- Beer nuggets started appearing on pizzeria menus around DeKalb, Illinois, in the late 1970s and quickly took over the town.
- Each restaurant takes its own approach to making beer nuggets, but they’re essentially deep-fried dough balls served with marinara or cheese sauce.
About an hour’s drive due west of Chicago lay the town of DeKalb, Illinois. This homey city of 43,000, nestled on the banks of the Kishwaukee River, is home to Northern Illinois University (NIU), Joseph Glidden (the inventor of barbed wire), supermodel Cindy Crawford, and an appetizer little-known outside of the region—the beer nugget. Essentially pillows of deep-fried pizza dough served with marinara or cheese sauce, beer nuggets started appearing on DeKalb pizzeria menus in the late 1970s and early 1980s and quickly took over the town.
The exact origin of the appetizer is unclear, with several restaurants being credited as the “home of the beer nugget” and many laying claim to serving the best beer nuggets in DeKalb. Local establishments mentioned in the beer nugget’s origin story include JP Hannigan’s, Pizza Villa, Sgt. Pepper’s, Molly’s Kitchen, and Lukulos Restaurant. The prevailing narrative is that bored kitchen workers at a pizzeria got into a dough-ball fight one night. One of the little projectiles missed its target and fell into a deep-fryer, and eureka! The beer nugget was born. Christened “beer nuggets” due to their compatibility with the beverage, these inexpensive treats were an instant hit with the locals.
“I think it’s just a cheap, good filler,” says John Finn, co-owner of Pizza Villa. “I know kids that come in and get them, and it’s almost like a meal. For five bucks, a couple of kids can get it and split it, and it will definitely fill them up. A lot of kids will get them when they’re done drinking, because all that dough will soak up the alcohol.”
The delectable appetizer also goes great with its namesake. “These nuggets taste so much better when you are drinking,” says Robert Schlecht, owner of Vinny’s Pizza.
NIU alumnus Ken Tonaki of nearby Sycamore, Illinois, shares his memories of beer nuggets—“I absolutely loved beer nuggets—anywhere, anytime!” he says. “As a student at NIU, I ate them at least once a week, more often twice a week. It was often a late-evening snack when studying or hanging out with friends.”
Little Balls of Profit
While the original nugget was an instant hit, over time DeKalb pizzerias like Pizza Villa began tweaking the bite-sized morsels. “We have three different types: the regular nugget, which is just a basic nugget and red sauce,” Finn says. “Then we have the Parmesan nugget (pictured above), which is tossed in garlic butter, and seasoned with oregano and parmesan cheese. Then we have a dessert nugget, which is a cinnamon nugget that tastes like little donut squares, tossed in butter with cinnamon. Between those three types, we’ve done it all. We sell a lot of the cinnamon nuggets for dessert after people have been here for pizza. I would say the number one is still the regular nugget, and then the parmesan nugget as far as sales go.”
The economics of beer nuggets are simple and more importantly, profitable. “Pizza dough is fairly inexpensive to produce,” says Arthur Alberts, owner of Pizza Pros in DeKalb. “The larger cups of sauce are where the majority of your expenses are going to be. ”
Finn of Pizza Villa reports a cost per unit of around $1.25, including dipping sauce, while they sell for $5.65.
“We use about 16 oz. of pizza dough, which costs around 40 cents,” Schlecht adds. “The Styrofoam container and bag cost 13 cents. The marinara and cheese sauce that we add comes to about 60 cents. They sell for about $5.99 or more, so food cost then is around 19 percent.”
Strictly a DeKalb Phenomenon
Different restaurants take their own approach to making beer nuggets. “One thing that makes ours different from other places is that it’s a totally different dough recipe,” Finn says. “Our sauce is different than we use for anything else. I know a lot of places just use their original pizza dough and pizza sauce. They cut it out to a different thickness and throw it in the fryer. We’ve tweaked it over the years. That goes back to my brother Larry. Back then, he and my other brother Don tweaked the dough to where it would last a couple days,” Finn says. “We just did it to where, when you put them in the fryer, they get that puff almost like a beignet. When you bite into it, it’s not solid, but it has a hollow core in it, and that’s all due to the temperature of the water and the amount of yeast we use. You put them in the fryer at 350⁰, cooking for 3 to 3 ½ minutes. We stir them constantly after they hit the oil so they don’t stick.”
Finn reports selling 50 orders on weekdays and hundreds on weekends.