Chicago has thing for deep dish pizza. Ever since Ike Sewell created it at Uno’s, in 1943, as a way to give returning servicemen and women something more substantial than just the tavern-style or thin they were accustomed to, it has become our signature culinary icon – right up there with hot dogs and Italian beef. I would argue that deep dish overshadows those beefy companions, however, based on the passion my #ChicagoPizzaQuestThick posts had over the past few months. People either seem to love or hate their pizzas deep, but ask any visitor walking along Michigan Avenue where they’re going to have one of their three or four meals while they’re in town, and I’ll bet you $100 they’ll say “Lou’s” or “Giordano’s” instead of Lula or avec (which is a shame).
Is there really a difference between pan and deep? I looked into it a bit more, and the only thing I could come up with was that pan is par-baked while deep is not (hence the average wait time of 40-45 minutes). Another alleged difference: “deep” pizzas typically have the outer edge of dough pushed up along the high edge of the steel pan it’s baked in, while the middle 98% of the pizza remains a good inch or so lower (Lou Malnati’s, for example), while “pan” pizzas do not have an extra high outer lip. Also, there’s some disagreement about whether or not the architecture is identical: while all of these pizzas have cheese as a bottom layer, some disagree about whether sauce comes next followed by toppings, or vice versa. After eating dozens of pizzas over the course of two months, I realize that there really isn’t that much of a difference, and thus, for the purposes of this #ChicagoPizzaQuestThick, I have delineated just two categories: Deep and Stuffed (my Top 5 Stuffed were listed in yesterday’s post).
The methodology for this Thick Quest was much like the thin one: visit anonymously, order a small half sausage-half pepperoni, try a few bites of each, pay, then take notes and post any Instagram shots after leaving. I brought home more pizza boxes than I should have. In nearly every case, the title of the restaurant is also the link to the restaurant’s website.
Coming up tomorrow, I’ll reveal my Top 5 Deep Dish (Suburbs) and on Friday, I’ll have a recap of the entire Pizza Quest, and ask you for some suggestions and feedback. You can read about all of the deep dish places I visited, from A to Z, here, and if you’re more interested in my #ChicagoPizzaQuestThin, check out this post. By the way, I’ll show you my top three picks on the ABC 7 News this Friday at 4 p.m.
Multiple locations in Chicago
Style: Deep Dish/Pan
Comes in personal, small, medium and large; got a personal Buttercrust™ & a small pan, half sausage-half pepperoni ($13.95)
A visit to the first Lou’s, opened more than 40 years ago and site of countless birthdays and post-game little league celebrations, is like going home again (if you grew up nearby). Not unlike a visit to Hackney’s or Vito & Nick’s or Charlie Beinlich’s, there is a large amount of nostalgia served up with the house special: deep dish pizza. Lou Malnati worked at Pizzeria Uno in the 60s, left to open his namesake along a stretch of Lincoln Avenue in Lincolnwood in 1971, and in the decades since, his offspring have stretched the brand into nearly every nook and cranny community in Chicagoland. They’ve also set up a nationwide shipping apparatus, so your homesick cousin in California can get their deep dish fix anytime, thanks to UPS. I met my brother-in-law for lunch one day, since he’s a huge fan, and we ordered both the standard deep dish, plus a personal pizza featuring their trade marked Buttercrust™ for an extra 75 cents.
Both versions arrive with a crispy-edged crust, about two inches high on the outside, but a tad shorter on the interior. The buttercrust rests for two days. “The big misconception with deep dish is it’s this thick, doughy thing,” said Meggie Lindberg, the Marketing Manager for Lou’s. “It’s thick due to the layers, not the crust. Ours is thin, crispy and flaky but sturdy enough to hold everything; thin enough not to overwhelm the pizza.” Indeed. It does a fine job of holding up the layer of whole milk, sliced Wisconsin mozzarella (they’ve worked with the same dairy for 40 years) and seasoned, lean sausage (no fennel) made by a local company. All of the sauce used for the entire year at all Lou’s locations comes from West Coast plum tomatoes, pulled from vines and canned within six hours.
Lou’s also understands ratios. Each bite has that perfect blend of cheese/crust/topping/sauce and that sauce – a rough mix of chunky tomatoes, sprinkled with grated pecorino romano seasoned with oregano – offers excellent acidity to balance the rich, melted cheese. Even though they apply the sausage in pieces, it tends to take the form of a sausage frisbee when baked – not really a fan – however, even though it tends to be on the bland side, I can see how fans love the fact that almost every bite ensures an equal bite of sausage. The pepperoni definitely had a stronger spice profile than most, offering a good contrast to the oozing mozzarella. ”The process has never changed,” said Marc Malnati, Lou’s son and now owner of the company. “Over time as we have grown more meticulous, we have begun to blend strains of winter wheat and spring wheat to insure year round consistency.”
As for that Buttercrust™, it’s pretty tasty, but it’s overkill. The fatty, melted mozzarella provides plenty of richness, and adding a buttery crust just gilds the lilly; there’s nothing wrong with the regular crust, but in both cases, we noted how the whole pizza changed character after about 10 minutes on the table. The ingredients seize up, becoming relatively firm, making a knife and fork unnecessary. But I’m guessing most customers aren’t going to let their pizzas sit that long, since these slices are somewhat addictive.
2207 N. Clybourn; 773-327-1512
(also at 8520 Fernald Ave., Morton Grove; 847-470-9161)
Pans come in four sizes (personal, small, medium, large); I got a small, half sausage-half pepperoni ($14.05)
Started in 1970 by the legendary Burt Katz (who recently closed his own namesake joint in Morton Grove), the business has changed hands over the years, but the caramelized crust hasn’t. This pizza’s edge is close to two inches high, but up along the perimeter, in the upper quarter or so, is a blackened rim of mozzarella cheese that is tossed into the cast-iron pans at some point during the baking process. “The cheese is laid in against the pan, like a ramp, then the heat burns the sugars in the cheese and caramelizes those edges,” said GM Sean Asbra. It’s lacey and delicate, almost like a cheese tuille, but it does little to mitigate the overwhelming presence of the dough.
Here’s where I will most certainly disagree with Pequod’s devotees (and there are thousands of them, in fact, the night I was there, a solid 20 people were sitting on benches outside with pagers, waiting for tables): I don’t think the crust should overwhelm the pie, and in this case, it absolutely does. Do I like the thick tomato sauce containing two types of California’s finest? Sure. The slightly spicy, jagged-edged sausages made by a local butcher that are well-seasoned with oregano? Of course. The low moistures, whole milk mozzarella? Definitely. But after one slice – no, actually, after 2/3 of my slice, I felt bloated, like a woman in a Pamprin commercial. If you were to cut off the top layer of cheese, topping and sauce, you would be left with a ridiculous amount of soft dough that could double as muffaletta housing at the Central Grocery. I see why it takes 20 – 30 minutes at 525 – 625 degrees (that’s quite a range) in a Baker’s Pride deck oven to bake these pizzas: what they’re really doing is baking a giant loaf of bread beneath what is really a pretty good pizza topping.
Seven locations; went to 2056 W. Division; 773-252-1777
Style: Thin and Deep
Sizes 10”, 12” and 14” – I got 10” half sausage-half pepperoni
Rudy Malnati Sr. was a bartender at the original Riccardo’s on Rush St in the 40s and soon became a partner in Pizzeria Uno (originally called Pizzeria Riccardo) with Rick Riccardo and Ike Sewell’s wife, Florence. Malnati’s wife, Donna Marie, held onto the secret recipe for years. Their son Lou opened his own place in Lincolnwood in 1971, and Rudy Jr. opened Pizano’s exactly 20 years later.
Now with six locations in the region, this pizza has the distinctive, buttery pastry-like dough that’s become a hallmark at Malnati’s, and here it’s just as addictive. Like a good pan pizza, the sides are high but the middle is relatively thin; they let the dough rise twice. There’s a layer of Wisconsin whole milk mozzarella directly above it, as insulation, and then giant pancakes of Anichini sausage on top of that (no fennel). Finally, a thin layer of freshly, crushed and whole roasted tomatoes, flecked with fresh oregano. “I am the only one today who still uses all of the original ingredients that Uno and Due used in the beginning,” insists Rudy Malnati Jr. “I have kept everything the same.” Baked in giant Blodgett deck ovens at 600 degrees, it may not be the most original deep dish, but for historians and purists, it’s as close to the original version as you can get.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version stated that Rudy Malnati Sr. was a cook at the original Pizzeria Uno, but according to his son Rudy Malnati Jr., his dad was in fact one of three partners in the business at 29 E Ohio. Rick Riccardo passed away shortly after the opening, and Ike Sewell would eventually buy out the Malnatis portion after Rudy Sr.’s passing in 1974. Malnati Jr. explains that Sewell wanted to avoid competitive threads with Lou’s, hence why Uno’s never mentions the Malnatis’ involvement in the original business.
2010 N. Damen Ave.; 773-394-6900
Style: Deep Dish/Pan
Comes in small, medium & large; I got a small half pepperoni-half sausage ($12.75)
Since 1971, My Pi has been serving their deep/pan pizzas, and for several years, I think they dropped off the radar (technically, it’s My π, and the symbol is spelled out “pi,” but on their website, despite the symbol in the logo, they also refer to it as “My Pie.” This is a little like the unwillingness of Koreans to settle on banchan or panchan). Now sharing a space in Bucktown with Lil’ Guys Sandwiches in a strip mall featuring an L.A. Tan store, you can get thin or deep slices or whole pies. The construction of the deep is a bit different: the dough is an even thickness across the bottom, and then rises up on the sides a good 1 – 1.5 inches. They let the dough rise and rest on the same day. Wisconsin, part-skim mozzarella covers the bottom layer, insulating the crust from becoming soggy as a result of the rendered sausage fat or any tomatoes. Then comes the sausage (made from owner Richard Aronson’s father’s recipe) or pepperoni, and finally, the tomatoes. But unlike the thin tomato sauces elsewhere, this topping is a forest of tomato chunks (using California San Marzanos rather than Italian, which they told me have less acidity) roasted and slightly blistered, releasing their sweetness, combined with oregano and a hint of garlic. The pizzas are dusted with a bit of Pecorino Romano before hitting the Lincoln Impinger conveyor oven that bakes them at 450 degrees for 20 minutes. Even after several pizzas, I was having a hard time stopping after one slice. This is a wonderful pie that I think any pizza lover can agree on, and unlike a lot of deep pizzas, they get the ratio right.
1955 W. Addison; 773-248-0455
Style: DeepComes in 12” or 14” – I got a 12” half sausage-half pepperoni ($17.25)
The thing about deep dish, each person really only needs about one slice, so don’t feel any shame ordering a small pizza for four or five people. Like most places, expect a 30 – 40 minute wait (we called ahead), but the wait is worth it. This was one of my favorite pies in the city, and now I know why: the owner’s grandfather was Fred Bartoli, founder of the original Gino’s East. This is his gift back to Chicago – a throwback, just like he remembers from his childhood: an olive oil rich dough (no butter), drawn up along the sides of the pan, showing heft, but still only about ¼” at the bottom, where a gooey, melted, whole-milk mozzarella layer supports huge pieces of fennel and black pepper-kissed sausage, made by their family butcher; it’s impressively juicy and meaty. There are enormous hunks of seasoned tomatoes, blistered from the oven, exploding with acidity and sweetness. They tell me they spent a year working on their sauce – it’s a combo of chunky and puréed plum tomatoes, plus hints of sugar, oregano and basil; the pizza is dusted with parmesan as well. The highlight is the rich yet crispy crust, which was reminiscent of Lou’s and Pizano’s. Even after eating a few pizzas, I had no problem polishing off a full slice here.
Kristine Sherred contributed reporting for this story