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At Old Chicago in Petaluma, dishes are deep

With new restaurants popping up all the time, we sometimes forget about the Petaluma staples that have stood the test of time. Old Chicago Pizza is one such restaurant that today still has the same appeal as it did 40 years ago when it first opened, for great pizza, great service and a great location, looking down on the hustle and bustle of downtown Petaluma.

Admittedly, I enjoy some of the flatter pizzas around town, but I am a deep-dish guy at heart, and nobody satisfies that hunger quite like Old Chicago. I once spent a long weekend in the “Windy City” attempting to search out the best deep dish, but none were as satisfying as our Petaluma stalwart.

Chicagoan’s will tell you that the “real” Chicago style pizza is not the deep-dished deliciousness turned out by places like Old Chicago, but is instead the thin and crispy crusted pies they buy in larger quantities than their deep-dish version. But clearly, “Chicago” Bill Berliner preferred the deep dish pizza of his hometown and Petaluma has been rejoicing ever since.

Current co-owner Audrey Haglund spent her formative years in Petaluma, and graduated from Petaluma High. One of her first jobs was at the Plaza Theater, now the Mystic Theater.

“The Plaza Theatre and Old Chicago traded movie tickets for pizza,” says Audrey. “I loved the pizza and got to know many of the employees. In 1987 I applied to Old Chicago, and was hired by general manager Michael Hansen. Working both jobs in the heart of downtown Petaluma where everything was happening was a dream.”

Audrey worked her way up from busser to cook to bartender and server, before joining Michael as a manager. When Bill passed away in 2009, Audrey and Michael took over ownership, and when Michael passed away in 2016, his widow, Joanne, stepped in as partner.

A Sonoma County native herself, Joanne’s background and formal training was in the arts, working in bookstores, antique shops, and auction houses.

“Old Chicago is a totally different world,” she said. “This can be very fast paced, and on a busy night, everyone relies on their co-workers to work with the same speed and accuracy as they do. It is an amazing thing to behold and be part of.”

Because deep dish pizzas take longer to cook, we ordered ahead, which Old Chicago makes easy with their straight forward online menu. However, maybe that is one of the reasons patrons still flock to Old Chicago as a dining experience instead of just a place to grab a quick slice. With cook times of up to 30 minutes per pie, guests have a chance to actually sit and relax while waiting for their food.

With a group of six, we ordered five pizzas, an order each of pesto and garlic bread, and a blue cheese wedge salad, just to pretend we were civilized. Even sticking with mediums, I knew we were going to be looking at leftovers, which was fine by everyone at the table. In fact, with prices ranging from $12 for a small cheese to $31 for a large 7-topping behemoth, the price per meal ratio makes Old Chicago one of the best deals in town.

Although blasphemous to even think, a single meat topping pretty much does the trick at Old Chicago, as proven by our first pizza. I could not resist piling the toppings onto our first pizza, just like I did as a kid. The sausage, salami, chicken, olives and artichoke hearts on one-half turned out a bit busy, although still delicious.

Our second pizza was a bit more civilized, with pesto, chicken, artichoke hearts and bell peppers. While ranting and raving about this one, we learned it was quite close to Audrey’s favorite, which is pesto, chicken, artichoke hearts and garlic.

Our third pizza was half salami, garlic and olives, and half Canadian bacon and pineapple, both of which were excellent in their own rights.

We also ordered a small double-crust pizza. Limited to two toppings, we opted for Joanne’s favorite, which is just a straight up pepperoni, and it did not disappoint.

Because gluten-free anything gives me pause, we asked our vegetarian to order her pizza with this specialty crust, but surprisingly, it was quite good, even as a thin-crust pizza.

When asked about their favorite thing about Old Chicago Pizza, both co-owners answered that it is the people, both customers and employees.

“Having been in business for 40 years, we have seen families grow up with Old Chicago Pizza,” Audrey said. “I am always grateful to hear people say they started coming here as a kid and now bring their families to enjoy Old Chicago. Plus, many of our employees have been with us a long time, so it is like working with family.”

Our server Jenny seemed to genuinely love what she was doing, and made us too feel like family. This added warmth to a food experience that is often considered too pedestrian to be taken as a serious restaurant cuisine. When asked what surprises her most about working at and owning Old Chicago, Audrey said, “Through all these years, it never seemed like a job.”

Old Chicago will leave a lasting impression, both for its family-run atmosphere, as well as for having a pizza for every palette. Old Chicago’s tried and true flavors continue to appeal across the generations, as we saw tables filled with families, older folks, and even one that appeared to be high schoolers on a double date.

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