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We Embark Upon a ‘Chicago Pizza Crawl’

We Embark Upon a ‘Chicago Pizza Crawl’

The Restaurant Inc. team checks out a variety of pizzas around town

“I love pizza,” exclaims Bar Cargo partner Gina Stefani during a recent Restaurant Inc. podcast. “I think everyone loves pizza. I think it’s the no. 1 food in our country.”

We think she’s onto something, which is why we decided to embark upon a “Chicago pizza crawl” last fall where we checked out five destinations serving various types of savory Italian pies in the Windy City. From the Roman-style pizzas of Bar Cargo to classic tavern found at the iconic Home Run Inn, we sampled enough signature offerings in one day to last a lifetime.

Did we have favorites? Of course, we did. And while some pizza parlors were fancier than others, when it comes to their specialty, they all excel. Come along on the tour with us. It kicks off our DISH Pizza feature.

Bar Cargo, 605 N. Wells St.

Stefani and her brother, Anthony, came into the family business five years ago. That’s around the same time their father, legendary restaurateur Phil Stefani, decided it was time to add a pizza concept to the repertoire of 16. His Stefani Restaurant Group celebrates 40 years in April, with many Italian concepts, yet none focused on pizza. If he were to open one, he wanted to do something unique.

“Maybe four years ago is when my father learned about the process of Roman-style pizza,” recalls Stefani during our podcast interview. “I would say not many people know about Roman-style pizza in the United States. … the pizza production is what makes it different from other pizza styles. If you go to a regular pizza operation, that dough is prepared in the morning and that’s what you are eating in the evening. [Roman style] is the 96-hour process, so it's temperature controlled. Our dough is hand rolled as opposed to using tools, and it’s cooked in a stone oven that’s from Italy. It only takes 10 minutes to 12 minutes [to cook], while others will take a lot longer than that. With that process, you don’t get as full. I don’t feel guilty eating it!”

And neither did we when we visited Bar Cargo. We ordered three pizzas and nibbled on them in one of the roomy leather booths. The Queen is their take on the classic Margherita pizza with plump miniature tomatoes generously covering every inch of the light, crispy crust. It’s topped with imported mozzarella and fresh basil. The Julianna is another favorite with toppings of prosciutto, arugula and mozzarella that’s drizzled with balsamic. And The Chicago—of course—is a nod to classic Chicago cuisine. It’s a spicy pie topped with Italian sausage, mozzarella, and red and green peppers. For the latter, we ordered it “grande,” which serves more than four people.

Bonci, 161 N. Sangamon St.

The rest of the world knows how important pizza is to Chicago, which is why the Rome-based Bonci decided to open North America’s first location in the heart of the city. The storefront concept is al taglio, or pizza sold by the scissor-cut slice. What makes Bonci so appealing to customers is that they can get as much of a certain type of pizza they want. For those sharing with others who have varying tastes, Bonci is ideal.

The pizza lineup changes hourly, depending on ingredients, and it is also seasonal. During our Bonci excursion, servers encouraged us to try as many as possible, so we pointed at what we wanted behind the glass counter, and they cut small slices with scissors. When all was done, we wound up with seven different choices—with them all fitting on two platters. One was topped with hot soppressata. Another was finished off with mortadella. And surprisingly our favorite was the roasted potato with mozzarella. They tasted like the scalloped potatoes, and when accompanied by fresh herbs and topping that Roman crispy crust, it serves as a great vegetarian treat.

Coda di Volpe, 3335 N. Southport Ave.

Neapolitan-style pies, or pizza Napoletana, are one of the specialties at Coda di Volpe. It’s one of a handful of restaurants in the country authorized by Naples, Italy, to sell these types of pizza. What makes them so special? The crust. It’s cracker thin around its edges, yet the center is poofy and a bit cloud like. These are typically the simplest pies with fewer toppings on average. We ordered three at this sleek, family-friendly eatery that’s also swanky enough for date night.

Being the meat lovers we are, of course, we got Salsicca with fennel sausage, marinara and mozzarella (We used scissors here too to cut the round pizzas into exact portions). Other great choices consisted of Mortadella e Pistacchio (pistachio pesto, mozzarella di bufala, fresh basil, caciocavallo) as well as a classic Margherita with fresh basil, mozzarella and tomatoes. We indeed enjoyed our spicy pizzas that evening, but Coda di Volpe encourages its guests to customize their spice levels with a bottle of housemade Calabrian chili oil at every table. I like to pour a few drops of oil on my plate and sop it all up with the crust.

Home Run Inn, 4254 W. 31st St.

Before any of these venues—or any of us for that matter—were around, there was Home Run Inn. It’s been situated in the Little Village neighborhood since 1947 and serving those buttery, flaky crusts we’ve loved since childhood. Home Run Inn does more business selling frozen pizzas at local grocery chains Jewel and Mariano’s, but there’s nothing like sitting in the restaurant and ordering their pizzas from scratch. The dough is made daily, using the original recipe, and the sauce boasts ripe tomatoes from Modesto, Calif. Mozzarella cheese is shredded daily.

The two-level venue has been completely renovated and modernized, yet you’ll find vintage elements throughout the space, from original photos to bricks from the original structure. Three pizzas caught our eye among the 14 signature offerings, which are circular and range in size from an eight-inch personal pizza to 16 inches (serves four to five). We ordered a classic sausage pizza. We also ordered double pepperoni with the meat baked over and under the cheese. And for balance, we requested Laura’s Favorite of spinach and plum tomatoes atop garlic butter crust. Gotta get those veggies in!

Paulie Gee’s, 2451 N. Milwaukee Ave.

A Brooklyn original that found its way to Chicago’s hipster Logan Square neighborhood, Paulie Gee’s has its own way of presenting Neapolitan-style pizzas as well as Detroit’s. The oven is imported from Naples, Italy, and the crust is done in traditional style, with beautiful, wood-fired results.

There are more than 30 styles of pizza on the menu, including a host of vegan offerings. Paulie Gee’s has gotten much recognition for its vegan pizzas because they’re ever-changing with ingredients and are just as tasty as the ones with meat and non-vegan ingredients. We chose one just to be certain, the Fast Car topped with Italian tomatoes, garlic, red onions, mushrooms, basil, sautéed breadcrumbs and cashew ricotta dollops.

We followed that one up with the vegetarian So Fresh and So Green, Green. It was like a salad on a pizza, and it was marvelous. There was seared grape tomatoes, fresh basil, fresh mozzarella, pickled cherry peppers, red onions, baby arugula, shaved parmiggiano and sesame seeds. A little togarashi spice gave it a bit of bite and we had it topped with sweet Italian fennel sausage just for fun.

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