Out of towners might think Chicago is strictly a deep dish town.
But true locals argue — with reason — that most Chicagoans actually eat thin crust pizza, specifically a thin crust that’s cut into squares.
And a big reason for this is Vito & Nick’s Pizzeria on the Southwest Side — a place that is celebrating its 100th anniversary Thursday with a socially-distanced celebration in the parking lot.
Owner Rose George runs the business today. She took it over from her father, Nick Barraco, who ran it with his father, Vito Baracco.
Vito Baracco initially got the family in the tavern business with a speakeasy on the Near West Side in 1920, George said. The tavern changed locations a few times, and finally landed in the Ashburn neighborhood at 84th Street and Pulaski Road in 1945.
Within a year, the family was baking their ultra-thin, cracker-crust style pizza for patrons in the tavern, George said.
“They were small pieces, and they were easy to eat,” George said. “People could sit around and help themselves, and they only needed napkins, they didn’t need a plate. It’s not messy.”
It’s also delicious.
George credits the creation of the pizza to her Sicilian-born grandmother, Mary Barraco. Grandma Mary made a thick style of pizza for the family, George said, but worked on a very different style for the bar at the request of her son, Nick. He got the idea when he was serving in Europe during World War II.
“It started when my dad [Nick Barraco] was in the service, and he contacted my grandmother Mary,” she said. “He asked her to make a pizza that was thin, very thin. And when he got home, they perfected it.”
While the restaurant is widely viewed as one of the best examples and progenitors of Chicago’s classic “tavern cut” style, George said that’s never what she called it.
“I first heard that term ‘tavern cut’ a few years ago,” she said. “We just called it pizza, thin crust pizza.”
Today, pizza lovers still flock to the Southwest Side for Vito & Nick’s ultra-thin pizza that you could famously get topped with sunny side up eggs on Fridays (for Catholic meat abstainers). But now that special pie is available every day.
“We get generations and generations coming in, and coming back, for the pizza,” George said.
George was raised in the home upstairs from the tavern, where she still resides today. So what is the secret to the longevity of her family’s tavern and pizza business?
“Consistency and keeping the same quality of food,” she said. “I learned two important things from my father before he passed. One is that you are out there working for the working class person. You want them to be able to come in on a weekly basis if possible with their family and be able to afford it so you keep your prices as low as you can. And two: He said whether you have good times or bad times you never ever vary the quality of your product. Never.”
After 100 years in the business, and 75 years in the same location, it seems like that strategy is proving effective.
George said business has slowed down a bit during the pandemic, but after so many decades, she’s not throwing in the towel.
“It dipped a little at the start, but they are coming back,” she said. “And thank God our carryout has always been strong and still is. We’re still going to be here for a while.”
Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter. Write to her at email@example.com.