“U.S. Pizza Cup” from Paulie Gee’s Logan Square
If you’ll excuse the alliteration, the pandemic has made plenty of pizza parlors pretty popular, particularly for pickup. But for the last century or so, ordering a pizza in Chicago meant you had one of three options: a round, thin-and-crispy, square-cut pie; a circular deep-dish – chunky sauce placed over slices of mozzarella set over a fat-enriched and cornmeal-dusted dough – baked in an anodized steel pan; or if you were visiting from out of town, you might opt for a towering behemoth in a round, steel bathtub of sorts, pounds of toppings and cheese crammed between two opposing layers of dough with the entire monstrosity buried beneath a lake of tomato sauce as red as a Ferrari. Each of these successive styles – tavern from the 1920s, deep-dish from the 1940s and stuffed from the 1970s – seem to have been designed for a society that put an emphasis on a “bigger is better” mantra, where height, diameter and crust thickness signaled not only novelty, but value. Despite their varying dimensions and architecture, all three styles have one thing in common: they’re round, typically perfect circles. However, a recent wave of square pies, specifically Sicilian – with a nod to Detroit, a fist bump to Rome and a wink to an East Coast favorite called Grandma – has captured the imagination of a number of pizzaiolos, cooks and fanatics all eagerly creating a significant new chapter in Chicago’s pizza history.
Before there was an obsession among pizza writers about the various regional styles, there were essentially two types of pizza to talk about: those baked directly on the hearth or stone floor of the oven (descendants of the Neapolitan style, which include New York City slices, Midwestern tavern-style and any run-of-the-mill thin pie) and those baked in a pan of some sort. There’s a fair amount of hair-splitting when it comes to the latter, because pizzas can be baked in shallow, rectangular pans (Grandma, Sicilian, Roman al Taglio), deep, round pans (deep-dish, deep pan, stuffed) or square, blue steel ones (Detroit).
Since most of us seem to be familiar with traditional, circular pizzas, I’m going to address four distinctive square/rectangular styles over the next three days, all of which are interconnected by geography, immigration, tradition and innovation. Today we’ll take a closer look at Detroit-style pies; tomorrow, Grandma and Roman, and finally on Wednesday, Sicilian.
(*indicates if pizzeria was, or currently is on the itinerary for one the Pizza City USA tours I oversee).
Three years after Ike Sewell and Ric Riccardo started selling their deep-dish pizza from the kitchen that would eventually be called Uno’s (with a major assist from their General Manager Lou Malnati and his father, Adolpho), the Sicilian cooks in the kitchen at Buddy’s in Detroit began experimenting in 1946. They placed dough in the ubiquitous 10- by 14-inch rectangular blue steel pans left over from the local auto industry, which were more readily available than the larger, shallower rectangular pans they were used to seeing in home kitchens. Today’s pans tend to be made of anodized aluminum with nonstick coatings.
Flour is one of several factors. Most Detroit-style pies use bread flour, which has more protein than all-purpose flour, allowing it to produce more gluten, and thus, more elasticity and a characteristic chew. The crust gets a signature browning from frying in the fat produced by the cheese that gets pushed along the sides. Not just any cheese, but a higher fat Wisconsin Brick cheese, which gets its name from the process of placing it between bricks during the aging process to expel excess whey. The cheese darkens as it bakes along the sides, and while it may look like burnt crust, it’s simply a crispy, somewhat charred cheesy edge (what’s known as a frico in pizza parlance). It tastes like the best part of a grilled cheese; you’ll definitely fight over the corner pieces.
Detroit-style sauce maintains a lovely balance of brightness, acidity and a hint of sweetness from sugar. It’s usually applied at room temperature, once the pizza has been removed from the oven, scattered over the top of the pie in racing stripes (it’s the Motor City, remember?), so as not to overwhelm any one slice.
Unlike Chicago, which prizes raw, fennel-laced sausage as the topping most frequently used on pizza, in Detroit, pepperoni is iconic. Traditionally it comes in a natural casing, which results in “cup-and-char” spheres of pepperoni that curl up during the baking process. Each porky, charred coin holds tiny flavor bombs of fat while maintaining their blackened, somewhat blistered edges. Resting on a cheesy cushion topped by a couple of stripes of room temperature tomato sauce, the best part is the contrast between the soft, chewy focaccia-like interior, as soft as a down pillow, and the crispy, fried undercarriage – the underbelly of the pizza, also known as the skirt – riddled with tiny craters, usually the result of a thin layer of oil spread on the bottom of the pan before baking (or in some cases, Crisco, or both) co-mingling with the fat from the melted Brick cheese.
The pioneer in Chicago is technically in Evanston. That’s where Vince DiBattista and his business partner Heather Behm started *Union Squared (1307 Chicago Ave., Evanston), a sister restaurant to Union Pizza, a wood-fired option down the street. They had locations at Revival Food Hall and another a block south of Wrigley, but now just operate the one location on Chicago Avenue near Northwestern’s campus. DiBattista fell in love with the style while visiting his in-laws in Detroit, and has since dedicated his craft to recreating the pies just as they appear there, at places like Buddy’s and Cloverleaf.
Jet’s (14 locations in Chicagoland) offers a fast-food take on this style available to the masses (not bad in a pinch), but locals like Derrick Tung at *Paulie Gee’s Logan Square (2451 N. Milwaukee Ave.) have been innovating, making their own versions, in some cases, nearly eclipsing the wood-fired artisan pies his shop was initially built upon. More recently, Tung has started selling NYC-style slices out of his front window (reheated wonderfully on his portable Breville pizza ovens), but his “Logan Squares” hold their own against anything coming out of Michigan. They’ve become so popular, he recently installed giant new Pizza Master ovens to accommodate the growing lineup. He’ll usually offer a Carnivore and an Herbivore, but I find very little disagreement among peers when it comes to his “U.S. Pizza Cup.”
Hiding a layer of earthy bacon jam beneath melted white cheddar, along with that cup-and-char pepperoni from the well-regarded Ezzo Sausage Co. in Columbus, Ohio, you don’t miss the Brick cheese. Post-bake, he pipes on creamy-soft whipped ricotta, showers the thick squares with a chiffonade of fresh basil and then drizzles them with Mike’s Hot Honey, the de rigueur condiment found in many artisan pizza joints these days. Other Detroit options include Fat Chris’ Pizza and Such (1706 W. Foster Ave.) in Andersonville, as well as the Five Squared Food Truck, a two-person company baking their pizzas out of The Hatchery, a small business incubator in East Garfield Park.
“Previously we were a food truck, but ever since mid-March we have converted to a pickup and delivery service directly out of our commercial kitchen,” said owner Steve Kaplan, who runs the business with his wife, Jenn.
They offer pickup Fridays only. Orders can be placed by sending them a direct message on Instagram or via their website up until Thursday night. They get creative with flavors like Chicago Italian Beef, Chicago Hot Dog, even Buffalo Chicken and Cuban Sandwich. All of the pies have that signature soft interior with a crispy, charred cheese frico around the perimeter.
“We’ve got a lot of fun toppings like our PB & J – pepperoni, bacon and jalapeño – which is a favorite. We do spinach and artichoke on our pizza, we obviously do all the standards as well. But every single week we’re coming up with new, fun flavors,” said Kaplan.
Tomorrow: Discussing the history of Roman-style and the three branches of it available in Chicago, plus the East Coast’s iconic Grandma-style hits Chicago via a weekly pop-up in an Irish Bar near Wrigley. If you want more pizza in your life, be sure to listen to/subscribe to the Pizza City podcast.
1307 Chicago Ave., Evanston
Paulie Gee’s Logan Square
2451 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Fat Chris’ Pizza & Such
1706 W. Foster Ave.
135 N. Kedzie Ave.
Pickup on Fridays