Vito & Nick's Pizzeria
8433 South Pulaski Road, Chicago IL 60652 (map); 773-735-2050; vitoandnick.com
The Skinny: Very thin, crackerlike crust "bar pizza" cut into squares. Sparse sauce but plenty of toppings
It is a common misconception that Chicago-style pizza is limited to deep dish and stuffed pies. There are even many residents of Chicago who don't realize that their city has its own distinctive style of thin crust pies—a very thin pie with a crisp, almost crackerlike crust that is cut into small squares. At the same time, there are plenty of Chicagoans who think of that thin-crust style to be the true Chicago-style pizza. Personally, I don't care which one people think of as "the" Chicago style, I'm just glad I live in a city that has all three.
For your introduction to Chicago's distinctive thin-crust pizza, I went to a place few tourists ever venture other than to see the Museum of Science and Industry or the University of Chicago: the South Side. Specifically, I went to the Ashburn neighborhood, located on the Southwest side. About three miles south of Midway Airport and one mile east, Vito & Nick's stands on the corner of 84th and Pulaski.
Vito and Mary Barraco opened their first tavern in 1923. Another location opened a few years later, and in 1939, they started selling some Italian food. In 1945, their son Nick joined the family business, and four years later Mary began making pizzas with a dough recipe that remains a secret to this day. In fact, even the guys who make the pizza do not know how to make the dough. Nick's daughter comes in and makes the dough a few times a week, and the cooks do everything else. Also keeping the family tradition strong is Nick's sister Lee, who is a couple years shy of 90 and works as a waitress every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night.
People do not go to Vito and Nick's for the décor. Most of the walls are covered in carpet rather than wallpaper or paint and the tables are formica. Little has changed about the place over the years. In fact, despite the popularity of its pizzas among Chicagoans and, increasingly, foodies from all over, it remains a bar that serves pizza and not a pizza restaurant, and people under 21 are still not allowed unless accompanied by a parent.
And just as the décor and outstanding pizza remain throwbacks, I would be remiss in not reporting that from what I can tell, the demographics of the clientele have not changed much even as the neighborhood has transitioned in recent years from being largely an Irish enclave into a racially diverse neighborhood. I point that out not to suggest anything sinister, but rather to give you a feel for the place—Vito and Nick's is a white, largely Irish neighborhood tavern that has been around for nearly a century, and serves some of the best pizza in the world.
Regardless, I wasn't there to look at the décor or even the people; I was there to give my taste buds a treat. The crust, which I introduced earlier, is very thin. It is thicker than a Neapolitan pizza, but thinner or as thin as traditional New York–style pizza. Traditionally, it was served in bars, as is the case at Vito & Nick's, and some people still call it bar pizza. The pizza is cut into pieces that are about 2 or 3 square inches, a size that will surely please those of you who inaccurately criticize deep dish and stuffed pizzas as requiring a knife and fork.
That said, this pizza is, in the Chicago tradition, designed for communal enjoyment at the restaurant: It is not sold by the slice and Vito & Nick's refuses to deliver.
The sauce on the pies is much more sparse than on the other two Chicago styles. The amount of toppings, however, is very much in line with deep dish and stuffed pizzas: there is a lot. Still, despite all the cheese and toppings and the limited amount of sauce, you are able to taste the sauce and that is a very good thing. On tonight's pizza, I got two uniquely Chicago toppings. First, I had what they list on the menu as sliced beef, but is actually a version of Italian beef. For those who don't know, Italian beef is a thinly sliced, heavily seasoned roast beef that soaks in its own juices for a long time before it is served. As a pizza topping, I think they skipped the soaking part, which is a good thing as soggy pizza is not good pizza.
The second topping we had was giardiniera. Note that Chicago-style giardiniera differs from the traditional Italian antipasto. In the Chicago version, the vegetables always include some variety of hot pepper, and vegetables marinate in oil, rather than pickling in vinegar. Giardiniera is a common topping for Italian beef so it was a natural fit for my pizza.
As is always the case when I've gone to Vito and Nick's, the pizza was exceptional. The crust was perfect, the toppings were fresh, and the sauce served as a perfect complement to both. I particularly enjoyed my chosen toppings (the first time I have tried those two together), but I've never had bad toppings there. They only use fresh vegetables, they make their own sausage, and even the shrimp are good.
There is another small chain of restaurants called Vito & Nick's II that has a handful of locations in the Chicago area and a couple of places in Arizona. But while Vito and Nick's II emphasizes its ties to the original, Vito & Nick's states in block letters on its website, NOT AFFILIATED OR ASSOCIATED WITH VITO AND NICKS II IN MOKENA IL OR ANY LICENSEE OR FRANCHISEE. It seems likely that some family squabble got overblown and that there is some bad blood. Perhaps not at Manganaro's level, but there's still something amiss.
Those of you who are in Chicago who have never been to Vito & Nick's, head there ASAP and fall in love. Those of you who aren't from Chicago, there are plenty of good reasons to visit; Vito & Nick's is one of them.