Pizza for Tourists

photo by Lauren Culbertson

photo by Lauren Culbertson

It wasn’t until I came to Chicago that I learned that pizza could connote geography, and not gastronomy. Upon arrival, I was swiftly urged to try the deep-dish, which I was told was “Chicago’s pizza.” So I did. But something about that first restaurant felt false, with its blinking, marquee-like sign out front and checkered tablecloths inside. It also seemed–despite my limited exposure to pizza styles–that a slice with a crust so thick and a layer of cheesy-saucy-soup so high that you have no choice but to eat it with a fork and knife was not really pizza at all.

According to some South Siders, nothing could be truer.

“If I want to eat bread, I’ll go eat bread,” says Rose Mary George.

George is the current owner of Vito and Nick’s pizzeria on 84th and Pulaski. After eighty-four years, five generations, and four different locations, Vito and Nick’s is widely considered to be the original South Side establishment of thin-crust pizza.

As recounted to me over Vito and Nick’s signature egg pizza, Vito and Mary Barraco, George’s grandparents, moved from Sicily to Chicago in 1923. Although they didn’t start making pizzas with their son, Nick, until 1946, their Sicilian pizza recipe was with them from the start. This is thin-crust pizza straight from Italy. “It’s always been thin crust. I’ve never had anything else other than that,” she says.

Then why is Chicago so widely known for deep-dish?

“Because of customers,” George explains. “Pizza has changed due to demand.”

But tonight, the demand seems to be right here at Vito and Nick’s. The restaurant is bursting at the seams with people. Families with young children eat in booths while groups of older friends crowd around tables and sit back in their chairs, beer bottles in hand. The atmosphere is jovial, like being in a friend’s basement, with colored light bulbs in the chandeliers and Christmas lights strung across the bar.

As to the menu, there aren’t very many options. But with a recipe that has lasted generations, these are all the options you need. The pies are large and round, with cheese and sauce spread to the very edges of the dough. The crust is, well, thin, but it’s not the flatbread, cracker-like crust you often see these days. The dough is firm, and a fraction of the height of a traditional New York—style pizza, but it still has a comforting softness you can sink your teeth into. With a crust this thin, the cheese, sauce, and toppings get just as much attention.

Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of this thin-crust style is the ritual of cutting the pie into smaller squares, each only a few inches long. This pizza must be shared. Ordering by the slice is not allowed. People eat together, taking piece by piece until there is nothing left.

Vito and Nick’s is not the only proprietor of thin crust on the South Side. While the restaurant is known for its traditional menu and years of consistent service, local chain Italian Fiesta Pizzeria is known for something else–its status as the Obama family’s favorite.

Legend has it that when young Michelle Obama brought home an outstanding report card, her parents would reward her with an Italian Fiesta dinner. Years later, her husband became such a fan that he had the DeCarlo family flown to Washington so they could make their pizzas for the Presidential Inauguration Expo in 2008.

Hidden in a small shopping center on 47th and Lake Park, the pizzeria’s Kenwood location doesn’t command much attention. I was surprised to find only a small room and a strict policy of take out and delivery only. In placing an order for delivery, I found the service slow and the pizza average. Perhaps it was because the pie had been transported in a cardboard box, but the cheese and sauce seemed to sink into the crust. Overall, its slight greasiness seemed to lack the vitality I had tasted at Vito and Nick’s. But I guess when you’re the president’s pizza darling, people will keep coming to you no matter what.

As to the future of South Side thin-crust , Flo and Santos has a solid foundation. The three-year-old South Loop restaurant may lack the dynastic quality of some of its older competitors, but it has successfully added a modern taste to the longstanding thin-crust tradition with respect and grace, standing on a simple philosophy:

“Deep-dish pizza,” as chef Mark Rimkus puts it, “is pizza for tourists.” As a South Side native, Chef Mark says thin crust is all he’s ever eaten.

Flo and Santos is more a bar and restaurant than a pizzeria, but the menu offers quite a wide variety of different pizzas. And with Polska Kielbasa, sauerkraut, and bacon, the restaurant has quickly acquired a reputation for Polish-Italian fusion.

Upon our waitress’s suggestion, we decided to order a pie that was half Farmer’s Market Pizza–based on Chef Mark’s weekly farmstand finds–and half goat cheese, red peppers, and Italian sausage. Served on a wooden paddle, the ends of the crust were quite crispy, while the center was still able to capture the softness of Vito and Nick’s crust. The goat cheese remained distinct from the sauce and the roasted vegetables brought new flavor to a traditional format. Mixed with the fresh air, this warm blend of a familiar crust and novel trimmings was borderline perfection.

As a friend and I sat at our smaller table on the spacious patio, enjoying the setting sun, we laughed at the squealing kids toddling away from their parents. Inside, we could hear cheers and high fives coming from the bar where a baseball game was playing. It felt as if it the restaurant was a neighborhood within itself.

What makes these South Side thin crust establishments such a notable slice of the pizza world? It doesn’t come down to the depth of the crust or the taste of the toppings. Rather, it is the fact that the pizza you are sharing is part of a practice that has been carried through generations of people who share dedication to sharing food.

Vito and Nick’s, 8433 S. Pulaski Rd. Monday-Thursday, 11am-11pm; Friday, 11am-1am; Sunday, noon-11pm. (773)735-2050. vitoandnicks.com

Italian Fiesta Pizzeria, South Side locations in South Shore, Kenwood, and Auburn-Gresham. Hours vary. (773)684-2222. italianfiestapizzeria.com

Flo and Santos, 1310 S. Wabash Ave. Sunday-Thursday, 11:30am-midnight; Friday-Saturday, 11:30am-1am. (312)566-9817. floandsantos.com