Daniel Zemans, our man in Chicago, checks in with another piece of intel on the Windy City pizza scene. Daniel also blogs about Chicagoland pizza with his friends on the Chicago Pizza Club blog. --The Mgmt.
Do you remember when the Chicago Bulls had a 1.7 percent chance of getting the first pick in the NBA Lottery and won? Sure you do--it was only a little over a month ago. And surely you remember when the Bulls drafted Derrick Rose last week while the Knicks took some dude from Italy. I don't know what Danilo Gallinari knows about pizza or whether he is the next Frederic Weis, but I do know that Derrick Rose is going to be a star and that he is a pizza connoisseur. The point guard of the future's favorite pizza is Home Run Inn, an institution on the southwest side of Chicago.
Home Run Inn opened as a bar in 1923. According to restaurant lore, the place got its name after a ball from a neighborhood baseball game flew through the front window (which was not open). For the next 24 years, the family-owned bar established itself as a neighborhood fixture, with Vincent Grittani serving the drinks and his wife Mary cooking up midday meals. In 1942, Nick Perrino married Loretta, the Grittani's daughter. In 1945, he returned from World War II and Vincent Grittani died. Two years later, Perrino and his mother-in-law decided to start giving away Mary's pizza for free in an effort to boost business. Needless to say, the idea worked. Today, the business, which is still family owned and run by Nick's son Joe, has eight locations and a booming frozen pizza business, all of which serve up pizzas made according to the family recipe introduced to the world in 1947.
Thanks to two expansions of the original location, Home Run Inn can accommodate as many as 600 diners, which includes a banquet area. The main part of the restaurant features a full bar, Cubs and White Sox pennants, a variety of beer signs, Tiffany-style lights, and red brick walls. Even though the place holds a lot of pizza and usually has a decent crowd, the tables are far enough apart and the ceilings are high enough that I did not feel cramped at all.
Like traditional Chicago bar pizza, the pies at Home Run Inn are cut into squares. Unlike the typical bar pizza, the crust at Home Run Inn is neither crisp not particularly thin. In fact, the thickness will seem normal to those who are more familiar with New York pizza. But in typical Chicago pizza tradition, these pies are loaded with cheese and delicious toppings, leaving diners with a pizza that's about ¾ of an inch thick. The crust, while not crisp, is sufficiently sturdy to hold those toppings with ease.
Unlike most places, which serve pizzas in the pans in/on which they were cooked, Home Run Inn serves its pies on plastic trays that have a bed of small spokes on the bottom, which allows for any grease to drain off the pizzas. It's a nice touch, but rather unnecessary as these are not greasy pizzas.
I tried two different pizzas on this visit, both of which are among the Specialty Pizzas offered on the menu. First up was Laura's Favorite. I don't know who Laura is, but she has outstanding taste in pizza. Her signature pie comes with fresh spinach and crushed plum tomatoes. In a bit of a twist from traditional Chicago thin crust, the crushed tomatoes are actually on top of the cheese. At first this seemed odd, but then I thought that it was an ingenious way to make sure diners would taste the sweet tomatoes separately from the delicious, slightly acidic sauce. Laura's Favorite comes on an outstanding garlic butter crust. That crust is available on all pizzas for an extra $1.50 and I highly recommend getting it no matter what pie you may order.
The second pizza I tried was Chicago's Best. If you're going to name a pizza after Chicago, it ought to have meat. And this one has three kinds - sausage, pepperoni, and smoked bacon. While the smoked bacon slightly overpowered the other two meats, there was enough sausage and pepperoni to ensure all parts of the pig could not be ignored. Like the tomatoes on Laura's Favorite, the meats were served on top of the cheese. Apparently I gave them too much credit for separating the tomatoes from the sauce on Laura's Favorite. While toppings on top of cheese might make sense to New Yorkers, it is not the Chicago way. Still, despite the flaw in construction, the Chicago's Best was a very good pizza. If I get it again, however, I will upgrade to the garlic butter crust.
For those of you not planning a trip to Home Run Inn in the immediate future, you can give their frozen pies a shot. I have never had one so I can't vouch for them, but Home Run Inn has sold frozen pizzas since the 1950s when a bartender too a dozen pies to a corner grocery store. Today, they are the most popular frozen pizza in Chicago and this city is thebiggest frozen pizza market in the country. Home Run Inn claims that their frozen pies differ from their fresh pizzas only in that they are flash frozen instead of cooked.
One notable difference between Home Run Inn's frozen pizza line and the restaurants is that they sell deep dish frozen pizzas, but limit their restaurant sales to the original thin style they've been selling since 1947.