The Berwyn Pizza Project Part 1
A good friend of mine just moved to the south-side of Berwyn from Logan Square. Naturally, he followed all the proper steps for relocation to a new neighborhood.
1) Locate nearest liquor store.
2) Get phone hooked up.
3) Find a pizza place that delivers.
First off, he was pleasantly surprised to find a largish liquor store with an OK beer selection (ie. cold Alpha King) within walking distance of his new abode. Even more surprising was the efficiency with which AT&T hooked up and activated his new phone and DSL service. However, it was step number 3 that presented him with a problem, but it was not the problem you might expect. Unlike those of us who live in the pizza dead zone of Chicago’s far northside, it seems that the Berwyn/Cicero/Stickney area hosts an amazing concentration of pizzerias. Within a mile radius of my buddy’s new home, there are no fewer than two-dozen pizza places that deliver. If you expand the distance to 2 miles (which includes Cicero and part of Archer avenue), that number triples. What is even more amazing than the sheer number of pizza joints in the area, is that among the plethora of choices, which includes such venerable names as Salerno’s and Home-Run Inn, there are 2 Domino's and 2 Pizza Huts. I just don’t get it.
Anyhow, it was out of this crusty bounty of cheesy riches that the Berwyn Pizza Project
(BPP) was born. We decided that with the assistance of my friend’s son, Pizza Boy (who has been on an all pizza diet for the past 18 years) and our opinionated “why can’t I find [fill in the blank
] like we have in New York?” friend, we would systematically investigate the local pizza offerings in an ever-widening spiral from my friend’s new house. To that end, with some help from Yahoo maps, we began by listing the possible venues within 4-5 blocks of his address (about 2 sq miles).
There were an impressive 9 places on the initial list. One of those was Salerno’s, with which we were already familiar. Salerno’s makes the quintessential bubbly Chicago ‘not so thin’ crust. It is very good, made with quality ingredients, but not terribly remarkable. Another joint on the list was Michael Anthony’s Restaurant. This is where my friend actually got his “moving-day” pizzas. He told me the best thing about the place was that it was pretty cheap and really fast, and the pizza was good. He said he walked in there, placed his order and walked out with 2 extra-large pizzas in less than 10 minutes, and for less than $25. Each of the menus even has a $3 off coupon. Not surprisingly, the bargain price is somewhat reflected in the quality of ingredients (but it still beats the hell out of Domino’s).
Of the remaining venues, one had a stupid name, so we avoided that one. Another turned out to be a less pretentious alias for the same place. That left six candidates to choose from. Since 4 of them were in the general direction of the liquor store, and we needed to make a beer run, we decided to do some recon and pick out the most promising looking place to order from when we returned with the frothy beverages. Two pizzerias were on Ogden Avenue (Nonno’s and Bacci), and two were on 39th (Angelica’s and Villa Nova). 39th Street is a.k.a. Pershing Road and is actually in Stickney. The two restaurants on Ogden were your basic store-front carryout places with the tall counter up front and the pizza oven in back. Of them, Bacci had more character, while Nonno’s looked newer and cleaner. Both were absolutely empty. Angelica’s, over on 39th, looked like it was cloned from Nonno’s (or vice-versa) right down to similar signs.
The place that really caught our attention was Villa Nova. It was basically another store-front operation, though twice as big as the others. There was also a whole lot more activity inside. There seemed to be a small dining area near the front window, with a few occupied tables (although there may have been more seating we could not see). Most of the restaurant was taken up by a glassed in preparation area. As we drove by, we caught sight of at least 3 circles of pizza dough spinning in mid-air behind the partition. “That’s the place”, we declared in unison.
When we got back to the command post with the libations, I called Villa Nova and ordered a large sausage, garlic and pepper pizza. I was told the pizza would be delivered in 40 minutes. It was actually delivered in less than 30 (granted, the restaurant was only 5 blocks away). Despite getting it delivered, the pie arrived hot and fresh. The nearly cracker thin crust was crispy at the edge and speckled with little charred dots of deliciousness.
Away from the tasty charred edges, the crust was not crisp, but had the right amount of chewy plasticity to hold itself together in the face of a generous slathering of sauce. Had the pizza been pie-cut, I think we may have had the much-sought-after but elusive “foldable” slices (unfortunately, our pleasantly snobbish friend from NY was not around to opine on this aspect of the pizza). While the tangy sauce was plentiful, the rich cheese was very judiciously applied, as were the toppings. There was just the right amount of each ingredient strategically placed across the surface. I thought to myself, “If Burt made thin-crust pizza, it would be like this”. The marble-sized bits of sausage were well spiced and peppery (though a tad bit salty). They were flavorful enough that there was no need for bigger pieces. Thankfully though, VN did not skimp on the fresh garlic.
The big test of a thin crust pizza, for me, is the last few slices. With many square-cut Chicago pizzas, the pieces get gooier and sloppier as you work your way to the middle. As each slice is removed, part of the cheese slides onto the next piece toward the center. In the end, you are left with a mushy scrap of crust plastered to the cardboard beneath a big pile of greasy congealed cheese. Villa Nova’s pizza held up right down to the last piece (which did not sit there for long).
As delightful as Villa Nova’s pizza was, it presented us with a problem. From the very start, VN set the bar for the Berwyn Pizza Project (now the Berwyn/Stickney Pizza Project) pretty high. In fact, what we received from Villa Nova was (in our under-qualified opinions) pretty close to the perfect thin crust pizza. For a delivered pizza, it was particularly outstanding (I can’t wait to try one fresh out of the oven). It is going to be hard to continue with our research, without comparing every subsequent pizza to Villa Nova’s. Part of me, says, “Why bother?” We probably already found the best pizza in the area. It is hard to imagine there is better to be had, so why risk disappointment? Then again, we did say it was “pretty close" to the perfect thin-crust pizza, which means that the perfect pizza is still out there somewhere, waiting to be discovered. The chances are good that it is hiding somewhere between Roosevelt Road and Archer Avenue, in the part of the land where they seem to really love their pizza. That's 2 down, 72 more to go.
BTW: Villa Nova sells 35 cent cups of coffee and 51 cent soda pops (perhaps to commemorate their 51 years in business). When is the last time you saw that?
Villa Nova Pizzeria
6821 Pershing Rd
Stickney, IL 60402
Michael Anthony's Restaurant & Bar Incorporated
6434 Ogden Ave
Berwyn, IL 60402
Salerno's Pizza on Grove
3250 Grove Ave
Berwyn, IL 60402
Route 66 Beverage
6847 Ogden Ave
Berwyn, IL 60402