The Circle of Life

Chicago Sun-Times

Wednesday March 30th 2005

A good slice of pizza can be as good as a $200 meal in a restaurant." --Actor and pizza maven Benicio Del Toro in the April issue of Esquire.

New Yorkers can have their floppy pies with the oozing grease and the utter lifelessness. And while we're at it, they can keep the term "pie," too. Ain't no pies in these parts, only pizzas. And when it comes to pizza, Chicago has a major slice of the, um, action.

An import from Italy, pizza has for decades been a quintessentially American delicacy. And few towns take the art of crafting it more seriously than Chicago, where it's said the first deep-dish (aka "Chicago-style") was born in 1943 courtesy of Ike Sewall at Pizzeria Uno. Hence the town's association with those oversauced, overstuffed monstrosities. They're good, yes, sometimes sublime. But, many local pizzaologists will tell you, a true Oprahville pizza is the complete and utter antithesis: thin-crusted, moderately sauced, golden-brown. And wondrously varied in taste and texture. If you've had one, you've definitely haven't had them all.

"The first place you go, that's the place you like," says Loretta Serio, matron of the sixty-year-old Joe's Italian Villa (8807 S. Harlem Ave., Bridgeview). She's echoing the words of her late husband, "Big Joe" Serio, who decades ago took over the business from his Sicilian-born father, Frank. And in this case, not forgetting is a good thing. Joe's third- and fourth-generation patrons are proof positive.

"Thin and well-done" is how Loretta's son Joe, a co-owner and manager, defines the quintessential Chicago creation. "I think with mozzarella cheese, the way to bring out the best flavor is to brown it," he says. "If it ain't brown, it just tastes like goo."

Adds his older and equally pizza-savvy brother, Frank, who runs the narrow and no-frills shop evenings, "The blandest thing you put on your pizza is your cheese. Your dough's got taste, your sauce, your sausage, your vegetables. But the cheese doesn't have a lot of flavor until you cook it down. Not like Pizza Hut, where they melt it."

"All they do is melt it," repeats Joe with similar disdain. "Tasteless, if you ask me. All these places that don't brown their cheese, it's tasteless. So you gotta add Parmesan and little spices just to get some kind of flavor out of it."

At least half the high-quality ingredients at Joe's, whose pizza is popular with airline personnel from nearby Midway Airport (some order it immediately upon deplaning), are made in-house. The yeast- less dough (trade secret -- shhh), the hand-trimmed and ground pork sausage (salt, pepper, fennel seed), the flavorful sauce blended with oregano instead of basil. The latter, Frank says, is too sweet. And the cheese is hand-ground. A dine-in bonus: Everything's made up front, so you can watch your order evolve. Call it tableside entertainment. Traditional dough-spinning has been largely replaced by a rolling machine, but otherwise the process has changed little since days of yore.

One thing Joe's doesn't offer, has never offered: fruit -- pineapple and such. You want fruit, go to California, Frank curtly advises. You want piping-hot pizza that's virtually unchanged -- largely per customers' strict standards -- since Grandpa Frank ran the show, this fits the bill.

Chicago, of course, is peppered with long-standing family-owned pizza parlors, and visiting them is the surest way to more fully appreciate The Chicago Way -- culinarily speaking. Bill Savarino began working at his uncle's Capri Pizza (8820 S. Commercial) as a teenager nearly four decades ago. A half century old in May, the location, which also has an outpost in Whiting, Ind., can barely crank fast enough to satisfy demand. On a busy night, Savarino estimates, Capri outputs a few hundred renditions of its locally revered product.

As at all pizzerias worth their salt, careful attention is paid to both ingredients and proportions at Capri. Nothing is frozen, only fresh. The meats, the cheese, the dough, the sauce -- which is spiked with a bit of red wine vinegar to lend a hint of acidity.

"I could get cheaper ingredients, but we don't," Savarino explained. "We always stay with the same. We've never changed the quality of our cheese, and because we do our own sausage, we know what's in there" (i.e. all meat instead of filler fat and sinew).

How they cut it: square. That, too, is part of The Chicago Way.

"I never put down another pizzeria," Savarino says, "because if certain people get used to that pizza and they say it's great, well, that's fine, because that's what you've acquired."

Which is to say, you never forget your first. That, incidentally, isn't always a good thing.

At the newly remodeled North Side pizza palace Calo Pizzeria Restaurant (5343 N. Clark), they know pizza-making as well as anyone. Established across the street in 1963 by Sicilian-American Victor Calo and still going strong (as evidenced by the formerly old-school eatery's handsome makeover) in the same now-gentrifying neighborhood, the current much-expanded location was once an A&P grocery store and an auto parts warehouse.

Co-run by Victor's son Vince, Calo's has hewed closely to its roots while offering twists along the way. The original recipe, Vince explains one recent afternoon, hasn't changed at all. "Of course, we experiment or find better produce that's out," he says. "Better cheeses, more consistency. But aside from that, it is the exact same since my dad started making pizzas sometime in the late '50s. He's very particular."

In a cramped and olfactorily engaging kitchen, Vince sets to work on some lunchtime orders. First, a Calo special: sausage, mushroom, onion, green pepper. Just like dad would have made way back when. As with any culinary concoction, a key to making great pizza, Vince and his daytime manager, Frank Neri, say, is proportioning. Not too much cumin in the handmade sausage, just the right amount of course- grated mozzarella, consistent measurements of garlic, Parmesan, oregano, salt and pepper in the sauce. Oh, and temperature. That, Neri points out, is a far bigger deal than most folks realize when it comes to dough. (Which, incidentally, shouldn't be overworked or glutens in the flour will render it insufficiently malleable, thus affecting the final product.) Different temperatures, Neri notes, have different effects on yeast, which requires different rising times depending on the type of crust you're making. Water temperature matters as well. Again, because it reacts with the yeast and flour and produces varied results.

"First, you've always gotta start with good dough," Vince says. "Which is basically flour, water, yeast, butter, margarine, oil, salt, pepper. Basic ingredients, just the right amount of each. Some people like a softer, thicker, airier dough. And people like the true cracker [crust]. Really thin dough. My preference is extremely thin."

Along with Dad's tried-and-true staples, Vince is always experimenting. For instance, he once made a truffle pizza which, had it landed on the menu, surely would have cost more than your typical pepperoni-and-mushrooms due to the labors of specially trained hounds. Somewhat less pricey though still relatively highfalutin is his taste-bud-titillating baby shrimp and pesto. Formerly just a lark, it's now among the restaurant's regular offerings.

"I really love to make pizzas," he says. "It's one of my favorite things in the whole world to make. Because I love pizza. I love pizza."

He's not alone.

Joe’s Italian Villa - All rights reserved 2009 - Prices subject to change without notice


Joe's Italian Villa Pizza inc.

Rated “One of the Best”

in all Chicagoland by the Tribune

“Est. 1947 By “The Serio Family”