people— this is a pizza that will fill you up, for sure. It’s just not a Chicago South Side pizza, for me and especially not for ultrathin crust freak Zemans. (I should note that the LTHForum mention recommends deep dish anyway, but we had too many pizzas to eat in one night to sit around for 45 minutes waiting for that to cook.)

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Positano’s
4312 W 55th St
Chicago, IL 60632
(773) 284-7745

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Pizza Castle

A photo similar to the one above at Yelp nearly scared me off Pizza Castle, making it look like a mattress store having a going out of business sale. Only the claim of housemade sausage kept them in the running. But 30 seconds inside this place, we both knew that it was the gem of the night.

The walls are covered with photos of kids in Halloween costumes— literally thousands of them; for decades Pizza Castle has handed little squares of pizza to trick or treaters, and they get kids from all over the south side now, lined up for a block for two bites of pizza and their picture to be taken. About ten seconds of chitchat from Zemans produced a photo of owner Rich Jensen, much younger and 70s-haired, posed with Cubs Hall of Fame pitcher Fergie Jenkins. A little more produced the information that he was, somehow in this old Slavic turned Latino neighborhood, of Danish extraction, the business started by his Danish parents who belonged to a long-gone community of South Side Danes.

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The Danish flag decorates Singing Pizza Elmo. “That’s not dust, it’s pizza flour!” he points out.

We’re inquisitive enough that he asks us if we’re from out of town and we explain no, but from far enough away on the north side that we might as well be, and that we’re on a pizza tour. He quickly explains that his shop does things the old-fashioned way— rolls its own dough, grinds and seasons its own sausage, and so on. He’s trying to be self-deprecating about it and not seem like he’s bragging (“It’s how we’ve always done it, so we just do”) but he soon gets to the heart of the matter — “If we opened this place now, we’d just call up and order everything [premade], and ours would taste just like everybody else’s pizza and we’d go out of business in a year.” He’s reluctant to outright brag, but he knows exactly why his unassuming place is treasured by its community.

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If the inside of this Faulds oven looks familiar, check about 26 minutes into this Sky Full of Bacon video.

So we’ll brag for him. This is a completely admirable pizza, one I’d drive a considerable way (from Hyde Park, say) for. The thin crust gets crisp on the bottom and caramelizes the cheese on top in a way the previous two, thicker pizzas could not. The sausage and sauce are both brighter and tastier than what we’d had before. We weren’t exactly full when we came in but we had eaten enough that we didn’t expect to finish this pizza— but in fact that’s just what we did, a bit painfully but not sorry that we did so. I’m not going to claim that we toppled the South Side crown from Vito & Nick’s, but whatever south side pizza came in second before (Aurelio’s?) just dropped a rung. Pizza Castle is easily a discovery good enough to have made the whole night worthwhile.

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And yet… we’ve only begun with one small neighborhood out of the south side. We pulled a bunch of potential candidates from the Beverly/Evergreen Park vicinity, before deciding to focus further west. Stay tuned for the next exciting episode… sometime.

Pizza Castle
3256 W 55th St
Chicago, IL 60632
(773) 776-1075

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8 Responses to “Great Unknown Pizzas of the South Side (#1)”

  1. Titus Says:

    Nice to see some love for Geneo’s, they have another location same sign and all way down South on Halsted in Harvey down the block from the Hells Angels Place. Interesting strip there 🙂 Not great-great pizza but def old school atmosphere.

  2. Michael Gebert Says:

    I saw references to that but couldn’t tell how likely it was to actually be related.

  3. Catherine Lambrecht Says:

    HI,

    Rene G has canvassed this area, because a lot of old-school pizza parlors moved to the southern suburbs and into Indiana during the late ’60’s. You might want to ask him about it.

    Regards,
    Cathy

  4. Rob Says:

    Try Villa Nova Pizzeria at 6821 W. Pershing Road in Stickney. Dan Zemans did a very nice review about Villa Nova on Slice Serious Eats a little while back. I still think Villa Nova is the best thin crust pizza with homemade sausage anywhere, with Pat’s a very close second (very close). The only real difference between Pat’s and Villa Nova is that Villa Nova uses larger hunks of sausage on their pizza than Pat’s. And their housemade sausage is the best in the business. Zemans took some nice photos of Villa Nova’s pizza for his Slice review.

    I’ve always thought Villa Nova was better than Vito and Nick’s in every category. And that’s not a knock on Vito and Nick’s because Vito and Nick’s makes a great thin crust pizza. I just think Villa Nova’s pizza is better, along with Pat’s, and Joe’s Italian Villa (also reviewed on Slice) in Bridgeview. All 3 of these places have better homemade sausage recipes than Vito and Nick’s.

  5. Michael Gebert Says:

    Thanks, yeah, we were actually talking about Villa Nova while waiting at Geneo’s, and Zemans remains a big fan. I think the near-in suburbs, with a lot of pizza places that date back 30 and 40 years, are definitely another fertile territory for exploration– there’s a ton of places around Park Ridge, for instance, and who knows which of them might be standouts? And I’m sure that’s true of many west and southwest burbs that don’t get a lot of foodie attention.

  6. Rob Says:

    When it comes to pizza close to Park Ridge, I like the new Romano’s in Rosemont at 9785 W. Higgins. They have a full bar, too. Very old school, and they moved from their old location in Des Plaines to this new location in Rosemont. They’ve been around for over 60 years. The simple cheese and sausage will do here, too. The owner is usually there, and he cuts the pizza in rectangles, instead of squares, which is kind of odd, but it’s very good. There are some nice photos of a classic Romano’s pizza over at Smokin Chokin Chowin With The King’s blogspot from a few months ago.

    OFF TOPIC: Tell Dan Zemans to come back to Serious Eats Chicago and defend Lou Malnati’s from time to time. I think I’m one of the only Lou Malnati fans over there, and I know Zemans is a big Malnati fan, too. It’s as if the writers over there don’t want to ever give Lou Malnati’s any credit for anything.

    Then again, I get the sense that many of their writers are not really from Chicago. They are transplants, but they did not actually grow up here, so maybe deep dish pizza is lost on them. They are always talking about places like Coalfire, Piece, Spacca Napoli, Pizzeria Nella, Nellcote, and the late Great Lake. Yeah, those are all great pizza places, but none of them are of true Chicago origin. I guess if you didn’t grow up here, then these types of pizza places would appeal to you. The problem is that these writers over at Serious Eats Chicago are ignoring the very obvious: Your average, everyday Chicagoan loves Lou Malnati’s. And most of their locations are out in the suburbs far away from where the tourists eat downtown. These are homegrown Chicagoans and suburbanites who adore this pizza. They didn’t become the most consumed and most popular deep dish pizza restaurant by making bad pizza.

    But Serious Eats Chicago sure goes out of their way to emphasize these “other” non-Chicago pizza places. The end result is that they come off as real snobs. Even worse, they come off as snobs that are not even from Chicago, but yet they want to tell everybody what constitutes great pizza in Chicago. That would be like me going to Alaska and telling Alaskans where to get the best Alaskan King Crab or going to NYC and telling New Yorkers where to get the best salami on rye.

    Entire generations of Chicagoans have been eating deep dish pizza and will always eat deep dish pizza. These writers for Serious Eats Chicago need to be reminded of that, so tell Dan Zemans to get back over there and defend deep dish pizza from time to time, especially Lou Malnati’s.

    I guess I really should just stick to LTHforum for true Chicago foodie talk. Some of the lead moderators are still huge Pizzeria Uno fans as they should be, even though they don’t talk about Uno’s that often. Uno’s (and especially Pizzeria Due) still makes great pizza, even if it’s not popular to talk about them compared to other trendier places. Zemans himself did a nice review of Pizzeria Due for Serious Eats Chicago. It was refreshing to see an old school deep dish place get some praise.

    Even if you disagree with me, I like your blog spot. Keep up the great work.

  7. Michael Gebert Says:

    You know, I’m less of a deep dish fan than I once was, but it’s worth noting that when people visit from out of town, that’s what they want here. I took my sister and her family to Spacca Napoli and you could see palpable disappointment that their one Chicago pizza slot had been wasted on something they could have at home, and not the orgiastic pizza experience they’d been dreaming of. Don’t come between a tourist and their Chicago deep dish.

    I will absolutely stand up for Malnati’s. To me the best of the Pizzeria Uno style pizzas, easily; just had one with pepperoni, maybe for the first time, and was amazed at how good the pepperoni was. Though I really like the State St. Pizano’s for overall Sinatraesque atmosphere. (I doubt I’ve ever actually eaten in a Malnati’s, anywhere. All delivery.)

  8. Rob Says:

    Thanks, Mike. You’re absolutely right about people from out of town wanting deep dish pizza. The first place every single one of my friends and family want to visit when they come home is always Lou Malnati’s for deep dish pizza, and then Johnnie’s Beef in Elmwood Park for a combo with Italian ice.

    Like I said earlier- the vast majority of their locations are in the suburbs where tourists don’t go. The people that frequent these locations are Lou Malnati regulars who grew up on Lou Malnati’s and Chicagoans who come home from somewhere else to visit family/friends. The majority of people who eat downtown at Uno’s and Due are indeed tourists, but the majority of people who eat at Lou Malnati’s are actual Chicagoans and/or suburbanites.

    For this reason, Lou Malnati’s is a true Chicago treasure due to the sheer amount of born and raised Chicagoans who actually eat there.

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