I’ve been jonesing to get back in the business of searching for great unknown pizzas since long before the condition of the streets would permit it. To recap from past installments, the point is to look for unheralded, authentic old school pizza joints in different parts of the city where our pizza heritage may have survived. The quest is open-minded, but it’s pretty clear that the main focus is on thin crust joints with at least 30-40 years of heritage behind them, who still make them the way they made them back then. The methodology followed by collaborator Daniel Zemans and myself, as summed up in an earlier installment:
Our modus operandi is to order thin crust sausage, thin crust because it’s more common and takes less time, sausage because it best shows off the skills or tastes of the restaurant, if they make it themselves or even if it merely shows their own taste preferences and the level of quality they’re willing to pay for… Our main method for identifying them is simply searching Yelp for ones that give off clues that they might be promising. Every pizza place has somebody calling it the best pizza in the world, that doesn’t tell us anything; we’re more interested in comments that a place makes its own sausage or does something else that gives a clue that there’s blue-collar craftsmanship at work here.
And as Zemans tersely summed up the main indicator of good pizza neighborhoods: “Multiple generations of Italians.”
This time we (Zemans, me and fellow Serious Eats contributor Dennis Lee) decided to try the suburbs straight south of the city— literally across the street from the city in one case. For me part of the point was to finally hit one of the places that inspired this kind of quest when I spotted it years ago. I didn’t go to Roseangela’s in Evergreen Park then because I went here instead. But nine years later I was determined to go. Otherwise there was an embarrassment of riches in this area, and once we narrowed it down to six roughly along 95th between Beverly and Oak Lawn— Roseangela’s, Fox’s, Palermo’s, Phil’s, Barraco’s and Nino’s in Alsip— we pretty much just chose the final three randomly (or because Zemans had already been to a couple). So don’t say “Why didn’t you go to X, it’s great!” We know that. We may hit the other three some other time. These are the three we hit this time.
Roseangela’s in the suburb of Evergreen Park at 95th and California has been around since 1955, and on this Thursday night it was doing a business; we’ve never run the risk of having a long wait to eat at one of these places before. Fortunately it was possible to order for takeout and then wait in line, so we sat down minutes before our pizza came out.
I remember being perplexed in the early days of Chowhound by mentions of “cracker crust” Chicago pizza, vs. “foldable” New York thin. I had had Chicago thin but it was usually thicker and doughier than this; this is a true cracker crust, in both flavor and texture a spot-on double for a Saltine cracker. In other words, it didn’t really have any flavor— like tendon in Chinese soup, texture was everything, and it was a perfect crackly base for a super-thin pizza. The tomato sauce was tomato sauce straight from the can, the sausage didn’t have much flavor besides pork and salt, but was high quality and satisfying, and the cheese was maybe a little heavy for old school pizza, but certainly within range. Sometimes the highest praise you can give is “there’s nothing wrong with it,” which doesn’t sound all that much of a compliment, but it is one: this is a textbook example of its style in every department, we were very happy with it and agreed we would order it if we lived near it… but kind of feared that the evening had peaked with the first and would only go downhill from there.
2807 1/2 W 95th St
Evergreen Park, IL 60805
Also doing a business that night was Phil’s Pizza on Ridgeland (aka Narragansett) in Oak Lawn, though this time it was delivery; there were two older delivery guys, one black, one the very picture of Souside Irish white, and we wound up chatting with both of them in between deliveries as well as the manager that evening as we waited to eat ours. Turned out we had just missed a crew from Chicago’s Best, who had shot video in there earlier in the afternoon. Besides trading pizza lore (Zemans and the Irish guy talked arcana of the early days of Giordano’s down on 63rd) and personal favorites, I got to take a look at what I first thought was another classic Faulds oven (see our first expedition) but turned out to come from another manufacturer, who Zemans said was a Chicago company but is now based in Connecticut. (Sadly, they now make the conveyor belt pizza ovens used by places like Domino’s, rather than these Ferris Wheel-style behemoths, and their site even trumpets that they just installed the obviously inferior kind at Comiskey Park. Infidels!)
The pizza when it came out was obviously a much greater deviation from the thin crust of our imaginations—thicker crust, much thicker blanket of cheese:
We didn’t have much hope for it when it came out of the oven, it looked like pretty generic pizza designed to fill you on bread, much like Positano’s in the first installment, but I have to say that even if it wasn’t our style, it was better than the sum of its parts, especially thanks to excellent sausage. Between the ingredients and the very friendly, obviously conscientious service, you could see why everybody who grew up on it loves it and has kept it in business all these years.
8932 Ridgeland Ave
Oak Lawn, IL 60453
I picked Nino’s in Alsip just because nobody beyond a few Yelpers ever seemed to have heard of it, compared to our others which seemed at least somewhat known. (Turned out there was a story about it in the Sun-Times 5 years ago, based on the fact that the dad was still running it in his 80s— he has since passed away— while the son ran Lettuce Entertain You’s Frankie’s Scallopine downtown.) We thought we’d arrived too late for it, as they were mopping and vacuuming, but they proved to be very accommodating about not only letting us in but letting us order deep dish as well as thin before the kitchen closed.
WAIT, DEEP DISH? you cry. Yes, deep dish, violating the primary tenet of our past investigations, which is that deep dish is north side pizza and south side is thin. (Never mind that Giordano’s started on 63rd.) Zemans interrogated the waitress to see if we should really go there, and when she described the crust (the same as the thin, just pushed up into the deeper pan) he was pretty much unsold, thinking that the crust would be uninteresting. But then she came back and really advocated it the way she likes it, and we believed that she knew what she was talking about because earlier we were expressing puzzlement at a news story on a rash of catalytic converter thefts affecting the south side and she responded with a detailed and convincing account of the catalytic converter theft racket (it’s the platinum they’re after). So we ordered a sausage deep dish, and, for variety, an Italian beef and giardinera thin (she suggested double sauce for that, pointing out along the way the fact that the thin and the deep had different sauces).
Again the thin looked breadier and cheesier than it probably was when they opened years ago. I suspect in all of these cases, being in the suburbs has forced them, or simply encouraged them, over time to up the cheese to fit the idea of pizza that people have gotten from chain restaurants in the area (which is very built up, retail-wise); the ones on our first expedition in the city, where retail activity is much lower and fairly chain-free, haven’t dialed it up as much and consequently are closer to the fairly modest pizzas of the 1950s and 1960s. That’s my theory anyway. The other thing about the sauce was that it was very sweet, almost shockingly so; words like ketchup and barbecue sauce were tossed around. We were glad we had the giardinera on ours to cut that aspect of it.
Then the deep dish came.
We were wowed by this thing, impressive as a crown roast, with its walls of dough surrounding the interior. Yes, it was the same crust, but it was a whole different thing folded into a thick dam of breadiness, too much bread to eat but fun to pull apart, releasing steam and offering the satisfaction of homebaked bread. There was a rough-hewn, homemade quality to this deep dish pizza that was instantly charming compared to the machine-round pizzas you almost always see. And the sausage was terrific— still light on fennel but bright and meaty and cravable, while the sauce was acidic crushed tomatoes, totally different from the sweet sauce on the thin crust. Zemans was still shaking his head at what the hell deep dish was doing here, but we all three loved it and agreed it was one of the best of its type to be had in the city, anywhere.
4835 W 111th St
Alsip, IL 60803
Our conclusions: this is a major pizza region within Chicago, tied to its south side heritage but diverging from what it might have been 40 or 50 years ago in several significant ways, notably that the cheese is piled on much thicker. Sausage is taken seriously, even though none of them had the fennel that you take as a defining characteristic of Chicago sausage (and sets it apart from the breakfasty sausage crumble that’s typical in the rest of the country). Which of course means, maybe it isn’t one, nearly as much as we thought. And lastly, everybody was just so darn nice, that suburban niceness, even when they were literally 20 feet from the city in Roseangela’s case. A satisfying and revealing expedition— but the search will continue.Nino's Pizza, Phil's Pizza, Roseangela's Pizza