Chicago: Two days, Nineteen Pizzerias (Part 2)

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I spent a total of two days in Chicago last month and managed to visit 19 pizzerias. It was my first time in Chicago since 2003. I’m not a big fan of restaurant reviews, so think of these more as abbreviated recollections of my experiences at each place. I might do more in-depth reports later but people ask me about pizza in Chicago so often I just want to use this as a quick reference guide. It’s split into two parts because Chicago pizza is too massive to fit into one post. See part 1 here. The post is organized with a description first, then a photo below. Enjoy! 


Marie’s Pizza & Liquors
Marie’s is an absolute gem, owned and operated by the same family since 1940. It’s a good 20 minutes north of the Loop, so don’t expect to stumble upon it if you’re wandering around downtown Chicago. This is a real joint -oozing with the “this is who we are” honesty that makes me fall in love with some restaurants even before I taste the food. It’s more like a bar with tons of seating than it is a pizzeria. The seating of which I speak is luxurious plush red vinyl and I really do need to post more photos of the interior. The pizza is typical tavern style thin-and-crispy cut into squares. Truth be told, it’s not the most remarkable pizza in the world, but Marie’s is off the charts on the vibe-o-meter and a real piece of Chicago’s pizza story.


Pizzeria da Nella Cucina Napoletana
Regardless of the city’s reputation as a deep-dish town or its true roots as a thin crust refuge, Chicago has some very non-Chicago pizzerias. Nella is a traditional Neapolitan pizzeria. They have it all: the wood-fired oven, “00” flour, imported tomatoes. But sometimes having all the goods doesn’t necessarily make a great pizza. Keep in mind I am basing my entire opinion on one visit in the middle of the day, but this was not a stellar pizza. The oven seemed low and the pizza, which usually takes about 90 seconds in this oven, clocked in at 2:30. That’s a big difference and resulted in a dry crust. Some might even prefer this over traditional Neapolitan but I give a low score on execution of the style. 


Pequod’s Pizza
Want a serious deep dish pizza the locals actually eat on purpose? Pequod’s is it. There’s cheese shoved up between the crust and the pan (like Detroit style) and it caramelizes in the most beautiful way imaginable. Some even order it with extra carm for a degree of intensity rarely displayed by mere mortals. I had a pie with sausage and pepperoni, (aka just the basics for a meaty midwestern appetite) and really loved how the crunch of the crust combined with the soft padding of its cheesy surface. It had less sauce than other deep dish pizzas and generally felt like the badass of Chicago’s pizzerias


Piece Pizzeria
Here’s another non-Chicagoan pizzeria in the Windy City, one that’s all about New Haven, CT. If you’re not familiar with the style, you need to head to Pepe’s and Sally’s on Wooster St or Modern Apizza on State Street in New Haven RIGHT NOW! Piece dishes up huge dense-crunchy crust pizza in big trays like Frank Pepe’s. Their pies are topped with restraint rather than maladroit. The place has a very active feel, almost like a sports bar but without too many televisions. I thought the pizza was totally solid and I’d definitely be here all the time if I lived in the neighborhood. It’s the kind of place to enjoy with a big group of friends, as I did with my buds Patrick and Kristy, the wonderful couple who designed and built my beautiful pizza tours website!

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First Ave Slice (and garlic knot) Crawl

Was poster a sign of things to come in a night of Upper East Side pizza eating?

This weekend, I grabbed a golden pizza-eating opportunity by the crusts and dove mouth-first into a string of pizzerias I have often passed without blinking. Due to my routing options, I often take pizza tours from Lombardi’s in Soho to Patsy’s in East Harlem. We fly up First Ave, passing a few dozen pizzerias along the way. I’m very familiar with a batch of downtown spots (Motorino, Vinny Vincenz, Luzzo’s, Artichoke, etc), but the northern reaches of this universe are a complete mystery to me. So many times I have looked out the school bus window and wondered what these places had to offer. Some appeared excitingly dark and mysterious, others looked average enough that they might contain some surprises. There was only one way to find out.

The stretch of road in question is the stark bit from the mid-50’s to the upper-60’s. After finding a sweet parking spot, my friends Bryan and Kiera agreed to get down to beeswax in our first pizzeria of the night: John & Tony’s. From the outside, it looks just funky enough to be intriguing. The inside is split into a bright pizzeria section in the front and a darker restaurant in the back. Pretty classic with the red-and-white-checked tablecloths and hanging glass light fixtures!

John & Tony’s, outside and in.

The pizza fit the space. There were three of us and we weren’t all hungry enough to go for full slices, so I just ordered whatever looked best. It ended up being a square and some garlic knots. As you can see in the photo below, the square was mostly sauce with touches of mozzarella and whole leaves of basil. It was pretty tasty, but the crust situation was a bit dire. Those garlic knots have the perfect knotty look and a heavy smattering of garlic, but they weren’t quite cohesive enough to be exciting. Still, the food was good enough and the space has that hint of specialness that made it feel like we were supporting the Good Guys.

John & Tony’s
1097 1st Avenue
New York, NY 10065 
(212) 371-4965

John & Tony’s has some fine lookin’ knots!

Onward to the next spot! After creeping under the 59th Street Bridge, we hit a place I’ve been watching out the school bus window for years: The Best Pizza On 1st. Yup, that’s what it’s legally called. I always laughed at it because we’re on our way to Patsy’s (located on 1st Ave and 118th Street) so there’s very little chance this anything more than just a clever business name.

Is it the best pizza on 1st Ave? You decide.

We grabbed a cheese slice and a grandma. Besides some major grease action on the slice, these little guys were pretty solid. I won’t pull the bus over, but if we break down in the neighborhood I won’t feel terrible stopping by for a quick one. The grandma was the winner of the two, with a nice smooth sauce and minimal cheese.

Best Pizza on 1st
1038 1st Avenue
New York, NY 10022
(212) 644-8400

Sure, Best Pizza on 1st is a pretty good name, but you’d have to be pretty gutsy to open up a pizzeria right across the street. Well, I guess it could work, but you’d have to pick a really amazingly awesome name. Something big. Something red and glowing …

YIKES! Ultimate Pizza is just up the block from BPO1st and it somehow coexists with its hyperbolic neighbor. So is it better to be Best or Ultimate? I’m usually not one to judge pizzerias that aren’t asking to be judged, but this one’s pretty clear. First of all, Best got an A from the Department of Health and Ultimate got a B. I understand that you could earn a demerit for the slightest of violations, but if one slice shop can get an A all slice shops should be able to do the same. Secondly, our slice at Ultimate had a big, fat, yucky gum line. What’s a gum line?

This is a gum line. Yuck.

You see it sitting right there between a tiny layer of cooked dough and a surface layer of cheese. Wait, is a gum line bad? Well, I guess it’s fine if you’re into eating uncooked dough and feeling bloated and crappy. I’m not into that so it’s safe to say I’m anti gum line. It’s a pretty clear indication that the pizza has not been baked properly. Gum lines are usually the result of dough with a cold top, which could come from cold sauce or dough that has not been brought to proper temperature before baking. We attacked the slice crust-first but only got about 4 inches in before we hit solid gummy grossness.

Ultimate Pizza
401 East 57th Street

New York, NY 10022
(212) 319-9027

Don’t worry, Ultimate Pizza wasn’t a total bust. We grabbed some garlic knots and they were actually really good! They even put a bit of fresh basil on top. Not too garlicy, but really tasty little puffs of bread. I would even say the knots were about as good as the slice was bad. Does that make sense?

Garlic knots… now with basil!

The final stop on our First Ave stroll was a place with an actual reputation. I’d heard about it from several people, most of whom live in the direct vicinity, and my own memory from a visit years ago was too hazy to rely on. Pizza Park is a quaint little slice shop that hasn’t yet let the bar drop to the levels we had seen earlier in the night. They may have adapted to contemporary demand for whole wheat crusts and, as their awning explains, “vegetarian” pizza, but the spirit still feels right.

Looks about right. Pizza Park is on First Ave at 66th Street.

Again, we grabbed whatever slices looked the best plus an order of garlic knots. I’m not going to say anything about the knots beyond recommending that you skip them unless it’s late at night and you need something to soak up the booze. Instead, I’m going to strongly suggest that you head right for the Grandma pizza. Even though it was preceded by enough slices to make any normal person want to take a vacation from anything with cheese, sauce or crust it was still quite easily the best slice of the night.

Pizza Park
1233 1st Avenue

New York, NY 10065 

Pizza Park’s Grandma slice - best of the night!

Major points for balance. Major points for flavor. Major points for a crust that tastes like something more than a platform for cheese. Finally, a good slice in the Upper East Side along the route from Lombardi’s to Patsy’s. The fact that all those other places are surviving in the pizza world just goes to show you how much demand there is and how lazy New Yorkers can be. I’m just glad I finally stifled the laziness and got myself into this mysterious pizza zone, otherwise I wouldn’t have known what was available.  As someone once told me, knowing is half the battle.