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Chicago's greatest uncelebrated pizza (for David H. and Zim)

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Chicago's greatest uncelebrated pizza (for David H. and Zim)

RST | Dec 19, 2002 10:08 PM

This may be the biggest pizza secret in the city: I just did a google search and found very few listings for it (mostly in phone/address compendiums and without accompanying reviews). There IS a very positive metromix review but as far as I know, nothing written up about it on this board (correct me if I am wrong). This may be what Zim is looking for to change his opinion about Chicago pizza.

I stopped by today and discovered that they will be moving soon (within a month) to a new location. The owner Paul told me that the new place (on 79th and Cottage Grove) is already set up but awaiting the proper papers and permits. This is one reason to hurry on down to enjoy this pizza before they move.

Now, you must all know by now that I am a strict defender of the idea of terroir. This has nothing to do with hoohah and superstition. I firmly believe that (in the case of the art of pizza-making) such factors as the draft around an oven, the humidity of a room, the normal ambient temperature, the walking patterns of a pizza-maker etc affect the nature of the final product in a profound way. It is the incremental series of tiny responses to all these factors that add up to the "culture" of a shop. This is not to say that the same pizza cannot be replicated in the new location, just that other tiny changes might have to be made to come close, in time, to the original thing.

"Old Chicago Pizzeria" has existed at the corner of Halsted and 79th for 20 years now, under the same owner. Paul, who is Greek, must have inherited the place from an old-time Chicago-Italian as the place retains all the quaintness of storefronts surviving from an earlier generation. One wall is lined with mirrors painted with signs (50s lettering) listing various soda fountain creations (shakes, malts etc). No, they no longer serve these, although they do offer Ben and Jerry's (I guess by the scoop). There are two simple, small rickety tables for eating-in.

They list three categories: "Thin and crispy", "Chicago-style deep-dish" and "Special creations". One example of a "Special creation" pizza (these are deep-dish) is the "Shrimp and Cheese" (s: $8.95 l: $13.25 family: $15.50). There are four sizes for the "thin and crispy" (approx 12", approx 14", approx 16", approx 18": the word approx is theirs). There are four sizes for the deep dish (8", 10", 13", 15"). The 15" "deep dish" is the most expensive of the "regular" pizzas at $13.50 with double cheese, $14.75 for cheese with one topping, $1.75 for additional topping. Great prices!

In my opinion, their signature pizza is their "deep dish". I have chosen the quintessential Chicago topping, Italian sausage, on an 8" for this ff review. This is strictly speaking not a Chicago-style deep-dish as it is defined by-say-Uno's. It is a thick-crusted (a bit over 1/2", I measured it) pan pizza with a high rim of about 2", but NOT filled to rim with the sauce and topping.

Homemade tomato sauce (very subtly garlicky), large chunks of superb sausage (wonderfully redolent of fennel) and high-quality mozzarella are layered in exact proportion to provide a perfect, elegant balance to this thicker crust. Like Zim, I have never really understood the kind of pizza drowned in mounds of cheese and sauce and have always found that style to be a bit of exaggeration and excess. Paul did explain to me that the neighborhood is poorer and would not have supported a fatter, thicker layer of sauce but I found that there is no need for any apology as the restraint is stunningly effective.

The crust itself is not the crumbly cornmeal-based Chicago crust of Uno's. Nor is it the high-gluten wheat-flour sort. It is rather, a curious hybrid of the two: based on some kind of butter-crust (some cornmeal added?) that mimics some of that fine crumbly texture of a classic Chicago pizza but also forming a crunchy brown carapace. The dough is baked through perfectly with just a bit of black on the rim here and there.

Certainly one of great unheralded Chicago pizzas.

RST

Old Chicago Pizzeria

Current location:
7847 S. Halsted St.
(773) 873-7428; (773) 873-2888
Halsted (east side of st) just north of 79th

They will be moving within the month to
742 E. 79th (79th and Cottage Grove)
Same phone number

Pizzas take 45 minutes to bake. Do call to order ahead of time. They do have slices at $1.95 (deep dish, one topping).

I also thought that this pizzeria might be a nice break for those of you on a ribs/jerk chicken hounding mission this weekend (I think Zim said he's going on one this Saturday). Several of the most-discussed ribs houses of the southside (Lem's on 75th, Leon's on 79th, Leon's and Dat Donuts on 83rd/Cottage Grove, Barbara Ann's on Cottage Grove) are within a mile of 79th/Halsted. There are several other ribs places I will note later, separately.

The jerk chicken place I gave an A (JR's) to is on 79th and Ashland (plus there's another untried place on the 81st block of Ashland). There are 2 branches of Tropic Island jerk chicken on 79th plus several others (Island Delight, B&B Caribbean Tradition etc).

The whole stretch of 75th around Lem's is very houndworthy. There is a Trinidadian place on 75th and Cottage Grove around the corner from Daddy O's (jerk). But I will write these all up on a separate post.

There's an extraordinary piece of time-warp pop architecture on 79th about 4 or 5 blocks west of Cottage Grove (about 400 E). It's a laundromat hunkered under a huge triangular slab of concrete cantilevered at a 43 degree or so angle into the air. Several superb old 50s neons on this street!!! (there's one "Suzy-Wong"-era chop suey sign at Cottage Grove and 79th!)

Incidentally, I was at Tropic Island and Daddy O's today. Tentative ratings from one first impression:

Tropic Island on the 1200 E block of 79th: A
("A", but ranked lower than JR's. JR's chicken is not as moist and tender-different grilling style/philosophy but the meat is suffused with smoke and flavor through and through.)
Daddy O's Jerk: C or C+

More later,
RST

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