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Chicago's pizza styles: a guide

Food writer Steve Dolinsky set himself a mission: to methodically work his way through the pizza joints of Chicago and its suburbs to identify the best examples of the many styles on offer. These are his picks.

Margherita at Bebu
Margherita at Bebu

Food writer Steve Dolinsky tested more than a hundred different pizzas to complete his mission. To say that he's an authority on the various pizza styles of the city, which is so often pigeon-holed as a city of deep-dish and nothing else, would be an understatement. In his book Pizza City, USA, he takes you by the hand and guides you through the city's streets and its suburban tracts towards the beacons of the city's pizza landscape. We've taken his city recommendations and published them here for your eating pleasure.

Chicago has a special connection to pizza. I say it's the city with the most pizza variety in the country. Just Google "Chicago pizzerias" and you'll get more than four hundred thousand results.

The true pizza landscape in Chicago is far more diverse than the deep-dish stereotypes suggest. Though our unique regional style is notable and is often quite delicious when done right, as are the regional styles in St. Louis and New York, it's hard to argue with Chicago's range of offerings. I've had plenty of opportunities as a professional food reporter to assess and, if you'll forgive me, chew on it, and the pies discussed in my book are all the evidence I need to say that Chicago truly deserves the title "Pizza City, USA."

Call it hubris or just plain crazy, but over the course of two months, I managed to sample pizzas from a staggering seventy-six different locations throughout Chicagoland (referring to the combination of city and suburbs, including the five collar counties, that form a contiguous border around the city proper).
As for varieties, I tallied ten distinctive types in my research: tavern-style, thin, New York-style, artisan, Neapolitan, deepdish, stuffed, Sicilian, Roman, and Detroit-style.

Steve Dolinsky
Steve Dolinsky

Tavern-style

Chester's Tavern and Orsi's Pizza
Chester's Tavern and Orsi's Pizza
Veggie at Pat's
Veggie at Pat's

Ask diehard Chicagoans how they define "Chicago pizza" and they'll respond with a unanimous "thin" rather than "thick." So why is it that out-of-towners think Chicago is a deep-dish town? Blame it on the media, I guess, and those giant Giordano's billboards.

Maybe a little history can explain this great pizza misconception. Chicago is the city that works, and immigrants who originally built the roads, bridges and skyscrapers loved to end the workday at the neighbourhood tavern for a beer. Intuitive bar owners realised they could make ultra-thin pizzas for cheap, cut their pies into tiny squares (known as the "party cut"), and then pass the bite-sized snacks around the bar.

The goal was to get something salty into the customers' mouths, so they'd order more beer. The plan worked. This practice also launched the Chicago tavern-style pizza, also known as Chicago-style thin.

Where to get it
Vito & Nick's Pizzeria 8433 S. Pulaski Rd, 773 735 2050, vitoandnicks.com
Pat's Pizza and Ristorante 2679 N. Lincoln Ave, 773 248 0168
Side Street Saloon 1456 W. George St, 773 327 1127
Bije's Grill and Bar 7455 W. Irving Park Rd, 773 625 9700, bijespizza.com
Home Run Inn Pizza 4254 W. 31st St, 773.247.9696, homeruninnpizza.com

Pepperoni at Pat's
Pepperoni at Pat's

Thin

Pizza Serio
Pizza Serio

I realise a lot of people will think I'm splitting hairs here, but there truly is a difference between thin and tavern-style (Chicago-style thin). Whereas the latter is always cracker-thin with an audible crunch and square-cut, allowing for easy eating with one hand while the other nurses a beer, the former is simply a thin crust. Not deep, not done in a pan, and certainly not the width of a saltine. These pies tend to have a little more chew to them, are often cut into wedges, which allows for folding in half from the wide side (like they do in New York City), and tend to have a bit more fermentation in the dough, since there is a more pleasant chew rather than a crispy crunch.

Where to get it:
Boiler Room, 2210 N. California Ave. 773-276-5625, boilerroomlogansquare.com
PR Italian Bistro, 3908 N. Sheridan Rd, 773-404-8955, pritalianbistro.com
Pudgy's, 13460 S. Baltimore Ave, (773) 646-4199, hegewisch.net
Angelo's Wine Bar, 3026 W. Montrose Ave, 773 539 0111, angeloswinebar.com
Caponie's Trattoria, 7419 W. Irving Park Rd, 773 804 9024, caponiespizza.com

New York-style

Slice at Dante's
Slice at Dante's

A category not particularly well represented in Chicago is the slice (or as some people in the city might say, "da slice"). When people talk about NYC-style pizza, they are typically referring to pizza by-the-slice. You've seen those enormous blobs of cheese, ringed with dough, in the front cases behind sneeze guards, manned by spatula-wielding young men and women who dispatch orders with lightning speed. Once you order, they whisk the room temperature slices into hot ovens to crisp them up, bringing the cheese and toppings back from the dead. After a minute or two, they'll summarily toss your order onto a paper plate (or two) before handing it over.

I've had quite a few slices in New York City after dark — Sal & Carmine's, Giardini's, and Artichoke, to name a few—and my memories of them are pretty sad: usually limp, greasy wedges of cheese-soaked cardboard, about as appetizing as a day-old baguette dunked in congealed pork fat. This was stoner food, or at the very least, a snack for people who were so inebriated that they wouldn't know pizza from shoe leather. I'm happy to say that in Chicago, we have higher standards when it comes to pizza slices, and in a sort of Darwinian survival of the fittest, if the pizza sucks, it's not going to be around long.

Where to get it
Jimmy's Pizza Café, 5159 N. Lincoln Ave, 773 293 6992
D'Amato's Bakery, 1124 W. Grand Ave. 312 733 5456, damatoschicago.com
Gigio's Pizzeria, 4643 N. Broadway St, 773 271 2273, gigiospizzachicago.com
Dante's Pizzeria, 3028 W. Armitage Ave, 773 342 0002, danteschicago.com
Dimo's Pizza, 1615 N. Damen Ave, 772 525 4580, dimospizza.com

Artisan

Eating at Bebu
Eating at Bebu

There are several committed artisan chefs working in Chicago today, giving their ultra-wet doughs up to three days of rest to properly ferment and develop plenty of air pockets inside, which results in extra flavour, character and a more pleasant chew. Bread bakers refer to this as "open crumb structure." They don't over-handle the dough, treating each sphere as gently and tenderly as they would give a newborn a bath. They meticulously source (or more likely, make) their sausage, and they know most of the farmers who grow the produce for their toppings. Some even have impressive wine lists. In short, I'm talking about restaurants with very talented cooks in the back who use only the finest ingredients they can get and also happen to make pizzas for a living.

Where to get it
LaBarra, 3011 Butterfield Rd, Oak Brook, 630 861 6177, labarraristorante.com
Pizzeria Bebu, 1521 N. Fremont St, 312 280 6000, bebu.pizza
Stella Barra Pizzeria, 1954 N. Halsted St, 773 634 4101, stellabarra.com
Coalfire, 1321 W. Grand Ave, 312 226 2625, coalfirechicago.com

Margherita at Bebu
Margherita at Bebu

Neapolitan

Sapori Napoletana
Sapori Napoletana

It's not exactly a secret society like Skull and Bones, but the fraternity of pizzaiolos who ply their trade beneath the mantle of Neapolitan pizza do refer to each other with reverence. In Chicago, Jonathan Goldsmith is the high priest of Neapolitan pizza at Spacca Napoli. A pioneer in his trade, he's the "dough whisperer," managing to transform flour and water into one of the city's most heavenly chews. Some of his former employees have opened their own Neapolitan pizza joints (a sort of Rick Bayless effect for the beehive oven set), assembling faithful recreations, doming them just before serving, and in the process, expanding the Neapolitan-style pizza landscape.

What is a Neapolitan? In short, it's a pizza-style originating from ¬– you guessed it – Naples, Italy. Makers of Neapolitan pizza must use 00 flour, water of a certain pH level, sea salt and compressed solid yeast for the dough, while the sauce must be made with San Marzano tomatoes. There are rules regarding how many times the dough should rise and for how long; even the type of oven used to bake the pies is specified with sombre authority.
Several pizza makers in town claim to make a Neapolitan, but many fall short. Unfortunately, there aren't enough Neapolitan specialists to warrant a "Top 5" list for both the city and the 'burbs, so the map shows my top five for the entire Chicagoland region.

Where to get it
Spacca Napoli Pizzeria, 1769 W. Sunnyside Ave, 773 878 2420 spaccanapolipizzeria.com
Dinotto, 1551 N. Wells St., 312 202 0302, dinotto.com
Sapori Napoletani, 6050 N. Northwest Hwy, 773 628 7894, saporinapoletani.com
Nella Pizza e Pasta, 1125 E. Fifty-Fifth St, 773 643 0603, nellachicago.com
Forno Rosso Pizzeria Napoletana, 1048 W. Randolph S, 312 243 6000, fornorossopizzeria.com

Deep-dish and pan

Labriola
Labriola

While its origin story might be a little murky, the definition of a deep-dish pizza, created sometime in the 1940s, is crystal-clear. Essentially, the toppings of a traditional pizza are reversed, with cheese placed on the bottom layer of dough, toppings added and, finally, the tomato sauce. Classic deep-dish usually begins with a circular steel pan, greased with corn or vegetable oil. A pliable, somewhat oily dough is smashed into the pan, until it coverlink texts both the bottom and interior walls. Some restaurants will make a butter crust, which emerges from the oven with an almost pastry-like crispness. This is pizza that you eat with a knife and fork.

Uno's Pizzeria and Grill – today a franchise with 150 outlets around the world – was the first Chicago spot to serve deep-dish but today is headquartered in Boston. That's right: the company that made deep-dish famous (and continues to promote it around the world) hasn't been a Chicago company for decades. And yet, if you randomly ask visitors walking down Chicago's Michigan Avenue where they're going for dinner, I'll bet you more than 75 per cent will tell you either Giordano's, Gino's East, Uno's or Due's. I'll go one further. Ask anyone standing outside one of these four businesses on a Friday or Saturday night where they're from and my guess is not one of them will hail from Chicago – Hinsdale, maybe, but not the city. This is not to say that deep-dish or its close relative, pan pizza, can't be an enjoyable, albeit occasional, indulgence.

Having several homegrown businesses all laser-focused on making deep-dish is one of Chicago's unique characteristics. It makes the city a true Pizza City, because it shows that, while we have plenty of the styles that are well known in New York, we also have styles that are homegrown.

When people ask me for deep-dish recommendations, I usually send them to some of the off-the-beaten-path locations, like one of the places listed in this chapter.

Where to get it
Labriola, 535 N. Michigan Ave, 312 955 3100, labriolacafe.com
Bartoli's Pizzeria, 1955 W. Addison St, 773 248 0455, bartolispizzeria.com
My Pi Pizza, 2010 N. Damen Ave, 773 394 6900, mypiepizza.com
Nueva Italy Pizzeria, 7109 N. Clark St, 773 681 0689, nuevaitalypizzamenu.com
Pizano's Pizza and Pasta, 2056 W. Division St, 312 236 1777, pizanoschicago.com

Stuffed

Superrossa
Superrossa

Stuffed pizza is not a category most people crave. On top of that, the name is misleading. Stuffed. Does that imply there is cheese or sauce jammed into the outer crust? It's true that some places do this, wrapping and crimping the outer edge to contain those ingredients. (I believe Pizza Hut sells millions of these cheese-and-sauce-jammed pies across the USA.) Does it mean something is hidden in the bottom crust, ready to ooze out when you cut into it? No, the only oozing occurs when these slices are lifted and removed from the main body of the pizza. That's because of the stuffed construction, which from bottom to top goes like this: dough, cheese (lots of it), toppings, another extra-thin layer of crust, and finally a lake of tomato sauce.

Stuffed pies need at least forty-five minutes to bake – and then must live up to the mockery inflicted by haters everywhere who say these are essentially cheese casseroles.

Where to get it
Angelo's ,4850 S Pulaski Rd 773 927 9355
The Art of Pizza, 3033 N Ashland Ave, 773 327 5600 or 727 S State St, 312 877 5335, artofpizzachicago.com
Suparossa, 4256 N Central Ave 773 736 5828, suparossa.com

Sicilian

D'Amato's
D'Amato's

As for Sicilian pizzas, here in Chicago they're mostly found in a few Sicilian bakeries tucked beside Polish and Italian delis in the city's North and Northwest Sides. In neighbourhoods such as Jefferson Park and towns like Franklin Park, these bakeries often serve the same line-up of goods: cookies, sandwiches and pizza. But the pizzas tend to be made in large trays and with a different dough than the usual thins you're accustomed to. New York City tends to do Sicilian-style quite well.

D'Amato's in West Town (one of my top five by-the-slice spots in the city) is a perfect example of Sicilian pizza excellence. The top layer of the dough is embedded with cheese and sauce that almost permeate the core. The dough itself is light and fluffy – like a focaccia – with the tiniest air pockets and a firm texture. Toppings like anchovies are not uncommon. The large, rectangular slices (Sicilian-style pizza is baked in a rectangular pan) are great reheated in the oven and eaten right there.

Where to get it
D'Amato's, 1124 W. Grand Avenue, 312 733 5456, damatosbakerychicago.com
Freddy's Pizza, 1600 S Sixty-First Avenue, 708 863 9289, freddyspizza.com
Sicilia Bakery, 5939 W Lawrence Ave, 773 545 4464, siciliabakerychicago.com

Roman (pizza al taglio)

Bonci
Bonci

Those rectangular pans are also displayed front and centre inside Bonci, one of the most exciting new pizza places in Chicago. Gabriele Bonci partnered with an American investor to bring his unique Roman-style pizza al taglio to the masses. I find it interesting that they didn't open their first and only United States branch of the popular Roman pizzeria in New York City, but I'm certainly pleased they're in Chicago. Incidentally, when referring to "Roman-style," there are technically two types of pizza in play, which I learned after emailing Union Square Hospitality Group CEO (and Rome aficionado) Danny Meyer. One is cracker-thin and round, much like what you'd find at Martina in New York City or at Pizzeria Via Stato in Chicago. The other style is a denser, slightly thicker (Sicilian) style of pizza that is cut to order and weighed in front of you, since you're paying by the pound. Places like Alice and Bonci in Rome are known for this style.

Bonci's pizzas are recognized for their beguiling dough, which manages to be soft, chewy, light, airy and crispy all at once. Sliced with scissors and then weighed, the pizza is available in a number of seasonal flavors, such as roasted pumpkin atop supple burrata or sheep's milk ricotta studded with thinly sliced zucchini. Since you choose how much of each flavor you want cut off and weighed, you can try a few without breaking the bank. I wouldn't call the pizzas Sicilian or even focaccia-like, as those doughs tend to be more dense and spongy. Bonci has introduced Chicago (and for that matter, America) to true Roman-style pizzas, adding yet another feather to the city's sauce-laden cap.

Where to get it
Bonci, 161 N Sangamon St, 248 705 0402 or 1566 N Damen Ave, 872 829 3144, bonciusa.com
Pizza Metro, 1707 W Division St, 773 278 1753, pizzametro.com
Pizzeria Via Stato, 620 N State St, 312 642 8450, osteriaviastato.com

Detroit-style

Paulie Gee's
Paulie Gee's

Another vaguely Sicilian-esque style of pizza hails from Michigan, and it's known as Detroit- style—the fourth and final category in this chapter. This style was virtually unknown in Chicago until Jet's arrived in Naperville (the chain has since opened stores all over the region). In just the past few years, places like Union Squared have opened in Evanston and at the Revival Food Hall in the Loop, while Paulie Gee's Logan Square added Detroit-style to their regular menu. Transplanted Detroiters have also tried re-creating the style they grew up with, opening Longacre in Uptown and Fat Chris's in Andersonville. Who knows, maybe Detroit-style will become an acceptable alternative to deep, Sicilian, or tavern-style.

Buddy's, with its eleven locations throughout metro Detroit, is the standard-bearer everyone emulates. They set the bar for this square pizza when it was created there in 1946, just three years after Uno's created deep-dish in Chicago. With its cheesy, baked-on perimeter (not unlike those at Pequod's or LaBarra) and the focaccia-esque texture that a Sicilian pie is known for, the rectangular or square Detroit-style is constructed a bit differently than the pizzas you might be used to seeing. If you're in New York City, Emmy squared makes my favorite version. The unique thing about the Detroit-style is that the dough typically is left to proof for at least a day, oftentimes with some cheese and pepperoni (it's always pepperoni) pushed into the top. When an order comes in, more brick cheese is scattered across the top, pushed all the way to the edges, while just a racing stripe or two of thick tomato sauce is draped across the top. The pizzas emerge with a blackened, crispy cheese perimeter and a height of no less than two inches.

Where to get it
Fat Chris's Pizza and Such, 1706 W Foster Ave, 773 944 5444, fatchrispizza.com
Longacre Pizza Squared, 1309 W Wilson Ave, 773 293 7413, longacrechicago.com
Paulie Gee's Logan Square, 2451 N Milwaukee Ave, 773 360 1072, pauliegee.com
Union Squared, 125 S Clark St, 773 770 6168, unionpizza.com

This extract from Pizza City, USA by Steve Dolinsky (Northwestern University Press, pbk, $24.95) has been reproduced with minor GT style changes.*