Sausage-Pepper Pizza from Table, Donkey & Stick (photo: @tabledonkeystick)
For the past couple of days, I’ve been talking about how the squares (and rectangles) have descended upon Chicago like a CTA station’s beautification project: they occur ever-so-slowly, until one day, you look up and realize how much better things have become. For local pizza lovers, the waves of Detroit, Roman and Grandma style have taken months, if not years, to become fully formed. But when it comes to Sicilian style, local progress has been a lot more sudden, due in part to restaurants being forced to pivot during the pandemic.
(*indicates if pizzeria was, or currently is on the itinerary for one the Pizza City USA tours I oversee).
For sheer pizza eating pleasure, it’s hard to beat a proper Sicilian slice. New York ex-pats who’ve moved to the Midwest might lament the absence of classic slice shops, but many will admit they miss the squares as much as the triangular, foldable wedges. I’ve tried about 70 pizzerias in and around New York City over the past three years, and favorites include Mama’s TOO! on the Upper West Side, L’Industrie in Williamsburg and Philomena’s in Queens. I can name my favorite Chicago Siclians on one hand. A year ago, there would have been maybe one worth mentioning.
Once the dough is mixed, it is often left to rest, rise and ferment in the pan for at least a day or two (although I’ve been hearing about three to five-day rests with a pit-stop in the freezer to absorb excess moisture, but that’s a little too inside baseball for most).
The square/rectangular slice has been elusive in Chicago, a city with at least 10 unique styles to brag about. In my book, Pizza City USA, I go into more detail about each of them, but suffice it to say we are a city bathed and marinated in the three predominant styles I mentioned in Part 1 of this series.
Before there was Prince Street Pizza in New York City’s West Village, capturing people’s attention with their cup-and-char pepperonis on Instagram, there were plenty of shops in Chicago selling rectangular slices, albeit not as memorable as the crispy-meets-spongy Sicilians on the East Coast. While there is no official pizza taxonomy, the best I could come up with in technical terms would be a Sheet Pan Bakery-style slice, and it’s done the trick for generations of Chicagoans.
For the last 70 years, D’Amato’s (1124 W. Grand Ave.) has been baking both breads and pizzas with its gargantuan coal-fired oven (itself, a relic from 1912). Known for their rectangular, bakery-style slices, topped with all manner of fennel-laced sausage or artichoke and olive, they tend to be softer underneath, with a spongy texture. The same is true at Sicilia Bakery (5939 W. Lawrence Ave.) on the Northwest Side – not to be confused with Sicilian Bakery (4632 N. Cumberland Ave.), both of which are old school joints selling sturdy slices always good for a last-minute re-heat and a quick lunch. Pompei (1531 W. Taylor St.) in Little Italy does an admirable job, producing a thin, crispy undercarriage flecked with cornmeal, but the middle and undercarriage is where many of these old guards struggle. None have the hallmarks of a classic East Coast Sicilian: the focaccia-esque interior contrasted against a crispy, sturdy skirt, riddled with tiny craters, the result of an oiled (or Crisco-rubbed) pan and an overnight (or much more) ferment.
Anthony Scardino (“Professor Pizza” whom I featured in yesterday’s Part 2 on Grandma style) says since many bakeries rely on aluminum sheet pans, even after years of baking, while the pans may become coated in a scorched black layer, resembling a steel pan, they are still just made of aluminum, and cannot produce that crispy undercarriage no matter how much oil is spread out first. As legendary pizza maker John Arena told me last year, after I took a generous bite of his gorgeous five-day Sicilian at Metro Pizza in Las Vegas, the result of decades of R & D from his early days in New York, a great Sicilian should “look like a brick, but eat like a feather.” In Elmwood Park, even gelato stalwart Massa Café Italiano (7434 W. North Ave.) is getting into the game, now selling frozen Sicilian pizzas in four flavors. Just heat in a 425 oven for about 20 minutes, preferably on a pre-heated pizza stone, and you’ve got a thick, crispy-edged pie with a typical crater-riddled undercarriage.
A couple of years ago, *Nonna’s (925 W. Randolph) started making a spicy Sicilian when Chef Todd Stein was running things. Now that David Schwartz has taken over, he’s tweaked the recipe a bit, still using Greco pepperoni and Grande mozzarella, but now he’s making a homemade sauce with more punch, acidity and bite than the previous iteration. Pleasantly chewy, it has a respectable undercarriage, though still not what you’d find on the East Coast.
One of the best Old School Sicilian options is made each day at Freddy’s Pizza (1600 S. 61st Ave., Cicero), where Joe Quercia not only makes the region’s best gelato, he also crafts several styles of pizza. His Sicilian could feed a small Italian army, with its thick crust and sturdy undercarriage, but it’s more Midwest than East Coast, as it lacks the contrast of soft interior-to-crispy skirt from places like L & B Spumoni Gardens in Brooklyn. It’s filling, for sure, but I’m looking for more nuance in my slices.
When it comes to pizzerias with a house style, Sicilian just hasn’t caught on here yet. But four new options are challenging that assessment, and creating craveable slices as good as anything in New York City.
Table, Donkey & Stick
David Kirmse insists his pizza is Roman. Or maybe Northern Italian. It’s definitely not Sicilian. Or is it?
“For six months I trained in Southeast France, near the Alps,” Kirmse, the Chef at Logan Square’s Table, Donkey & Stick (2728 W. Armitage) told me. “I made trips to Italy; in Turino I had a pizza like this. It’s like Roman,” he said.
I respectfully disagree. But I’m happy to explain my reasoning here.
By chance, when Kirmse started working at the restaurant, there was a cook who was making pizzas for family meal. Once the pandemic hit, they needed an outlet to start a delivery program and it seemed like pizza would be a perfect fit. But they took what they already knew – charcuterie production, dough fermentation, sourcing local produce – and poured all of that knowledge into their new pizza style.
“It’s a style that I liked growing up. Typically, you go to a slice joint to get a regular slice, but there were a few places in my town [in New York] that did a really good Sicilian slice and I was always kind of intrigued to have here,” said Matthew Sussman, the restaurant’s owner. Sussman had to pivot during the pandemic, since his tiny restaurant could no longer host guests. So he and Kirmse began experimenting with pizzas baked in large, rectangular sheet pans, mainly for pickup. Their crusts are thick and somewhat bulky, with golden undercarriages as crispy as chicharrones.
“We always check the bottom to make sure it’s dark golden brown,” said Kirmse. “When the pizzas are served here [on the patio], we take it a step further, lift the pizza up, put a wire rack under it, then bake it in a convection oven to seal in the oil and make sure it’s extra crispy.”
Kirmse admits his version is Americanized, in that it leans heavier on the toppings. The dough is a blend of two King Arthur lines: the high-gluten and Sir Galahad, plus a local whole wheat flour. They portion dough into smaller containers, ferment it overnight at room temperature, then the next day will turn it out into the pans, which are lightly coated in oil and Crisco. The entire process takes about 16 to 18 hours, which would indicate to me, at least, that these lean more Sicilian/Grandma than Roman (as we pointed out in Part 2, fermentation times range from 36 to 72 hours at Bonci, up to 96 hours at Bar Cargo). Classifying this Midwest Artisan-Italian-American-East Coast-influenced pie is more about semantics than any kind of scientific category classification, and I don’t want to insult anyone here. The pizzas are baked in shallow, rectangular pans, and they’re delicious. End of story.
They offer four options: one with a housemade ‘nduja – basically pork lardo with fermented peppers (and it’s noteworthy that unlike most local pizzerias who buy ‘nduja from the well-respected Tempesta Artisan Salumi, they go to the trouble of making their own); they also make a sausage with fennel and lavender, a basic cheese finished with Parmigiano-Reggiano and a veggie with a Mediterranean accent, employing olives, artichokes and local honey, with a note of fermented garlic.
The hefty pies are only available whole (18” x 12”) or half (9” x 12”), but they re-heat wonderfully on a sheet tray at 350 degrees. Pizzas are available everyday (they’re closed Mondays) on the patio, for delivery or pickup.
Should you care if this is a Roman or a Sicilian? Do you need to specify which style you’re ordering? Of course not. This is a square (technically a rectangle) worth celebrating.
Table, Donkey & Stick
2728 W. Armitage Ave.
Pizza Fried Chicken Ice Cream
Two summers ago, someone tagged me on Instagram, sharing the news that a group of friends in Ukrainian Village were not only busy making pizzas every day, but were giving them away each night, for free. You simply had to follow @eatfreepizza, then send them a direct message as soon as they posted the announcement. The pizzas were claimed, within seconds, first-come, first-served. And if you think these freebies were some sort of amateur hour attempt at building an Instagram audience at the expense of some great pizza, you’d only be half-right. They certainly built a following, but the pizzas were far from amateur.
Childhood friends Brad Shorten and Billy Federighi (along with Billy’s fiancé, Cecily Rodriguez, a model by day who masterfully handles all of the social media) were producing impressive, artisan pies, reminiscent of the creative approaches at Pizzeria Bebu and Robert’s Pizza & Dough Co., with crispy edges and chewy interiors (the result of high dough hydration and long fermentation) employing toppings of the highest quality, sourced from as many local artisans and farms as possible. Those lucky enough to score one would usually join the founders on their front stoop, cracking open a beer, courtesy of a friendly sponsor, summarily devouring the pie before heading home (or walking to Black Dog down the street for a gelato).
I was fortunate enough to see (and taste) what they did from Shorten’s tiny apartment kitchen – and have been a fan ever since. But more recently, the trio struck up a partnership with Ed Marszewski (Marz Community Brewing, Maria’s Packaged Goods & Bar, Kimski), taking over the former Pleasant House Bakery space in Bridgeport on 31st Street, turning it into Pizza Fried Chicken Ice Cream. The ice cream comes from Logan Square’s Pretty Cool while the fried bird is a result of chef Won Kim’s work next door at Kimski. The pizza, however, is a complete departure from the circular pies in the eatfreepizza days.
“We were like, let’s beta test this Sicilian pan we’ve been working on. We used to make it as our family pie that we’d eat every night on our own,” said Rodriguez.
Forced to rethink their round, artisan pizzas for an event at The Hoxton Hotel, where they wouldn’t have a proper oven and people would have to stand with a drink in one hand and a slice in the other, they began tweaking their Sicilian. Inspired by trips to New York City, where Rodriguez has worked as a model and Federighi has as a TV Director (both of their day jobs are on hold during the pandemic) they ate a lot of pizza. Highlights included the charred squares at Mama’s TOO! (their initial inspiration) and Prince Street Pizza. Unlike nearly every pizza place in the city that’s not doing Detroit-style, however, they’re opting to use Brick cheese – favored by Motor City adherents – rather than mozzarella, hand-shredding it themselves. The resulting slices are downright majestic – baked in large rectangular pans using either fresh vegetables or carefully sourced meats – baked on a stone deck oven until they emerge crispy-edged and topped with freshly-snipped basil, just like they do at DiFara in Midwood, Brooklyn.
“It’s designed to be a square slice to go, kind of like a New York square slice place,” said Rodriguez.
The shop now offers slices to-go; just swing by during regular business hours and order at the window. If you want to order a full pie, you’ll need to place the order ahead of time.
“I don’t know why it never took off here. I guess Chicago isn’t really a slice city in general. But I think that introducing this to the city will be a nice change of pace for the pizza world,” Rodriguez told me from behind her surgical mask.
To learn more, you can hear their full story on this week’s “Pizza City” podcast, running Friday.
Pizza Fried Chicken Ice Cream
Thurs – Sat., 5 – 9 p.m.
960 W. 31st St.
Order whole pies ahead via website or Instagram @pizzachickenicecream
Pre-pandemic, Ludlow Liquors (2959 N. Kedzie Ave.) was a truly great neighborhood bar in Avondale, just a few blocks north of the Kennedy Expressway, where you could stop by for a hand-crafted cocktail, a shot or even a tasty, inexpensive bite to eat. Mickey Neely – formerly of Bungalow by Middle Brow (2840 W. Armitage Ave.), another stellar option for a circular artisan pie now selling do-at-home pizza kits – has been tweaking his Sicilian pies for the last six months. I did a story on him last December for ABC 7 when Neely would present them only on Monday nights.
“The oven we have necessitates doing a Sicilian-style. It’s lower heat, longer bake, bigger rise in the dough,” Neely told me then. “I want that bottom layer to be crispy, crunchy, fried.”
During the pandemic, they’ve shifted to a weekly model with pizzas available for pickup Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays only, usually indicated on their Instagram feed (although you order via Tock). He typically offers four flavors: cheese, pepperoni, a vegan option, plus a wild card, where he gets a bit more creative. You can only purchase whole 9” x 13” pies, rather than slices. The highlight is that undercarriage, which has a much crispier texture than any Sicilian in town. Some spots are as crunchy as peanut brittle; certainly a world of difference from the softer, bakery-style slices you find on the Northwest Side and on Taylor Street
“It’s ultimately baked three times: it’s par-baked once, then topped, baked again, comes out, cut, baked a third time before the guest eats it,” Neely said.
His crispy Sicilians are available for pre-order only via tock, pickups only, Friday to Sunday 5 – 8 p.m.
Friday, Saturday, Sunday only, 5 – 9 p.m.
2959 N. Kedzie Ave.
Pizza Friendly Pizza
The latest Sicilian to hit our deep and cracker-thin loaded shores comes as a result of a collaboration between a Michelin-starred chef and a local hospitality group – both of whom were forced to make a pivot during the pandemic.
As Executive Chef of Oriole, Noah Sandoval garnered two Michelin stars last year. He’s also a partner with Julia Momose at Kumiko/Kikko down the street, so his typical workday involves meticulous prepping of luxe ingredients such as ossetra caviar or King Crab while donning chef’s whites during service. The restaurant is on indefinite hiatus, however, and their website optimistically hopes for a reboot, but there’s nothing definite. The chef has had a lot of free time on his hands.
Meanwhile, Bruce Finkelman’s company – 16” On Center – a partner at Oriole and operator of several bars and restaurants in town (Dusek’s, Longman & Eagle, Moneygun) was looking to do something different with Bite, the tightly-packed, nearly 30 year-old café next to the Empty Bottle in Ukrainian Village, which, he acknowledged was “going to have some extreme difficulty to survive” in a post-COVID world. I met Finkelman years ago shooting a story at Longman, and last year, curated a year’s worth of local neighborhood pizzeria pop-ups at Revival Food Hall, which 16” On Center runs, in an effort to promote my book and weekly pizza tours.
The friendly chit-chat and late-night texts between Sandoval and Finkelman progressed pretty rapidly, from a mundane discussion about a band playing at the Bottle on March 7, to a full-on freak out six days later, talking about what they were going to do about their respective businesses with everything on lockdown.
“My initial thought was, let’s open a pizza place,” said Finkelman, who started giving it serious thought at the beginning of May. The follow-up questions from Sandoval struck Finkelman as intuitive. “We pretty much did the whole thing over text message,” he said. “The way that he [Noah] went at this…the thought process of being proud of what he’d want to put out there; it was an amazing conversation.”
For Sandoval, a native of Richmond, Virginia weaned on large, floppy slices, the thought turned immediately to a style he had come to fall in love with later in life – Sicilian.
“We [with wife, Cara] decided that Prince Street [in New York City] was our favorite. It’s so unique. That was going to be it,” he said. “But I didn’t know what I was doing. I made three pizzas for staff meal and figured I would just figure it out. I got to the point where I didn’t want to put out just an average sheet pan pizza,” he said.
Tackling a thick Sicilian, like the ones coming out of the ovens at Prince Street, coated in cup-and-char pepperoni and zesty tomato sauce with a soft chew wasn’t going to be easy, even for a Michelin-starred chef who once earned a coveted star cooking a gluten-free menu at the late, lamented Senza, the equivalent of throwing a one-hit shut-out against the 2016 Cubs.
“I wanted to do the best version I could,” said Sandoval. “I read a lot, bought different pans; it was good, but it wasn’t right.”
Since Sandoval knew I had eaten a lot of Sicilians based on my personal (@stevedolinsky) and professional (@pizzacityusa) Instagram feeds, he sent me a picture out of the blue in June of one of his early efforts. I recognized the pizza may have been baked in a perforated pan or on a screen, due to the fact the skirt of the slice was riddled with evenly-spaced, uniform indentations. Without hesitation, I connected him to John Arena in Las Vegas, a majordomo and Godfather-like figure to dozens of pizza makers across the country.
Sandoval says what started as a 30-minute conversation led to another half hour talk followed by a ton of texts. “I’d send him a side view, and he’d say, ‘looks good.’”
The back-and-forth led to a complete abandonment of his original plan for the pizza. Where Sandoval was planning on a 70% dough hydration, they settled on 62%. The fermentation was initially just 24 hours, but after talking to Arena, who suggested three to five days, they’re resting it for five days, then baking on the sixth. Even the flour had to be completely changed to Caputo Americana, because it has barley malt in it.
To achieve his crispy, craveable undercarriage, Sandoval uses a thin layer of Crisco (although he says he learned traditional bakers used lard, he wanted to be able to offer slices to vegetarians, so that was out). He leaves his 5-day fermented dough in the pan for about 12 hours, then bakes them at 525 degrees for just 10 minutes. They’ll rest an hour, then get a final bake at 500 degrees with toppings for 12 minutes.
The plan at Pizza Friendly Pizza (1039 N. Western Ave. – not to be confused with Friendly Pizza in Uncasville, CT) is to have guests enter through the alley then serve slices, a few sandwiches and salads out through the back window. If you wanted a whole pie, you could certainly order ahead of time. Eventually, once they figure out the kitchen flow, they’ll offer them for sale frozen, which reheat extremely well on a pre-heated stone.
There are socially distanced tables in the renovated patio space – allowing for about 14 seats, but they’ve added a few tables along Cortez along the side of the Empty Bottle for overflow. The inside of the former Bite space is stacked with dough in various stages, a pair of proofing boxes and a ton of tomato sauce.
Right now there are four options: a cup-and-char pepperoni (again, Ezzo, which is ironic, since Sandoval’s inspiration – Prince Street in NYC – uses the Rosa Grande brand) with aged Parmesan and fresh basil, a vegetarian with rapini and chèvre, lemon and garlic (vegan on request), an earthy mushroom with creamy burrata and spicy Calabrian chiles and then one special pie designed by their Chef de Cuisine, Rueben Villalobos. During Week One, it looks like that’s going to be fennel sausage with Rueben’s giardiniera and fennel pollen.
I’ve tasted both the pepperoni and the mushroom, and as delicious as they both are, the experience of eating them is as much textural as anything else. The squares look hefty, but when you lift them, they are as light as an iPhone 4; biting into them – revealing that tight crumb – you experience not only the top-notch ingredients Sandoval has sourced, but the interplay between sweet and heat, crunch and chew, crisp and soft. The undercarriage is textbook: as golden as a McDonald’s french fry, riddled with craters as if you’re looking at the moon through a telescope. It’s the best Sicilian slice in Chicago, full stop.
The new format completely does away with the old café model of people sitting around inside, and through the fall at least, will be strictly on the patio(s) and to-go. But I could easily see picking up a whole pie – frozen or fresh – and reheating it at home.
“Our audience is based on the community and the [Empty] Bottle,” said Finkelman. “We want them to have an experience. We’re a slice shop. We’re not opening the dining room anytime soon.”
Pizza Friendly Pizza opens today.
Pizza Friendly Pizza
1039 N. Western (enter through the alley)
@pizzafriendlypizza on Instagram