Smile Politely

A C-U classic: Papa Del’s pizza still hits the spot

It feels strange to be writing a Papa Del’s pizza review, almost like I’m trying to tell folks about this new restaurant I just tried called McDonald’s. I mean, we’ve all had it, right? Our opinions are pretty well set?

I suppose that’s true for a great number of C-U residents, but, of course, one of the defining features of our community is that people filter into and out of it on a yearly basis, and some new to town might be wondering if Papa Del’s lives up to the hype. Also, many who’ve had it before might not have done so in a while and are wondering if it’s time to give it another try. Whatever the reason, I’m not about to question getting to eat pizza for a restaurant review.

Papa Del’s pizza is roundly considered a favorite in the area. Though I (probably) haven’t sampled every local pizza, in my 20+ years of living here, I’ve yet to discover an alternative crowd-pleasing, special occasion pie.

Papa Del’s is known for what is generally considered Chicago-style pizza although they have other varieties. If Chicago-style is what you want, you will need to order the original Sicilian pan. It has a deep dish crust topped with cheese, your choice of meats and veggies, and a generous layer of their magnificent red sauce, in that order.

The names are important to remember because their super stuffed pizza is similar but with an extra layer of crust topped with pizza sauce on top of their deep dish base. They also offer a thin crust pizza, which they cut into squares (which some consider true Chicago-style pizza — and is typically my fave). Theirs has a stiff crust and a layer of cheese that, after it has cooled slightly, you could peel off your slice whole.

For our recent carryout order, we went with a medium Sicilian pan pizza (I think it’s safe to say “pan” for short when ordering; I did), a medium thin crust pizza, fried garlic butter doughnuts, and an individual Caesar salad.

Papa Del’s Sicilian Pan Pizza is shown whole, photographed from above: an approximately two-inch deep crust (darkened slightly at the edges) holds some visible toppings, such as sausage and green pepper. The rich, red pizza sauce covers the top completely. Photo by Rachael McMillan.

Photo by Rachael McMillan.

Let’s start with the star attraction: the pan pizza. We ordered ours with mushrooms and green peppers on all, and sausage on only half to accommodate the vegetarian in our family. The base price for a medium pan is $14.75, with toppings costing $2.00 each. That put the total cost for our pizza somewhere around $20 (I’m not sure if they charge less for half toppings). They advertise that it will serve three people, which assumes each person eats at least two whole slices. While certainly not impossible, it is a difficult feat for many, especially if other dishes are also being enjoyed. If you are ordering more than just the pizza, you can probably safely serve this size to a group of four or more.

As I mentioned before, thin crust pizza is usually what I prefer; however, Papa Del’s Sicilian pan pizza is my favorite menu item (aside from their fried calamari) and is their most well-known dish for very good reasons. With a crust that makes a hollow sound when you tap it, a cheese and toppings layer that, being in the middle of the pie, never hardens like on a typical pizza, and rich, tangy red sauce ladled thickly across the top, we are talking about pounds of hot, steamy comfort food.

A Papa Del’s pan pizza, though, is greater than the sum of its parts. The overall impression it gave was one of savory freshness, as if the ingredients were harvested from the (nonexistent) farm out back earlier in the day. I think a lot of its signature flavor comes from Papa Del’s house-made sauce and sausage, both of which they advertise for sale near the carryout counter.

On to the thin crust.

A thin crust, half cheese/half sausage and pepperoni, cut into squares, is shown from a slightly angled perspective.Photo by Rachael McMillan.

Photo by Rachael McMillan.

A few years ago in a non-pizza review of Papa Del’s, I mentioned my ongoing quest to find a pizza in C-U like the ones in the Kankakee area, where I grew up. As I recall, people familiar with that area commented; they knew exactly what I was talking about. As I mentioned in that review, Papa Del’s thin crust is the closest, and it’s definitely delicious. It is made with the same quality ingredients as the pan, and, like I said earlier, a nice, thick cheese layer that you could peel back and eat on its own, if you’re so inclined.

We ordered a medium thin crust with pepperoni and sausage on half. The base price for a medium pizza is $13, and toppings are $2 each. They advertise the pie as serving three people, which — if no other food is being ordered — seems about right. Many times, I have ordered only thin crust pizza from Papa Del’s. However, if I’m also ordering a pan, I treat the thin crust as an appetizer. A slice of pan pizza, which I need a fork and knife to take down, definitely feels like the main attraction in those cases.

A white styrofoam takeout container lined with foil holds golden brown fried garlic butter doughnuts, which resemble small fritters. They are topped with a sprinkle of parmesan cheese and chopped fresh parsley. A plastic ramekin holding bright red pizza sauce for dipping sits in the corner of the dish. Photo by Rachael McMillan.

Photo by Rachael McMillan.

Speaking of appetizers, we tried a new one this time: the fried garlic butter doughnuts ($9). Don’t let the name fool you; though these are an indulgent crowd pleaser, they are also light, poppable fare. Each one is about half the size of a doughnut hole; the batch is finished with garlic butter (which pools slightly at the bottom of the container and is fun to sop up), a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese, and chopped fresh parsley. They come with a choice of dipping sauce; we went with their pizza sauce because why mess with perfection? An order would easily serve a crowd of up to six.

A slightly angled view of the individual Caesar salad shows fresh, chopped romaine and iceberg lettuce, a sprinkle of parmesan cheese, scattered croutons, and a ramekin of creamy Caesar dressing. Photo by Rachael McMillan.

Photo by Rachael McMillan.

To end, here’s the scoop on their individual Caesar salad ($6): it could serve two or even three people depending on how much salad everyone is in the mood for. It’s fairly basic: a romaine and iceberg lettuce mix topped with a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese and what tastes like house-made fried croutons. The dressing also seems homemade; I tasted mayo and lemon juice in a way most bottled dressings can’t pull off. I don’t know if it seems like enough food for a light meal, but like everything else I’ve tried at Papa Del’s, the attention to quality ingredients it reflects made it seem like a good value.

This is probably a good place to mention that Papa Del’s is not the kind of place that throws a lot of coupons out there, does daily specials, or anything of the like. Their advertised prices are more or less what you’ll pay.

Our order total was $59.94 before tip. That fed my family of five dinner plus we munched on leftovers for breakfast (yes, we’re that kind of people), lunch, and snacks the next day. Factoring in the quality of the food, that’s a better than good value as far as I’m concerned.

A small white plate holds a slice of deep dish pizza, shown slightly from the side. The toppings--sausage, mushroom, and green pepper, are all visible. The pie had been topped with a hearty red sauce before being sliced. Photo by Rachael McMillan.

Photo by Rachael McMillan.

A couple of important notes: the Order Online button on their website is only for shipped items like frozen pizza and t-shirts. If you want to order carryout or delivery, you’ll need to call 217-359-7700 to put in your order.

Also, keep in mind that the larger the pizza, the longer you’ll need to give them. For example, a Sicilian pan pizza will take at least 45 minutes to cook. Make sure you time your call well before hunger strikes. If you’re dining in, plan to get an appetizer.

Ultimately, everyone will decide for themselves how to feel about one of C-U’s most iconic pizza establishments. If you’ve never tried it, you should. If it’s been a while since you tried it, maybe give it another go. I resisted calling myself a fan for a while, and now I’m not sure why I did that. Whether it’s your favorite pizza or not, you’ve got to admit: they’re doing something right.

Papa Del’s
1201 S Neil Street
10 a.m. to 10 p.m., daily

Top image by Rachael McMillan.

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