Serious Eats: Chicago
Chicago: Nancy's, the Creator of Stuffed Pizza, Still Putting Out Good Pies
2930 N. Broadway, Chicago IL 60657 (map); 773-883-1977; nancyspizza.com
Getting There: #36 Broadway bus to Wellington and Broadway; or Brown Line to Wellington and walk east half a mile
Pizza Style: Stuffed and thin-crust
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny: The place that created stuffed pizza still puts out a fine pie
Price: Medium with one topping, $19.51
In 1969, Rocco Palese and his family moved to Chicago from Turin, Italy, and dove into the pizza business less than two years after their arrival, starting with Guy's Pizzeria, where thin-crust pies were the specialty. The story goes that friends encouraged him to expand his repertoire to include the deep dish pizzas that had gained popularity in his adopted hometown. Instead, Palese opted to come up with something new. Purportedly based on his mother's scarciedda, an Easter pie filled with ricotta, an egg, and other goodies, Palese unleashed a pizza that took Chicago by storm.
Not content to settle with just one pizzeria, the Paleses opened additional Italian restaurants, including Nancy's Pizza in 1974 in Harwood Heights, a suburb adjacent to Chicago's northwest side. A year later, Chicago Magazine declared Nancy's to have the best pizza in Chicago. In 1977, Palese sold the original Nancy's to the Cirrincione family and then opened a second location on Central Avenue in Chicago. Two years later, the Paleses sold the second Nancy's to the Cirrincione family and then opened a third location in Des Plaines and a fourth location in Lakeview in Chicago.
That's when things started to get hairy, starting with a dispute over territory divisions for future Nancy's locations and ending with some serious arson.
According to the decision denying the appeal of the conviction of two members of the Cirrincione family, they were behind a large fire at the third location in 1981. And after that location was rebuilt, they decided to bomb that location and then, a week later, burn down the Lakeview location. Around the same time, the Paleses sued the Cirrinciones for, among other things, changing the stuffed pizza recipe without permission.
Nearly 30 years later, things have settled down. The Cirrinciones have paid their debt to society and the family still owns pizzerias at the first two Nancy's locations, although today they are both called Suparossa. The Paleses sold the chain they built to Dave Howey, a longtime franchisee. Under Howey's leadership, Nancy's has grown to over 40 locations, mostly in Illinois but with three in Indiana and two in Atlanta. Many of those locations share space with another Chicago legend, Al's Beef. Howey bought the rights to that company's franchises in 1999.
When I was a junior pizza eater, in my mind stuffed pizza was the only real pizza. There was no deep dish in my neighborhood and I found the pan pizza and thin crust to be a poor imitation of the real stuff. Obviously my tastes in and knowledge of pizza have expanded considerably since then, but there's no denying the satisfaction I get every time I revisit the cheesy, tangy, buttery concoction that is stuffed pizza.
Not counting the outer crust, which adds an extra half-inch of height, my Nancy's pizza stood just over an inch and a quarter tall. The structure consists of a bottom crust, a lot of cheese with toppings mixed inside, a paper-thin top crust, and then a thick sauce.
The sauce at Nancy's is among the most heavily-seasoned pizza sauces I've had, featuring a heavy hand of various traditional seasonings along with a noticeable dose of sugar. The strength of the seasoning was further highlighted by the relative lack of moisture in the sauce. To call the sauce pasty would definitely be too harsh, but it did not have the nice moisture evident in sauces at Giordano's (reviewed here) and Bacino's (reviewed here).
The sauce would have completely overwhelmed most pizzas, but thanks to the amount of cheese on this pie, something close to balance was preserved. The gooey mountain of cheese warmed my heart and the ample supply of good, fennel-rich sausage shined through in every bite. The end crust was flaky internally with a firm chewy exterior that tasted like it had a nice amount of butter in it, making the last bites of each slice particularly good.
Nancy's is not my favorite stuffed pizza, but as the apparent originator of the style, it's definitely worth a visit. I've never been to any of the more distant outposts, but stuffed pizza is a fairly easily replicable creation so I'd imagine the variance in quality is somewhat small, particularly since Nancy's claims to keep tight reins on its franchisees, all of whom buy their ingredients from a central distribution center. Whether the current Nancy's is true to the original is a question I cannot answer, but hopefully some readers out there can chime in. And while on the topic of reader contributions, if anyone knows of a place in Chicago where I can get a scarciedda this Easter, please let me know. I called around last year and had no luck, something that was particularly painful after reading that New Yorkers had access to a scarciedda-selling truck.