"Stefano's uses the secret trick of Chicago stuffed pizza by using quantity as a means of getting to quality."
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.
Stefano's Stuffed Pizza
2124 W. Lawrence, Chicago, IL 60625 (map); 773-271-9696; www.stefanosstuffedpizza.com
Getting There: Brown Line to Damen, walk one block north and about two blocks west
Pizza Style: Stuffed
Oven Type: Gas
The Skinny: This former Giordano's franchise has not lost a step since going out on its own
Price: Medium stuffed pizza with two toppings is $19.45
Over the past few months, I've reviewed a particularly wide variety of styles of pizza. As much as I have enjoyed the exploration, something was missing. And the more I thought about it, the more a craving began to consume me. I wanted--no--I needed a stuffed pizza. It had been almost four months since I had eaten the pizza I grew up with, and I missed it.
And so it was that I ended up at Stefano's, the self-proclaimed "Home of the Stuffed Pizza," which is in Lincoln Square on Chicago's far north side. Stefano's has been around for 22 years, although for the first 18 it was a Giordano's franchise. Four years ago, there was a falling out and the owner of Stefano's went out on his own.
This is the third pizzeria I have reviewed that was created after the owner broke up with Giordano's (reviewed here for Slice), although this split happened with a different owner of Giordano's. As was the case with Edwardo's (reviewed here for Slice), and Bacino's (reviewed here for Slice), the owner of Stefano's used an Italianized version of his own name in naming his pizzeria, although rather than changing the spelling, Stefanos Vaiopoulos merely needed to add an apostrophe to make it work. As for the pizza, Vaiopoulos did not need to change a thing to put out his version of this classic Chicago style because it was already delicious.
As much as I like stuffed pizza, it's actually a challenge to review because there is not a whole lot of variety within the genre, surely due in large part to the intertwined history of many of the purveyors of the stuffed pie. Another sticking point is that there generally are not ingredients worth raving about. This is not to suggest they are relying on particularly low-quality ingredients, but I have yet to encounter a stuffed-pizza pizzeria that really focuses on using memorable ingredients, particularly when it comes to toppings.
Still, there are some differences between the various stuffed pizzas out there. In this case, Stefano's seemed to have a slightly thicker bottom crust than most. The cheese, which has to be low-moisture due to the quantity used, appeared to be either lower moisture (or just lower quality). The positive result of the different cheese is that it was less gooey, which made it easier to pick up right away without worrying about making a mess, an advantage that for me was relatively meaningless.
The downside is that it hurt the flavor. When I isolated the cheese from everything else, it had a strong resemblance to string cheese. Ordinarily, I'd say that is a terrible thing, but the beauty of the vast quantities of sauce, toppings, and crust is that such flaws are easily hidden. When I ate the cheese as part of the pizza, it was full of the same comforting deliciousness that warms my heart and my belly.
The sauce at Stefano's is, as is typical for the genre, very chunky, very moist, slightly tangy, and well-seasoned with herbs and a little Parmesan cheese. The crust has the usual flakiness that is found in a stuffed pizza. This one was a little more browned at the top of the cornicione, but that had little effect on the overall taste. The toppings were fine. I had a half sausage, half spinach pizza. The spinach appeared to have been frozen, a fatal flaw on a gourmet pizza, but not a big deal on a stuffed pie. The sausage had some nice, fatty chew and some decent seasoning, but it was nothing special.
In short, Stefano's uses the secret trick of Chicago stuffed pizza by using quantity as a means of getting to quality. That is not meant as harshly as it may come off. I really liked Stefano's. The sauce was very good and the crust was good. The sausage could and should have been better. The cheese should have been better, but not by a lot. There is so much cheese on a stuffed pizza that if high-quality mozzarella was used, the pie would transform into pizza soup due to the amount of moisture in fresh mozzarella. That said, the cheese could have been a shade softer.
A couple of final notes on Stefano's. To the extent a place that looks like it stepped out of the '80s can be considered comfortably vintage, Stefano's nails it. My hunch is that not much has changed in the 22 years it has been open. The walls are covered with newspapers, pennants, and pictures featuring Chicago sports teams, with special emphasis on the 1985 Bears and the Jordan-era Bulls. The other wall coverings are primarily album covers and actual albums, all of which are from the '80s. The wall near my table featured Flashdance, Journey, and Foreigner. Second, all pizzas are 50 percent off at lunch on Mondays and Tuesdays if you dine in.
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