I still firmly believe that Salerno's on Grand on Chicago's near West side and Vito and Nick's on the city's South side are number 1 and 1A when it comes to the gold standard of thin crust pizzas I've experienced in my lifetime. But I'm always on the lookout for a new place that has great thin crust pizza. Sometime last year, I was talking with one of the salesguys at Abt Electronics during a recent visit and I was telling him about how great the pizza at Salerno's and Vito and Nick's really was. He said, "Oh, no. I've got a place that will beat both of those places hands down." It was an Italian restaurant on N. Lincoln Ave. in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood - Pat's Pizzeria and Ristorante. Although he admitted that he had never eaten at Salerno's on Grand or at Vito and Nick's, he was adamant about how great the pizza was at Pat's Pizzeria. I immediately put it on my list of places to visit and I finally had a chance to do so a few weeks ago.
Pat's Pizza (as the locals call it) has been around since 1950 when Nicholas "Pat" Pianetto began to make and sell his homemade pizza out of his house on N. Sheffield Ave. It was truly a family affair with his wife, Janett, and their four kids helping out in the kitchen. Nick, Jr. began to work in the business full time when he was 17 and has spent over 45 years perfecting the pizza at Pat's Pizza.
There are some unique things about a Pat's Pizza that goes beyond your usual pizza place. First of all, in order to get the dough paper thin, it takes 5 days to make the crust. It's flattened, rolled and stored in the refrigerator until it's ready to be used. Pianetto changes his crust from the summer to the winter months because grain fed dairy cattle that are kept inside in the winter make the fresh mozzarella more greasy than range fed cattle. The more greasy content in the cheese causes the crust to saturate and begin to droop. Nick Pianetto, Jr. wants the crust to be consistently firm and crisp year round.
A homemade pizza sauce that the Pianetto family worked on for years to perfect is applied to the dough. Toppings, including homemade fennel sausage, fresh veggies and other offerings such as grilled scallops, goat cheese, prosciutto and barbecue chicken are added. The pizza is placed into an old Fauld's revolving pizza oven and cooked for 10 to 12 minutes. The result is a paper thin crust people topped with ample amounts of toppings and swimming in fresh mozzarella cheese.
Over the years Pat's Pizza has been named the best thin crust pizza in Chicago a number of times. About a year and a half ago, WGN-TV in Chicago named Pat's the best thin crust pizza and did a segment on the pizza. (Click here to see the video segment. The girl in the video is Brittney Payton, the daughter of the late, great Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton.)
Pat's Pizza moved to their present day location on N. Lincoln about three years ago. (See map) The corner building features a narrow dining room with booths on the long wall and a couple booths back in the corner on the opposite wall. Tables with checkered table vinyl cloths are in the middle of the restaurant. All the tables and booths have paper wrap on top of the table cloth and crayons are provided for those young and old who want to doodle on the paper while they wait for their food.
I was seated at one of the booths along the long wall of the restaurant by a cheerful hostess and given a menu to look through. Pat's Pizza has more than just pizza including a number of Italian specialties such as a seafood linguine in a wine and tomato sauce, Chicken Vesuvio, pork piccata (that sounded REAL interesting - I've had veal and chicken piccata before, but not pork piccata), as well as a large number of vegetarian and cheese-only pasta dishes. But I was there for the pizza - I had to go with a small Italian sausage, pepperoni and mushroom pizza.
After I ordered my pizza, a little anti-pasto plate was set on my table that had black and green olives as well as slices of a hard Italian cheese. I knew it wasn't parmesan or mozzarella, but I couldn't put my taste buds on what exactly it was. All I know is that it was good as were the green olives. The black olives, however, were a little gamey in taste. I had one, but not the others.
Less than 15 minutes after I placed my order, my small pizza came to the table. One of the waiters had dropped off a red pepper flake shaker as well as a dried oregano shaker. Along with the parmesan cheese that was already on the table, I knew that I would use them all at some point. But for the first couple of pieces, I was going au natural.
The pizza at Pat's Pizzeria is cut into party squares. I later found out that in Chicago this type of thin crust pizza is referred to as "tavern style". I especially love the center "honey pot" cuts from party cut pizza. And the taste was very good. I can't say it was as good as the thin crust pizza at Salerno's on Grand or at Vito and Nick's, but it was certainly in the immediate neighborhood. The sauce was tangy and faintly sweet, the cheese was very fresh and flavorful, and the fennel sausage was outstanding. The mushrooms were also very fresh and I did like the pepperoni. It wasn't too salty, but still had a little zip to the taste. It was a truly a tavern style pizza - it went very well with a beer. And I love pizzas that taste great with a beer. Adding the parmesan cheese, dried oregano and red pepper flakes to some of the subsequent squares just helped heighten the taste.
While Salerno's on Grand remains my "holy grail" of thin crust pizzas, I have to say that the pizza at Pat's Pizzeria and Ristorante was certainly in Salerno's neighborhood. I don't know if I've had a thin crust pizza where so much planning and preparation goes into the making of the pizza. I was extremely impressed with Pat's Pizza and knew that I would be back again at some point. I can easily see where they've been named the best thin crust pizza in Chicago by voters a number of times over the years. The pizza is that good.