The United States of Pizza: Illinois (Beyond Chicago Edition)
In last week's edition of The United States of Pizza, we covered Chicagoland. This week, we've got recommendations for slices and pies in the rest of the great state of Illinois. Wondering where the best pizza is in Springfield? Champaign-Urbana? DeKalb? We've got you covered. Got other Illinois favorites not on our list? Let us know in the comments, please!
Where to Eat Pizza in Champaign-Urbana
Champaign-Urbana (home of the main campus of the University of Illinois) has quite a booming pizza scene. Like any college town, Chambana is home to a number of national chains. But what makes the region shine are its locally-owned pizzerias.
If a discussion of pizza in Champaign does not start with Papa Del's, there is something seriously wrong. Owner Bob Monti recently celebrated the pizzeria's 40th anniversary and there's no reason to think that the place won't be around for 40 more. Serious Eats community member Le Master wrote us to say that he believes "Papa Del's is better than anything I've had in Chicago. It's knee-buckling good."
Serious Eater DNAlx concurs:
Papa Del's deep dish pizza is so, so good...It's almost like a soft bread crust (has to be made with scalded milk, just has to) with a pretty unique sauce (cooked I think) for a deep dish pizza. I get sad every time I see a Giordano's knowing Papa Del's is more deserving of the notoriety.
206 E Green Street, Champaign, IL 61820; 217-359-7700.
Lisa Morgan of the blog Champaign Taste is so enthusiastic about the city's pizza scene that not only did she give me a list of her favorites, but she went out to Timpone's just to get a picture (above) to go with her report on her favorite place in town. She writes:
I've been eating Timpone's pizza in C-U for 30 years, and it's without a doubt the finest thin-crust pizza in town. Ray Timpone, Sr., started making it at a takeout-and-delivery joint on the University of Illinois campus in 1947, which is why it's called "the original Campustown pizza." Chef Ray Timpone, Jr., remembers making them with his dad when he was a kid in the 1950s and 60s. You'll find this pizza now at the posh Timpone's restaurant, still located on the U of I campus. The recipe has been tweaked a bit over the years, but it's still true to its roots. The crust is crispy, yet toothsome, the sausage is made in house, and there's just the right amount of San Marzano tomato sauce and freshly grated cheese. Whether you order one with high-end toppings like scallops and truffles, or the down-home, traditional sausage and mushrooms, you'll be treating yourself to the best thin-crust pizza this area has to offer.
710 S. Goodwin Avenue, Urbana, IL 61801; 217-344-7619; timpones-urbana.com.
Vinny's East Coast Pizzeria
Lisa Morgan is also a huge fan of Vinny's, which she reviewed here on Champaign Taste. She told me that it's her favorite takeout pizza, and here's why:
Vinny's, a newcomer to C-U, turns out delicious New-York style pizzas. The dough, made from scratch daily, turns into a crust that's firm on the bottom and chewy in the middle, becoming thicker toward the edge and with bubbly, charred spots on the top. The pies are cut into large, foldable wedges like the ones I remember from my childhood. The sauce is nicely seasoned, with whiffs of oregano and garlic, and the cheese, while applied generously, is not so heavy that it overwhelms the other ingredients. Also available by the slice.
401 West Kirby Avenue, Champaign, IL 61820; 217-355-4500; facebook.com.
More Recommended Pies in Champaign-Urbana
I've also heard good things about Antonio's Pizza (619 East Green Street, Champaign, IL 61820; 217-365-9500) and Monical's Pizza Restaurant, a local chain with 67 locations, 52 of which are in Illinois. Serious Eats community member belinskaya praised the Champaign outpost of Monicals for its thin crust pie. NYC food blogger and former U of I student Grace Yang of Grace Notes NYC is particularly fond of Monical's special sauce, which is similar to French dressing. (103 West Kirby Avenue, Champaign, IL 61820; 217- 356-4243; monicalspizza.com).
Where to Eat Pizza in Springfield
Springfield may not be the pizza epicenter of Illinois, but the state capital is no weak link. The Illinois Times, a weekly paper, recently proclaimed that Gabatoni's has the best pizza in town:
In a building located on Springfield's southwest side is a tiny restaurant that just so happens to roll out the best pizza the capital city has to offer. At Gabatoni's, the crust is cracker thin. The sauce is sweet. And the sausage is homemade. There are some who favor thicker, deep pan pizzas cut in large triangular slices. Sorry. That's just not the Gabatoni's way. There's nothing better than a "squared" slice of a bubbly hot pizza pie. Don't knock it until you try it. Many a "deep panner" has been converted. With nearly 60 years of experience serving up piping hot pizza to hungry Springfieldians and tourists, it's safe to say that Gabatoni's has earned this title.
300 E. Laurel Street, Springfield, IL 62703 and one other location; (217) 522-0371; gabatonis.com
Sam Pensabene opened up this pizzeria using old-country recipes handed down from his family in Sicily. PizzaMan, the guy behind the Springfield Pizza Project, gathered some great intel and called the pie he tried at Sam's Pizza "magnificent". Giving it an 8.8/10, he wrote:
I had to pinch myself as I enjoyed the first couple of slices of spinach and bacon pizza and washed it down with a swig of the King of Beers. It was that good. While all aspects of this pizza were outstanding, the topping were especially good. Spinach, which is a strong ingredient was used in just the right amount and the crumbled bacon hid well in the molten goodness of mozzarella until I sunk my teeth into it to release the flavor. The thing that really made this pizza go was the outstanding crust. It was crispy and crunchy and added the perfect texture and taste to go with the wonderful toppings. There is absolutely no doubt that Sam's Pizza on North Grand has the best crust in town.
731 N. Grand Ave. East, Springfield, IL 62702; 217-522-9111; springfield-vr.com.
Top Cats Grill & Chill
Buddy Roadhouse, a frequent and respected poster at Roadfood and LTHForum who has major pizza cred thanks to his decades working for the Burt of Burt's Place (Slice review), is a fan of Top Cats Grill & Chill in Springfield. Buddy shares this insider's tip:
TC's is a typical downstate blue collar bar that happens to serve a pretty good pie. The place was introduced to me by my good friend, The Dr. of BBQ. Jack is a regular at Top Cat's and knows that you order their pizza with the "crust on". That's right, TC's has a peculiar habit of trimming off that lovely caramelized edge with all the crispy bits and tasty bubbly burnt cheese. In other words, the best part. I don't know, maybe all their regular customers had the crusts cut off their peanut butter and jelly sandwiches when they were kids and this is the only way they can eat pizza now. If you're in the know though, and order it with the crust intact, you will get one of the finest tavern pizzas you will ever eat.
1822 Stevenson Drive, Springfield, IL 62703; 217- 529-4005.
Bernie and Betty's Pizza
Bernie and Betty's Pizza was the highest-rated pizzeria on the Springfield Pizza Project with a 9.2/10. In his rave review, Pizzaman wrote about the pie he ordered:
It was loaded with fresh toppings, an even amount of gooey mozzarella cheese, a wonderful sweet, tangy tomato sauce all on top of an expertly baked, crispy, crunchy thin crust. I didn't find any drawbacks to this pizza at all. While I enjoy most pizzas I sample there are almost always little aspects of each pizza I would like to see done differently or improved. I have no such comments about Bernie and Betty's thin crust pizza. This is certainly one of the best pies in town.
For those looking for a little more tang, Bernie and Betty's also offers pizza on a sourdough crust.
731 N. Grand Ave. East, Springfield, IL 62702; 217-522-9111; springfield-vr.com.
Other pizzerias that get local praise in Springfield include Luca Pizza (2937 W Iles Avenue, Springfield, IL 62704; 217-787-8884; lucapizza.net ) and Joe Gallina's Pizza (432 East Monroe Street, Springfield, IL 62701; 217-522-5271).
Where to Eat Pizza on the Outskirts of Springfield
Uncle Tykie's Prairie Fire Grill & Pizzeria (Athens)
In May, Pizzaman hailed newcomer Uncle Tykie's on The Springfield Pizza Project. The highlight of the Uncle Tykie's pie, he said, was not the crust, cheese, or toppings:
In my humble opinion, the lynchpin of this pizza is the sauce. That's right folks, the sauce. It's not your average tomato-based or marinara sauce which is why it's outstanding. This sauce is Uncle Tykie's special blend BBQ sauce. The sauce sets off and compliments the pork toppings well. It has an obscure sweetness that meshes so well with the saltiness of the bacon and ham. It's literally finger licking good. Bring on the wet wipes!
213 N. Main Street, Athens, IL 62613; 217-636-8400; Uncle Tykie's Facebook page.
PJ's Pizza and Pasta (Mason City)
PizzaMan at The Springfield Pizza Project gaive PJ's Pizza and Pasta a score of 8.6/10 because of a rather unique pizza:
The cajun pizza sitting front of me was loaded with toppings of chicken, chorizo and shrimp. The flavor on this pie was well balanced and rested comfortably on the zesty creme based cajun pizza sauce mixed up by the chef at PJ's. As wonderful as the meat toppings were, it was the sauce that really made this pie.
124 E. Chestnut St, Mason City, IL 62664; (217) 482-3616; jackandjos.com.
Where to Eat Pizza in the Illinois Portion of the Quad Cities
Like wild animals, state boundaries mean nothing for pizza. That said, they do mean something for The United States of Pizza. So even though there are plenty of Imo's in southern Illinois, I'll leave that delectable treat for the Missouri post. The Quad Cities present a different dilemma: Five towns, three in Illinois, two in Iowa, and one local style of pizza. I consulted the locals and it looks like Illinois gets the win on this one, thanks in large part to two places that started on the Illinois side of the Mississippi but have since been embraced in Iowa.
Oddly enough, the leading candidate for best pizza in the Quad Cities area is in Silvis, which is not actually one of the four cities. The town only has about 9500 residents, but there is a Facebook page for Frank's Pizza Lovers with almost 1700 members. Quad-Cities Online explains the love:
Locals gather at Frank's Pizzeria...to talk, watch TV or get a drink at the restaurant's Club Napoli. For many in Silvis, eating pizza at Frank's is almost like having a slice of heaven...Frank's is an institution. Since it's opening in 1955 by Frank Serra, generations of Silvis residents have flocked to the eatery. It is not unusual for an entire generation to grab a slice at one of the restaurant's many vintage formica tables.
Frank's pizza is a thin crust pie with a crust that's a on the chewier side of the crisp-chewy continuum. A defining characteristic is that the pizza is cut into rectangular pieces, something that can also be found at John's in Indiana (Slice review) and LaRosa's in Cincinnati (Slice review). Also, the sausage, as at John's, is crumbled into small bits and is present in virtually every bite.
711 First Avenue, Silvis, IL 61282; 309-755-0625; frankspizzeria.org.
Another popular spot is Harris Pizza, a half-century old local institution. The story behind the place is that after WWII, a nightclub owner found that his entertainment business was hurting since the rise of television. Rather than close up shop, he converted the place into a pizzeria.
3903 14th Avenue, Rock Island, IL 61201; 309-788-3446; harrispizza.com.
More for Quad Cities-Style Pizza
When Frank's and Harris are full, other spots to hit up on the Illinois side of the Mississippi include Poor Boy's Pizza & Pub, (4121 18th Avenue Rock Island, IL 61201; 309-786-2400; poorboyspizza.com) and Stashu's Pizza & Deli (4200 44th Avenue, Moline, IL 61265; 309-797-9449).
Where to Eat Pizza in Rockford
Rockford is the biggest city in Illinois outside of the Chicago metropolitan area, but I had some trouble finding out much about Rockford's best pizza. I heard good things about Binanti's Dockside Grill, but it apparently closed last week. Rebecca Rose of the Rockford Register Star heartily recommends the pizza at Deli Italia. She says the thin crust pies at Deli Italia include "a unique seasoning that is by far the best I've had—and I grew up right outside Chicago."
507 E. State Street, Rockford, IL 61103 and one other location; 815-962-3354; deliitalia.us.
Altamore Ristorante & Pizzeria
A few years ago, the Go Girls at the Rockford Register Star organized eighteen people to sample eight different Rockford pizzerias. The clear winner was Altamore Ristorante, where the sausage was especially beloved.
1432 N. Main Street, Rockford, IL 61103; 815-968-5555
Other favorites in Rockford include Marie's Pizza, (1513 Charles Street, Rockford, IL 61109; 815-226-1342; mariespizza.net) and Lino's (5611 E. State Street, Rockford, IL 61108; 815-397-2077; linosrockford.com).
What Plays in Peoria
Agatucci's has been pleasing Peorians since 1954. Phil Luciano of the Peoria Journal Star wrote an extensive history of the local institution. "Aggie's" serves up classic thin crust, and Peorians are especially fond of the Tiger Sauce, a garlicky oil and vinegar concoction.
2607 N. University Street, Peoria, IL 61604; 309-688-8200.
There are 7 locations of Firehouse Pizza in Peoria, each of which is independently owned. The restaurants, which are packed with firefighter-related memorabilia, feature two different sauces. The original sauce is on the sweeter side, and the more chunky traditional sauce features a "secret blend of spices." Local blogger Peoria Peepers checked out the lunch buffet, which includes pizza, and was quite happy:
The slices were narrow, which was good, because I got to try more varieties without wasting food. I first went for a slice of some sort of meat-lovers-looking pizza, since I spied some bacon on it. I also snatched a slice with black olives and green peppers and went back to the table. The crust is sort of a hand-tossed style, but the thing I enjoyed the most was the sweet tomato sauce. So much so that I went back for two more slices...I also noticed that the menu on our table mentioned a gluten free pizza and take-and-bake pizzas.
8879 N Knoxville Avenue # 1, Peoria, IL 60615 and six other locations; 309-693-9111; firehousepizza911.com.
Other popular Peoria pizzerias include Peoria Pizza Works, (3921 N. Prospect, Peoria Heights, IL 61614; 309-682-5446; peoriapizzaworks.com); and the oldest continuously operating location of the large chain Pizza Inn (3821 N Sterling Avenue, Peoria, IL 61615; 309-682-3722; pizzainn.com).
Rounding up the Rest of Illinois
Walt's Pizza (Marion)
Way downstate in Marion, Walt's Pizza is apparently the place to go and has been since 1977. Here's how Yelp user John S. summed up the reason for its popularity:
This is a wonderful trip away from your standard chains like Pizza Hut. The pizza is always hot and fresh and not greasy. The crust is yeasty and almost tastes like a "beer batter". Tip: Make sure you try a double decker pizza. It's layered with toppings, another thin crust and more toppings. Sounds like a lot of dough but [it's] thin enough not to take away from the heaping pile of yummy toppings. Good spot for kids with small arcade and a few party rooms.
213 S. Court Street, Marion, IL 62959; 618-993-8668; waltspizza.com.
Jeff's Special from Gem City Pizzeria & Mexican at 18th & State. It's your basic "midwest" style of pizza, square-cut like a tavern pie but with a more substantial (and less interesting) crust, but the particular combination of ingredients on this pizza—extra sauce (great sauce too, not too sweet, with a nice bit of herbs and some zip), thin-sliced ham and a crumbly type of sausage under the cheese, pepperoni and mushrooms above the cheese—makes for a good salty spicy earthy bite.
1801 State Street, Quincy, IL 62301; 217-228-0550; gemcitypizza.com.
Pizza Villa...has been around for 52 years. I've been going for nearly 30. Our family has always ordered the thin crust, which is the classic square slice. The crust isn't much to write about, but the toppings are heavenly. Great sauce, quality toppings, a good balance of cheese. I've been off meat for about 12 years, but I still remember the sausage. Really delicious.
824 West Lincoln Highway, DeKalb, IL 60115; 815-758-8116; pizzavilla.com.
Mike's Pizza & Pasta (Jerseyville)
For a pick closer to her childhood home, our friend veghound offered some intel from Jerseyville:
Mike's Pizza in Jerseyville has been around for at least 20 years in various forms. They also serve thin crust, square cut, with a sweet herb sauce. They're a little heavy on the cheese, but it's a solid pie.
208 S. Lafayette Street, Jerseyville, IL 62052; 618-498-3298.
But Wait, There's More!
In Dixon, there's Al and Leda's Pizza Villa, 325 W. Everett Street, Dixon, IL 61021; 815-284-3932; alandledaspizzeria.com. In Carrollton, check out Alfonso's Pizza, 514 N. Main Street, Carrollton, IL 62016; 217-942-5513; and in Bloomington, people seem to love Tobin's Pizza, 1513 N Main Street, Bloomington, IL 61701; 309-828-0410; tobinspizza.com.
But what about your favorites? If we've missed any excellent Illinois pizza spots, please let us know in the comments below!