Despite being extensively chronicled and consumed, pizza, in all its incarnations, remains far more versatile than most people realize. For instance, Chicago deep-dish pizza is ubiquitously synonymous with “Chicago-style pizza,” despite the existence of another style (relatively) unique to the city: Chicago-style thin-crust, which has a crisp, almost cracker-like bottom. This is especially unfortunate considering that, while deep-dish is done well at some restaurants, it is at most establishments a pit of lackluster ingredients shoddily thrown together, in an obvious displacement of quality with quantity that seems to be rewarded by diners’ approval. Even so, with no better quality and care on average going into the thin-crust than into the deep-dish, it’s not entirely surprising that the latter’s straightforward appeal of cheese-oozing, red sauce-slathered heft has overshadowed the former’s subtler charms in both recognition and appreciation.
Though I was not enamored of most deep-dish in this city, until recently I was sadly unaware of the very existence of Chicago-style thin-crust. That oversight was finally rectified when I visited a certain Vito & Nick’s Pizzeria, purported to have the best thin-crust pizza on the South Side, or indeed the best pizza of any kind in the entire city. Rest assured that, after much experience of disappointment ensuing from expectations built on the hyperbole and group-think endemic in American food-related media, such a description didn’t quite help–nor, I hope, harm–with forming my own reckoning of its standing as a supplier of good eats.
I visited their original location (for some 60 years, after short stints at several other locations) at 84th and Pulaski in the neighborhood of Ashburn. Housed in a squat, dun-colored brick building with windows bearing Old Style and Miller Lite neon signs, it actually started out and still doubles as a tavern–and to this day takes only cash, and offers only dine-in for its pizza. Inside, Formica-topped tables amid tawdry, mismatched lamps and wall decorations (including White Sox paraphernalia on one side of the bar, and Cubs on the other), albeit accompanied by rather out-of-place widescreen televisions tuned to sports channels, are in keeping with the joint’s working-class pub-like exterior. Indeed, the only brew on tap when we visited was Old Style, and the liquor selection is basic–like much of the menu, drinks are just sideshows to the pizza, without which any repast here would be incomplete.
Pizza may be the figurative heavyweight on the menu at Vito and Nick’s, but in terms of surface area, the menu is dominated by the pizzeria standbys of deep-fried appetizers and variations on garlic bread, pasta, and sandwiches. Seeking some idea of the quality of non-pizza items without crowding out space for the main event, my friend and I settled on garlic bread, zucchini sticks, a small cheese pizza, and a sausage, pepperoni, and onion pizza. We got some help choosing from our waitress, who was clearly proud of the pizza she helped serve, and in general took very good care of us.
Of the two edible diversions chosen to ease our wait for pizza, the garlic bread arrived first. Tasty and satisfying, though unexceptional, it was certainly good for what it was made of–that is, run-of-the-mill ingredients, coaxed into yielding what gustatory pleasure they could. Halves of a thin though otherwise typical submarine sandwich roll, with barely-there crusts crisped from a second round in the oven, each trapped a generous layer of garlic-flavored oil. In place of the usual prickly jolt of lightly cooked garlic typical of garlic bread, however, there was the mellower flavor of garlic browned without drying out; though incongruous in a quick-cooked Italian-influenced food, its resemblance to good Chinese stir-fries suffused with the savor of creamy, caramelized whole garlic cloves was comforting and pleasant.
Next came the zucchini sticks, hot and golden out of the fryer, with marinara sauce and, in place of our initial choice of garlic sauce, ranch dressing on the side. Fortunately, that small error did nothing to harm the fingers of mildly sweet, creamy zucchini lightly robed in crisp batter. They would have been better made with thicker sticks, since zucchini is a mild-mannered vegetable easily overwhelmed in flavor and texture, but still comfortably met expectations I did not have. For the marinara sauce, however, I did have expectations–based on too many cups of sour, insipid filler inexplicably tucked in with every other pizzeria snack sold in Chicago–that were utterly defied by a deeply flavorful sauce thick with chunks of tomato and ribbons of onion. I say in all earnestness that this evidence that someone somewhere still bothers to serve decent marinara sauce just for dipping restored my faith in humanity a little.
Filled up by the appetizers, we could have called it a meal at that point, but had to resume our mission when our waitress set before us a large edible disc covered right up to–and actually, a little over–its edges with an even layer of sausage, pepperoni, onion, and cheese. With regard to the proportions of the various ingredients that make up a pizza, each small “party cut” square was an exemplar of balance: a thin yet substantial base, more crunchy than crisp on its bottom, smeared on its doughy upper surface with just enough tomato paste to add a tart, fruity note, set off with a knob or two of greasy meat and perhaps a sweet bit of onion, and a salty mantle of melted cheese. The edge pieces with crisp, caramelized morsels of pepperoni were a treat. It was a well-proportioned pie, but not one made from ingredients of equal quality: the pepperoni and sausage, the former spicy and both well-seasoned, were unremarkable in quality, as were the sauce and cheese, which was the usual somewhat flavor-challenged part-skim mozzarella commonly put on pizzas in America. Our last order, the plain cheese-topped pie, was identical to the first pizza in crust and sauce–and balance. Sadly, though, the cheese was rubbery, a fatal flaw since it was the only and thus main topping, with nothing else to distract from the liberal quantities of it.
Structurally, a Vito & Nick’s pizza is spot-on–cheese and toppings abundant but not overwhelming, just enough sauce, and a crust that is actually crisp and toasty, which is a rarity even among other versions of this pizza. However, as with all other food, no matter the care lavished in preparation, a pizza can only be as good as its ingredients are, and Vito & Nick’s is limited by its use of the same mediocre ingredients as those on most pizzas in the city, if not the country. Are their pizzas good? Sure. But are they great, or even, as some foodies have ventured, world-class? No. Unquestionably, it will satisfy a hankering for some pie true to the Chicago thin-crust archetype and provide other satisfying pizzeria fare to go with it, but to promise more than that would be dishonest.
Vito & Nick’s Pizzeria, 8435 S. Pulaski Rd. Monday-Thursday, 11am-11pm; Friday-Saturday, 11am-1am; Sunday, noon-11pm. (773)735-2050â€Ž. vitoandnick.com