Chicago is home to thousands of pizzerias and many different styles of pizzas. But, when most of us think of “Chicago pizza,” we envision a gooey deep-dish style — a round pizza baked in a cake pan with sauce on top and copious amounts of cheese in the molten center. Today, the Chicago deep-dish style has two distinct variations. Both look similar at first glance, but they have a very different eating experience. Deep-dish pizza continues to proliferate the Chicago pizza scene and is a style as closely related to the city as the Cubs and the Bulls!
There is no debate around the when and where Chicago style deep-dish pizza originated. It began back in 1943 at a tiny corner joint called Pizzeria Uno. Ike Sewell, the owner of Pizzeria Uno, was looking to capitalize on the large population of Italian immigrants in Chicago who were hungry for their native cuisine. Ike thought if he could develop an Americanized version of the Italian classic pizza, it would appeal to both their love for the old world and their new home in a single bite. Where the story of the Chicago culinary classic gets muddy is who gets credit as the ultimate inventor. Some reports say that Ike created it and others claim Rudy Malnati, the original pizza chef at Uno’s, is the real genius behind the recipe. Many people point to the fact that Ike was never in the kitchen and had no real culinary skills, which seems to fortify Malnati’s claim to the recipe. However, in reality, both men worked at the restaurant at that time, and it could be as simple as a collaboration between coworkers. All we really know as fact is that a culinary icon was ushered into the world at this little Chicago neighborhood pizzeria, and two coworkers, Ike and Rudy, were driving forces behind the deep walled cheese pizza.
When they were done, the new pizza more closely resembled a tomato cake or pie than a traditional pizza. With this new signature dish, it didn’t take long for Pizzeria Uno to become extremely popular. Cooks and relatives began to branch off and start new deep-dish establishments throughout the city, such as Lou Malnati’s, Gino’s East, and Pizano’s. The classic stayed standardized as a deep-dish pizza with an enormous amount of cheese encased in a thin crust, topped with chunky tomato sauce, and baked in an aluminum cake pan. This all changed 22 years later when a young cook named Burt Katz decided to put his fingerprints on the classic. He started a restaurant called Gulliver’s, where he served a deep-dish with a thicker caramelized crust as the focus. This new version’s crust was much thicker, similar to a Sicilian style pizza. It had cheese all the way to the edge instead of being incased like a pie, where it would get crispy on the edge during the long cook time. Burt ended up starting two more restaurants called Pequod’s before he ended up at a small location called Burt’s Place that is still open today, serving up the original recipe. Burt didn’t consider himself a chef. In his word’s he and pizza became friends. But, chef or not, Burt heavily influenced the Chicago style pizza scene in a big way. Even with these two styles, and multiple variations between different establishments, there are constants that can’t be denied if you want to be called “deep-dish” in the windy city.
Here are some hard-fast rules that can’t be deviated from if you want to be called Chicago deep-dish.
- It has crust, cheese and sauce—in that order.
- It is always baked and served in a round pan with a lot of grease.
- The sheer amount of cheese boarders on excessive.
Below, is a round-up of areas where you can deviate and still be called Chicago style deep-dish.
THE PAN: A dark black aluminum 2” cake pan is the industry standard. It is always round, almost always burnt black from years of use, and can range anywhere from a personal 6” size to 14” family size. The pan is ALWAYS greased prior to the addition of the dough. The oil will actually fry the dough and give it a crisp exterior.
THE CRUST: This is where the most deviation seems to occur. The standard is yeast pizza dough with an increased fat content to help the dough release from the pan. The fat is normally an olive oil, but a few places, such as Lou Malnati’s, claim a butter crust. The thickness of the crust can, and does vary.
- ORIGINAL VARIATION: Most of the traditional deep-dish pizzas are thin to medium, run up the side of the pan, and totally encase the cheese inside of the pizza.
- THICK CRUST VARIATION: This is a thicker Sicilian pan hybrid with Focaccia-like thickness and characteristics.
- CHEESE: Mozzarella is the standard. Many places will call out Wisconsin Mozzarella. It is very commonly sliced and layered in the pizza.
- ORIGINAL VARIATION: The cheese is completely encased in the dough and under the sauce. This keeps is moist and very stringy. Cheese pulls can grow as long as two feet!
- THICK CRUST VARIATION: The cheese is on top of the crust and pushed all the way to the edge of the dough. This produces a caramelized cheese edge that is very characteristic of the style.
- MEAT: Italian sausage and Pepperoni are the most common. Italian sausage is a Chicago tradition and many establishments will boast their own custom house recipes.
- VEGETABLES: Considered garnishes by many hard-core pan pizza lovers, the standard options are available, with the addition of Chicago classics, such as Giardiniera and Pepperoncini.
- SAUCE: Many places simply use crushed tomatoes, as they cook down into a sauce during the longer cooking time. If they do use a sauce, it is very simple in nature.
THE BUILD ORDER: The order of the pizza toppings is as important to the proper execution of the pizza as the grease baked pan. It goes crust, cheese, toppings, then finished with a thick layer of crushed tomatoes as the sauce. This inside out or upside-down approach is born out of necessity. The pizza is so thick it will take up to 25 minutes to bake. By that time, if the cheese was on top, it would be burnt and crusty. The sauce being over it protects the cheese and keeps it soft and gooey.
SERVING: It is always served screaming hot in the pan. They will carry the pizza out with metal pan clamps and set it on a trivet to protect the table. Then a large piece will be scooped out by the server with long strands of cheese pulling as the piece is separated from the rest of the pie.
ACCOMPANIMENTS: It is served with three standard ingredient shakers. Inexpensive grated Parmesan, dried oregano, and crushed chili flakes. They usually show up in the little clear plastic swirl shakers.
We have many regional American style pizzas and Chicago deep-dish is as iconic as they come. It is easily identifiable at first sight, has a special crusty black pan, and more cheese inside of it than you can shake a stick at. The creation of this American classic came out of the desire to feed a hybrid Italian and American dish to one of the largest immigrant populations in America at the time. The economic value, ability to feed a family, and a hybrid American/European feel made this pizza very approachable for the Italian immigrants in Chicago at the time, and it became an overnight sensation! What started in a tiny tin ceilinged building (still open on a busy corner in downtown Chicago today) has blossomed into a city classic with style and flavor to spare.
WHERE THE RESEARCH WAS DONE:
ADDRESS: 29 E Ohio St., Chicago, IL 60611
WHAT TO GET: Numero Uno (original variation).
NOTES: (Original Variation) This is considered the birth place of Chicago style deep-dish. Theirs is a medium crust baked in a pan with a lot of cheese and sauce.
LOU MALNATI’S PIZZERIA
ADDRESS: 6649 n. Lincoln Ave., Lincolnwood, 847-673-0800; 53 other area locations
WHAT TO GET: Deep-dish “The Lou.”
NOTES: (Original Variation) They have a butter crust and a lighter hand with the cheese. This is a Chicago classic and may be the best original version I found.
ADDRESS: 2207 N. Clybourn Ave. Chicago, IL 60614 (2 locations)
WHAT TO GET: Deep-dish Italian sausage.
NOTES: (Thick Crust Variation) Theirs is a deep-dish pizza, baked in a pan. It is more of a cross between Detroit style and Chicago deep-dish. The burnt cheese edge is legendary.
ADDRESS: 500 N LaSalle Dr., Chicago, IL 60654 (6 locations)
WHAT TO GET: The Sausage deep-dish.
NOTES: (Original variation) They have a traditional deep-dish pizza with medium crust, a lot of cheese, and sauce on top.
ADDRESS: 8541 Ferris Ave., Morton Grove, IL 60053
WHAT TO GET: Mushrooms, spinach, garlic and slice tomatoes deep-dish.
NOTES: (Thick crust variation) They offer a deep-dish pizza with thick crust, a lot of cheese, and sauce on top. The pizza has a good layer of crusty cheese. This was the best deep-dish in my opinion.
ADDRESS: 2727 Howard St., Chicago, IL 60645 (2 locations)
WHAT TO GET: Cheese deep-dish.
NOTES: (Thick crust variation) Guliver’s specializes in a deep-dish pizza with thick crust, a lot of cheese, and sauce on top.