By December 2014, we knew we would have to say goodbye soon.
One third of the family had already moved to St. Louis for a new job and trial run. Ernie and I stayed behind just in case it was a bust. There was so much in Chicago we had yet to see. So many interesting neighborhoods. So much to learn. And so many pizzerias. The writing was on the wall: we had to kick our searches into high gear and experience as much of the wonderful city as possible.
In preceding seven years, we had visited, sampled, and loved countless pizzerias throughout the city and suburbs. Most were in familiar neighborhoods, though here and there we ventured farther out beyond our personal–and incomplete–version of Chicago. Early on, we focused on deep dish, as we thought we were supposed to do. And we loved it, too. But over time, we began to get the feeling that our focus, while somewhat legitimate, was a little misplaced, especially if we wanted to understand the food culture of our adopted city. Why was a different type of crust was always listed at the beginning of most menus, particularly at small neighborhood places? Why did they–when we didn’t specify crust type–give us a thin crust pizza cut in squares? I distinctly remember sitting in the nearly empty dining room at Congress Pizzeria on Milwaukee Avenue in Logan Square. As a huge stuffed pizza sat before us, I looked over at another table of neighborhood teenagers laughing at one another’s jokes. We plopped giant pie-cut slices onto our plates, the teenagers ate squares of thin crust. Increasingly it became apparent that we were missing something.
We’re not from Chicago, so we it took time to learn: thin crust is king.
So by the time Ernie and I made a trip Palermo’s on 63rd Street we had had a lot of Chicago pizza: deep dish, pan, stuffed, Neopolitan, New York-style slices, Sicilian, and, especially, Chicago-style thin crust thin crust. And over the previous few months, it had almost been our exclusive choice. This gave a lot of pizzerias by which to judge Palermo’s.
And still, Palermo’s was unforgettable. Our trip to the classic pizzeria on 63rd street kicked off one of the defining weekends of searching for pizza in Chicago, showing us so much more of the city and region we had seen before and rewarding us with some of the pizzas in all of Chicagoland and The Region. From our Logan Square apartment, the Southwest Side neighborhood known as West Lawn, home to Palermo’s, was a fairly long trip. Ernie, of course, led the way.
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Once we reach the Southwest Side, we found one of its important lifelines, Archer Avenue. While Archer is a veritable pizza highway, our destination, Palermo’s, was actually a bit deeper into the neighborhoods. Still, we took a longer route and went a little out of our way (a few blocks west of Midway) to make a quick stop at Nicky’s, at 6142 South Archer Avenue.
Located in a small one-story corner brick building at Austin Avenue, Nicky’s is a place that likely has not changed much over the decades, save for some wall signage, a few replacement tiles, and an ATM in the corner. Like many small places in Chicago, Nicky’s is cash only.
Nicky’s boasts a fantastic Chicago fast food menu. Anything you could possibly want: gyros, beefs, Polishes, Italian sausages, tamales on buns, pizza puffs, chili, tamales, and Big Baby burgers. Of course, if you want classic Chicago, you must wash it down with an RC Cola.
Since we had a pizza waiting down the road, just ordered a hot dog and fries. The dog was Chicago’s simple, but ubiquitous, version: an all-beef dog dressed with chopped onions, relish, mustard, a pickle spear, and sport peppers. This version–Depression Dog–is more common in places across the city and region than the world-famous Chicago Dog, which adds substitutes the neon green relish for the standard relish and a poppy seed bun for the plain bun, also adding tomatoes to the mix. To us, though, the Depression Dog captures the essence of flavors and, due to its ubiquity and seemingly even deeper working-class appeal, feels like a true version of the Chicago dog. Kind of like how deep dish is a true Chicago-style pizza, but the people most Chicagoans know is thin crust cut in squares. And Ernie is just fine with that. Fries, please!
The streets of the Garfield Ridge neighborhood surrounding Nicky’s are lined with single family brick homes, many of which were dressed up with lights for the holiday. We had visited this neighborhood, which developed substantially after World War II, several times for pizza, including a trip to Obbie’s just down the street, and to Danny’s just other direction (and even farther to the northeast, Falco’s). We made mental notes other stops we’d like to make: Triano’s, Villa Rosa, and more.
But we were running out of time in Chicago, so we had to focus on what we hoped would be the very best. So, we started up the car and traveled deeper into the Southwest Side.
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63rd Street can be pretty busy, but at this point in the cold winter night, it was relatively quiet. West Lawn has evolved in recent decades. Settlers there in the first half of the twentieth century included people of German, Czech, Polish, Irish, Italian, and Lithuanian heritage, many of whom migrated from Chicago neighborhoods such as Englewood where racial tensions led to white flight. A strong conservative identity took root in the area, with several Catholic parishes serving the area. By 1960, nearly 27,000 people lived in West Lawn (18,000 more than lived there just three decades before), and practically 100 percent of those residents identified as white. Mexican immigrants arrived in the neighborhood in the 1970s, which would set the stage to dramatically change the composition of the neighborhood decades later. Today, around 80 percent of the West Lawn’s residents identify as Hispanic. This fact was readily apparent on this stretch of 63rd Street, where Mexican taquerias and markets lined the storefronts both to the east and to the west of Palermo’s, which appeared like a holdover from an earlier time.
And it is because Palermo’s is from another era, that, through the neighborhood’s changes, has stood as a Southwest Side landmark for well over five decades. The Caldarone family opened it first as a take-out operation at 2517 West 63rd Street at Maplewood Avenue in the Chicago Lawn/Marquette Park neighborhood in 1961.
According to longtime owner Frank Caldarone, his parents, Antonino and Carmela Caldarone, wanted a place were the entire family could work together, so they opened the business with their four children, Ben, Joe, Frank, and Lia. From the beginning, Palermo’s has used the old recipes of Carmela’s family, the Tirritos. According to the 1940 Census, Carmela and her family lived in the Bridgeport neighborhood at 2534 South Lowe Avenue in a building that has since been wiped off the map by the construction of the Stevenson Expressway.
The business was a success, and the family opened a location on 95th Street in Oak Lawn, which reflected the growing suburban population in that community. Family tradition and recipes would extend to the new location, as the tag line often said, “Ben Says: ‘Ten Years of Satisfied Costumers Can’t Be Wrong!”
Today, the two restaurants claim no affiliation, but in the 1970s they were clearly linked.
Ads for the 95th Street location, which appeared to be operated by Ben Caldarone, encouraged diners to visit brother Joe Caldarone on 63rd Street.
In 1975, the Caldarones moved the 63rd Street restaurant a mile and a half directly west 3751 West 63rd Street, at Hamlin, in West Lawn.
It was just a mile and a half, but the growing West Lawn was almost a whole different world from the tensions that had been occurring in Marquette Park (though West Lawn previously experienced its own racially-charged riots in 1946 at the Airport Homes for returning veterans). The Palermo’s was eight blocks farther west than competitor Little Joe’s Pizzeria, located at at 63rd and Sacramento, and four blocks further than Italian Villa Pizza, between Spaulding and Homan avenues.
The new location, operated by Joe and Frank Caldarone, showed the aspirations for the growing business. With new air conditioned dining room, Palermo’s could welcome large parties, as well as expanded their carryout and delivery operations.
When we visited four decades later, the dining room was very quiet. Only one table was occupied.
The walls of the dining room loving celebrated the Palermo’s history and the Caldarone’s pride in the business they had built. Many photos include family members famous and semi-famous individuals.
Today, the business is owned and operated by Frank Caldarone and his nephew, Paul Baio, who can be seen in the center of the photograph below.
Religious faith appears to play an important role for members of the Caldarone family, as there several framed photos of them with religious leaders, including Pope John Paul II.
The bar, which ran along the front end of the restaurant, was quiet, as well. Perhaps the dinner rush was already over.
Our pizza was at the carryout counter in a small room off to the side. No doubt a lot of business comes through this counter. And we got the most gigantic thin crust pizza we’ve ever encountered. Back to the car with our pizza that heavier than a deep dish pie, Ernie was ready to go.
On the way out we did the quickest of looks around at the neighborhood. Many small single family brick homes lines the streets off of 63rd Street.
We then began the reflective trip to our home far on the other side of town.
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Back home in Logan Square, we placed our massive pizza on the table.
Wrapped in a classic pizza bag, we couldn’t help but think that this hefty pizza probably needed a sturdy box.
That said, you probably have no need for stacking these pizzas, as you probably don’t need more than one to feed a large family.
Palermo’s of 63rd has a second location in Frankfort, located southwest suburban Cook County, likely following much of their customer base to the suburbs.
Interestingly, Palermo’s on 95th–the original second location–is not mentioned at all, suggesting a dissolution of their affiliation for some reason. Another location in Orland Park, which claimed to be connected to Palermo’s restaurant traditions and recipes (though did not seem to be acknowledged by either 63rd or 95th Street locations) appears to have closed recently but their website is still live.
It was quickly apparent to us Palermo’s of 63rd may serve the penultimate Chicago-style pizza. Their crust–thin, but not ultra thin–was perfect. This style of crust seems to be the most common style in Chicago, and to us Palermo’s of 63rd remarkably noteworthy example of it.
While all the ingredients of Palermo’s pizza are high quality–cheese and sausage were delicious–the true standout is the deep red, incredibly sweet sauce. According to Baio, the sauce is a secret known only to a handful. Many have tried to unlock the mystery, but the true ingredients and process may never be known outside of a select few.
Ernie eventually got to try some crust with the wonderful sauce, too.
While Vito & Nick’s has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention in recent years, Palermo’s of 63rd too is a true Chicago classic that should be held just as high. It was unfortunate to see the latter’s dining room quiet while Vito & Nick’s was probably still busy with locals and people from outside the neighborhood looking for real Chicago pizza. It’s available on 63rd Street, too.
We settled in for a night reflecting on the trip, the past week, and the past few years. As longtime fans of late night television, we made sure not miss David Letterman’s last Christmas show. We’d been fans of Letterman for years. It was sad to see a chapter coming to a close.
One last time, he introduced Darlene Love, who performed the always-powerful “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),“ a Letterman tradition for years. We knew we would likely be saying another goodbye soon, too.
Still, there was more pizza to find before we did.
Palermo’s of 63rd is located at 3751 W 63rd St, Chicago, IL 60629