Adventures in Chicago Pizza
I’ve been to Chicago 3 times since 2011, and each time I’m there I delve into the impossibly amazing food scene. Three trips and I’m still working on the basics: Chicago pizza, hot dogs, and Italian beefs, with some burgers and barbecue for good measure.
When it comes to Chicago pizza, you can find everything from Neapolitan gems to New Haven-style, Detroit-style and even a New York slice! Three trips to Chicago is hardly enough time to explore all of the Chicago pizza styles, never mind the whole pizza landscape. For the efficient tourist, there’s always Chicago Pizza Tours. As for me… I’m not called “Eat This Town” for nothing!
I can now smile and say I’ve tried all 4 styles of Chicago pizza and present them to you here!
Wait – 4 styles of pizza?! Isn’t Chicago all about deep dish?
No, my friends! There is so much more! Here are the fantastic 4:
- Deep Dish
- Stuffed Deep Dish
- Pan Pizza
- Taven-style (Thin Crust)
A few Observations About Chicago Pizza:
- “Deep Dish is for tourists.”
- North Side = Cubs, Deep Dish and Yuppies.
- South Side = White Sox, Thin Crust, Working Class.
- Sausage is the #1 topping, not pepperoni.
- Italian Beef pizzas are a thing, and giardiniera is a common topping.
The 4 Styles of Chicago Pizza
Part 1: Chicago Deep Dish
Contrary to what your local pizzeria has sold you as “deep dish”, Chicago deep dish proper has a relatively thin crust. Let’s call it “medium thick”. However, the dough is pushed down and up along the sides of a deep, oily pan, giving it the semblance of a pie crust.
The other striking thing is that deep dish pizzas are constructed “upside down”. Slices of cheese are placed in a thick layer on top of the dough, layered with toppings and followed by sauce. It takes a while to bake something this thick, so the sauce is ladled on last to protect the cheese from burning. It’ll take about 45 minutes, so don’t show up on an empty stomach only to drink a bunch of beers. You will be buzzed by the time your pizza shows up – for better or for worse. You decide.
The first deep dish pizza was served at “The Pizzeria” in 1943, which would later be renamed Pizzeria Uno.
Gino’s East, Lou Malnati’s and Pizano’s all have roots in the original Uno, which still stands on Ohio Street in downtown Chicago.
If you ask around, most people will tell you that Lou Malnati’s is the golden standard for deep dish. So this is where my adventure started in 2011, at one of the many suburban locations.
Lou Malnati’s is known for their “butter crust”, which is thin and delicate compared to other deep dish crusts. The Malnati Chicago Classic, a sausage pizza with extra cheese, is the signature pie. But I prefer “The Lou” with its colourful composition of spinach, mushrooms and tomatoes, and its flavourful blend of mozza, romano and cheddar cheeses. This is easily one of the best pizzas I’ve ever had.
I had Lou Malnati’s again in 2012, and loved it just as much. I wanted to return again this month, but I forced myself to try Gino’s East instead.
Gino’s East has a much denser, heartier crust that towers above the rest of the pizza. You are given the option between sausage patty or crumble. The patty is recommended because it ensures your pizza will be completely covered in discs of sausage. Each component of this pizza is distinct: the sturdy crust, the chewy cheese and the tangy sauce spilling over the slice.
While I prefer the experience at Gino’s East, which has a funkier decor and a solid tap list, Lou Malnati’s has my pizza-shaped heart. It is a richer composite and a better pizza, if not the most archetypal deep dish.
I know what you’re thinking.
“Deep dish pizza, huh. I always thought it would be… deeper”.
Well, then there’s this:
Part 2: Stuffed Pizza
In 1974 two pizzerias (Nancy’s and Giordano’s) opened with an identical creation story, both claiming that their “stuffed pizzas” were inspired by maternal recipes for “Easter Pie”, a dish native to Turin, Italy. But it’s no coincidence that they emerged out of a deep dish environment, undoubtedly inspired by the original Uno pathways.
Stuffed pizza has higher, deeper sides and more toppings than deep dish. The crust is less delicate and less flavourful than deep dish. There is also an additional layer of crust placed ON TOP of the pie! Yes, that is correct: a top crust! The pie is filled with shredded cheese, which oozes like lava from a lifted slice. And yes, the sauce is spread on top of the top crust – because this is Chicago.
If you can only have one Chicago pizza and you want it to be the biggest, deepest, most ridiculous pizza you’ve ever eaten, head to Giordano’s, Nancy’s, Edwardo’s, Bacino’s or Art of Pizza. It will be glorious.
Part 3: Pan Pizza
Chicago pan pizza was invented by Burt Katz, an eccentric character with no culinary experience and a disdain for technology, who stopped shaving when he permanently dropped out of the white collar world in 1971. From 1963-2015 he owned a bunch of pizza restaurants, notably The Inferno, Gulliver’s and Pequod’s (he had a thing for literature). Over the years he had developed a signature style of pizza with a black, caramelized crust.
Burt would close or sell all of his pizza shops over the years, and ultimately go on to open Burt’s Pizza, which saw much success and a 2009 visit from Anthony Bourdain. Burt passed away in 2016, but the evolution of his pan pizza can be experienced at Gulliver’s, Pequod’s and Burt’s.
Earlier this month, I had a chance to check out Pequod’s. Unlike the bustling deep dish factories, Pequod’s is very much a neighbourhood bar. It is somewhat nondescript for a famous Chicago pizzeria, dimly lit with a small neon sign depicting a whale (“Pequod”, from Moby Dick) with a thong on its head. This is the type of pizza bar where I would just want to hang out. It’s got atmosphere, locals and good Chicago pizza in a cool neighbourhood.
I found this pizza much more filling than deep dish. Aside from its telltale black ring, it also has a denser and breadier crust – I could barely finish my second slice!
Part 4: Tavern-style
Chicago’s south side is proudly working class. No tourists. No nonsense. Legend has it that workers would head straight to the taverns after a long day of work, and in order to keep their patrons buying drinks, the taverns would serve complimentary pizzas at the bar, cut into small squares for sharing. The pizzas were thin enough to not be filling, but salty enough to keep people thirsty!
So the true Chicago pizza is more cost-efficient and shareable than its northern “special occasion” neighbour. This is the every day pizza of Chicago.
The Every Pizza.
It’s hard to say who “invented” Chicago thin crust, as the Midwest is generally known for pizza with a thin, cracker-like crust. But one of the oldest, most famous pizzerias in the south side is Vito & Nick’s. Vito had operated taverns in Chicago’s south side since 1923, but in 1946 he was joined by his wife and son (Nick) and they started making pizza.
We took an Uber from downtown Chicago wayyyy down south to 84th & Pulaski – a 40 minute ride through neighbourhoods like Englewood. The tavern had just opened, so it was empty but for one regular having a coffee at the bar. The interior was a splendid clash of decades with multi coloured lights, booth seating and carpeted walls. Old Style was on tap for cheap. Cash only.
Our server was to-the-point, without the super-friendly act of the deep dish places up north. We ordered a large pizza with green peppers, mushroom and Italian sausage. We ordered some Old Style.
Our pizza arrived (less than 45 minutes later!) and sure, maybe it doesn’t look that amazing, but oh my, dear readers, it was! The thin crust was sturdy and crispy. The toppings and cheese reached to the far outer edges, which had a Pequod’s-esque caramelized char. The sauce and sausage ignited a flavour explosion. The joy of eating tiny square after tiny square, seemingly never-ending morsels of impeccable flavour, washed down with cheap beer, was simply Heaven.
Watch out, Lou! I think this might be my new favourite Chicago pizza!