Chicago-style pizza isn't just deep dish.
"The oldest is thin crust with no puffy edge, cut in squares a.k.a. party style, and more toppings than the east coast," said Anthony "Rocco" DiGrazia, owner of Rocco's Little Chicago Pizzeria. "Deep dish is from the forties with Pizzeria Uno and others, cooked in a pan with the sauce on top. Stuffed pizza is from the sixties or seventies."
Rocco's offers all three varieties, so DiGrazia knows his pizza. He grew up on Chicago's south side and went to school in Champaign for a degree in anthropology, then moved to Tucson in 1992 for archaeology graduate school.
That didn't end out working as planned. However, a restaurant space that was formerly El Pollo - followed briefly by Manhattan Grill - was up for grabs. On December 26, 1998, Rocco's Little Chicago Pizzeria officially opened for business.
For 21 years, Rocco's has been a staple for quality no-nonsense cooking for a wide audience. One of the earliest items on the menu was the Fungus Humongous pizza.
"We wanted to have vegetarian options that are still good that anyone can still enjoy," DiGrazia said. "We grill the mushrooms, savory, not soggy."
Even the simple Caesar salad exhibits finesse with its dressing made from scratch.
"I stole the recipe from Cafe Terra Cotta, but it has a lot more garlic in it," DiGrazia said. "And it's a third of the price."
The ranch and blue cheese dressings are also notably fresh without any gumminess from artificial stabilizers or emulsifiers.
"It doesn't need that if you make it with sour cream and mayonnaise," DiGrazia said.
But salads aren't required ordering for sampling the dressings. Try them with the outstanding wings, too.
"Proprietary ingredients that make it delicious," DiGrazia said. "We par-cook them with water in the oven on sheet trays, then use the juices for stocks."
The cookies are also a local favorite.
"The new white cookies are a Chicago public school recipe from grandma in the seventies," DiGrazia said.
Although the items mentioned are all exemplary, the attention to detail and quality applies to the entire menu.
"We use ingredients, not finished products," said DiGrazia. "We make the doughs, grate our own cheese, and bake cookies every morning. We come up with soups and specials on the fly."
The scratch kitchen has also served as a nostalgic starting point, fondly described by local cooking talent such as Drew Burk and Ian Guernsey
"Since we make everything from scratch, it's a good place to learn knife skills," DiGrazia said. "Not fancy French."
Rocco's has also developed a reputation for their sign outside updated two to three times a week.
"It's been there since before we opened," DiGrazia said. "It didn't even have our logo on it. We had a box of letters, so we started messing with it for fun."
It's been a source of raunchy humor, memorials, nerdy references, and even politics. Some people even plan their daily commute to pass by Rocco's so they can see the sign.
"We let everybody nerd out as much as they want," DiGrazia said. "As long as it's not completely filthy. We even have stuff from touring bands time-to-time."
The full bar was installed a couple years ago, bringing in draft beer as an option. The patio now has a full canopy, misters, and heaters. They no longer deliver, but still cater.
Rocco's is busier than before, so don't expect them to change too much or disappear.
"I really believe in the local culinary scene," DiGrazia said. "The food has always been good since I moved here, there's just more of it now. The independent operators are just killing it compared to other cities of this size per capita. The beer and distilleries are good too, so drink and be merry."
For more information, visit roccoslittlechicago.com.
Jackie Tran is a Tucson-based food writer, photographer, culinary educator, and owner-chef of the food truck Tran's Fats. Although he...