Fred "Jimmy" O'Connor may be a homegrown Tennessean, but the briefest of chats reveals him to be a Chicago boy through and through. When I join him at his Bartlett eatery, the self-monikered Jimmy's, he wears the requisite White Sox T-shirt and points to his walls, which are covered in Chicago newspapers detailing important historical moments and general Chicagoland nostalgia.
O'Connor and I talk. I eat (profusely). My friend Julia takes pictures. Midway through our conversation, Jimmy, a stoic fiftysomething you'd want around if you were lost in a bad neighborhood, leans in and speaks in a lowered voice. Think Jaws and Robert Shaw's terrifying speech as Quint, the salty and world-weary sailor, detailing in horrifying calm the 1943 shark massacre of the crew of the USS Indianapolis. Remember it? Jimmy speaks in that tone now as he tells me about a likewise fearsome creature: "The Hawk."
I went to Jimmy's seeking authentic Chicago-style stuffed-crust pizza, as well as some insight into what makes it different from, say, Little Caesar's or Domino's. For O'Connor, who lived in Chicago for years, the difference lies in that city's very famous wind. "You need to eat something substantial in Chicago," he says with his eyes narrowed and his voice lowered to just the right intimidating, Quint-from-Jaws level. "They have the wind coming in off the lake. They call it the Hawk, 'cause it flies in off the lake and cuts you in half!"
Chicago-style pizza isn't restricted to the stuffed variety. There's regular deep-dish as well as thin-crust. But there's something special about the ooey, gooey, cheesy magnificence of the thicker, denser, weightier stuffed crust. It's made much like regular Chi-town pizza, baked in a deep pan with the crust pulled up the sides to form a bowl. But the toppings are encased in yet another layer of dough, then sauce is added on top. Inside: unholy amounts of cheese (typically, at least a pound) and whatever else can be jammed in. O'Connor's take on this combination is like a dough cauldron filled with ingredients — kind of crunchy outside with a soft center.
"You shoulda been there in 1982, when the wind chill was 81 below zero," O'Connor continues, further illustrating the powers of the Hawk. "Now, that was cold!"
I register this anecdote alongside my father's tales of walking five miles to school every day through the snow — that is, until I research the winter of 1982 when, by God, the wind-chill factor did reach 81 below zero in Chicago with a real temperature of minus 26. Sounds like a job for a pound of cheese if ever there was one.
There's more to Jimmy's than pizza. They've got bona-fide Chicago-style hot dogs, including the Chicago Fire Dog (hot!), the Belushi Dog (sour cream, onions, cheese, tomato slice, and taco sauce), the Ditka Dog (a Germanic affair with sauerkraut and Giardinaire peppers), and Dogzilla (an intimidating 13.5 inches of Vienna beef). The menu also includes some indigenous trivia, such as Chicago's prohibition of flying kites and men fishing in their pajamas. Jimmy's own rule for hot dogs: no ketchup!
I look about the restaurant — imbued with the charm and atmosphere of every hot-dog joint I ate in while living in Chicago myself (where I experienced plenty of cold but didn't know to credit the Hawk). Near the counter there's a "Morons Stand Here!" sign hanging from the ceiling, and, sure enough, a customer is standing underneath it.
"These people!" O'Connor exclaims. "They hang around, standing in the way, staring at us while we make their food. So I put up the sign, 'cause that's where the morons end up standing."
You won't find much in the way of pleasantries at Jimmy's. That wouldn't be very Chicago-style. "I'm not gonna oogle over customers," O'Connor admits. "They come in, they order, they sit down, they eat, then they get the hell out!" And he means it. But what Jimmy's lacks in niceties, it is abundant in authenticity. It looks like, feels like, and (listening closely to O'Connor's distinctive Toddlin' Town accent) sounds like Chicago.
"When you walk through that door, you're not in Tennessee anymore," he cautions. "You're on the South Side of Chicago."