Chicago-Style Deep Dish Pizza
A few years ago, I was in Chicago with no dinner plans. I decided to hit up Gino’s East, the iconic purveyor of the city’s famed deep-dish pizza. I hadn’t had a Gino’s pie since my college days at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, in the 1980s. Back then, my friends and I would occasionally take the L train down to The Loop for the decadent privilege of sinking our teeth into two hot, moist, savory, fragrant inches of crust, cheese, sauce and (usually) sausage.
I took a seat at the clean, well-lit bar. Gino’s has since moved to roomier digs, and the original location’s cramped, graffiti-caked, old wooden booths were gone. I ordered a small pie and waited in giddy, gluttonous anticipation. And waited. And waited.
Oh, yeah, I thought. This feels familiar. I had remembered only the glorious, pig-out part of those college jaunts and forgotten the bad part: the interminable wait. Deep-dish pizzas are like soufflés; they take forever. Sitting down and ordering a pie is only the beginning. Between that action and the actual meal yawns a 45-minute chasm of limbo during which you twiddle your thumbs, run out of conversation, and wonder if you’ve wasted the entire evening. There are appetizers on the menu, nibbles that might help you bide the time until dinner arrives. But any deep-dish veteran knows ordering them is a rookie move. You stupidly fill up on calamari or mozzarella sticks, and by the time the main attraction arrives — a gut-busting calorie bomb itself — you’ve blown your appetite.
When my pizza finally came, however, all was forgiven. It always is. Deep-dish is one of the great pizza iterations of the world. It’s pizza on steroids, a pizza layer cake. And let’s get this straight right away: It is pizza. There is a large and vocal contingent out there among the pie purists who will tell you that deep-dish is not, in fact, pizza. Food writer Ed Levine, who wrote the seminal 2005 book Pizza: A Slice of Heaven, dismissed it as “a good casserole.” And, of course, there was comedian Jon Stewart’s infamous 2013 takedown, when the New York pizza advocate called Chicago pie every name in the book, and some that aren’t, such as “tomato soup in a bread bowl” and “an above-ground marinara swimming pool for rats.” You really can’t trust the reasoning of people who get that worked up about food categories.
My philosophy concerning hairsplitting food feuds is of the “If it looks like a duck…” variety. If it looks like the food in question, it is the food in question. A hot dog is a sandwich because it’s food between two pieces of bread; and Chicago deep-dish is pizza because it doesn’t resemble anything so much as it does pizza. It’s round; it has crust, cheese and tomato sauce; it’s cut into slices. Bingo.
Deep-dish is part of Chicago’s fabled food trinity, along with the two styles of Chicago hot dog — the “dragged through the garden” version, in which the wiener is festooned with mustard, green relish, sport peppers, tomatoes and a pickle slice; and the Italian hot beef rendition, a fragrant variation of the French Dip served “au jus” and accented with giardiniera or sautéed sweet green peppers. Visitors should never leave Chicago without sampling all three, even if it does mean temporarily putting on a few pounds.
Chicago food specialties are all about immediate gratification and stick-to-your-ribs comfort. There are subtleties to these dishes, but little delicacy. Winters are cold in Chicago; the summers are scorchers; the wind cuts through you; the Cubs lost for a long time; the Bears still do; and life is hard. Food should not be another sock on the jaw.
As with New York pizza, Chicago has its long-standing titans. Gino’s is one. Giordano’s and Lou Malnati’s are others. All are chains that can be found all around the city. The city’s special style of pie reportedly began with Pizzeria Uno, which opened in Chicago’s Near North Side neighborhood in 1943. As with most food-and-drink origin stories, however, the conventional wisdom is disputed. The argument here, however, doesn’t have to do with where, but who. Some stories credit Uno’s founder, a Texan named Ike Sewell. Others say the genius in question was Richard Novaretti, known as Ric Riccardo, who owned the restaurant Riccardo’s and was also Sewell’s partner. Still others point to Adolpho “Rudy” Malnati Sr., Riccardo’s former bartender who became a longtime Uno’s employee.
One thing’s for sure. Pizzeria Uno, like Lombardi’s in New York, was a wellspring of pizza royalty. Lou Malnati, Rudy’s son, left Uno in 1971 to start his eponymous pizzeria empire in the North Chicago suburb of Lincolnwood. Rudy’s other son, Rudy Jr., founded the Pizano’s chain. And Uno’s one-time cook, Alice Mae Redmond, went on to work at Gino’s East, which opened in 1966.
Each pizzeria does things a little differently, but the general format is largely the same. The process begins with a deep, round metal pan coated with olive oil, into which the dough, made of white and semolina flour, is pressed and shaped until it covers the bottom of the pan and creeps up the sides. The dough is then baked, resulting in a sturdy starch bowl that will soon hold the hefty remaining ingredients. The crust also comes out a distinct bright yellow. (Some say the color is due to the olive oil, others because of dye.) The filling is introduced in a particular order. First comes mozzarella cheese, sometimes as slices, sometimes grated; then any meats or vegetables that have been ordered; and, finally, it’s topped with a layer of raw crushed tomatoes. The latter will be cooked through during the mélange’s long stay in the oven.
There are other quirks to the style. Whereas pepperoni prevails as the most popular meat topping in the rest of the United States, sausage is king in Chicago. And the meat is sometimes applied in the form of a single sausage patty, covering the entire circumference of the pie. Other times, it is lump sausage that is pressed into a layer. The finished pie is brought out via a unique piece of hardware, a pliers-like item called a pan gripper, making the arrival of a pie at your table seem a bit like a visit from the local blacksmith.
Not every joint is part of a chain. There are independent practitioners as well. When I was at Northwestern, in Evanston there was Dave’s Italian Kitchen, a personal favorite of mine; and Carmen’s Pizza, which served a variation of deep-dish called stuffed pizza, in which the cheese sits between two layers of crust, the top layer of which is covered with sauce. Giordano’s is the most famous practitioner of the stuffed style. Both Dave’s and Carmen’s have now, sadly, vanished. (Dave’s technically exists, after two moves, but is a shadow of its former self, and the pizza is just not the same.)
Unlike New York pizza, it is permissible to eat deep-dish pizza with a fork and knife. Really, it’s impossible to manage the task otherwise. The silverware makes a deep-dish experience seem more like a meal than a thin-crust pie. (So, for that matter, does the wait.) There’s no grab-and-go in the Chicago pizza universe, no foldable slice for the street. You’ve got to commit, and so does your party — to the evening, to the time, to the meal. It’s an investment of time, just as it is to the folks in the kitchen. And there’s always some left to take home. Which is good, for Chicago pizza tastes great later on, reheated as a late-night or next-day snack.
In that single respect, it shares a brotherhood with New York pizza.