DeKALB – Larry Finn says what so many locals know: Beer nuggets are “a DeKalb thing.”
"They say beer nuggets, but there's no beer in them," said Finn, owner of Pizza Villa, 824 W. Lincoln Highway. "I guess it came that way because they go good with beer."
Finn claims he was one of the original inventors of beer nuggets in 1985. At the time, many local pizza places would deep fry scraps of leftover pizza dough and sell them as “nuggets.” Finn started working at Pizza Villa after it first opened in the 1950s, and it became his family’s operation in 1968.
Joiner History Room Director Sue Breese compares the tales behind the creation of beer nuggets to those behind the creation of barbed wire in DeKalb.
While barbed wire’s paternity was duked out by Isaac Ellwood, Joseph Glidden and Jacob Haish until Glidden’s was dubbed the winner, no one has officially been deemed inventor of DeKalb’s doughy treat.
The online Urban Dictionary provides a fitting definition of beer nuggets: "A tasty late-night treat or party food essentially made of chunks of deep-fried pizza dough invented in DeKalb ... mostly for broke students from Northern Illinois University." Various blogs and answer forums also beg for the recipe for beer nuggets, with many requests coming from former NIU students.
Breese looked through old telephone books at the Joiner History Room in an attempt to pinpoint where the beer nugget boom began. She found phone book advertisements from 1984 for Sgt. Peppers, which was located on West Lincoln Highway and billed itself having “world famous beer nuggets.” J.P. Hannagan’s, which was on Blackhawk Drive, claimed to be “voted best pizza by local newspaper sports writers and college students,” and listed beer nuggets as a trademarked menu item.
“I think that was the start of the beer nugget wars,” Breese said.
Finn said it was the mid-1980s when DeKalb restaurateurs began offering nuggets on their menus. However, many of those businesses no longer exist. He said the original way of creating them, from scraps of pizza dough, didn’t taste too good.
“I just kept working on this,” Finn said. “Our nugget dough is made just for nuggets.”
Finn said Pizza Villa experimented with the idea of beer nuggets in 1985, trying different formulas and different ways to make them puffy.
Pete Matarangas, owner of Lukulo's Restaurant, 890 Pappas Drive, said Lukulo's has been serving dough nuggets, made from a specially-made dough, since 1987. Lukulo's has had multiple locations in DeKalb, and similar to at Pizza Villa, the nuggets have always been a hit. He said he even had bags delivered to a wedding July 4 in Sycamore.
“It was a very popular item in the ‘80s,” Matarangas said. “I think number-wise they are not as popular as they were in the ‘90s, but they are still one of our top three sellers.”
Matarangas said the nuggets have always been popular with young people, particularly college students.
Finn said the popularity of nuggets may have exploded when they were first created because of the restaurants’ proximity to NIU.
“It was a real cheap filler,” Finn said. “A lot of people didn’t have a lot of money, students and stuff like that, so they could get a couple bags of beer nuggets.”
Finn said in the late 1980s Pizza Villa employees would fill up their delivery truck ovens with bags of beer nuggets, so they could cart them around the NIU dorms from 9 p.m. to midnight each night. Finn said students would wait on the curb between dorm study sessions, and drivers would radio in when they needed to pick up more.
Finn said students got to know the drivers very well.
“We had one ... we used to call him Villa Man,” Finn said, of a former driver. “He was a little crazy. ... He had a cape that had Villa Man on it, and everybody knew him. They were on commission, they got paid like, 50 cents per bag for nuggets. So Villa Man came up with a gimmick to help him sell the nuggets.”
However, the gig was up after 10 years when NIU officials deemed it soliciting, Finn said.
Today, Pizza Villa offers four types of Villa nuggets: regular, Parmesan, cinnamon and cinnamon roll. Although Lukulo’s offers only dough nuggets, Matarangas sees the fanfare.
“All the kids that went to college here come back and get them all the time,” Matarangas said.
Finn said many former students and even former delivery drivers come back to Pizza Villa to get their fill of the treat. Many bring their children, eager to share the beer nugget experience with them. Outside of the DeKalb area, there’s a mixed vote on who has heard of or tried the dough nuggets.
T.J. Banning, owner of Rosati's Pizza locations in Yorkville, Sandwich and Mendota, said he has heard that beer nuggets originated in DeKalb area. He said Rosati's chains just went national with dough nuggets in the past year. Prior to that, it was a small selection of stores that offered them, although he offered them at his three locations.
“A lot of people come in that have heard of them but have never had them,” Banning said. “Everybody that has had them thinks they are the greatest thing on Earth and can’t stop eating them.”
Where to find nuggets
• Pizza Villa, 824 W. Lincoln Highway, DeKalb
• Lukulo’s Restaurant, 890 Pappas Drive, DeKalb
• State Street Pizzeria at Ski’s All-American Pub, 1001 W. State St., Sycamore
• Rosati’s Pizza – locations in Sycamore and Genoa