Freddy's Pizza & Gelateria: A Cicero Tradition Worth Celebrating
Serious Eats contributor Daniel Zemans 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.
Freddy's Pizza & Gelateria
1600 South 61st Avenue, Cicero IL 60804 (map); 708-863-9289
Getting There: Blue Line to Austin, walk nearly 1 mile south to corner of Austin Blvd. and 16th Street; or drive
Pizza Style: Italian bakery (Sicilian), Margherita, thin crust
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny: Great pizza, even better non-pizza food options, and even better service
Notes: Mon.–Sat., 10 a.m.–7 p.m.; extensive catering options available; cash only
Most people who have heard of Cicero, Illinois, know it for one of three things, all negative. First, it is the place where Al Capone moved to escape the pesky Chicago authorities trying to stop the man from making a living. Second, when Martin Luther King led a fair-housing campaign in the Chicago area in 1966, the residents of Cicero, nearly all of whom were white, were so violently opposed to integration that King assented to the wishes of Mayor Richard J. Daley and various civic leaders and opted to avoid Cicero. Third, Cicero has a history of corruption that makes Chicago politics seem pure, most recently highlighted by the imprisonment of Cicero Mayor Betty Loren Maltese.
Today, Cicero is, in some ways an altogether different place. It is no longer a safe haven for the mob, and, thanks to a huge influx of Mexican-Americans, it is a racially diverse town. Of course, not everything has changed: Current Cicero Mayor Larry Dominick is being accused of sexual harassment by multiple women, has given plum jobs to campaign donors, and has been accused of a variety of unsavory political acts. On the bright side, another part of Cicero that has been consistent for 41 years is that Freddy's Pizza & Gelateria continues to serve up a variety of excellent Italian foods, including three types of pizza.
Since its founding, Freddy's has been serving up what most people know as Sicilian pizza. The current owner, Giuseppe Quercia, moved to Cicero from Naples with his family when he was 13. While wandering around the neighborhood as a teenager who didn't speak English, he came across Freddy's and went in after seeing some Italian writing on a sign. Giuseppe asked the owner for a job but was initially refused because he could not speak English. After some discussion, he convinced the owner to hire him and he worked for $20 per week. In 1971, Freddy's moved to its current location and two years later, Guiseppe bought the place and now runs it with his wife, Ann Marie.
In addition to being a pizzeria, gelateria, restaurant, and Italian grocery store, Freddy's is also a bakery, so I was not surprised to learn that these guys knew hot to make a good crust. The inch-think crust on the bakery-style pizza (often referred to as Sicilian) was like the inside of a fresh-baked Italian loaf of bread. There was no crispness on the bottom, but it was still very good. The nice layer of fresh mozzarella was delicious, but it was outshined by the lightly sweet, extremely flavorful tomato sauce. The fried eggplant topping was a new one for me and it was good as far as fried eggplant goes, but not my favorite pizza topping, though I definitely appreciated the added salt.
In addition to the traditional rectangular square of Sicilian pizza, I also tried a slice of the sausage pizza. The crust was identical to the Sicilian slice, but the pie was cooked in a circular pan rather than a rectangular one. Obviously, that makes no difference to the taste or texture, it was just a different experience having a triangular slice of Sicilian pizza. The sauce and cheese were also identical. The mild sausage, which is one of two types of sausage made in-house, was very good, if a bit mild for my tastes.
Within the past couple of years, Giuseppe and Ann Marie expanded their pizza repertoire to include an outstanding Pizza Margherita that has an impressive amount of char despite being made in the same brick-bottom gas oven that all of their other pizzas and baked goods are made in. The Magherita included their regular mozzarella as well as their homemade fior di latte. The sauce was the same as on the other pieces and was still excellent, and the fresh basil added some nice flavor, as fresh basil always does. In addition to the Margherita and the Sicilian pies, Freddy's also makes regular thin crust pizzas, but typically only for special orders rather than by the slice in the store.
While the pizza at Freddy's is really good, it is not the best thing on the menu. In fact, I cannot definitively say what the best dish is that Freddy's serves because they offer such a wide variety of products that it would take dozens of trips to try them all. What I can report is that everything that I ate was good, starting with my favorite part of my visit, the panuozzo. According to this this Google-translated Italian Wikipedia page, panuozzo is a traditional dish in Gragnano, a town next to Naples.
Freddy's panuozzo is stuffed with sauce, ricotta, mozzarella, sausage and a generous serving of their excellent sauce. The crust is soft and chewy, but has a great charred outer edge. In terms of texture and flavor, this was an exceptional dish, and it alone is well worth a trip out to Cicero to try.
As is the case with any self-respecting Italian deli/bakery, Freddy's puts together a wide array of sandwiches. I opted for their Italian sub, which had mortadella, capricolla, salami and provolone, all topped with a very generous supply of tangy and spicy giardiniera, which was particularly unique thanks to the inclusion of olives. The bread was a standard fresh Italian loaf. Well, standard in a world where bread has great flavor, a perfectly tough and chewy crust along with a billowy inside. The bread for my sub came from the excellent Turano Bakery in Berwyn. Freddy's also offers sandwiches on their own bread, but I wasn't smart enough to ask for it. As good as the sub was, I would recommend splitting it with at least one other person. Otherwise, eating much more of Freddy's offerings would be a challenge.
The Supplí al Telefono (the two pictures on the left above) consists of a thin layer of bread crumbs around a layer of Arborio rice, which is filled with an explosion of mozzarella, ricotta, parmesan, and spinach. All of that is then lightly fried, creating what I will crassly describe as an incredible mozzarella stick. Similar in construction to the Supplí al Telefono was the potato croquette, which consisted of what was basically really good mashed potatoes, filled with fresh mozzarella and then fried. So simple, yet so good.
The final item in the fried circular-shaped trifecta was the arancini. Like the Supplí al Telefono, the arancini uses a risotto like concoction made of Arborio rice. But instead of a cheese filling, the arancini is stuffed with well-seasoned ground chuck, peas, tomato sauce and a little parmesan. The arancini had really good flavor, but with so much else to eat, I did not want to get caught up eating such a rice-heavy appetizer.
Even though I was well past full at the end of my meal, there was no way I was going to pass up homemade gelato. Normally, I avoid fruit-flavored gelatos for the simple reason that I like the various chocolate and nut flavors better. But after trying a sample of the lemon gelato, I could not pass it up. Since I was allowed two flavors in my small cup, I opted to have some hazelnut as well. While those are not two flavors that go together particularly well, I ate fast enough that there was almost no mingling. The tart lemon was incredibly refreshing after a heavy meal. As is often the case with fruit gelatos, it was not particularly creamy, but even with that textural flaw, the lemon was definitely worth eating. The hazelnut did not suffer from a lack of creaminess at all; and it was outstanding. Freddy's does not have the best gelato in Chicago (Caffé Gelato wins that crown), but it's definitely in the discussion and it would be silly for anyone to visit Freddy's and not get some.
I don't make it anywhere near Cicero all that often, so this was my first visit to Freddy's. I had high expectations going in and it definitely lived up to everything I'd heard about it. And while I expected the great food, I was not ready for the exceptional service. The place was packed, but the service could not have been better if I was the only person in the store. Multiple people working there went out of their way to help me out during my indecisive ordering process. Of course, that meant that I ended up with more food than is healthy to eat, but I don't regret one bite.