I stopped by Punky's Pizza on 26th Street this evening for a slice. "Careful," the kid behind the counter, "we're trying something different with our pies."
I thought was referring to the- uh... let's be generous and call it "crispy"- texture of the slices. I was wrong. The kid proudly held up a slice to my eyes and said "we're cutting the slices a bit bigger."
I walked home and unwrapped my slice. Holy Shit! The kid wasn't kidding. My slice must've been a good 1/8th of the pizza. They could be measuring the slices metrically, which would be a first for the American pizza industry. My guess is that they're feeling ready to compete with Freddie's on 31st and Union for neighborhood supremacy.
Bridgeport has a near glut of good pizza joints: Donnie's on 33rd and Wells by Sox Park makes an excellent calzone. Lina's on 31st Place and South Morgan has some excellent sauce on its pizza. Little Caesar's on South Halsted technically qualifies as pizza, but unless you're new to the city from Kansas you shouldn't even be considering Little Caesar's as an option. No trip to Bridgeport is complete without a stop at the original Ricobene's on 26th Street or Connie's on Archer Avenue, where you can breathe the exhaust fumes from the expressway while eating on the patio deck as easily impressed Midway Airport-bound tourists on the Orange Line crane their necks for a better view of the Connie's delivery truck perched atop a pole fifty feet above the street and ask "isn't that the pizza they serve at Cubs games?"
But for me the undisputed pizza king in Bridgeport is Freddie's. Their slices are New York style: large but thicker than the typical Chicago slice. They use beef sausage, which is spicier than pork sausage. My friend Sue says that it tastes like Burger King breakfast sausage. To my palate it almost tastes like Chorizo. The slices are always hot, which is a plus if you live more than three blocks away from the place, but when you live within three blocks of the place like me you should let the pizza cool unless you like ingesting molten lava. The upper plate of my mouth must have at least fifteen percent scar tissue from eating at Freddie's.
Punky's has been around for a couple years. Previously it was known as Paulie's and it was run like a mob front- they occasionally made pizza between receiving shipments of cash in small bills and cursing at the White Sox on television. Once Punky bought it it became pretty good pizza joint. He kept the one manager who could crack a whip, changed out the menu, and emphasized selling pizza, which was a radical idea for the place. It must be working since cops frequent the place more than a Dunkin' Donuts. Or maybe that's because they're still looking for Paulie.
Anyhoo, Punky's uses pork sausage, which isn't as spicy, but they compensate with a tangier sauce and prominent placements of garlic and oregano. The slices previous to their experiment with the metric system are Chicago style, which means that while they're smaller than Freddie's, you need to use both hands or else your lap is getting a giant ball of boiling cheese plopped on it.
Finally, Punky's motto is "If your last pizza was funky, call Punky." So not only do they have confidence in their pizza, they have a intermediate grasp of poetry. Pizza's always been called "smart food."
I personally prefer Punky's pizza. Too many nights I've awakened in the middle of the night after eating a slice of Freddie's running for the Maalox. It's too spicy. But it's a Pyrrhic victory. What makes a pizza joint- especially on the South Side of Chicago- is how they handle the other staples of the menu. And the only other thing Punky's makes well are fries. Their cheesy beef ain't cheesy enough. When you ask for a dipped Italian beef it's still pretty dry. And they don't have Italian ice like at Freddie's
The true test of a South Side pizza joint is how they handle the breaded steak sandwich. And for my money (which included with a bottle of Pepsi now costs eleven dollars) Freddie's has the best breaded steak in the city. Twelve inches long and as thick as a Mark Prior calf muscle, Freddie's breaded steak is almost four thousand calories of YOU CAN'T POSSIBLY EAT THAT IN ONE FUCKING SITTING!!!
If a place like Freddie's existed when Elvis were alive, the breaded steak would have shaved another five years off his life. That wouldn't have been a bad thing; Elvis at thirty-seven was a tweener. He still had some of that smoldering sex appeal, but he was just starting to need help zipping into the jumpsuits and was keeping his pills in a diamond encrusted "T.C.B." pillbox. And that's why Freddie's will hold market domination in a neighborhood where you can't spit without hitting a pizza joint. Bigger is better, but we still want some flavor. Just think of Tweener Elvis.