Please don't shoot the messenger: Purists may argue, but I believe there are as many excellent styles of pizza as there are excellent styles of barbecue, and I refuse to swear allegiance to just one.
Just as I don't want vanilla ice cream every time I have a cone, why would I want the exact same pizza every time I want a slice?
My cravings recently led me to Billy's Old World Pizza, where the owner promises "a taste of Chicago" in his pizzas, pastas and Italian buffet. With all the Chicago memorabilia decorating the walls, you can't forget what city he's talking about. But you probably won't care once you sink your teeth into the pizza or the other homemade specialties. The restaurant itself might be a little worn around the edges, but the food is still batting a thousand.
The Italian buffet is available at lunch ($9.25) and dinner ($10.50). The best thing about the buffet is that it's fairly small and well attended. It doesn't try to be all things to all people. There's a nice salad bar component with fresh vegetables, some prepared salad, some pickled items and ranch or Italian dressing. There's always a homemade soup, some overly buttery garlic bread, homemade sausage and meatballs, pasta with marinara sauce or meat sauce, Italian beef and usually three pizzas. The pizzas are usually a thin crust cheese, a thin crust meat and a stuffed (double crust) with meat.
Why is "small" a good word to apply to a buffet? The pans of food aren't enormous, which means someone from the kitchen is checking on them constantly. Fresh dishes are brought out as soon as something runs low, and the food that has been sitting out is replaced, not merely topped off.
That being said, some of the meat items fare better if you order them off the menu rather than sample them on the buffet. The meatballs, which are bathed in marinara sauce, hold up well. The sausage, which the owner makes from scratch, is sweet, spicy and delicious, but tastes better in a sandwich or on a pizza. Ditto the Italian beef, which is slow roasted and seasoned with oregano. Sitting in the beef broth on the buffet robs the beef of some of its robust flavor.
In a sandwich ($7/$7.60 with cheese), that beef is wonderful. The crusty white roll has enough heft to hold the juicy meat, and the cheese adds a chewy richness of its own. You can customize the sandwich with roasted sweet or hot Giardiniera peppers for an extra punch. It would be nice if the sandwich came with a side of chips or a small salad, as it looks lonely in the paper-lined basket with nothing alongside.
The pizza and mostaccioli ($8.25-$10) are made in-house, served with marinara or meat sauce. Both of the red sauces have a wonderful, deep, slow-cooked flavor, redolent with garlic, basil, oregano, peppers and onions. All the pasta dishes come with one trip to the salad bar and the garlic bread. Really, my one complaint about the food is the garlic bread, which is over-buttered and greasy.
The spaghetti with chicken Parmesan ($10.25) is a huge amount of food. The spaghetti is combined with your choice of sauce and topped with a hand-breaded chicken breast, which is tawny and juicy, punchy with Parmesan. The only element that doesn't jive with the quality of the food is the fact that the pasta dishes are served in metal to-go pans. Convenient for leftovers, yes, but a little off-putting.
But what about the pizza? I love it. It's slow-baked on a stone, so the crust is thin but chewy and crispy around the edges. The red sauce is full of slow-cooked flavor that doesn't shy away from oregano, garlic, basil and onions. Sometimes you want a light sauce that tastes of fresh tomato, and sometimes you want something with more kick, which is what Billy's will give you.
The thin crust pizzas run $7.75 to $13.25 for a plain cheese pie with that magnificent sauce. Billy's will also make a white pizza for you, replacing the pizza sauce with olive oil. We had one with ricotta cheese, spinach and fresh garlic that even the most rabid carnivore would swoon over.
The crown jewel at Billy's has to be the Chicago-style stuffed deep dish pizza ($14.75-$26.50) . This is one double-crusted pizza that will not disappoint, because the crust is flawless. Both top and bottom crusts are thin enough to cook through but sturdy enough to stand up to all the toppings. The top crust gets another layer of sauce and a sprinkle of cheese. A single slice is all I can eat in one sitting, but the pizza reheats beautifully the next day. (You can use the microwave, but the crust and cheese fare better if you heat leftovers in a regular oven instead. Caution: On the rack, not in the pizza box.)
We sampled one with pepperoni on the buffet, and it was absolutely loaded with the thinly sliced sausage and tons of gooey, melted cheese. But the real treat was the double crust Old World Veggie ($19.50-$23.50) we ordered. Inside the two crusts was an abundance of cheese, mushrooms, onions, green peppers, black olives, fresh garlic, tomatoes and spinach.
The double-crusted masterpieces takes 45 minutes to bake. You can call ahead to place your order, or take home a partially baked pizza and finish the baking at home.