Thursday, August 9, 2012

Piper's Alley Memories, Meatball Pizza, Chicago Style

Old Town Gate

My first trip to the big city of Chicago sans parental units occurred when I was 15 (I lived in the burbs about 45 minutes outside of the city).  My slightly older beau (with a car and license) took me to a favorite haunt of the counter culture in the 60’s and 70’s—Old Town.  Old Town was Chicago’s answer to NYC’s Greenwich Village.

The original Old Town was completely destroyed by the Chicago Fire in 1871 (you know, the Mrs. O'Leary's cow fire).  Old Town was quickly rebuilt by its industrious, mostly German-immigrant occupants who had originally settled there in the 1840’s (after white settlers nabbed it from the Indians in the 1830’s).  It continued to quietly hum along even after having artists take up residence in the 1930’s.  All that changed in the 1960’s when it experienced a cultural transformation and a rush of long-haired youth who came to live and visit and play.

Second City
It was the home of great music venues (The Old Town School of Folk Music), quirky shops and of course, the famous Second City theater that was based at Piper’s Alley.

Old postcard with the famous giant lamp

Piper’s Alley was quite a place back then (I haven’t been back in a zillion years so have no idea what it looks like now–– so it is stuck in the amber of my memory as it was when I was a kid).  In 1967 the Chicago Tribune wrote of it saying, “Visitors enter under a gigantic lamp suspended over the sidewalk, walk east along a brick alley lined with carriage lamps …”

Piper’s Alley, 1960’s postcard 

A March 2, 1971 edition Trib said:

“Piper’s Alley was opened in Nov. 1965 by Rudolph Schwartz and Jack Solomon, owners of the five buildings that once made up Piper’s Bakery and stables. The 15 shops in the development include men’s and women’s apparel specialty stores, candy, candle, book, trinket, record, glass and wig shops, the Second City theater, Aardvark Cinematique, and an art gallery.”

1971 Fire in Piper’s Alley

With that giant lantern and the carriage lights, it had a magical Diagon Alley kind of atmosphere when I went there long ago.  Patchouli wafted around the cobbled street (as a personal statement and in incense form in the shops) but was a sensory distraction from the insanely delicious smell of pizza that issued from a place at the end of the alley –– a place that served the best pizza I had ever had.  I still remember it as one of the best.

It was called La Piazza Pizza from what I was able to dig up (the name had drained out of my brain years ago, to be honest, I’m not sure I ever knew it as anything other than the ‘pizza place in Piper’s Alley’ … even though everything about the pizza itself was lovingly locked in the old memory box). 

The space was funky.  A lot of brick, cheap faux-Tiffany lights and not very clean as I recall.  The pizzas that arrived in pitch black, heavily crusted pans were thick and doughy but with a great depth of flavor in the crust, quite a departure from the cotton-wool bland crusts I was used to.  This crust was strong and positively bathed in olive oil –– that’s what made it so damn good –– that and the rich sauce and thick, browned molten cheese.  It was a grand, heroic pizza.

I found a thread on a website that had many old fans sharing great memories of that pizza so I was not alone in my love of the place –– sadly no pictures of the premises could be found to share with you.  I know there are many who praise Pizza Uno or Due or Lou Malnati's, but for me, the best Chicago pizza will always live in that alley.

The crust recipe is one I’ve been making since college and is simple as could be.  The only change I’ve made is resting it overnight because I think it helps the flavor.

I give you a regular size and a mini meatball version as my homage to my favorite pizza. You can make my favorite meatballs or use your own favorite recipe. Also, I like whole wheat in my crust and think it adds character. I doubled down on flavor by using Red Fyfe wheat which is amazing stuff (I got the wheat from Sarah  of All Our Fingers in the Pie).  If you don't like whole wheat, just use white bread flour.

FYI –– traditionally, Chicago pizza is constructed a little differently than most.  The mozzarella cheese gets laid down first, then the ingredients, then the sauce is added with Parmesan sprinkled on top and sometimes a drizzling of olive oil. When making the individual pizzas you have to do the mozzarella the old fashioned way, it tops the little pizzas.

The extra olive oil is really a triumphant addition if I may say–– related to the Italian fashion of offering herbed olive oil with bread but much better for being baked into the crust.  You will fall in love with the technique.

One more note, these reheat beautifully and the olive oil keeps them very moist.  I also found it was a great idea to dunk them in left-over tomato sauce!!

Individual Meatball Pizzas Makes 8-9

1 recipe dough
1 recipe meatballs
1 recipe sauce
1 recipe herb/garlic oil
8-9 slices mozzarella
3 T parmesan cheese
3 T olive oil

Take the dough out of the fridge and make into rounds,  lay in the cupcake molds oiled with the 3 T olive oil –– about a teaspoon per mold.  Press the dough to the sides so they are hollowed out. Spread some of the oil over the top of the dough.  Let sit for 1 hour. I put oiled 1/2 egg shells in the centers to hold the shape.

Preheat oven to 425º  for 1/2 an hour with pizza tiles or stones.  Bake dough for 15 minutes.  Remove from oven and take out the egg shell if you used it, if you didn't pull out enough dough for the meatball to have a seat in the dough.  Spoon a bit of herb oil and place a sprinkling of parmesan  on the dough.  Place a meatball on top with a spoon of tomato sauce (don't use too much sauce, it will sog out the dough) and cover with mozzarella cheese.  Ladle a spoon of herb/garlic oil over the top and bake until golden, about 10 -15 minutes more.

Chicago Pizza Crust (makes 9 individual pizzas)

1 3/4 c flour (plus a little extra for working the dough into the molds)
3/4 c whole wheat flour
1 t salt
1 t sugar
1/4 t yeast
1 c water
2 T olive oil plus more to oil the bowl

Combine all the ingredients and knead in a standing mixer or by hand for for 8 minutes.
Put in an oiled bowl and cover.  Let rise till  double in size.  Put in the fridge overnight.

Take the dough out of the fridge and put in the cupcake molds, oiled with 1 t olive oil. Spread some of the oil over the top of the dough.  Let sit for 1 hour. I put 1/2 egg shells in the centers to hold the shape.

Preheat oven to 425º  for 1/2 an hour with pizza tiles or stones.  Bake dough for 15 minutes.  Remove from oven and place a sprinkling of parmesan  on the dough.  Place a meatball on top with a spoon of tomato sauce and cover with mozzarella cheese.  Ladle a spoon of herb/garlic oil over the top and bake until golden, about 15 minutes more.

Sicilian Meatballs based on Comforting Foods recipe  enough for 20 meatballs)

4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 

1 finely minced onion 

1/2 cup dry white wine 

¼ c sweet Marsala wine 

1 small bay leaf 

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 

1 teaspoon salt 

1 ½ pound ground beef (I use Grazin Angus Acres grass fed and delicious!) 

4 pieces of smoky bacon chopped
1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk, lightly beaten 

1 cup bread crumbs,
¼ pound grated Romano cheese 

1 c  chopped fresh parsley 

½ c chopped fresh basil 

1 T oil

Heat 4 tablespoons olive oil in a skillet over medium high heat. When hot, add onions and cook until translucent, 3 to 4 minutes. Add wine, Marsala, bay leaf, 1 teaspoon pepper and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Heat to a boil, then simmer until most of liquid evaporates, 9 to 10 minutes. Discard bay leaf. Transfer to a plate and refrigerate until cold. Gently but thoroughly combine ground beef, chilled onion mixture, egg, bread crumbs, cheese, parsley and chopped basil.  Form into meatballs.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate up to several hours.  Sauté chopped bacon until fat is rendered and bacon crisp and remove. Saute meatballs in the bacon fat and oil until cooked through and remove.

Tomato Sauce

1 can diced tomatoes
pinch of salt and pepper
1 clove garlic, minced
2 T onion
1 t olive oil
1/2 t oregano
1 T marsala wine

Saute the garlic, onion in the oil. Add the tomatoes and oregano and marsala wine and reduce till thick.

You can use left-over sauce to dunk the meatball pizzas –– a very tasty treat.

Herb Oil

1/4 c olive oil
1 clove garlic, pressed or minced
pinch salt and pepper
1/2 t oregano
1 T fresh basil, minced
1/4 t pepper flakes

Combine all.

Deep Dish Pizza

1 Recipe dough
2 T olive oil
6 slices mozzarella
1/2 c tomato sauce
8 slices pepperoni or hard sausage
1/4 c parmesan
herb oil

Put tiles or stones in the oven and preheat 1/2 an hour to 425º.  Swirl olive oil in 9" cake pan.  Place the dough inside, working it up the sides. If the dough has been refrigerated, let it warm up in the pan, covered for 1/2 an hour.  Bake for 15 minutes and remove.  Lay the mozzarella on the pie.  Lay on the sausage and then the tomato sauce.  Sprinkle with parmesan cheese.  Drizzle the herb oil over the top of the pie and brush on the crust.  Bake for another 15 minutes or until bubbly.

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Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Deana:
We have much enjoyed this excursion into Chicago's past, a city about which all kinds of different impressions are formed through what we have, over time, read. This post adds yet another dimension and introduces us to the Chicago pizza. All most interesting.

Diane said...

Having never been to Chicago I found this post very interesting.
I like the sound of the meatballs, something quite different. The pizza also sounds pretty special. I have noted both recipes.
Have a great day and take care Diane

Barbara said...

Spent a lot of time in Chicago when I was the 60's. But I do not remember anything about Piper's Alley. (which doesn't necessarily mean I never was there :) ) You have great memories of it. I'm smiling because it DOES resemble Harry Potter's Diagon Alley a bit.

But I do know about Chicago pizza. It IS different. I like a crisp crust and their's is bready. That much I do remember. Agree about whole it in breads and pasta. So much more flavor as well as being good for us.
You've given us some fabulous recipes today, Deana. Love the idea of the pizza balls.

Sarah said...

Chicago is on my bucket list. I have driven around but have not been to the city. What great ideas with pizza! I have never heard of a meatball pizza and love those little individual ones. I think I might make it with my girls at Kids Cooking Camp next week! Glad you are enjoying the Red Fyfe.

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

You paint a wonderful picture of Chicago Deana! I visited there quite a few years ago when my sister lived there and it was in the middle of winter so we ate plenty of Chicago pizza :D

Ken Albala said...

What what what? This is a pizza. Wicked cool. They look like muffins. I have never seen anything like this. Sounds incredible. SO, why is everyone this season dreaming of perfect pizza? I think it really is THE quintessential American food, period.

Fresh Local and Best said...

I love Chicago deep dish pizza! Inspired by this post I may need to hop on a plane to procure a bonafide Chicago deep dish. I love your description of the pizza you ate, it's a meets the standard of an extraordinary one. These mini versions look delicious!

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

I can't believe I never delved into that part of Chicago having lived only 90 minutes away by freeway all of my life! I guess the thought of driving home after a night of fun was always problematic :) I have to admit I'm partial to thin crust pizzas but I would most certainly try your adorable meatball pizzas. The meatballs alone sound fantastic.

Faith said...

I've only been to Chicago once, and never to Old Town, but I will definitely be hitting up that area on my next visit! What a lovely place, rich with history. I love Chicago-style pizza for a nice change from my usual New York-style pizza obsession. Great idea making them in individual sizes! (And if I made those Sicilian meatballs I know my hubby would die and think he went to heaven, lol.)

La Table De Nana said...

I love the look.. of the individuals and the biggi:)Really ?You get your flour from Sarah? Love blogland!

We have been to Chicago that the one you mean?
Tonight pizza is in the cards here..But Jacques'.

Lori Lynn said...

I have memories of Old Town and Piper's Alley from the 60's too. Our parents used to take us ...I remember a candy store and eating at Paul Bunyan's.
After college I worked at Gullivers on Howard St. great pizza, we served in those blackened pans as you remember well. And the large ones were so heavy!
Your individual pizzas sound perfect!

grw28 said...

My mom worked at La Piazza until it closed & reading this threw me right back to the past :)

KevinKillion said...

La Piazza!!! I loved that place, and our gang of friends were there countless times.

*** Does ANYONE have ANY pictures of La Piazza in Piper's Alley??? ***

(There is a restaurant by the same name in western 'burbs today, bit I called them and they had no connection with the grand Piper's Alley place.)

Anonymous said...

I loved this article! I, too, have memmories of going to Old Town in the '60's. Getting pizza at the Piper's Alley pizza shop was my first experience with Chicago-style deep dish pizza.

Oh, I think you should check your history. To my knowledge, Old Town is called "Old Town" because it was the only area left standing after the "Chicago Fire."

Thanks for the memmories. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I was ther ea lot in the 60s and part of second city workshop
And the pizzia place at the end of the alley w no door you just went to the end and you were there.Pizza was great like
N.Y. Hasn't known to this day.but then of course they don't
know what a "beef" is yet either.I think my friends and I wore
out the bars etc.

Anonymous said...

we use to own La Piazza in the 70's
in pipers ally, our menu was on barn wood on the wall, the new pipers ally was build next store witch was a
Checker cab garage

Deana Sidney said...

I wish I could contact you to tell you how great your pizza was. Kudos. Did you ever open a new place?
What was the secret?

Unknown said...

We are related! Harry Levin ring a bell? We would love to keep in touch.

Deana Sidney said...

Don't know a Harry Levin. He was the owner of Piper's alley pizza?

Unknown said...

yes our secret was a lot of love

Unknown said...

Our family still has the recipe. I plan on returning but it will take some time.

Deana Sidney said...

jeffrey, that is amazing. you have the recipe???? I would love to write about it. So many people have great memories of it.

Unknown said...

I could not agree with you more about La Piazza. When I was in high school,my friends and I would always go to Pizzeria Uno or Due after the Blackhawk games. One night, a friend suggested we go to La Piazza and I always felt it was the best. The cheese on it was so thick and delicious, I remembered it was almost like chewing bubble gum but I loved it. La Piazza had a certain distinct flavor and I would gladly pay $100 for a couple of their slices. I wish someone could duplicate that recipe!

Anonymous said...

Ur pizza was the best I ever had. The crust was the best part, and I have thought about this pizza for years. I wish to make it, but would luv to have the recipe if it is anywhere to be found. Did u Co tinge to make that fabulous pizza in the 70s?
If u r willing to give out the recipe, my Italian family would be forever grateful. U can answer me on this, and I will then go from there. Thanks

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

the old la piazza was next store were checker cab garage use to be it was call brother two

Unknown said...

My friends and I went to Old Town for the first time in 1967. I was 16. After walking around in awe of this part of the city went to Pipers' Alley. Ah , what a great place it was. At the end of the Alley was La Piazza Pizza. It was there that experienced my first pan pizza. It was great. Till today I've never had a pan pizza come close to that. Every time I went to old town I had to go to La Piazza. I frequented Old Town until Pipers' had their fire. I went there during the 70's but it was never the same. I miss that part of the city. It was just a cool place to be back then. I still have some things I bought at Maiden Lane and Bizarre Bizarre. I'd do it all over again.

JoeShuster said...

This subject (La Piazza) refuses to go away. I'm another old timer with very fond memories of La Piazza. As a suburban kid at UICC, it was my first bold sampling of Chicago-style pizza. It was love at first taste. Yes, later I enjoyed Uno's, Gino's East, Malnati's and others. But I can still remember that first taste of La Piazza. I think the crust had a light crispness without as much oiliness and hard crunch as the other leading pizzas. Without a doubt, it was the best thing I ever ate in an alley.

Oliver said...

Hey...that's how I remember it...A Brothers Too....I beleive...but I was young. Nobody here remembers them, why? Best deep dish I ever had. I'd dig in so quick I'd almost choke on the cheese it was so melty, thick.

Anonymous said...

I got to this page by searching "Pizza Pace in Piper's Alley Old Town Chicago. I couldn't remember the name of the pizza place, but I remember that it was the best pizza I ever had. I would come either with my friends or with my boyfriend every weekend! I remember shopping in all the "head shops", buying peace sign jewelry and feather earrings and suede fringe vests, candles, incense and blown glass animals. I wish I would have taken pictures of the place that I spent many a Saturday night enjoying!

Anonymous said...

I don't recall a La Piazza at the end of Piper's Alley but I do recall Mi Pi pizza being there in the late 60's or early 70's. Great pan pizza!!

Anonymous said...

Your pizza was the best ever nothing even close I wish you would open a new place with that recipe. You said you might open a new place in an old post did you ever do it? Was the brand of cheese real important in the recipe ? Thanks again for maling the greatest pizza in history!!! Period.