Chicago's Nancy's Pizzeria piles the pie high

Every good Italian restaurant has a story. The one at Nancy's Pizzeria goes something like this. Nancy and Rocco Palese lived their adult lives in Turin, the northern Italian home of the legendary shroud. They had also lived in Potenza, in the south, where they emigrated from in 1969. By the time they landed in Chicago, they had a good sense of the regional cultures - and cuisines - of their boot-shaped homeland. After only about a few months, they opened a pizza place, specializing in Italian-style thin crust pizza. But one day they got the chance to see and taste a new kind of pizza, one that was a few inches higher and a few pounds heavier than the ones back home. "A Lot' A Meat" Pizza with sausage, Canadian bacon, pepperoni and bacon.

It was a watershed moment; the Paleses' lives as pizza makers were changed forever. They wanted to make deep-dish pizza, but they couldn't just copy what was down the street. So Rocco concocted his own version, adapting his mother's recipe for a sweet and eggy Easter cake, scarciedda, into their famous "stuffed" pizza. They changed their name to Nancy's, and the rest is history.

In the early 1990s, the Paleses started franchising their now-famous pizzeria, called the best stuffed pizza in Chicago by the Chicago Tribune. They have almost 70 outlets throughout the Midwest and Florida.

One of these franchises resides in an unlikely home in a strip mall in Fishers. The location doesn't exactly exude gritty Chicago pizzeria attitude or old-world charm. There's nary a lick of graffiti carved into the tables. A few vintage pictures of the Palese clan decorate the place, including one classic of Nancy, her hair in a beehive, and Rocco pointing at each other with devilish grins.

But just about everything else, from bright lights to soft jazz to ordering at the counter, seems to discourage customers from dining in. For the whole meal, we were almost the only ones in the shop, though the phone did ring at a steady rate.

The local Nancy's does have its claims to fame. Owner David Jessup's grandson, Forrest Landis, is a budding actor, having played one of the children in the 2003 comedy Cheaper by the Dozen. An entire wall serves as shrine to the child sensation, featuring signed pictures of 10-year-old Landis with such stars as Hilary Duff, Bonnie Hunt and Ashton Kutcher. Just get Jessup started, and you'll hear an earful about his pride and joy.

Despite its generous menu with everything from chicken tetrazzini dinners to a long list of "baked, not fried" appetizers and sandwiches like the "Godfather," Nancy's is one place where you'd be a fool to get anything but their stuffed pizza. It's textbook Chicago-style pizza, right down to the buttery, crunchy crust and thick layers of cheese and the pizza sauce on the top. We went right for the gut with a small "A Lot' A Meat" ($16.99) with sausage, Canadian bacon, pepperoni and bacon. While this was truly a gooey, tasty, weighty pie, it wasn't ridiculously heavy. The meat was chopped fine enough and the toppings were in perfect balance. Truly an authentic taste of Chicago via southern Italy. It fed three with leftovers.

Just to say we'd tried other things, we ordered a 10-inch thin-crust Vegetini ($9.99). Pizza-wise, this arrived at the other end of the spectrum. The crust was neither chewy nor crisp. Broccoli was tender though somewhat soggy, mushrooms were plentiful and roasted garlic offered a nice undertone of flavor. Atop this all, however, sat a layer of barely pink, out-of-season tomatoes that had picked little color from the oven. We packed up the better portion to take home.

Salads, almost without exception, come in freshly baked bread bowls. Fearing an overload of starches, we requested our Caesar salad in a conventional bowl. This left us with a giant pile of sliced romaine lettuce, covered in parmesan and croutons. Just to make clear the dressing isn't house-made (it's Kraft), it came in packets we had to apply ourselves. We tried to toss the lettuce with the dressing, but more of it ended up on the table than our plates.

Desserts are also not homemade, but the tiramisu ($3.69) is definitely worth trying. It's creamy but not too rich, with just the right bite of liquor. The cannoli ($1.95), however, seemed completely done in by the freezer.

A wall placard announced that Rocco had died in 1994. While he might have been surprised that his pizza recipe had made its way all the way from Potzena to Fishers, we were glad, for one night, to be heirs to his creation.

Chicago's Nancy's Pizzeria

8938 E. 96th St.

594-6400

Hours

Monday-Thursday 4-10 p.m.

Friday-Saturday 4 p.m.-11 p.m.

Sunday 4-9 p.m.

Food: 3 stars

Atmosphere: 2 stars

Service: 3 stars

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