Slice–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.
5913 W Roosevelt Road Cicero, IL 60804 (map); 708-863-0060; no website
Getting There: Blue Line to Austin, walk 3 blocks south and 2 blocks east
Pizza Style: Pizza Puff, thin, pan, stuffed
Oven Type: Gas and deep fryer
The Skinny: Giant homemade pizza puffs are outstanding
Price: Pizza Puffs start at $6.50, medium thin crust pizzas start at $11.25, small pan pizzas start at $11, and small stuffed pizzas start at $12
From some online research, it seems to be widely accepted, at least among the small number of people who care about such things, that the pizza puff is a Chicago invention. My educated guess is that much of that belief stems from the fact that Iltaco Foods, originally known as the Illinois Tamale Company, and now possibly the biggest manufacturer of pizza puffs, is located in Chicago and claims to sell the "original" pizza puff. Likely related to that, there are innumerable hot dog and burger joints all over town that offer pizza puffs.
I'm fairly certain there's been no substantive research on the issue, but judging from post on the interwebs like this one at Chowhound, where people in New York, L.A., London, and Boston complain about the lack of Chicago-style pizza puffs in their respective cities, it seems safe to assume that Chicago may be the leading consuming American city of pizza puffs.
Still, much as my civic pride would like it to be true, Chicago should get no credit for inventing the pizza puff. The pizza puff is a panzerotti, which is a fried calzone that Wikipedia tells us originated in southeastern Italy and are particularly popular in southern New Jersey. That said, the pizza puff served at Albano's Pizzeria in Cicero should make every Chicago-area resident proud. Albano's has been around about 22 years, the last 21 of which have been under the ownership of Sicilian native Giovanni Donancricchia and his family.
Albano's sells pizza puffs either baked or fried. Since I am in no immediate danger of the heart attack that will eventually get me, I went with the fried option and opted to add sausage and bacon. The first thing that jumps out at every first-time diner when their pizza puff arrives at the table is the sheer size of the thing. It is about a foot long and it's thicker that I would have thought a 12-inch pizza folded in half could be. The golden crust on the pizza puff is absolutely delicious. Infused with the combination of beef fat and vegetable oil in which it is cooked, the crust is crisp, chewy and a little flaky and has a rich flavor that stands up to and balances out the massive amount of food stuffed inside.
When I cut open the pizza puff, there was much less seepage than I expected. The massive amount of filling was happy to expand a little bit, but it did not make a mess all over the plate. This pizza puff was cooked perfectly - the cheese was soft enough that it was sufficiently gooey, but firm enough to largely stay in place. Also packed inside the puff was a very generous amount of crumbled fennel-filled sausage and enough bits of freshly cooked bacon so that the bacon taste was clearly there, but did not overwhelm everything else. There was some sauce in the pizza puff, but it was heavily concentrated in the center. I would have liked more even distribution inside, but that may not be possible to control once the pizza puff is dropped in the fryer. Fortunately, the crust is so good that even the edges of the pizza puff, which had no sauce or meat and only the slightest amount of cheese, were still a pleasure to eat.
After so thoroughly enjoying the crust on the pizza puff, I was disappointed with the crust on the thin crust pizza. It was a little thicker than I like and was neither crisp nor particularly chewy. Also, without the advantage of being fried in beef fat and vegetable oil, it did not have any real discernable flavor. That said, and I know this is something that those of you fixated on crusts find difficult to grasp, this was still a good and satisfying pizza. Virtually every single bite of the pizza had the same quality sausage that was in the pizza puff along with fresh mushrooms. There was a nice layer of nicely-seasoned sauce and a thick layer of decent tasting (albeit slightly oily) mozzarella. Because of the toppings and sauce, this was definitely not a bad pizza. Albano's does not serve gourmet pizzas, nor are they trying to, but in the pizza as comfort food category, Albano's dishes out a good pie. And they do offer their thin crust with a thinner crust, which I'm guessing would make the thin crust pizza even better.
I had been to Albano's before this visit and it's a bit of a hike from my house to get there. I would not go out of my way to get the pizza there, but if I happened to be in the neighborhood, I'd eat it once in a while. The pizza puff, on the other hand, is very much worth a special trip out there. The belief that pizza puffs were invented in the Chicago area is wrong, but Albano's shows that the art of making them is alive and well in Cicero.