Thursday, March 5, 2009

Chicago "Tavern Style" Pizza at Bill's Pub in Mundelein

Bill's Pub in Mundelein is a classic old joint that's been around since 1954. I grew up not too far from here and went to this place probably hundreds of times as a kid, loving their great, cracker-thin crust pizza, playing pinball and Zaxxon in their game room, and thinking that throwing my peanut shells on the floor while we waited for our pizza to come was the coolest thing ever.

I also remember being a bit spooked by their dark, "northwoods style" dining room and the dozens of taxidermy animals that populate it. Nothing like chowing down on some really good, crispy thin-crust pizza while some raccoon that was killed in 1961 stares you down.

Little did I know then that Bill's was such an exemplary example of Chicago's absolute best type of pizza--tavern style thin crust. Yep, that's right. Chicago pan, or deep dish gets all the play and is most well known nationally, but, in my opinion, the real Chicago-style pizza is the cracker-flat thin crust creations turned out by ledgendary places like Pat's in Lakeview, Marie's in Albany Park, Candlelite on Western Ave. near Howard, and Vito and Nick's on the 8400 block of South Pulaski.

"Tavern style" pizza is characterized by being ultra-thin. It's the anti-Malnati's. The crust is paper-thin and crackery-crispy. Most tavern style pizza places also do not create an outer "lip" of crust, so the sauce often goes all the way out to the edge, which can sometimes make it kind of difficult to eat, since there's nothing to grab onto. Tavern style thin crust is always cut into squares, rather than pie slices, and is sometimes referred to as "party-style" pizza or "cracker crust". It's fabulous stuff and goes great with cold beer.

The integral element of a good thin-crust pizza--the crust--can be assessed by employing a move I call the "end crust grab", which tests the structural integrity of the crust. The key to a really good thin crust pizza is that the crust, despite being super-thin, stays crisp and rigid enough to support the ingredients. Thus, part of the responsibility lies with you, the diner. If you want a good thin-crust pizza, you can't overload it by ordering tons of toppings or loading on extra cheese. I generally order a one or two-topping pizza, give it a minute or two to cool down after it arrives at the table, and then employ the "end crust grab" to assess. Good pizza places, besides making a quality crust, will know not to pile on too many toppings. As you can see by the picture to the right, Bill's passes the "end crust grab" test with flying colors. My fingers are holding just the extreme outer edge of the piece, and the crust easily supports the weight of the toppings. Not even a hint of flex or give there. Kudos, Bill's!

But Bill's Pub is about more than just pizza, even though I don't think I've ever eaten anything else there. It's got this great frozen-in-time feel to it. It's way out in the sticks in Mundelein (or at least, it used to be the sticks, before the subdivisions and strip malls started creeping in), and even if you walk in at 8:30, as Mitch and I did following an aborted attempt to try a different restaurant in Long Grove, the place seems really dark, compared to outside. The dining room/bar area is a crazy-quilt muddle of taxidermy, beer signs, plasma tv's tuned to sports, and northwoods pine paneling. It's the perfect setting for what this place is--a halfway to Wisconsin, no-frills place to stop and grab a beer, have a pizza, snack on some peanuts, and shoot the shit with your pals.

(Left: Mitch looks on while I execute the "end crust grab". He thinks I'm nuts, but he hangs out with me because I find the best places to eat.)

Mitch and I walked in and motioned to the only server we saw, who indicated that we should just grab whichever table we wanted. He was busy, but showed up promptly with water and a basket of peanuts, and we ordered a pitcher of Leinenkugel's, which was delivered with nice, cold, frosty mugs. Our server was exactly what you'd imagine from a joint like this as well; a mullet-headed twenty-something guy with some acne who you could just tell was looking forward to getting off work so he could fire up a doobie and crank the AC/DC in his Firebird while driving home.

Which is fine. He was an easygoing guy and was nothing if not friendly, welcoming, and competent. We ordered our pizza and a basket of jalapeno poppers to start, and got settled in.

The apps are just your standard out-of-the-freezer-into-the-fryer stuff, but the pizza is just out-of-this-world good. The sauce is great, with a nice sweetness, but still a good amount of tang, and it's not too loose or juicy. The toppings are high-quality. Like any good pizza place, they use fresh sausage that is pinched off onto the pizza, so the grease from the sausage renders out and permeates the finished product. Mushrooms are raw, but sliced thinly enough to cook through and get browned and crisp. Their cheese, too, is good quality, and, as with all good tavern-style pizzas, browns up nicely, yielding a great, flavorful amount of crunchy, browned cheese around the edge.

And, of course, there's the crust. While I'm on record as stating that my all-time favorite pizza can be found at Barnaby's Family Inn in Niles (which is basically a tavern-style, but with a couple idiosyncratic twists), Bill's runs a very close second. I've had the thin-crust pies from all of the Chicago icons mentioned above, and while they're all very, very good, Bill's is better. The difference is the crust. Bill's crust is so thin, so crispy, and is really just a perfect example of what the Chicago tavern-style pizza is supposed to be.


Anonymous said...

That's all well and good, Eddie, but what do they have in the arcade nowadays?

I will never forget the time we took Uncle Harold, Joe and Dave to Bill's for pizza, and I am pretty sure it was the first time they had ever had pizza in their life. I was shocked that such a thing could happen in America.


E L said...

I did check the arcade, but didn't really recognize any of the video games that "the kids" are playing these days. They still had some pinball.

I actually told that story about Uncle Harold while Mitch and I were there. I don't think I was quite able to communicate the enormity of how strange that experience was. Anyway, at least their first foray into this new oddity commonly referred to as "pizza" was a good one.

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