Sky Full of Bacon

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.)

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.



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:


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.


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



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.)


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


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.

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.


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.


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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The so-called aquarium smoker— I say so-called because the main manufacturer, Avenue Metal, doesn’t actually call them that, and the term was probably invented by Chowhounders/future LTHers in this thread— has seemed a bit of an endangered species to barbecue-minded foodies, facing the double threat of local restrictions on open flame and smoke smell, and the fact that gas-fired cookers with smoke boxes are easier (and, in the best hands, can produce excellent barbecue, as at Smoque).

So there was some excitement when the proprietor of a new spot, Smoke Signals, sent out press releases announcing the best BBQ in the universe or something, and featured a glass pit prominently in the middle of his shop. (I believe it is an Avenue Metal-made pit; I learned you could spot theirs by the design quirk of the hexagonally-rounded corners.) So far reports don’t seem to suggest that his ‘cue lives up to his claims, but you know, give him six months or a year, who knows? I’m glad to see someone trying, anyway.

The real news is, his isn’t the only place with a new glass pit in town.

I’m kind of surprised no one’s spotted Mary Lee’s Smokehouse, because it’s in a fairly high-profile location— on Cermak just east of Chinatown, opposite Cafe Luciano’s. And the signage isn’t shy. I’ve hit it twice now, and if it’s not a great barbecue place yet, it clearly is modeling itself on the places that do it best, and doing an entirely creditable job by the classics:

My sons and I ate a combo of rib tips and links at Ping Tom park on a nice day and enjoyed the light but definite smoke flavor and the spicy hot link just fine. There are a couple of other wrinkles to Mary Lee’s that are worth checking out, though I haven’t managed to have them yet due to being there at the wrong times. One is that they cook steak in the smoker— has anyone done that before? They sell a ribeye steak, which you can have either off the regular grill, or the smoker. Needless to say, I think you’d be a fool to do anything but have it off the smoker; alas, the second time I went, they were sold out from the night before, so I have yet to try that, or the chicken which the menu seems proud of.

I also knew I’d be eating rewarmed barbecue that day, my fault for hitting a bbq joint at noon sharp, but having failed in my quest for steak, I figured rewarmed tips and links was still better than most other things close by. (I wasn’t thinking about Chinatown.) And I discovered something else about tips and links that have been cooked in the same smoker as steaks… they taste like steak! A definite beef-juices-hitting-hot-coals flavor coated the porky pork. Feel free to think that that’s either kind of cool or gross, I can’t decide myself. But I finished them. Sauce was very good in the typical sweet-spicy Chicago style; note that if you follow the standard LTHForum advice to order sauce on the side (which I mostly agree with), they’ll charge you something like $1.50 for a sauce container. I let it slide the second time and just let them dunk everything in the sauce.

So check out Mary Lee’s, timing your visit as to how much you want your pork to taste like beef, I guess. I’ll be back for pig-tasting steak one of these days.

Mary Lee’s Smokehouse
2 E Cermak
Chicago, IL 60616
(312) 225-4544

Your barbecue zen moment:

* * *

Not to bury the lede, but I’ve been visiting a lot of barbecue places lately… because I’m finally working on a new Sky Full of Bacon video podcast. I don’t want to hear any guff about how long it’s been since the last official one, I’ve made well over two hours’ worth of Key Ingredients in that time, but I promised a segment about barbecue long ago, going back to last summer when I shot interviews with a few well-known pitmasters for a Time Out Chicago print piece, which also yielded this short video. So I’ve been conducting other interviews and I think I will have some new insights into the history of Chicago’s own barbecue style by the time it’s done (whenever that will be).

Anyway, doing so I found myself deep on the south side, down where street names have three digits, and so I took the opportunity to finally try a couple of barbecue places that have been written about on LTHForum and elsewhere, but which I had never been to with favorites like Uncle John’s half as far away.

Exsenator’s in south suburban Markham looks more like small town America than south side Chicago. You expect a cozy cafe serving early bird specials to retirees from the outside, and it’s a bit jarring to find the usual intimidating bulletproof glass ordering system inside. But apart from the building, this is authentic Chicago barbecue with deep wood flavor. There’s just one thing I didn’t like about Exsenator’s, and it’s a big one if you forget the usual sauce-on-the-side advice. The sauce is the other thing that resembles a place where old folks would eat; it’s cloyingly sweet and completely devoid of any spice or complexity. It was like dunking your barbecue in applesauce. In this case, I’d tell them not just sauce on the side, but skip sauce entirely; the BBQ will be fine on its own.

Exsenator’s Ribs and Chicken
3349 W 159th St
Markham, IL 60428
(708) 333-1211

George’s Rib House’s notoriety among local barbecue fans is that George won’t cook with wood— he uses pure charcoal, because wood has worms, he says. So George’s BBQ doesn’t have a wood taste, it tastes like a backyard barbecue. But with these big meaty tips, cooked with care by a multi-person staff even on a quiet Saturday afternoon, you’re unlikely to be dissatisfied. Sometimes you feel like you’re eating around bone more than actually eating meat with rib tips, but not here. Good spicy sauce; fries were mushy, but maybe I just caught an off batch.

George’s Rib House
168 W 147th St
Harvey, IL 60426
(708) 331-9347

There will be more to come, I don’t want to give away the show yet, but you won’t go wrong this weekend hitting any of these three places as a new stop on the Chicago south side BBQ circuit.

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