How can I put this delicately… stuffed pizza is, well, not my favorite. I came into this #ChicagoPizzaQuestThick knowing that I would be tasting my fair share of both deep and stuffed pies, and while I understand it’s a Chicago tradition, I also agree with naysayers and New Yorkers who call this abomination a “cheese casserole” among other culinary epithets. I think it’s the ratio thing again. Most of the stuffed pizzas I tried were 80% dough and cheese, with nominal attention paid to the sauce (often thin and uninspiring) and sausage (rarely memorable). Remove a slice of pizza from a full pie and be among the many to witness “cheese lava” – a calcium-fueled anomaly limited to those pizza joints where they must spend thousands of dollars a day on whole or part-skim mozzarella. The other issue with stuffed pizza is that annoying second layer of dough, placed on top of the cheese, sausage and sauce, turning the pizza into a cheese casserole/pot pie. Even though it’s covered by yet another layer of thin tomato sauce, these slices – when served with a knife and fork – always just seem like overkill.
Usually, my Top 5 lists are down-to-the-wire nail-biters for me, as I whittle away my favorites and attempt to assemble a stellar, all-star list of destination-worthy places. Not so this time. Sadly, none of these five gets me pumped to go out and eat them again, and so, while I’m forced to list a Top 5 in this bizarro pizza category, I can’t say it’s an enthusiastic one. Your cousin from Lincoln, Nebraska is in town? They’re insisting on trying a stuffed pizza they saw one time on Guy Fieri’s show but can’t remember the name of it? Ok, take them to one of these places. You’ll be a hero. (Note: in all cases, the name of the restaurant is the link to their website).
10945 S Western Ave.; 773-445-4010
They sell thin, extra thin and stuffed. Got a small, half sausage-half pepperoni ($15.55)
I stopped here (after several requests from Beverly residents) to try their “famous” stuffed pizza. Take a look at the picture and see what I mean when I say “cheese lava.” The dough here, while impressive in its construction and heft, could hold back a flood, and indeed, it does. I would recommend bringing a platter of baguette, some fruit preserves and fresh apples, then turning your Friday night pizza party into a cheese-and-wine thing, maybe with a platter of charcuterie. Better yet, bring some skewers with that fruit and make it a horizontal fondue party. If you grew up eating this pizza, I get it. I just don’t have any desire to go back. Since it’s all take-out, do like I did, and hit up the Original Rainbow Cone after getting a burger at Top Notch on 95th on your way home.
2930 N. Broadway; 773-883-1977
They sell thin, extra thin, pan and stuffed, but known for stuffed – ate a small, half sausage-half pepperoni ($15.70)
When you see a pizza company has locations in not only Illinois, but also Georgia and California, any hope of tasting a unique pizza goes out the window (hello, Pizzeria Uno, or as it’s known outside of our borders, Uno Chicago Grill). I didn’t want to prejudge, however, since Nancy’s makes quite a big deal about being the ones who invented stuffed pizza in 1971. Of the dozen-plus locations in Illinois, they have a few “legacy” locations, and the Lake View spot is one of them. The stuffed takes about 45 minutes to bake, and it’s easy to see why: a staggeringly high, nearly two inch border crust surrounds a heavy pool of mozzarella topped with a thin, broken layer of tomato sauce that tasted as if it came from a jar, overly seasoned with dried oregano. “Buttering our pans before every pizza helps make the crust crispy and golden on the outside while maintaining a soft and airy crust on the inside,” said Brian Curry, Director of Marketing for Chicago Franchise Systems, the company that runs Nancy’s in Chicago and elsewhere. Curry says their original stuffed is 2.5 inches tall, while many deep dish pizzas are about an inch shorter. “Adding a top crust, or lid, preserves the internal moisture of the pizza, keeping all of the flavors baked into the pie rather than letting them cook out,” he added.
The sausage and pepperoni in my pie had almost no flavor whatsoever, and even if they did, the fact that they’re buried in cheese like a hiker in an avalanche on Mt. Everest, makes it nearly impossible to discern any meatiness. Pizzas bake in a conveyor oven for about 16 minutes at 425 degrees, which is quite a bit lower than most, but since it’s so heavily packed with ingredients and shielded by carbs, baking any higher would probably result in a scorched exterior and underdone middle. Even though I actually liked the bottom crust – it was perfectly crispy and I was able to hold it in my hand – the soggy top layer and outer perimeter of bland crust resulted in a quick trip to the nearest garbage can.
Multiple locations. I visited 730 N. Rush St., 312-951-0747
Ordered small half sausage-half pepperoni ($17.76)
You like waiting 45 minutes for pizza? You like cheese sandwiches? This is the pizza for you. You’ll notice a theme in my summaries of stuffed neighborhood legends like Tano’s, Milano’s and Edwardo’s: I’m not a fan. I seriously think this style of pizza is the one New Yorkers are lampooning when they derisively refer to “Chicago pizza”; the ones John Stewart regularly skewers (even though Mark Malnati famously brought him a pizza on-air, making the most silent rebuttal I’ve ever seen). I can live with deep dish, especially as defined by My Pie, Louisa’s and Old World Pizza. But stuffed? Let’s see…soft bottom crust, topped with a thin layer of pepperoni/sausage then an avalanche of mozzarella, then a super-thin layer of dough, and finally, topped with a layer of nicely seasoned tomato sauce with flecks of oregano, not unlike a marinara you’d find at your neighborhood Italian restaurant. Oh, I almost forgot – the outer crust! That imposing wall of dough that holds in all of that cheese and keeps the casserole together. Hmmm. I guess it does serve a purpose, in a very functional way, but in terms of pure eating pleasure, there is a lot left to be desired.
3033 N. Ashland Ave.; 773-327-5600
Ordered: 10” half pepperoni-half sausage ($16) as well as a slice of deep dish
They serve thin and pan as well, but when asked what their specialty was, stuffed was verdict. Comes in 10”, 12” and 14” sizes.
Clearly, things have changed in the 14 years since they were voted the #1 deep dish by the Chicago Tribune (is there a statute of limitations on a ranking/review??) Many readers recommended I give them a try, and I was surprised that my order taker said they were more known for their stuffed, rather than their deep dish. I did, however, try a slice of deep dish sausage, but like its stuffed cousin, all I could think of was cheese bread. In both cases, tiny, dime-sized balls of sausage were sparingly arranged beneath a cap of mozzarella as thick as the blacktop in my alley. The crust? a light tan color with a very average chew – more crumbly than chewy – and not nearly as memorable as Bartoli’s or My Pie. The semi-chunky tomato sauce, flecked with dried oregano on top provided a tangy acidity with an intense hit of herbs, but it wasn’t enough to save this stuffed slice. Like Tyson in his tattoo phase, time has not been kind to this former heavyweight pizza champion.
2204 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-472-7400
Ordered: Small stuffed, half sausage-half pepperoni ($15.25)
I’m still having a hard time figuring out what it is about stuffed that people/tourists like so much. Calling this creation “pizza” is a stretch, at least technically. It’s sort of like those generic “delis” you see in the suburbs: sure, they look like the real thing when you see the large, refrigerated cases, but when you look closer, and see krab salad and spiral cut ham, you know it’s not quite the real thing. In this case, my heavy box of thick crust, stacked with mozzarella and a Frisbee of sausage, capped by a thin layer of dough serving as a divider/base for another thin layer of deep red tomato sauce, proved, ultimately, disappointing. “You should have had the spinach,” chimed in one reader on Facebook. I’m not sure that would have mattered, when each bite is simply filled with a bland amalgam of dough-cheese-sausage. Sure, it’s filling. If it was the middle of winter and the roads were closed and my heat was on the fritz and they delivered it to me somehow, I would probably polish the whole thing off and then nap for 18 hours. But would I ever crave this Frankenstein-ian casserole? Probably not.