Lovers of deep dish are probably still smarting from Jon Stewart’s famous rant from two years ago, when he tore into the city’s iconic pie so hard, it required a (tepid) on-air rebuttal from Marc Malnati. Of course, everyone else in the city who thinks of deep dish merely as a cheese casserole was probably cheering right along with Stewart, as were, no doubt, the locals from the South and Southwest Sides, where tavern-style is still equated with “Chicago style” more than anything that comes out of a two-inch high metal pan.
And speaking of pan, 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.
Both of these pizzas begin with well-oiled, Allied Deep Dish Non-Stick Black Buster pizza pans, about two inches high. The pans are rubbed generously with corn or vegetable oil, then the oily dough – sometimes laced with butter, like Lou Malnati’s – is jammed and pressed into the corners and up the sides. Mozzarella slices are placed down first, serving as a sort of curd-and-whey shield/defense system, keeping the dough from getting too soggy at the bottom. Then on go the toppings – sausage, peppers, whatever – followed by the slightly chunky tomato sauce. In a stuffed variation, a second, thinner layer of dough is placed on top of the toppings, truly forming a pizza casserole/pot pie sort of thing, topped eventually with another layer of thin tomato sauce. These pizzas look great on Instagram, with the sexy cheese “pull” shots as you lift out a slice, but honestly, if I never eat another stuffed pizza again in my life it will be too soon. I know I’ve promised to do a Top 5 list for stuffed in a few days, but seriously, I just can’t get behind any of them. They all made me feel ill afterwards, as my intestines clogged with more cheese, sauce and dough than anyone should be forced to endure in one sitting. Being forced to eat an entire stuffed pizza solo is the culinary equivalent of waterboarding.
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, and I’m sure my kids are just as happy as I am that this crazy, insane field work is over. In nearly every case, the title of the restaurant is also the link to the restaurant’s website. Random reporter’s note: according to Kristine Sherred, my intern and fact-checker, the deep dish folks, in general, were quite a bit stingier with information than the thin folks. Pequod’s insisted they wouldn’t share anything over the phone; Beggars kept putting us off; the owner of Art of Pizza doesn’t return calls and is only in on Mondays (which says volumes). The keepers of the deep dish flame apparently prefer secrecy to transparency.
Coming up tomorrow, I’ll reveal my Top 5 Stuffed Pizzas (which I’ll subtitle the Top 5 Mandatory But Unenthusiastic Pizzas I’m Required to List Since I Live in Chicago); on Wednesday, my Top 5 Deep Dish Pizzas (City); on Thursday, 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. Also on Friday at 7pm, I will feature my Top 3 Deep Dish in the city on ABC7, then my Top 3 Deep Dish in the suburbs on Saturday at 10pm, after the football game.
Incidentally, if you’re curious, here are all of the thin places I tried, with maps and commentary.
*There’s a reason this Deep Dish compilation has an asterisk. Burt’s Pizza in Morton Grove was closed for the two months I did the Quest, in August and September, and according to reports on Fooditor, it has now closed for good. Just in case you were wondering why it’s not on this list.
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
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 whole milk 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.
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.
10204 Central Ave., Oak Lawn; 708-499-0505
Style: Deep Dish
Got small deep dish, half sausage-half pepperoni ($13.75)
Most of the two dozen or so locations of this chain are located in the South and Southwest Sides of the city – mostly in the suburbs – plus a few in Indiana. Several readers strongly urged me to check them out, not just because they’re served at U.S. Cellular and Soldier Field. When I called two of the locations (Oak Lawn, where I happened to be nearby, as well as the original location at 127th & Western) both employees on the other end of the phone told me it was their deep dish that they were known for, so that’s the route I went. The question of “pan” vs “deep dish” came up frequently. In Beggars’ case, “we really don’t have a pan pizza, we have a deep dish,” said Ray Cantelo, the VP of Operations (his brother-in-law, Larry Garetto, runs the main company, then there are family-owned stores and franchises). “Pan pizza would be a thicker thin-crust pizza – like a double thin crust.”
Beggars’ pies come with that standard high-sided dough, jammed into a pan that’s lubricated with olive oil and butter; it’s nearly as yellow as Gino’s but not as flavorful, with a middle that drops about a half an inch lower, like Lou’s and Uno’s. The standard architecture goes like this: bottom crust, then whole and part-skim mozzarella (shredded at a commissary in Blue Island), then hunks of sausage (made by a Chicago company; pepperoni from Hormel) and finally, the tomato sauce on top, which comes from California (all of the tomatoes for the entire year are packed fresh in August). At first glance, and certainly in Instagram, it looks pretty good. But for some reason, whenever I cut into my piece, that deeply acidic, somewhat intense tomato sauce just fell off the cheese mountain, like rainwater running off the hood of my car. Sausage pieces are pretty large, but relatively bland. In a land of chains and fast food options, I can see why Beggars dominates in Blue Island, Lansing, Harvey, etc. There’s just no competition.
2 locations in region – Gold Coast and Oak Park
Went to 6831 W. North Ave., Oak Park, 708-524-2400
Ate a small, half sausage-half pepperoni ($14.75)
For some reason, I thought this chain – which opened in 1978 – had more than two locations (plus Munster, IN) still open. I can see why there is tepid demand. The crust, which not only has a bottom layer, but also a very thin top layer that holds up the lake of pureed tomato sauce, was simply flavorless, as well as impossibly hard for a knife-and-fork. Cracked at the top, outer perimeter, it revealed a cavern of blandness, including sauce that must have come from a jar. Remove a slice and you’ll witness a decent version of cheese lava (but nowhere near the ooze that comes out of a Milano’s pie in Beverly). Beneath that upper dough layer, a sea of bland, crumbled sausage that offers absolutely no additional flavor, seeing that it’s completely obliterated by the gobs of cheese all around it.
1600 S. 61st Ave., Cicero
Got a full pan ($19)
Honestly, a slice for $3 would have been plenty, but I didn’t want to do a slice quest, and I hate seeing pieces that have been sitting out all day get re-heated. I ordered a half pan of half sausage-half pepperoni (they sold me a full pan, so be sure you’re clear) and I made it past one slice. That was it. Like hitting a wall at the 18th mile of a marathon, I was on a particularly long jag through the western suburbs on this day, and while I easily put away a slice of their margherita and a slice of their thin (also reviewed very favorably last week in the “Thin” part of the Quest) I felt it necessary to get the pizza this legendary grocery store is known for: Sicilian. From the tradition of neighborhood bakeries – like the Sicilian Bakery on Cumberland – these are really more about the bread than the toppings. Sure, the giant crumbles of sausage and discs of pepperoni were nice, and the sauce was pleasant, but when you look at the side of a slice, you see about 80% bread, 20% topping. Granted, if you’re on a budget, a full pan for $19 could easily feed 13 to 14 hungry people, so the economics are great, but in terms of pizza satisfaction, I’ll have to look elsewhere for a thick fix.
Five city and five suburban locations
Ate at 162 E. Superior St.; 312-266-3337
Style: Deep Dish – small (4 slices), medium (6 slices), large (8 slices)
Got small half pepperoni-half sausage ($17.75)
If there was a pizza I might have a slight bias/history with, it would be Gino’s East, since I remember visiting Chicago in the 80s, as a broke college student, and descending the graffiti-riddled stairs to the previous location in the Gold Coast. I recall a cornmeal crust* and a thick pie, and on a recent lunch outing with a friend who adores deep dish, I went with my usual for this Quest: half sausage-half pepperoni. I know that deep dish takes awhile to make, so I called ahead, asking if I could place my order then dine-in. Nope. You can call ahead for a take-out order, but since they don’t take reservations, you have to just score a seat first, then place your order, then wait. And wait. And then you wait some more. On a Wednesday afternoon in a half-filled dining room, we waited 68 minutes for our small deep dish (the person on the phone said it would be 40 minutes; our server said more like an hour plus). I now understand why everyone at Gino’s is a tourist: they have no appointments and no time commitments and aren’t bound by the laws of workplace lunch hours. Once it did arrive, our server cut out a piece from the blackened steel pan and served up a slice. The mozzarella is as thick as taffy, oozing from the pan beneath a top layer of chunky tomato sauce; beneath it all, the signature crust, containing just enough cornmeal* to make it taste like baked cornbread, and me being a corn freak, I actually ate the entire piece. Unfortunately, the sausage (made by an outside company) is a series of tiny pebbles, about the size of blueberries, and didn’t make an kind of an impression, sandwiched and buried as they were, beneath cheese and above a hefty crust.
*The cornmeal crust is apparently a fallacy. See this jaw-dropping, eye-opening rebuttal courtesy of RealDeepDish.com
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 Marc Malnati famously brought him a pizza on-air, making the most polite 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: a soft bottom crust rubbed into a deep dish pan slathered with margarine (not oil) topped with a thin layer of pepperoni/sausage then an avalanche of Wisconsin mozzarella shredded in-house, and finally, a super-thin layer of dough that’s sealed around the top, forming a type of souffle. Vents are cut into the top layer to release pressure; the top layer is covered with seasoned tomato sauce, hailing from Mendocino County in Northern California, with flecks of oregano, not unlike a marinara you’d find at your neighborhood Italian restaurant.
A representative from the company said they consider the stuffed pizza a form of deep dish, albeit a more imposing, heavier proposition. Oh, I almost forgot – the outer crust! That imposing wall of dough that could keep an army of Orcs at bay, manages to hold 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.
14025 S. Cicero Ave., Crestwood; 708-371-0950
Style: Deep Dish/Pan
Ordered small half sausage-half pepperoni ($15)
Louise Benash was a waitress in the 70s at the original Pizzeria Due, and even worked with some guy named Lou Malnati, who was busy back in the kitchen over at Uno’s, making Chicago’s original deep dish pizza. She worked at Due’s from 1959 until ’81, opening her namesake bar and pizza joint that year. After she passed away, she left the business to her daughter, Linda. The family still runs it, making the same deep dish pie (figure 45 minutes at least) as they’ve done the past 35 years. They typically won’t cut up the pizzas into slices unless you ask them, but they still come in those sturdy, blackened stainless steel pans. At the bottom and up along the sides, a sturdy, slightly rich, buttery crust, the result of Ceresota unbleached flour, and a resting period of at least a day. Along the bottom, Wisconsin part-skim mozzarella, extra large hunks of cooked Anichini sausage they’ve been getting for 34 years, and a bright-and-chunky tomato sauce on the top, the product of California vine-ripened tomatoes (Saporito brand), covering everything except the outermost ring of crust. Just before it hits the oven, it gets a sprinkling of grated parmesan and oregano. Pizzas are baked in an old Blodgett oven at a constant 550 degrees, then moved to the upper oven to crisp-up the top without burning the bottom. That high edge is slightly browned in spots, yielding to the edge of a fork, but somehow riding that beautiful middle ground between crispy exterior and softened, cheese-riddled interior. Even after trying two pizzas on the day I visited, I still polished off a full slice. I dare you to try to eat just one (assuming you haven’t had a few pizzas beforehand).
6649 N Lincoln Ave, Lincolnwood; 847-673-0800
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, Lou’s Marketing & Public Relations Manager. “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, although 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.
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. The sauce comes from California plum tomatoes – they actually use two types of sauce, one for thin and a different one for stuffed – and that mozzarella is shredded in-house, then combined with two other cheeses, which the owner, Antoinette (no last name given) wouldn’t specify. They have the sausage made for them by a local purveyor (unnamed) and make the dough each day. “From the crust to the sauce, we are making it fresh everyday,” she said. “I came from Italy when I was 22 years old, and we’ve been here since 1984.” 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.
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.
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.
7230 W. North Ave # 206, Elmwood Park; 708-456-3000
Ate a small, half sausage-half pepperoni ($12.15)
Maybe it was the four Sopranos posters, or the one of Sinatra, but I had a sinking feeling as I walked into this local landmark, which has been serving the neighbors in Elmwood Park since ’63, that the clichés were going to continue on the plate. Thankfully, I was wrong. If you try to look them up online, it’s a little confusing, as they’re aligned with a company called Fat Ricky’s, with locations in Tinley Park, Shorewood, Romeoville and Plainfield, but there’s no way to see the menu for the Elmwood Park location. When we called, they mentioned thin and deep, but emphasized that deep was what they were known for, so we ordered the usual. They told us it would be about 45 minutes until it was ready, so we took our time, arriving in the quiet strip mall just a few minutes before it was ready.
This pizza has a sturdy, two inch-high outer crust, but inside, where the toppings reside, the crust is only about a quarter inch thick – much like Malnati’s – and contains extra virgin olive oil as well as yeast, resting for just 24 hours. Cheese is of course the first layer (a combo of shredded and sliced whole milk mozzarella) then some heavily-seasoned sausage from Greco, loaded up with quite a bit of fennel embedded into large, jagged pieces. Their beautifully seasoned tomato sauce (California tomatoes, rests for 24 – 36 hours before using) sits above it all, in splotches rather than a uniform coating, making the top of the pizza look like a map of the world, with continents made of tomatoes and sausage (seasoned lightly with Pecorino Romano cheese), swimming in an ocean of mozzarella. You don’t need a fork and knife here, since the slices are sturdy enough to hold with one hand; the crust has plenty of flavor and I’ll bet you there aren’t any crust fragments left on your plate, as there are at several lesser pizza joints. This is a pizza you’re going to have a hard time putting down, especially if you like Malnati’s style.
2207 N. Clybourn; 773-327-1512
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 retired from his namesake joint in Morton Grove earlier this year, which is now officially closed), 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.
3125 Dundee Rd., Northbrook; 847-498-5700 (also in Highland Park)
Style: Deep and Stuffed
Got a small pan pizza, half sausage-half pepperoni ($14.25)
Again, sufferers of PIGUE (Pizza I Grew Up Eating) Syndrome were vociferous in their support of Piero’s, after seeing I was in the area already, eating at Barnaby’s. “Best deep dish pizza” they explained, matter-of-factly. “You’ll love it,” they assured me. Sadly, I did not. I think an automatic red flag goes up when you see listed on the menu, a choice of either the “pizza sauce, extra virgin olive oil, marinara sauce, house garlic spread, or barbecue sauce.” Is this a rib joint or a pizza parlor? My small – which could have fed four people, easily – had a pretty nice crust, actually. High on the sides, the half-inch thick perimeter held back a lake of deep red tomato sauce, although this was more pureed than I would have liked, and it desperately needed salt, garlic and oregano to boost its very basic tomato-y flavor. The bottom crust holds together well, but the layer of mozzarella on top of it completely overwhelmed everything else, including the small knobs of sausage and paper thin discs of pepperoni. When a slice was removed from the pie, a river of cheese lava flowed out, revealing this deep dish’s true nature. This is more in-line with The Art of Pizza’s cheese casseroles, and while I’m sure the fine folks at the Wisconsin Cheese Board are big fans, pizza lovers looking for a balanced bite will be disappointed.
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.
3011 Butterfield Rd, Oak Brook; 630-861-6177
Style: Deep Dish/Pan
Also sells Chicago-style thin, but specializes in coal fired artisan thin
Rich Labriola knows dough. The guy built his eponymous bakery, sold it, and has since moved on to licensing UCLA’s Stan’s Donuts, which is quickly gobbling up retail space around the city. His namesake café has kept humming along in a semi-fancy Oak Brook strip mall, and last year, he opened up a branch off of Michigan Avenue. Even though they have a pizza oven at both, and they manage to churn out good Neapolitan-style pies, I decided not to include them as part of the Quest, since I had made a rule early on about prohibiting restaurants that didn’t focus on pizza (otherwise this Quest would never end; sorry Piccolo Sogno, Balena and Quartino). Labriola recently took over a vacant space near the Oak Brook location, setting up his pizza fantasyland. He recruited Chris Macchia, a Coco Pazzo vet, and the two have spent the past year or so stuffing their faces with various crusts, trying to come up with something truly unique.
The massive restaurant offers three types of pizza: thin, Chicago deep dish and their signature: a coal fired artisan pie that emerges from the brick ovens with some of the most beautiful corniciones in the tri-state area. As much as I like Coalfired downtown, this is the kind of dough I want putting up a fight in the blistering heat – it’s got a lot of character with tons of air pockets, plenty of olive oil-kissed blistering around the top and a puffiness that allows for a good, hearty chew. The middle is still as thin as can be, supporting any number of artisan toppings, roasted vegetables or even ‘nduja from West Loop Salumi. But this is the “thick” part of the Quest, so why am I going on about his artisan thin pizzas? Because up until I ate here, most of the pizza places had established themselves in one realm or the other. When I would call up Piero’s, in Northbrook, for example, I would ask them “what’s your specialty? What are you guys known for?” They answered “pan” of course, so that’s what I ordered. In this case, with Pizza Barra being only a few weeks old, there is no pattern yet, which is why I’ve included them in both the thin and thick roundups.
I never saw it coming. Hit like a quarterback on the blind side by Singletary on the blitz, my 10” deep dish with sausage was placed in front of me, and I already liked what I saw: generous, chunky icebergs of fresh tomato, lightly seasoned with fresh herbs; jagged-edged pieces of sausage, fragrant and juicy, tucked within melted mozzarella; then the best surprise of all – as I lifted out my first piece, I saw that outer edge, just like Pequod’s, a caramelized, darkened, thin layer of cheese, clinging to the perimeter, all the way around. Underneath, I noticed how firm the dough was; as I cut into it with my knife, I realized it was actually crispy all the way around, and so I picked up the rest of my piece with my hands, and summarily devoured it. The ratio! They figured out the ratio! The night before, I had taken a few half-hearted bites of a deep dish at the Lake View location of Tortorice’s, a 45 year-old pizzeria with seven locations. Underneath the sauce and cheese was a ridiculously thick piece of soft focaccia-like dough, making the experience feel like I was 12 again, eating a Stouffer’s French bread “pizza.” But here, in the sleepy Oak Brook Promenade mall, next to a corporate plaza, overlooking a manmade lake, two Italian guys have cracked the code somehow – after a lot of trial and error no doubt – and have created a remarkable deep dish pizza.
The Original Pizzeria Uno (referred to nationally as Uno Pizzeria and Grill or Uno Chicago Grill)
29 E. Ohio St., 312-321-1000
Style: Deep Dish
Comes in personal, small, medium and large; got a personal Deep Dish ($7.19)
Blame Uno’s for our crazy, out-sized reputation as a deep dish town, because back in 1943, Ike Sewell had the idea to serve a larger, more substantial pizza to the boys coming home from the War. He eventually had some kids named Lou Malnati and Louise Benash work for him – both of whom went on to start their own places (each visited in the #ChicagoPizzaQuestThick category). I wanted to hate this place, since it long ago sold out to its corporate overseer, and hasn’t been a Chicago-owned business for decades, despite the trademarked name. The original location does have charm, and it exudes old Chicago, at least a Chicago vastly different from the garish Fleming’s Steakhouse and chain hotels nearby. I actually liked the crust here – slightly buttery rich, a tad flaky and utterly craveable – but everything else, from the oddly-shaped sausage “Frisbee” that hovered over a gloppy bottom layer of mozzarella that kicked off a fair amount of grease, plus the top layer of tomato paste-like sauce that might as well have been from a jar had me tossing most of it in the garbage (I usually try to find a homeless guy to give the rest of the pizza to, but couldn’t find anyone in River North).
4632 N. Cumberland Ave.; 773-589-2602
Style: Pan/Focaccia – $1.75 per slice
Tucked away in the corner of a strip mall with a completely separate by-the-slice joint, I had impassioned pleas from readers to please visit here, as they had some kind of magical, life-changing pizza on hand. The cases are surely impressive, loaded with cookies, sfogliatelle and cannoli, but I’m not sure the “pizza” is what you should be coming here for. My slice of sausage was more like a doughy focaccia, squishy-soft with few redeeming characteristics. On top, the thinnest layer of baked-on mozzarella and a few nobs of pretty tasty homemade sausage. The crime: topping-to-dough ratio. With hardly any tomato sauce, I wouldn’t really call this pizza, but rather, “pizza-style” bread.
3038 W. Irving Park Rd.; 773-478-3070
Tried 12” stuffed, half pepperoni-half sausage ($16.45)
They sure are proud of their Thrillist ranking, but I had a hard time finding any redeeming qualities in the stuffed pizza here. The sides are a good two inches high, while the bottom crust is sturdy enough to support a Buick. On top of that base, a thin layer of mozzarella and some mildly spiced sausage, topped with an ultra-thin layer of dough and finally, the barest painting of tomato sauce. If you love bread, this is the pizza for you. As I cut into my slice (knife and fork required), each bite yielded a bland, doughy mouthful, accented by cheese.
953 W. Diversey; 773-525-4200
(Six other locations in city and suburbs)
Style: Deep Dish
They also have thin, double dough, pan and stuffed, but they told me deep dish with caramelized crust was specialty; got a small half sausage-half pepperoni ($15.25)
A few readers told me their stuffed version in Wheeling is actually not bad, but I have to say, upon first glance of the deep dish with caramelized crust, I was reminded of Pequod’s: all around the perimeter, a thin, crispy layer of lacy cheese is charred, adding the most wonderful texture to this pie. Unfortunately, once you bite past the first ¼ inch, you’re met with more dough than a Sicilian bakery. It’s almost focaccia-like in its soft, spongy consistency, and it’s too bad, really, because the pepperoni ain’t bad, and the sausage is decent but unremarkable. If they could just figure out a better ratio situation, and serve a pizza, rather than a tomato sauce-topped cheese bread, they would get more points from me. But hey, what do I know? They’ve been in business since 1970 and have seven locations around Chicagoland, so obviously, someone likes this style.
Kristine Sherred contributed reporting to this story