LINCOLN PARK — Whenever I’m asked to tick off my favorite Chicago pizza joints I stick to places that serve tasty pies within the city limits — Pequod’s deep dish and Vito and Nick’s thin crust, among others.
In recent years, that meant leaving my all-time favorite pizza off the list — the sweet and savory pie of my south suburban youth, beloved since 1959 by my late grandfather, my mother and my pals, or at least the ones with good taste.
Thankfully, those days are over.
Now, Aurelio’s Pizza — arguably among the finest thin crust pies in the land — is making a triumphant return to Chicago right in the heart of Lincoln Park, at the zoo food court of all places.
This month, Aurelio’s signed on as official pizza of Lincoln Park Zoo — replacing the bland, tasteless “zoo pizza” that visitors have endured for years.
Lincoln Parkers can send thank you notes to Bryan Anderson, the zoo’s director of pizza and beer sponsorships (not his official title), who also gets credit for getting Lagunitas Brewing Co. to provide its tasty beer for its summer happy hours at Cafe Brauer on Wednesday nights and other events.
“This is all to improve the zoo experience with top-quality pizza,” Anderson told me.
And craft beer, I reminded him. Mmmm, beer. It’s the stuff that attracts even guys without kids to check out the zoo’s collection of camels, llamas and rhinos.
But when it comes to Aurelio’s' return to the city after a franchise at the Holiday Inn on Harrison and Canal closed a few years back, the zoo food court is just a taste of what’s to come, says Aurelio’s owner, Joe Aurelio, the namesake son of the late pizzeria founder.
“This is just a preview to our new restaurant that’s coming Downtown at Roosevelt and Michigan that we’re planning to open in late summer,” Aurelio said. “We didn’t want to give up having Aurelio’s in the city of Chicago and just be a suburban pizza. Now, we’ll be on a robust corner at the doorstep of Grant Park. We’re a perfect fit for Chicago, and we aim to get thin crust back on the map. Chicago’s not just a deep-dish town.”
Truer words have never been said.
For me, Aurelio’s return to the Chicago market comes with a bit of nostalgia — and not just for the lunch buffet at the South Holland restaurant frequented by me and my Thornwood High football teammates.
Aurelio’s father, the late Joe Aurelio Jr. of Homewood, was pals with my late grandfather, Joe Gill, a jack-of-all trades — mechanic, woodworker, truck driver, house builder, joke teller and, for a time, a volunteer cop on night patrol in sleepy suburban East Hazel Crest.
It was on those quiet evening patrols in the early '60s that Grandpa Gill became pals with the gregarious Italian guy who recruited customers to his tiny pizza joint with his kindness and a catchphrase now found on Aurelio's pizza boxes, “Tell 'em, Joe sent me.”
“There wasn’t a lot to patrol, and Grandpa would end up at Aurelio’s a lot,” my grandma, Stella Gill, said. “And after a while he would invite Joe Aurelio over for coffee. They sure could talk, those guys.”
I didn’t learn of my family’s Aurelio’s connection until long after falling in love with a pizza that literally has a trademarked sweet sauce and is covered with salty mozzarella, tangy homemade sausage and peppers piled on a lightly charred crust just the way I like it.
But I’m sure pizza-loving Chicagoans know what I mean when I say that my favorite pie has always been part of the family.
So, if you head to Lincoln Park Zoo — or the new Aurelio’s opening Downtown this summer — tell 'em Mark sent you.
They won’t know what the heck you’re talking about, but trust me, it’ll be worth the trip.