As much as I used to dislike the term, I’m a ‘foodie.’ In the last nine years of my own cooking, expanding my range of tastes and giving in to my desires to try different food by doing what I can to support small businesses while moving away from big corporate chain restaurant eating, I have had a great deal of opportunities to try out different spots while traveling.
Enter The Angry Italian, located in Bristol, Tennessee — about an hour away from my hometown.
Keith Yonker, the owner/executive chef, was born and raised around Chicago, Illinois. He moved to the Tri-Cities of Tennessee back in 2015, fell in love with the area and, soon enough, kicked off The Angry Italian restaurant. He moved the restaurant from a rather tiny location to a bigger one in the beginning of 2021, and that decision has clearly paid dividends to the observing eye, evident by the amount of patrons frequenting the joint whenever one drives by on State Street.
I found out about The Angry Italian in 2018 for one simple reason: my search for a local Chicago style deep dish pizza. I had the pleasure of trying out such a pizza years ago, and I loved it. Call it a casserole or ‘overloaded tomato sauce bread’ all you want in your snide verbal jabs that are veritably rooted in pizza elitism, but a well made Chicago deep dish pie is delicious. Once I heard about the existence of this restaurant, of the owner being from Chicago and there being authentic deep dish Chicago pizza available, I had to give it a try, and that was a few years ago when I did, back in 2018.
Chicago Style Deep Dishin’
The distinct taste of a real Chicago deep dish, I presume, is from the corn oil as well as the corn meal added to the dough along with butter (the existence of butter varying between recipes). The outer crust has a corny crunch to it while the toppings are piled high. I made a Chicago deep dish pizza earlier this year, sans corn oil since I didn’t have any on hand, and it turned out terrific, but it wasn’t the same.
The Angry Italian’s iteration of a Chicago style deep dish pizza featured an expected horde of shredded Wisconsin mozzarella cheese and loaded with a pizza sauce boasting large chunks of tomatoes on top. I ordered pepperoni and mushrooms on the one I ate. I wasn’t a huge fan of the large chunks of tomatoes being so prominent, but all in all it was delicious.
When you order the Chicago deep dish at The Angry Italian, there’s a brief prefacing statement on the menu that lets customers know that it will be a 45 minute wait. The wait is well worth it: that’s why you gotta order an appetizer to hold yourself over. I ordered the calamari pepper fritti: fried, lightly breaded calamari rings served with banana peppers and marinara sauce. Here’s a bold declaration from yours truly on their calamari: it sucks. I unabashedly must state that with ruthless honesty while at the same time saying that I must be a little lenient since I’m sure it is frozen calamari that is cooked. It is rubbery and hardly flavorful without the marinara. If you go out to eat at The Angry Italian, do not get the calamari.
When the coveted, highly anticipated Chicago style deep dish pizza arrived to the table with steam ascending from it. The server delivered the first slice — I grinned with gusto, like a hyped up child on Christmas morning, as I watched the stringy mozzarella cheese perform a circus act of cheese pull epicness — onto my plate given the tremendous high temperatures the pie was rockin’. I eagerly delved into it with a fork before reminding myself that I did not want to scorch the roof of my mouth, so I waited a couple of minutes before sending my tastebuds on a flavor journey.
One thing I’ve noticed about every pizza restaurant I have been to, and this includes The Angry Italian: the pizza sauce is always lightly seasoned. I can see why, and I assume it has a traditional background, as the sauce is typically not the star of the show on a pizza. However, I love bold flavors. When I make homemade pizza sauce at home, I give it a big hit of sautéed crushed, minced garlic, plenty of oregano, lots of fresh basil, onion powder, thyme, marjoram and crushed red pepper for a backdrop of heat. I noted the flavor of basil in The Angry Italian’s deep dish sauce, but lightly so. Not a lot going on, but I don’t hold that against them, although I will say that when you have this much sauce on a pizza, you should go for a bold flavor because there’s — again — so much of it!
The beauty is in the makeup of the rest of the pizza. The signature Chicago style crust, the generous toppings, all the cheese. You have to eat this pizza with a fork! Some people scoff at that (once again, looking at the elitists), saying that it isn’t pizza if you eat it with a fork, but that’s a rubbish mindset. Eat it however you like it.
The Angry Italian’s Chicago style deep dish pizza: I give it a 7.5 out of 10.
The Real Chicago Pizza: Tavern Style
There’s a belief that appears to be valid in Chicago: the real Chicago style pizza that locals eat is the tavern style pizza. It is said that deep dish is for tourists or for random occasions when the mood for deep dish strikes.
I’m going to tell you now: I agree with the folks from Chicago. Tavern style is the best style, and that is a gate I will keep.
The defining characteristic of a tavern style pizza is its extremely thin crust. The crust is noticeably thinner than the standard New York style pie; might as well call it a cracker-crust pizza, but it is better than any cracker-crust pizza I have ever had, at least the one from The Angry Italian validates that opinion of mine on a personal level.
The Angry Italian’s tavern style crust is unique in that it is crispy and chewy at the same time. There’s more room for beer when there’s less dough in the pie, which explains why this pizza is a popular menu item at bars.
I returned for my second trip to The Angry Italian in early June 2021, at the new location. I was excited for my girlfriend to give it a shot. I had fully planned on going for another Chicago deep dish pie, but while perusing the menu I decided to give the tavern style a shot. They have a recommended pizza on the menu: the Original Southsider, tavern-style. The Southsider features Italian sausage, pepperoni and mushrooms. I ordered the 18″ because I wanted leftovers for the next day, and I’m glad for it.
From The Angry Italian’s website, a description of their tavern style pizza: “Thin Crust. Cut Into Squares. Built with freshly shredded Wisconsin cheese and Roma tomatoes. All pizzas are made according to the original Chicago recipes. To insure proper flavor and cooking, Keith recommends a 3-4 item limit on toppings.”
I couldn’t believe it when the pizza arrived. As you can see above, it was loaded with cheese, and the lacy edges are a thing of beauty. It was love at first bite. I don’t know how to describe the flavor, but essentially the crust is something special. The toppings were perfectly scattered throughout the pie and every bite prompted me to have another slice.
It was past 9 p.m., we had hardly eaten all day, and something about this pizza just hit differently unlike any other. I was no longer concerned with the deep dish, because the tavern style is in a completely different echelon and class of its own. It is currently my favorite style of pizza if I’m going to be eating out and about. The flavors pop in a better ratio compared to the lopsided deep dish.
The Angry Italian’s Original Tavern style pizza: I give it a whopping 8.7 out of 10.
Three Time’s a Charm: I Can’t Get Away From the Tavern Style
The third trip to The Angry Italian was a few days ago. My girlfriend took me for my birthday dinner. I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, I wanted another Southsider pizza; tavern style, of course!
But I also wanted to try The Angry Italian’s Italian beef (description from the website: “Thinly sliced beef in Chicago ‘gravy’ served with either Hot Giardiniera or sweet peppers on a gonella roll. Light gravy or dunked. Served with French fries.”) If you know, you know: the ‘gravy’ is the broth/juices from which the beef is cooked in.
If you know me, you know I had to have the hot giardiniera, and why not go ahead and have the gonnella roll ‘dunked’?! It was delicious, to keep it brief and simple. The beef was just as tender as you can imagine thinly sliced beef being. The bread was adequately dipped and had a tremendous flavor to it. Bread is the most important part of a sandwich, because if you are using mediocre bread, then it doesn’t matter what goes on the sandwich: it won’t be too appealing. My only complaint with the Italian beef is that I wish there had been more giardiniera.
We tried out two of the appetizers: the Polpette Di Manzo (four of Keith’s famous meatballs) and the stuffed mushroom formaggi (little mushroom caps stuffed with herb cheese and baked under a blanket of creamy mozzarella.)
The meatballs had a great flavor, but they were served lukewarm. Perhaps that is traditional to serve them that way at The Angry Italian, but I wish they’d been hotter. The stuffed mushroom formaggi was amazing — I highly recommend that appetizer if you go.
Once again, the tavern style pizza was delicious. My girlfriend ordered the chicken parmigiana: 6oz. chicken breast, lightly breaded, topped with meat sauce and baked with mozzarella cheese. Served with a pasta side and a garlic breadstick. She loved it, and I finished her leftovers off the following day (she’s not a fan of reheated chicken).
The Angry Italian is an excellent eatery that calls for more return trips in the future. Maybe one of these days I’ll order another deep dish, but I can’t quit those tavern style pizzas. They are so out-of-this-world good.
I do have to comment on the service at the restaurant. The first two visits, I had the same server each time. She was pedestrian as far as ‘good or bad’ service goes. Frowning, unenthusiastic, the personality of a wet rag, the whole nine yards. I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt and consider she had a bad day on both trips; she visited the table frequently and promptly refilled drinks, so that’s good enough for me. I’ll always tip 20% unless the service is downright disastrous. On the third trip, we actually had a different server, and she was phenomenal. She had a great attitude about her, gave her thoughts on the menu, treated us like old friends and left a shining impression. Service is more important than the food at any restaurant.