Daniel Zemans and first-time hunter John Lenart stealthily approach their prey.
When Daniel Zemans and I started hunting for Great Unknown Pizzas, part of the point was to see if there was a pizza as good as a Vito & Nick’s or Pat’s Pizza that had gone unknown to the city beyond its own immediate area. But another point was to search out a certain kind of pizza. When thin crust pizza started in America, it tended to be the very thin, cracker-like crust. A simple pie. But over time big pizza chains realized that they could fill their customers more cheaply by selling pizzas that loaded up on the cheapest part— bread— relative to the more expensive parts like cheese and meat or vegetables. So the pizza we liked finding best was at the place that started making it the old way in the 50s or 60s, and never stopped, never followed the siren call of Domino’s’ or Pizza Hut pan pizza’s profitability at selling spongy bread topped with cheap toppings.
As it turned out this latest excursion would demonstrate both sides of this theory of pizza history in spades. Two pizzas adhered to the origins of American pizza— and one sold us a whole lot of bread.
The area picked for this latest excursion was the suburbs just past Midway and the city limits on the southwest side—places you’ve mostly never been, like Summit-Argo, Lyons, Hogdkins, Countryside, the area bounded by Ogden and I-55, just south of the Brookfield Zoo. Working class suburbs, with at least some Italian presence, they well fit the traditional parameters and m.o. of the Great Unknown Pizzas quest:
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 so, the southwest suburban contenders…
Zemans raised the question of whether this place was a worthy contender based on a photo at Yelp indicating the use of a conveyor belt oven, a la the Pizza Hut inside Target. But I was sold by this line in a review: “If you park out front on La Grange road, you literally have to walk through an alley to get here.” Any pizza place that can survive being hidden from normal traffic has got to be good, right?
So we got to 55th and LaGrange and we saw a Mexican restaurant called Cocula (this is when we really regretted Dennis Lee declining to come along on this one) which is supposed to be what it’s behind. We found the alley and, eventually, tiny little Pisa Pizza next to the currency exchange. The owner was older and a bit brusque at first, but maybe our irrepressible enthusiasm warmed him up as we asked about the surprisingly large array of desserts he has for a hole in the wall pizza place. They were all made by his wife, but he doesn’t eat them— or pizza, either, these days, as he’s trying to drop some weight. There was a copy of a magazine called Clean Living on a table, as if to drive home the point of his despair.
Twelve minutes later we took the pizza out to the hood of John’s car. Zemans said, skepticism audibly dissolving, “It looks pretty good!” It was also flaming hot, having come out of the oven 45 seconds earlier, but we started taking its picture and evaluating its conveyor belt crust. The rippled bottom showed it sat in a pan to go through the conveyor and wasn’t as crisped up as if it had gone in a classic Foulds oven, but as we tasted it it was surprising how good the pizza was. The crust had a nice double texture— a little exterior crispness, then fluffy and bready— and the stuff on it was all quite good, great sausage with strong fennel flavor, a nice basic tomato sauce and high quality cheese, very handsomely browned. We were very happy with this pizza, the kind it takes a solid local pizza culture to create, and we had to make a conscious effort to stop scarfing it all down to save room for the next two. But already this Great Unknown Pizza quest had a first-tier contender, and had proven the worth of this obscure suburb.
5440 S La Grange Rd
Countryside, IL 60525
So we’d had a hit in Countryside and from the parking lot we could see another Countryside pizza place, Ledo’s, across 55th, while a third was supposed to be just up the street. Maybe Countryside was a great unknown pizza destination! Looking over the Yelp reviews quickly, Ledo’s did not seem that exciting, but Nonno’s, second outpost of a Berwyn pizza place*, had solid reviews. Heady with the prospect of discovering an entire town, we zipped two blocks up LaGrange Road and pulled in to the neon-lit establishment.
In doing so, we ignored the sign (scrawled, of course, on a round piece of pizza cardboard) that said “Pizza Maker Wanted.” We also ignored the actual pizza slices in the heater thing, which clearly showed a pizza with too much bread, until we’d already ordered our own half sausage/half Italian beef (hey, it was a place that advertised its Italian beef sandwich— so it had to be good!) We’d done such a good job of convincing ourselves it had to be special that we walked right past the clear signs that it wouldn’t be.
To be fair, the stuff on the pizza was fine. The sauce was a little plain, but the sausage was decent (even though, curiously, cut into quarters rather than made into balls or rough chunks), and the cheese was good quality— though there was probably twice as much of it as it needed. The problem was the crust was just absurdly thick, dense as wallboard, bland as a foodservice breadstick and higher than even the breadiest pizzas we’d had in the past like Positano’s (GUP #1) or Phil’s (GUP #3):
Being so out of balance, it smothered the flavor of everything else; every bite tasted like you were eating an entire box of teething biscuits, the thick cheese in the middle was so shielded from the heat of the oven that it was barely melted. It was like eating pizza toppings on a Sealy Posturepedic. This was a pizza so heavy that when I set two pieces in a to-go container I was holding (not that we really wanted it, but you hate to visibly waste it), the styrofoam immediately gave under the weight.
Good prep for a life of eating this pizza.
They were nice folks, but if this was a good neighborhood pizza once, it took a wrong turn at some point, and the positive Yelp reviews were clearly from people who just wanted to be filled up and didn’t care how.
5396 South La Grange Road
Countryside, IL 60525
* The Berwyn location is surely why Nonno’s is the only one of our three obscure-suburb spots to have ever gotten even an ancient mention on LTHForum, though interestingly, Jennifer Olvera sang the praises of a hot dog stand we saw across the street on Serious Eats.
Chester’s Tavern and Orsi’s Pizza
As the story was told to us, Chester’s was a bar for forever in little, very industrial Summit Argo, and Orsi’s was a family run Italian joint a few doors up, and at some point the third generation of Chester’s was ready to close it and the dad of the current Orsi bought it and merged the two businesses, so now it’s a bar and it has a pizza kitchen in the back. I was sold on this one by an entire post at Yelp which claimed that Chester’s was once an Outfit hangout, certainly possible in the bad old days given our proximity to Cicero. But on this Tuesday night, all Chester’s was was a dive bar with some video poker and cheerfully rowdy guys on one side, and a side room which you could have taken the family to on the other side, and a couple of nice folks running it who were proud to tell us all about it once they understood that we were on a mission from the Pizza Gods and that we pretty much loved their place.
Me, I loved it not least because it had the most complete collection I’ve ever seen of those 1970s plaster busts of nostalgic 1930s stars that used to be dorm room fixtures back in the day. This is less than half of the collection, see if you can name them all:
Anyway, we ordered beer and, noticing a (round cardboard) sign that they sold frozen pizzas, asked nervously if they were still serving fresh ones. “He’s about to shut it down,” the bartendress told us, so I blurted out “large sausage” and we got our order in as we watched the Sox to the tune of the heavy metal the regulars put on, which got an eye roll from the bartendress.
10 minutes later our pizza came. It was love at first sight, a super-thin cracker crust that was already shedding brittle cracker pieces just from her setting it down:
And it lived up to it. Good sausage and cheese, a simple sauce that had a little bit of neckbone-gravy caramelization flavor to it, and that great, shatter-in-pieces-in-your-mouth crust.
For me, this was one of the two best we’ve tried (along with Pizza Castle in GUP #1) and an instant candidate for the next time I do a Best Thin Crust list. Zemans interestingly made his case for preferring Pisa slightly, and it’s true that the sausage was the best there, which is no small thing, but mainly he made the pronouncement that this was the first quest to date where two out of three were top tier, and I have to agree. (I think John agreed in general, too, even though this was his first outing.) Chester’s/Orsi’s, not too far past Midway, next time you’re way way down that way, check it out.
6255 S Archer Rd
Summit Argo, IL 60501