Serious Eats Chicago contributor Daniel Zemans checks in with another piece of intel on the Windy City pizza scene. —The Mgmt.
15601 South Harlem Avenue, Orland Park IL 60462 (map); 708-532-2220; traversospizza.com
Getting There: Drive
Pizza Style: Tavern
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny: Classic Chicago thin crust with great homemade sausage is a good neighborhood spot but not worth a long trip
Price: 12-inch pies, 2 toppings, $18
In 1962, John Traverso, a high school teacher, and his brother George, an engineer, bought a bar near their homes on Chicago's southeast side. The bar served pizza and sandwiches to go along with the booze. Apparently, they found the food more profitable than the beer because when they opted to open a second place in 1965, they went with The Pizza House in Mt. Greenwood, a carryout and delivery pizzeria. In 1974, the brothers sold their businesses and opened Traverso's in Orland Park, where it's been a popular local institution ever since.
With the new restaurant, John and George offered a wider selection of food than in any of their previous ventures, and they relied heavily on their Italian-born mother for help in the kitchen. Lena Traverso, from the northern Italian town of Cesuna, is noted on the website for cooking a variety of popular items, but she is not credited with the pizza, which strikes me as more Chicagoan than Italian.
I opted for a giardiniera and sausage pizza, a combination I've been loving more and more lately. I was happy with the pizza, but it didn't blow me away. That's not to say the pizza was bad at all. In fact, for people who have never had a classic Chicago thin crust pizza, I imagine Traverso's would seem pretty excellent. The pizzas have decent quality toppings and sauce and very good flavor. But in area fortunate to have far more than it's fair share of excellent tavern cut pies, this place does not stand out.
For me, the thing that tends to make this type of pizzeria is the homemade sausage. I'm actually surprised when I find that a tavern/pizzeria in the Chicago area does not make its own sausage. Traverso's was no exception to the rule and the house-made sausage was very good, if a little light on the fennel for my tastes. The thick layer of cheese was good mozzarella that was highlighted by some nice crispness around the edges of the outer crust that gave some bites really good crisp, chewy texture.
The parts of the crust not blessed with crisp cheese were a little chewy for me. It's rare for a tavern pizza to have a great crust, so I was completely unfazed by the little tug required to separate each bite. The only real problem I had with the pizza was the sauce was a little too sweet for me. In Traverso's defense, southsiders seem to love sugar in their pizza sauce. This sauce is not as sweet as the one at Aurelio's (reviewed here), and the spicy giardiniera did a good job balancing the sweetness.
After being open for only a year, Traverso's expanded from 100 seats to 300 and 35 years later, the place is still filling them up. The location I went to is still owned by George and John Traverso and even has the same manager from the day they opened their doors. George's sons, Mike and Paul, carry on the family tradition in Naperville where they opened the second Traverso's in 1993. If either location were not such a trek from my place, I'd be happy to go back. But with so many options much closer to home, I suspect my first visit to Traverso's will be my last.