Chicago Pizza: John's Pizzeria
2104 North Western Avenue, Chicago, IL 60647 (map); 773-384-1755; johnspizzachicago.com
Pizza Style: Chicago thin crust, Midwest-style
The Skinny: Extra thin and crispy pies in a one-of-kind place.
Price: $10 to $20 for 12" pizzas
John's Pizzeria in Bucktown does not serve destination worthy pizza, but in its own special way, the John's experience is worth the trip. I realize I'm already confusing everyone right up top, but nothing about John's makes that much sense anyway. It's one of those places I've visited a dozen times over the past five years, and I've honestly enjoyed every one. Yet, I still find it hard to recommend. You have to know what you're getting into before you go, because the restaurant's very good thin crust pizza is only one component. Though it doesn't come anywhere close to serving my favorite pizza in Chicago, John's is one of my absolute favorite places to eat pizza. Let me explain.
The back dining room looks like a suburban den from the 1970s. There's even a random stone wall with a fake fireplace, complete with all the tools necessary to tend the imaginary burning wood. Like all Italian-American restaurants from this era, posters line the wall, showcasing random scenes of Italy. But John's also has a strange infatuation with buxom young brunettes. No matter where you sit in the restaurant, one of these ladies will stare down at you while you eat.
Let's move on to the menu, shall we?
Because of its length, it took me about ten minutes to read through all of John's menu. I did so not because I was entranced by all the wonderful things to eat, but because of the unintentional hilarity contained within. For example, notice the tower of onion rings in the top right corner? It is real. Don't believe me?
Bam! 1/2 foot of onion rings ($5.25) on stand. I could have ordered order the foot of onion rings ($8.50), but I guessed, rightly, that they'd be frozen. But wait, there's more!
At some point in the past the Sun Times apparently visited John's and flipped out. I know this because at various points on the menu quotes from the paper appear declaring that a particular dish is the best in Chicago. By my count, John's excels at mostaccoli/spaghetti, baked ribs, and fried chicken.
Okay, one more. But it's a doozy. Prepare yourself to gaze upon greatest placemat in all of Chicago.
Gangsters! A guy with a bullet hole through his head! Word games! It's like John's settled on a design in the mid-70s and decided to print hundred of thousands of copies, thereby forcing itself to use the placemat until it ran out. So why is there a Facebook logo above the open door?
I'll stop there. I could go on (each pizza is served with a white doily around it), but I have to admit that I feel like I'm picking on the poor place. I'm not, or at least I'm not trying to. In all honesty, I adore this place. John's is one of my favorite retreats in the city, a place where I can go to escape the outside world, and, it must be said, enjoy some good pizza.
John's specializes in Chicago thin crust, otherwise known as Midwest-style, which features a uniformly thin crust that is cut into squares. Inferior versions have doughy, cracker-like crusts with cheese that slides off like a blanket. John's stands out by keeping the crust extra thin and by showing restraint with the toppings—no slippage here.
With these kinds of pies, I always automatically order fresh sausage. You can get that and more with the John's Special ($15.65), a combination of sausage, green pepper, onion, and mushrooms (though the latter item was removed because of objections from one of our guests). For some reason, I have a strange affection for this combination, even though I'd never think to pick out the ingredients individually. John's rendition mostly works, though the sausage is a bit of a letdown. The pieces are too small and are missing the heavy fennel kick of the best versions in town.
The pepperoni pizza ($11.15) was a surprise hit. Heavily salted, and very smoky, the crispy pepperoni provided an aggressive kick to each bite. Perhaps too much for some people, but I loved the over-the-top nature and had a hard time to keeping my hands of this pie.
Taking a recommendation from fellow Serious Eater Joe Roy, the pizzas were ordered extra crispy—a wise move. While missing any sort of char or serious coloring, the crust was crispy throughout.
Even the crustless center slice was thin and yet still strong enough to hold up—a minor miracle, of sorts.
I'll admit that the pizza geek in me dislikes that the dough is run through a sheeter, a device that flattens the dough, removing any sort of hole structure from the crust. And I should note that I still prefer the flakier thin crust pies at Pat's Pizza in Lincoln Park, and there's no doubt that the sausage and other ingredients are better at Vito & Nick's. For the total package of pizza and atmosphere, Maria's in Milwaukee is a crazier experience. John's exists in the strange middle ground between good and very good, where you don't want to damn it with faint praise but I also don't want to hype it.
I'll leave you with one last thing to think about. The sign on Western Avenue completely ignores the founding date, but it does find the need to highlight the exact year that it began delivery service (1957). It's also one I'd like to caution against. The idea of eating one of John's thin-crust pies anywhere else but John's seems wrong to me.