Cherry Valley (Winnebago County)
February 26, 2023
I went to school in Winnebago from 7th grade through high school. Winnebago proper back then had a population of about 2,000, a very worn-out one block downtown district, and on the edge of town near the high school, a little commercial area with a bank, a small grocery store, and a restaurant. There was some sort of old-school farmers’ diner in the downtown, but I’m honestly not sure if it was ever really open. So really, the town only had that one restaurant at the edge of town.
That restaurant was Toni’s. It was kind of two restaurants - a small Italian / pizza place on one side, and a counter dariette on the other side with ice cream and fast food. I want to emphasize here: this was the only restaurant within 10 minutes of any of us.
For some context as to what Winnebago was like then, my eventual high school graduating class size was 86, and 100% white. It was a very WASPy community, to the point where we hardly even had Catholics.
Imagine then, in such a homogenous environment, showing up for school to find twin Sicilian brothers nearly 6 feet tall in 7th grade hovering over everyone else, and that someone in their family supposedly owned the only restaurant in town. For an awkward kid like me, starting in the middle of junior high, those dudes were intimidating. I spent the next six years at school with Benny and Phil, and while eventually I caught up to them in height, I definitely never caught up in presence.
I haven’t seen Benny or Phil in almost 30 years. After high school I went off and did, well, whatever it is exactly that I do.
They went into the family business.
Salamone’s Cherry Valley is Benny’s restaurant. Salamone’s North on Mulford in Rockford is Phil’s. It so happens that one of the ways to get to my mom’s place is through Cherry Valley, and so for a while I’ve thought, hey, we should really go there. Then I came up with this Pizza Around Illinois idea and, hey, I had an extra reason.
(META-SPIEL readers may take note that the date of this visit was the same date as the Hug an Athlete 5K in Belvidere. When we finally got to Salamone’s that early evening, I was HUNGRY.)
Cherry Valley is a village tucked up against the Kishwaukee River (see, I told you we’d revisit) just to the southeast of Rockford. If you’ve been to Cherryvale Mall, you’ve technically been to Cherry Valley, but the real village is a lot like Winnebago - about 3,000 people, but 20 years ago it was 2,000 people, with a small downtown commercial area, with a diner open by day and an Italian restaurant open by night. It’s a little different - within 10 minutes you can get to all kinds of commercial stuff on the far east side of Rockford - but if you just want to stroll over for dinner, Salamone’s is your only option. (There’s also a dariette in town, and I think there’s a bar-with-food.)
When you’re the one sit-down restaurant in a one restaurant town, you’re more than just a restaurant. You’re a community hub. And that’s what Salamone’s feels like: nestled on the corner, with a handsome black and gray trim, with a bar on one side and a small dining room tucked in, it absolutely feels like the center of the community, and that’s clearly the point. The dining room maintains the same color scheme, giving it a modern look, and at the same time one where my wife could say “This is classy!” The dining room is covered with family photos - the restaurant is core to both the physical community in which it is located, and to the literal extended family that runs the place.
I know, I know, I’ve done it again. Where’s the pizza?
Growing up in early ‘80s Rockford - and I am wildly, wildly oversimplifying here - there were three kinds of pizza. There was the kind of pizza you’d get at Pizza Hut, or maybe Little Caesar’s, or maybe Domino’s - your basic mass-produced pizzas. There was New York style pizza that you could only get at the mall - think Sbarro. And then there was pizza you got at proper Italian restaurants, like Capri or Lino’s. That was the kind of pizza that came cut in squares, the kind of pizza that your parents actually wanted to eat too.
Unsurprisingly, that’s what you get at Salamone’s:
We once again got a large pizza, onion and green pepper on one side, just cheese on the other. My son’s pronouncement:
“This is the best pizza in the world.”
How did they pull this off? Surely it has something to do with the old family recipies, but I’m not able to explain that. So I’ll go with this: you’ve got a tossed dough, a good cheese in the right amount, and a sauce expertly tying them together. It all sounds simple enough, but it’s clearly not, or everybody would have pizza like this.
The Italian restaurant approach to pizza is how I like it best, and in my recent memory I can’t think of having a better pizza.
The conceit of Pizza Around Illinois is that we’d go try a lot of things and maybe find some far-flung and interesting places and different styles along the way, but I suspect here we’re going to make a point of stopping on the way home from Rockford in the not so distant future.
I imagine at least a few people I went to high school with will stumble upon this. If you do, trust me, I’m not exaggerating for effect. If you haven’t been out to Cherry Valley (or up Mulford), you ought to go. My son says it’s better than Lino’s!
But hey, maybe someone else from high school, someone unexpected, opened their own Italian place. If you did, make sure you tell me. We’ll try to go there next.
It’s looking like we’re going to get to new pizza places about once a month, which was kind of the whole point. I’ve got some good leads that are a little far out, and am open to any and all suggestions. We might not get as far south as Cave-In-Rock or as far west as Quincy, but we’ll do what we can to Pizza Around Illinois.
This is pizza connoisseurship at its finest. I wish I had a discerning palette for distinguishing pizza. All pizza is good to me.