Smile Politely

Bowling over the thin crust competition

I’ll start by simply posing the question:

Barring Papa Del’s from the discussion, who makes the best thin crust in town?

Jupiter’s seems to get most votes amongst the creative class, or those who’ve only been living here the past decade. Its reasonable prices, good atmosphere, and highly visible locations make it a pizza joint that is totally formidable. I like it, all things considered.

Other contenders include The Bread Co., on Goodwin Ave. who serve up a mean gourmet pie, as does Manolo’s* around the corner on Oregon Ave, as I can highly recommend its Spotted Goat ‘za without blinking. Antonio’s in Campustown is another decent spot, and Buttitta’s has a nice thing happening as well with their sorta-kinda wood burning oven. But those are either gourmet joints, best served up either on a plate for a meal or more straight NY-Style, ready to be folded over and eaten while walking.

For lots of townies, the debate begins and ends with Monicals, the regional pizza chain that got its start in Tolono and is now in just about every po-dunk BuFu town in Central Illinois and even into Indiana and Wisconsin. They are a “family restaurant” that also offers delivery, and the Monical family has been at it for years and years.

But from what I am able to gather, that classic square-cut thin and crispy crust isn’t simply unique to the Monicals chain of restaurants. Somewhere along the line, with that many stores, and with that much history, folks have lifted it, tweaked it, touched it up, and redefined it into something of a copycat situation that has manifested itself in more than a handful of joints around C-U.

By my count, there are actually four different pizza joints in town that lay claim to the “original” Monicals recipe, and here they are:

Monicals, of course, and then, Zelmas, Po’ Boys (don’t get me started here), and finally, Old Orchard Bowling Lanes.

When my wife and I joined Lisa Morgan aka Champaign Taste and her partner, for a couple of games of bowling and some pizza on Friday at Old Orchard Lanes, I quickly spoke to the owner Scott Lutz about all of the convoluted and hearsay history on his way out the door. When I asked him about whether his pizza was actually the original Monicals recipe or not, he smiled and laughed and stated, “Well, it’s a little more complicated than that.”

At some point, I plan on doing a broader story on the history of the pizza chain, and trying to get a little more from the different owners in order to learn more about how it’s all come to pass. On the Zelma’s website, the Brothers Monical discuss their history as pizza makers in the region, and yet, their restaurant isn’t named Monical’s? Seems like somethin’ to me, but that’s going to take time, and I’ve got jury duty this week.

But time out. Let me just offer up my vote for the best thin crust in town. Timpone’s has it, now that The Jolly Roger is long gone. No debate really at all. But it’s super gourmet, and it’s pretty damned pricey to boot. Plus, the pizzas are all single serving sized. But that’s OK; it’s made well and should be reserved for special occasions.

But outside of that, for my money, there is only one thin crust pie that I crave in this town (outside of Papa Del’s, that offers a “thin” crust about as thick as your averaged hand tossed pie).

Old Orchard Bowling Lanes.

Perhaps it’s simply the fact that they serve it up from a bowling alley; it’s dawned on me that I might simply be buying into the idea, that somehow the bullshit hipster side of me wants to love pizza from a bowling alley.

But I really don’t think so. It’s really just an excellent thin crust pizza. Quite delicious, and always perfectly greasy and salty.

There is nothing special about it at all. In fact, that is what makes it such an excellent treat. It has no frills at all. And while one can choose from any number of toppings, to me, this is the type of place that screams Pepperoni Pizza, and nothing more. And that’s what we always get.

It’s no “hidden gem” either, really. The place is packed almost always, and anyone worth their salt as a townie has generally at least heard the same thing from another of our ilk. The fact that it’s very affordable is also a bonus: a 16″ cheese pizza pie costs $13.09 and a topping is an additional $1.39. That comes out to about $15 for a perfectly piping hot and delicious pizza.

I suppose that we should feel blessed to live in a town where we actually have so many choices when it comes to a staple like pizza. Hell, like I mentioned above, on the block of Goodwin and Oregon Ave. alone in Urbana, one can choose from three different spots within a frisbee toss.

But for me, the best thin crust pizza in town is served cut up into small rectangular slices and served up with a thick, red French dressing for dipping. It’s also uniquely Champaign-Urbana, and while I wouldn’t try to ship it across the country to show a friend just how original and amazing it is — I’d gladly take a visiting friend over for a pie and to roll a few games.

To me, it can’t get any more C-U than that outside of dragging the Chief debate into it somehow, and well, let’s just leave that one alone for now, you know?

*Full disclosure: I work part-time for the Canopy Club, which is owned by the same company that owns Manolo’s Pizza and Empanadas.

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