When I go into Chicago on business I'm usually in the area for three to four nights. Each time I go to Chicago there's two places I have to go for at least one meal - Portillo's (for a hot dog and an Italian Beef sandwich); and somewhere for pizza.
On this trip I found out there's a difference between "pan pizza", "deep-dish pizza, and "stuffed pizza". Actually, I already knew the difference between "deep-dish" and "stuffed". A stuffed pizza has dough on the bottom, the ingredients in the middle, then a thin layer of dough on top, topped with sauce and some cheese.
Deep-dish (right) is basically a thick-crusted pizza where the cornmeal and olive oil dough is baked for about 15 minutes, then toppings are added under sauce and cheese. Pan pizza is just a variant of deep dish where the dough and toppings are baked at the same time. But the toppings are usually on top of the cheese and sauce. Actually, I thought pan pizza and deep dish were the same thing. Huh uh...
With that said, I didn't have a pan pizza or a deep-dish pizza or a stuffed pizza during this visit to Chicago. I went to the original Armand's Pizza in Elmwood Park, IL to have a thin crust pizza.
I've been to the other Armand's locations - in Elmhurst, and in St. Charles. I had a bad experience at the one in St. Charles a couple summers ago. The service was bad, the pizza wasn't as good as the one in Elmhurst and I was really soured on the whole Armand's thing. I was driving through St. Charles a while back and saw that the Armand's out there was closed. No wonder and good riddance.
Later that fall I went into the Armand's in Elmhurst around 8:30 to get a pizza and they told me they'd turned off the ovens for the evening. They're supposed to be serving until 10! I began to get a bad taste in my mouth for Armand's.
But I also knew their pizza was pretty damn good and I wanted to try the original location that Mike Caringella opened over 50 years ago. It was about a fifteen minute drive from my hotel to the original Armand's Pizzeria on West Grand, just west of Harlem Ave. (see map). I was able to park in the well-lit parking lot on the side of the building. I walked into the place and it looked like it hadn't been updated in 30 years. Heavy on the vinyl and dark wood paneling. A lot of pictures and signage on the wall. The bar was a nice old area that was sort of cozy.
I opted to sit in the bar and the bartender handed me a menu. I really didn't need one as I knew exactly what I wanted - a small sausage, pepperoni and mushroom thin crust pizza. But the menu was similar to the one in Elmhurst with full dinners, pasta and salads. I've had the lasagna at Armand's before, but I wanted pizza that night.
Armand's grinds a lot of their meat at the main restaurant. I was told Mike Caringella's father ran a meat market in the Little Italy section of Chicago and that's where Mike learned to trim and grind his own meats for the restaurant. After Mike's father passed away in 1972, his mother, Angela, came to work in the kitchen at the restaurant. She worked there 12 hours a day, six days a week from the age of 67 until just before she died in 2000 at the age of 95. Her specialty was the Italian Beef sandwiches Armand's sold. I've been told their Italian beef sandwich is the best in Chicago. I'll have to try one sometime.
I was sitting at the bar reading my Chicago Tribune and watching baseball on the television when I struck up a conversation with a guy sitting there waiting for a pizza to go. He said he grew up on the south side of Chicago and he had his favorite pizza joints down there when he was younger. "But I moved up here about 10 years ago," he said. "I won't get pizza from any other place than here."
It turned out the bartender and the guy waiting for the pizza went to the same high school together over 30 years ago, but didn't know each other. She knew a lot of the same people he knew, but they'd never connected until then. Small world.
My pizza was brought out piping hot by one of the waitresses. I let it cool down a bit and got another beer. From the first bite, it was ecstasy. It was even better than the pizza at the Armand's over in Elmhurst. There seemed to be more toppings, the sausage seemed to be more dazzling, the pepperoni was meat market fresh and the mushrooms were large and flavorful. It was just out of this world.
I mentioned to no one in particular, "God, this is great! Oh, my God!"
The guy sitting next to me waiting on his pizza said, "See what I mean? There's no better pizza in town than this place."
There was a lot of toppings on the pizza and I was struggling to finish it. I got through four pieces before I asked the bartender for a box so I could take the leftovers back to my room. Having a fridge and a microwave in your room is great for pizza in the morning.
Armand's also sells a pan pizza (that's where I got the lesson on what is what in pizzas from the bartender) and something called "The Yardstick" - a 36" pizza that they sell a lot of for parties and the like. That would be something to see.
Many times, the original location is much better than the satellite locations the restaurant opens up. Although the pizza at Armand's in Elmhurst is very good, I have to say the one at the original Armand's is better. God, I'm beginning to have all these places to get good pizza in Chicago. It's going to drive me crazy trying to figure out which one is the best!