A slice of heaven
At Mamma Celeste’s it’s all about the cracker-crust, the other Chicago style
When most people think of Chicago-style pizza, the first thing that comes to mind is the city’s famed deep-dish creation. But in Chicago and throughout the Midwest, there’s another unique variation that the locals—including myself, a Missouri native—enjoy: thin-crust pizza, cooked crispy and sliced into squares. And at Mamma Celeste’s Stone-Baked Pizzeria, in the student-centric Nord/West Sac shopping area, they make some of the best cracker-crust pizza I’ve found outside of St. Louis.
According to the pizzeria’s website, owner Jim Flanagan came to Chico from Chicago—where his uncle has run a successful pizzeria for more than 50 years—and opened Mamma Celeste’s using his family’s recipes. He makes the dough for the “cracker crust” daily, brushes it in cornmeal before baking it in a stone oven and finishing with garlic-infused olive oil.
Nestled in the strip mall alongside Safeway on Nord Avenue, the eatery has the feel of a casual, mom-and-pop pizza parlor. Comfortable booths line the walls and tables fill the modest main room, which includes an arcade game in the corner (Centipede!). There’s a cozy bar with views of television screens showing sports as well as menus listing the pizzas and an impressive selection of craft beers.
The menu features a varied selection of house creations that can be ordered as pizzas or calzones, with pizzas ranging from small individual pies to extra large ($5-$27) and calzones offered small or large ($11-$19). There is also a big list of toppings for a la carte creations.
For our first pie, a friend and I opted for one of the specialties, the Chicken Cordon Blu, topped with chicken breast, Canadian bacon, onions and green scallions with a white garlic ranch sauce and provolone.
It was love at first bite. The crunchy crust was amazing—deliciously thin and flavorful, I could taste the cornmeal on the bottom and the garlic along the edge. Then, there were the toppings: The quality ingredients blended perfectly. I was particularly impressed with the restraint the pie-makers showed with the sauce. An otherwise great pizza (especially a thin-crust one) can be ruined by a heavy hand with the sauce, but the ratio here was spot on.
“Mamma Celeste” was Flanagan’s grandmother, and apparently she is also the mastermind behind the shop’s meatballs. Intrigued by the menu’s claim of the “best meatball ever,” we had to return to try some. We opted for takeout. My friend ordered from the “Signature Sandwiches” menu, selecting the meatball, advertised as featuring “tennis-ball sized meatballs” with melted cheese on a Tin Roof Bakery sourdough roll ($7.50 for a 6-inch; $10 for a 12-inch). Not to be left out of the meatball tasting, I chose J’s Freight Train pie, topped with Mamma’s homemade meatballs, sausage, green peppers, onions, red sauce and mozzarella.
The meatballs, sliced like pepperoni on the pizza, were a great meaty addition to the already flavorful slice. My friend also raved about the sandwich, which came with the marinara on the side so as not to make the roll soggy (points for that). While I wouldn’t choose this pie over the Chicken Cordon Blu, the meatballs were definitely worth raving about.
For our third visit we tried Ta Ta’s Backyard Pesto Chicken, with chicken breast, mushrooms, onions, pesto and mozzarella. The crust was predictably satisfying, but the toppings didn’t add up to much and were overall a bit on the bland side. I generously sprinkled parmesan on mine and my companion spiced his up with a little Sriracha, though, and it was all good.
During that third visit, I overheard a teenage girl talking with her dad while eating a slice. “Mmm, I think this is the best pizza in Chico!” she said. And for thin-crust lovers, she may well be right. With such quality pizzas available at reasonable prices, it would be tough to beat Mamma Celeste’s.