Anybody who’s ever driven, walked, run, biked, or scooted down Harlem Ave. from Irving Park to North Ave. in Chicago (or technically Portage Park, Dunning, Belmont Heights, Montclare, Elmwood Pk, and Galewood) knows that there is a treasure trove of Italian restaurants. Harlem is home to both Nottoli Italian Foods (a little further North), and the wonderful Riviera Imported Foods, which has not only delicious food imported from the old country, but Italian magazines, newspapers, and a staff fully fluent in the mother tongue.
The idea of a pizza crawl has long been in our minds, and what better place to explore it than on Harlem Ave.? On a Friday late afternoon it only takes one about 3 hours to drive from downtown to Harlem and Irving (unless you’re on a scooter and it takes about 15 minutes). So in prep for this pizza crawl we did a little googling and selected 5 of the most popular places pizza places that served slices on Harlem Ave. between Irving Park and North Ave.We begin with Mr. Beef & Pizza located at 3917 Harlem. It’s exactly what you’d expect. They got beef.They got pizza. The doc and I decided to go for the same slice at every spot. I did Sausage, he did Cheese. I got there a little earlier than the doc. Since I had been starving myself that whole day, I quickly devoured the pizza.
It was a nice, uneventful start to what would prove to be a grueling three hours of pizza digestion.
Next stop on the tour was supposed to be Forno Rosso Pizzeria Napolitana, but they don’t serve slices. I’m bummed about that, because the pies do look scrumptious on the internet. No matter though, The Doc and I make our way to Coluta’s Pizzza (3239 Harlem Ave.)
I should mention that, with zero exceptions, I arrived at every place before the Doc. This is not only because I was on a scooter during rush hour, but also because every damn pizza place was on the East side of the street, and since we were constantly travelling South, this necessitated obnoxious left hand turns both in order to get the pizza, and to get away from the pizza.
In hindsight, we should’ve started with the last one first, BUT, you live and you learn. So Coluta’s. On the outside, not much to look at:
Actually on the inside not much to look at either. The doc will provide pics. But, have no fear, the pizza is quality stuff. Not too different from Mr. Beef & Pizza, but the slices were a little fresher (I realize it’s a gamble with slices), and the cheese was intermingled with a little more salt and oregano, which is always preferable to just straight up cheese. The slice was also a little bigger, and about half way through I realized that maybe I need to start pacing myself, and ate maybe 3/4 of it.
Look both ways at oncoming traffic and we are off to Geo’s Pizza (2849 Harlem Ave.).
Since I got there a little earlier than the Doc, I decided to get a couple cannoli next door at Il giardino del dolce (roughly “the garden of sweets”). My my, I could do an entire Harlem crawl on dolci deliziosi italiani. This place is sugar heaven. I got a regular cannoli for the Doc, and a chocolate cannoli for the Mrs. Miraculously I didn’t even have a bite of either.
The Doc eventually arrived at Geo’s and we quickly realized that he had left his wallet at Coluta’s. 15 minutes later, we’re back at Geo’s and ordering our slices. The inside of the place looked like a bookie’s office. There were no chairs or tables. Just a bench. I don’t like to speak bad of pizza, but this one was a little disappointing. Perhaps it was the sheer onslaught of pizza that we’d been experiencing, maybe it was the paper thin cracker crust, or maybe it was the discernible lack of any sauce, but the pizza just didn’t do it for me. I am willing to try it again though.
Next up was gonna be Sorrento’s (2743 Harlem Ave.), but this place only did slices ON DEMAND. And they were freshly cooked to order. The Doc and I put in our order and headed to what was supposed to be the last place, but ended up being the penultimate place, Amato’s Pizza (1737 Harlem Ave.)
The weight of all this pizza is definitely starting to drain me, and I’d be lying if I said the scooter wasn’t buckling a little bit. But the pizza here was damn good. I really had to force it down though, and only made it about halfway through:
Ugggg. Tasty, but UGGGGGG. Back to Sorrento’s!
Alright, the interior of Sorrento’s makes you think it’s a front for some shady business even more so than Geo’s. Not only are there no tables or chairs (just a small bench) but the entire place is painted white (I think?), and there’s almost nothing on the walls. This is either a front for Lega Nord, or they just don’t mess around. Turns out that it’s probably the latter, because, even though eating another slice of pizza is the last thing I want to do on the planet right now (which I can’t even believe I’m tying, sitting here at 1:00 P.M. on a Friday afternoon, desperately craving the soul-bathing experience of some pizza), this stuff was maybe the finest we had on the whole trip:
Granted, not much to look at, but it was damn good. I think I got about 3 bites down. It was exhausting.
All told, It was really only 5 (sorta 6) slices of pizza. I’ve been known to easily down an entire small pie from my favorite pizzeria La Villa, but something about the accumulation of all these slices was debilitating.
I have a picture of me after all this was done that is so horrible that I can only share it privately.
Of course I’d do it again.
Just received from the padre di maestro:
Ciao figlio mio,
Just saw this and really enjoyed it. From a historical perspective (and you may not know this) the westward Italian migration to Harlem avenue, Melrose, Elmwood, Franklin and Schiller parks was largely fueled by Chicago Avenue Italians (some Taylor streeters too). Nottoli was the place your Nana bought sausage and the kids made fun of the old man grinding out meat in the window while slyly ogling the young girls. Italian deli fans either went to Riveriera or the now defunct (I think) Vesuvius. Ancona bakery ruled, kids spent all Saturday at the Alamo show (2 movies, 4 cartoons), women shopped pulling little carts; no one drove and everyone spoke Italian. We had no Polish, Greek or any other ethnic stores and I knew a handful of people that weren’t Italian until I went to High School.
Chicago Avenue from Kedzie to Pulaski, Augusta to Franklin Boulevard was the greatest place to grow up and be poor without really knowing we were poor. The fire at Our Lady of Angels school which killed nearly 100 students and nuns was a major factor in breaking up the neighborhood as people who lost kids just wanted fresh starts. The real estate scum blockbusters preyed on racial fears causing more people to move and instill a hatred of blacks that has unfortunately remained with many of my peers to this day. When immigrants came they first stayed with relatives mostly in apartment buildings like the one we had growing up. Although economic success has scattered the Italians and melted us into the fabric of America, it’s great to see these little outposts. Amazingly of all the time I spent on Harlem I never found a pizza place that I liked although the long departed Margie’s beef was and remains my favorite beef joint.