Sometimes, Ernie and I are in the mood for a long drive to hound out a pizza, like when we drove from Chicago down to Dino’s Pizza in Whiting, Indiana. Other times, we just don’t have the energy or time to travel too far. On those nights, we need pizza right away so we can get home to relax and plop on the couch and stare at (and listen to) the TV. So, on a fall Saturday night in October, we made the relatively short drive to longstanding Mama Luna Restaurant in the Cragin neighborhood on Chicago’s Northwest Side.
Today, tens of thousands of residents live in the Cragin area, but one of the earliest settlements was Whiskey Point, located at the meeting of Armitage and Grand Avenues, where a settler named George Merrill opened a saloon in 1835. For about five decades the area remained predominantly rural. But by the 1880s the area began to attract a number of manufacturing establishments, and from that point until the end of the 20th Century industry came to dominate the area’s landscape and culture . One of the earliest companies in the area was the tin plate and sheet iron processing Cragin Brothers & Company, which occupied an 11 acre site. Decades later, the Chicago Tribune noted retrospectively that the company, located at Milwaukee “tracks near LeClaire Avenue in 1882 [. . .made] nuts and bolts, tinware, oilcans, eggbeaters and other items too numerous to mention.” Railroads helped spur access to the business and others like it, and also brought workers and residents, first Swedish, German, and Irish, and in 1889 Cragin was annexed by the rapidly growing city of Chicago. Several other large manufacturing companies moved in and occupied massive spaces, helping set the industrial character of the neighborhood. Many workers of Polish and Italian descent began moving to the area in the 1920s. Most of them lived in between the large factories and warehouses on streets lined with blue-collar two-flats, while those that had achieved a level of affluence lived in the area’s numerous sturdy, beautiful brick bungalows. (See Encyclopedia of Chicago: Belmont-Cragin for more information on the history of Cragin.)
Concurrent with trends of deindustrialization across the older manufacturing-based cities of the Rust Belt, industry began to leave Chicago and the Cragin area in the 1980s and 1990s. Notably, the W.F. Hall Printing Co., which at one time was the largest printing facility in the world, closed in 1985. Between 1970 and the mid-1980s, the wider-encompassing Belmont-Cragin community lost over 15,000, or 47 per cent, of its manufacturing jobs. The city as a whole posted similar numbers. Nonetheless, after a small population loss, the area grew by tens of thousands of residents, mainly due to a large increase in the Hispanic population. Reflecting America’s move to a service economy, the massive footprints of old, closed manufacturing facilities were often converted to retail space. The Carey Brickyard site at Narragansett and Diversey, for example, became home to the Brickyard Mall.
Mama Luna arrived during the neighborhood’s industrial heyday, situated at North Lamon Avenue on the thriving Fullerton Avenue, a primary, four-lane thoroughfare that today remains an economic center of the neighborhood. The Kennedy Expressway (Interstates 90/94) runs to the north, but it’s far enough away for one to think Fullerton is the busiest stretch of road in the world. And since Mama Luna’s has been in the neighborhood on Fullerton since the tail end of the Eisenhower administration, it certainly has had plenty of time to be the scene of an interesting story or two, some written and some never known. One known story is the fact that a mafia hit occurred inside the restaurant on Halloween night in 1975. Yikes!
Of course that story doesn’t define Mama Luna’s. The restaurant, which later moved to its current location three blocks west of Cicero, serves old fashioned Italian American cuisine, with lots of red sauce on the menu. They serve plenty of appetizers and salads, as well. But pizza–classic tavern cut thin crust–is their specialty. Its satisfying and consistent recipe is beloved by many current and former residents. A neighborhood classic.
History and longevity notwithstanding, Mama Luna’s stands as perhaps the most curious pizza place Ernie and I have visited. Maybe it’s the no-nonsense working class heritage of the neighborhood, but the place seems to have developed an, er, reputation for surliness. Like a real life Ed Debevic’s or a realer life Weiner’s Circle, only many customers don’t end up smiling, though. No doubt the place is crazy popular, but it must have the world’s worst reviews for an extremely popular and successful business we’ve seen, especially one that falls not in the tourist-thronged areas of the city but inside a working-class residential area on the West/Northwest Side. There are two separate Yelp listings for the place. At the time we went there, one of the listings had something like two stars, and the other probably had two-and-a-half stars. Apparently, those ratings haven’t wavered, either. Almost every negative review highlights horrible customer service on the delivery end of the equation, often pointing out how rude the Mama Luna’s employee is on the end of the line.
When I called to order our pizza, I was prepared for this, so I tried to be as direct, quick, and to the point as possible. And the interaction went fine. When we arrived, the parking lot was full. I didn’t go in the dining room, which I regret, but instead only went into the basic, fluorescent-lighted side pick-up area where there were several other people waiting for their orders. The woman who served me was actually friendly and efficient. . .to me. But when a younger coworker working one of the phones relayed a small issue with a customer. . .then I heard a taste of what many of the reviews were talking about! Haha! That’s okay, it was undoubtedly busy. I want to make it clear that she was friendly to me. Maybe I just got lucky. . .or maybe she knew this guy was with me.
Once we grabbed our pizza, we headed back home to Logan Square through the light drizzle on Fullerton Avenue. Despite all the reviews stating otherwise, the menu claims “100% Satisfaction Guaranteed”. Ernie and I were ready to find out for ourselves.
The presentation was definitely a good start: Mama Luna’s has some cool, unique boxes. Better than the standard plain white or tan box, and much better than the generic “Italia” design boxes. And the Obbie’s/Villa Nova guy doesn’t work there, either. Our box was beautiful. Definitely a plus!
And. . .here we go. . .oh my. . .look at that pizza!
And smell it, too, says Ernie!
As always, the Pizza Hound gets his reward in the form of a perfect hound-sized piece!
The very thin crust was clearly handmade, with an imperfect circular shape. It was great, too. Toppings were delicious. The sausage came in big, tasty chunks, and the cheese was simply some of the best we ever ate on a Chicago-style thin crust pizza. Nice and stringy, even after cooling a bit. This quality is a somewhat rare find in our Chicagoland pizza travels, on which cool–and even warm–pizza cheese can harden to a substantially solid block. This cheese was fantastic.
Here’s the thing about Mama Luna’s: it is hands down one of the best tavern cut, thin crust pizzas in all of Chicagoland. A real classic, fully deserving of praise. That’s must be how they can get away with the bad reviews, and it’s maybe how they can survive after being (supposedly) so rude to customers living within in the delivery area. It really is that good. No matter how the employees act, most customers are no doubt completely happy with their pizza and their experience. Those people just may not write Yelp reviews. And with that, we settled in for a quiet Saturday night.
After the “real life drama” of 48 Hours, we were in the mood for a Saturday night spooky movie.
Svengoolie presents The Wolfman!
Chicagoans know Svengoolie well. One of the greats of the city’s pop culture.
Many cities across the U.S. had weekly shows where a creepy host with a fun, scary name would introduce classic A- and B-level horror movie that were often bundled by the film studios as Shock Theater or Creature Features. The original horror host is often accepted to be Vampira, hostess of the The Vampira Show on a network affiliate in Los Angeles. Vampira also costarred in the infamous cult classic Plan 9 From Outer Space, and was further immortalized in the Tim Burton film Ed Wood. Cleveland had the famous Ghoulardi, and hosts such as Zacherley , who first appeared in the Philadelphia market, achieved nationwide fame. Other large cities like St. Louis, Milwaukee , and Pittsburgh had a number of hosts over the years. Some played transmissions from popular hosts broadcasting from New York or other major cities. Chicago had hosts such as Marvin, then later, Svengoolie.
Svengoolie was originally played by radio host Jerry G. Bishop from 1970-1973. Rich Koz took over the role as the Son of Svengoolie in 1979. Later, the role changed simply to the Svengoolie character we know and love. Svengoolie presents a show with a mix of comedy, original parody songs, and very detailed analysis and trivia regarding the movie being televised on a particular evening. Koz and his team really do their research. His segments are just as much a draw as the movie itself. “B e R w Y n”
Today, Svengoolie, an icon of Chicago pop culture, stands as one of the last of its kind and is nationally syndicated on Me-TV. So thankfully you don’t have to be in Chicago to enjoy Svengoolie. Mama Luna’s, however, is Chicago only!
Don’t worry: Ernie didn’t get too scared by The Wolfman, probably because he’s the Woofman! And because he had some delicious Mama Luna pizza in his belly. There he is, the world’s proudest hound posing in front of his treasure!
The night was a success. More casual than our longer trips, but no less rewarding. Mama Luna’s is great. In fact, it’s one of the best. Their customer service in the delivery department may be notorious, but some reviews pointed out that dining room was quite different, with friendly, welcoming workers. Give them a shot either way, because there’s no doubt you’ll be impressed with their classic family-style pizza. Mama Luna has been serving that same delicious pizza since 1960, when the Cragin area was a prosperous working-class neighborhood with many industries. Today, there are fewer heavy industries to employ local citizens, but Cragin is continues to thrive as a working-class community. In fact, more people currently live in the area than ever. It’s fun to think that there had to be at least one person with a lovable dog who bought a pizza in, like, 1982, and went home to watch Svengoolie. If our trip to Mama Luna is any indication, the restaurant is well on it’s way to being around for another 5o years.
Mama Luna is located at 5109 W. Fullerton Ave., Chicago, IL, 60639
A second location is now open on Addison on the Northwest Side