FOR THE LAST FEW MONTHS, STEVE DOLINSKY—multiple James Beard Foundation award-winner, food reporter for ABC 7, food podcaster with Rick Bayless at The Feed, ubiquitous headshot in restaurants all over the city—has been leading bus tours of locals and out-of-towners to discover what Chicago pizza really is. Not the stuffed pizza that gets (mostly disdainful) media attention and nevertheless packs the tourists in, but deep dish a la Lou Malnati’s and its ilk, and most of all, tavern cut thin crust.

The book

The book

If Dolinsky’s new book Pizza City, USA: 101 Reasons Why Chicago Is America’s Greatest Pizza Town, coming out September 15 from Northwestern University Press, has one goal, it’s to reestablish the primacy of tavern cut thin crust pizza as the essential Chicago pizza style. A pizza born in the neighborhood bars of a working class town, where it was served in little squares to encourage you to keep drinking, not to furnish a full meal. He describes other styles common here, including stuffed and deep dish (two different things), Neapolitan, and a catch-all for modern chefs getting creative called Artisan. But it’s tavern style—notable for its crispy sheet-rolled (not hand-tossed) dough, tangy tomato sauce, and the use of little knobs of fennel-heavy sausage—that the book is establishing as the Chicago pizza, as it recommends 101 local places to cheese and tomatoes on a crust.

Note that number, by the way. Dolinsky arrived at 101 places all over the city and suburbs he can recommend (out of 185 candidates that he tried). And this wasn’t just doing research on Google—three years ago, he was enlisting friends and informed folks to go try mostly unwritten-about pizza places with him.

Taking notes at Marie’s on Lawrence, July 2015

And so one day I wound up sampling four or five places with him on the northwest side and suburbs. His methodology was ruthless—he’d order the same thing (sausage thin crust as the baseline, unless they were specifically known for something else; if a Neapolitan pizza place, a margherita). And then, to preserve his TV-ready figure, he’d eat maybe one square, maybe just a bite or two, and be done. The owners, who undoubtedly recognized him as that guy on TV, would watch in horror as he wouldn’t eat any more. (I went home with a lot of pizza that day.)

But it was the only way to redefine a category running on fumes of 40-year-old reputations. The only way to determine who the real stars of today are, so the listicle-makers will have a new authority to steal from. (They already have; Dolinsky’s find of Lakeview’s Side Street Saloon, publicized on his site, suddenly started popping up on online lists a couple of years ago.)

Now that the book is almost out, we met again for pizza at his choice of My Pi in Bucktown, which he considers an exemplar of deep dish that’s not too deep, with just the right balance of ingredients and flavors. Here’s the graduate-level Chicago pizza symposium that took place that day.

 

 

Deep dish at My Pi

FOODITOR: Well, it’s a good time for your book because we just had another round of “Chicago deep dish is a casserole, it’s gross!” coming off the news about the Pizza Museum opening here. And I’m like, okay, whatever, you know what else is gross? Nine out of ten slice pizza places in New York calling themselves “Original Ray’s.” Every city has a certain base layer of mediocrity, but that’s not what you judge it by.

STEVE DOLINSKY: The big problem that I have is that when they’re criticizing our pies like that, they’re always thinking of Giordano’s. When we talk to visitors on our tours, or tourists on Michigan Avenue, they’re carrying boxes of leftovers because they can’t eat more than a piece, and they think that’s deep dish. And it’s not, it’s stuffed pizza.

We hit that on the tours every week, that deep dish is not stuffed. And people come here to My Pi on the tour and they’re like, holy shit, this is delicious. They never realized deep dish could be this good. It’s actually in proportion—I’m going to get someone to measure the height of a Sicilian pizza at Prince Street Pizza, that has lines out the door every day in New York, versus a slice here, and I’m sure this slice is thinner than a Sicilian. It’s a high side, but a pretty low middle. It’s the stuffed pizza that’s mucking it up for everybody.

It’s not the quantity of cheese that you get with stuffed, either. That’s what’s hard about stuffed to me, you might as well just eat a whole package of Kraft mozzarella cheese microwaved in a bowl.

And you’d be surprised how many times people say, have you been to Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder? It’s the same thing! It’s not pizza, it’s literally a bread bowl with melted cheese.

Though the spice blend they put on the pizza is pretty good.

The fact that you find anything redeeming in that pizza…

But this is what kills me about media from the east coast. Most of those people have never eaten proper pizza in Chicago, they’ve never gone to the right place. It’s almost like, if you went to New York City, and you just ate in Times Square. You never went to Brooklyn. They don’t venture out very far from their hotel room, and they do what’s easy. And how could you possibly deem something bad, or give it some kind of rating, unless you eat in the right places?

Which points to the fact that fundamentally pizza is a neighborhood thing in Chicago. Especially tavern cut.

I don’t even know where to get it downtown, except there’s Aurelio’s in the South Loop now. But there’s really nowhere to get it downtown, so that’s a problem.

I’ve been shuttling people to Pat’s now for three months, and they’re like—”I didn’t know this was here, this is so far away, I live in Bucktown,” or “I live in Lakeview.” It’s in Lakeview! And it’s been around for so long—I remember when it was across from the Vic. But they just don’t know.

Let’s talk about how you got started doing this. To me, it seems like it really goes back to your Italian beef survey at your site.

Right, I did beef, and then I did pho. The funny thing was, for beef and for pho, for whatever reason, they both came out to 31 places. We kind of exhausted places in the city at 31.

Then the impetus was, I read another listicle, you can probably guess where, of the seven hottest pizza places, and one of them was right around the corner here, AMK Kitchen. And we had gone two nights before for pizza with the kids, and it was awful. They might have even taken it off the menu by now, but I’m thinking, A, this list has no credibility, B, I’m curious to see where else they went, and C, did this person writing it actually eat in these places, or is it just hearsay?

All these questions came to my mind right away, and I thought, none of these places are any good, let’s try to tackle this once and for all. I knew it was going to be more than 31, I thought it was going to be about 50. And I thought, I could do 50 in about a month and a half.

Give 99 2019

I think pizza is like Mexican in this city—it’s infinite.

It is, it totally is. I got to 76 for that first round, which was almost three years ago now, and then when I went back and I pitched the book, there were only about 46 that were really good, there was a lot of ennh pizza in that 76. So to get to 101, meant going to at least another 100 places. I got to 185, total. Really, for every three places you’d go, one would be good. I basically spent my advance on pizza.

So we were like, let’s just see if we can get through this, and then it became this sort of game that we played at home, to see how many pizzas I could bring back in a day.

How far did you go from the center of the city? Where did you decide, this is where Chicago ends?

Probably Pudgy’s in Hegewisch to the southeast, I did Naperville—I’m sorry I didn’t go to Warrenville, because I heard there’s a good place in Warrenville—and then up to Wheeling, in the north.

No Wells Brothers in Racine? It’s great tavern cut…

Well, think about it, the book is Chicago. Or really Chicagoland. We’ve got good stuff in Libertyville, Buffalo Grove, in Oak Park—it’s more than just Chicago.

So many of the suburbs are settled by people who moved from ethnic neighborhoods in the city, and often literally moved old school pizza businesses with them—

Like Old World Pizza in Elmwood Park. I knew I had to do more than the city, but at one point I just thought, what have I gotten myself into, why am I going down this rabbit hole that’s never going to end, and where do I draw the line, and when do I stop? And I just found that, after 185, I’m done. To get 101 in the book—and then some closed. Vidalia closed, Robert’s Pizza closed, and I’ve got to just pull the plug and say that we’re done.

But then I have the website, pizzacityusa.com, and I’m adding other cities, and I’ve added all the New York places I’ve been to, and I’ve added a couple of places in Chicago, Stix N Brix near Comiskey, a really good place in Winnetka called Grateful Bites, it would have been in the book for sure, but I just didn’t know about it.

 

 

Iron pan

Let’s talk about this place, My Pi—why’d you pick it today?

I love the sausage, although I think the sausage at Labriola has a bit more Calabrian chili in it, got a bit more seasoning. This has a bit more fennel. And they have these great seasoned pans, which I don’t think a lot of places have—most places use anodized steel, and these are actually iron.

It’s basically one piece and I’m done, although I had to do something and I went to Middle Eastern Bakery this morning, and I would still totally eat another piece of this.

I’d had it when I was young in Minneapolis, so I sort of remembered it—

Uh-oh, is that PIGUE (Pizza I Grew Up Eating) Syndrome?

It’s not PIGUE Syndrome—well, it could be a little bit, because I had it before I moved to Chicago, so I was younger. But most of the pizza we ate was Shakey’s. Seriously, it was all thin crust Shakey’s. But I remembered it from Minneapolis, and we talked about, what am I going to do, am I going to go back to places I’ve already been to or am I going to start everything fresh again, and I said yes, I’m going to look at it with fresh eyes.


But no one ever says anything good about stuffed pizza. It was a disservice to Chicago, to our pizza culture to just keep glorifying it.


And I came back and I was struck by the ratio [of ingredients], I was struck by the flavor—he has that special seasoning packet that he adds to the tomatoes, and it was just such a delicious slice. All the deep dish I’d had was going to Gino’s East, going to Uno, going to Pizano’s—I think this is better than Pizano’s. They’re in my top five for sure.

I’m going to stand up for stuffed pizza for a moment, though. When I moved here, I was far from a sophisticated diner, and I’d eaten a lot of Shakey’s Pizza while watching Laurel and Hardy movies on the wall.

But I was just sort of overwhelmed by the… sheer excess of Chicago pizza. It was like a foot tall and cheese and tomato were just running down your face. That’s why I’m still a defender of deep dish and stuffed to some degree, even if I don’t eat it often now—it’s the Orlando of pizzas, you don’t want to live at Disney World, but it’s fun to experience that excess.

Right, they want to see and taste what they’ve been reading about. But my problem is that they’re seeing the wrong thing. And I don’t think that I’m just being too snobby about it. I get that it’s an attraction, and they want to go see where it was born. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the best thing to have here. At least at Disney there’s a high caliber of entertainment value, but Giordano’s, which is not a deep dish, and Uno’s, which is not even a Chicago company, they’ve homogenized it a bit because it’s got to be part of a chain, they’ve got certain corporate boxes that they have to check off.

But a place like My Pi, this is just a very personal, one off pizza. I always root for these guys anyway, but I just felt, I’ve got to tell people about this. And I ended up putting those other places in the overrated chapter.

I get that people want to have that beautiful cheese pull on the Instagram. And then you get the cheese lava coming out of the middle of the pie. But no one ever says anything good about that pizza. And I thought, overlooking that wouldn’t do anybody a service. It was a disservice to Chicago, to our pizza culture to just keep glorifying it. I get that they want to have deep dish, but I would say, go here, go to Labriola, go to Bartoli’s. Bartoli’s grandfather was Fred Bartoli, co-founder of Gino’s East.

Yeah, you’re right, and pizza like this isn’t so huge that you want to just crawl off to sleep—you have that great line in your book, that deep dish is like “an afghan for your stomach.”

If you take away the ridge, this is not that thick a pizza. If it was square, it would be close to a Grandma or a Sicilian pizza. People in other cities make fun of how thick our pizza is, but they’ve never had this, they’ve never had Louisa’s in [south suburban] Crestwood.

Do you think Louisa’s is what Pizzeria Uno used to be?

Yeah, I do. Louisa DeGenero worked at both places, got zero credit for doing anything. Rudy Malnati got all the credit, and it’s funny because Lou [Malnati, Rudy’s son] opens up in Lincolnwood in 1971, and she opens in Crestwood around the same time, and nobody talks about her because Crestwood—

Is off the map of foodie Chicago.

Right. But I think her recipe is probably the closest to the original.

It’s interesting, too, you talk in the book about deep dish being north side, tavern cut being south side, yet Louisa’s is on the south side, Giordano’s started on 63rd—

But Giordano’s is a stuffed. Giordano’s and Nancy’s both appeared around the same time, ’74, stuffed on the south side—and that was, again, a new style of pizza that got all this attention. Chicago magazine was covering it, so all my people from the north shore came down to check out this new pizza, and they realized, we better be on the north side to meet our customers halfway. But deep dish has always been a north side thing—’43 in River North at Uno, ’55 at Due, ’71 in Lincolnwood for Lou Malnati’s, ’91 for Pizano’s in the Gold Coast.

 

 

And on the flip side of that, nobody wrote about tavern cut because it’s always been there.

Right, and yet—there’s a writer from Bon Appetit who contacted me, he’s from Skokie and has lived in New York the last ten years, and he’s doing a story about “why hasn’t tavern style broken out?” Because it is our style, the first documented place started serving it in the 30s. Even though Vito & Nick’s is going to be 100 in two years, they didn’t start serving pizza until ’45. But still, that’s been our style of pizza for forever.

How is tavern cut not just “thin crust pizza” like you’d find anywhere in America?

Because it’s thinner than thin crust. Thin crust, you roll it out, maybe it’s hand-tossed, maybe you put it through a sheeter, but it’s still going to have a little more rise, it’s never going to be cracker-thin. Thin crust pizza like you’d find at somewhere like Pizzeria Serio on the north side is not a tavern style. And of course there’s a different cut with tavern style, but mainly I think of tavern style as really crispy. I even think Aurelio’s [a venerable southwest side pizza] is borderline thin crust, not tavern style, because it’s a little puffy.

Have you ever had Sanfratello’s? It was a far south side pizza back in the 60s, like Aurelio’s, though I think they’re mainly in Northwest Indiana now. But they do it in a pan with some oil in it, which kind of fries the crust a little. It’s puffier, starting to be pan pizza.

Yeah, you would never see a tavern cut in a pan with oil. It’s got to be so crispy—like even Home Run Inn, and they also do what Pat’s does, which is a dimpled or a raised pan, to keep that bottom really crispy, like they’re baking cookies.

Do people open new tavern cut places, do you think? Or all they all 40 years old by definition?

Yeah, I don’t know… the newest one I can think of is Flo and Santos in the South Loop. But you’re right, most are pre-existing, and if someone opens a new place, they’re either doing artisan or Neapolitan. Very few new deep dishes, either.

Labriola is four years old, they wanted to make sure they do both deep dish and tavern style, but other than that I can’t think of one. Knead, which is not very good, is doing kind of a neo-Neapolitan, Bebu is a year and a half old, they’re doing artisan. But I think if you’re going to have a tavern style, you’re going to go somewhere that’s a few years old.

Scott Weiner, who does Scott’s Pizza Tours in New York, which is where I got the idea to do tours, was asking me the same thing—thin, tavern cut style, they’re all the same, right? No, even a thin pie will have an exposed heel, and tavern’s always to the edge. Partly because there isn’t a ton of flavor in that dough.

And that’s what I’ve heard people say when they’re dissing Chicago pizza—well, the dough is no good, you’re not proofing it for 72 hours or whatever. No, but the sausage is really good. It’s a different approach—Roseangela’s in Evergreen Park is an example, the dough deliberately has no flavor, it’s like eating a saltine cracker. It’s all texture, the crisp crunch of the crust.

It’s like complaining that the tendon in your Chinese food has no flavor—it’s not there for flavor, it’s texture.

I will say, though, that the great tavern pizzas have great sauce, and great flavor. You have to think about that.

HP

And that is a big difference. You talk about on the south side, that some places use a much sweeter sauce, which I think is just an old Italian-American thing, sugar in the tomato sauce. But even so, I feel like there’s just a lot more actual tomato flavor in the sauce than I grew up with in Kansas, certainly.

And more oregano, we love our oregano. Now Pat’s, even though they’re north side, they put sugar in their sauce. But Palermo’s on the south side is totally guilty of it—and they admit it, they love it—and Arrenello’s, in Tinley Park, is the worst offender. It’s like eating candy.

I ate at the top floor restaurant at Italian Village not too long ago, the really old school one, and that’s how the spaghetti sauce is—sugar sweet. Because that’s how Grandma used to make it.

Speaking of Grandma, I’m hoping that as a result of some of this, somebody opens a grandma pizza joint. Because nobody has it. Actually, I’ve heard that the place up on Grace and Broadway, Panino’s, has a grandma slice. But there’s no tavern cut in New York and there’s basically no grandma style here.

By the way it’s funny, I was in New York last week for a day and a half—and no pizza eating. It was great.

 

 

Ha! This is no time to be going off brand, though. What do you think stands in the way of Chicago pizza getting the recognition it should?

One of the problems is that people don’t leave their neighborhoods. Like you were saying, you go to Bartoli’s because it’s close to you. Most people have the same reasoning, they go to whatever is close and convenient. Or whatever is triangulated between home and work. No one goes to 84th and Pulaski [Vito & Nick’s], they just don’t.

Now, a few nutballs do, like Zach Smith who owns Pizzeria Bebu. He goes down there because he loves that place, and he’ll drag his wife down there. But you know, if you have kids, you have to get them all in the car—we always made a joke of it when the kids were little—okay, we’re going to go on an adventure today, we’re going to go to Vito & Nick’s, or Al-Bawadi or whatever, you make a whole experience out of it.

If you can make a whole day out of it, go to a nature preserve or a comic book store or whatever, it makes sense. But just for pizza—even I won’t do that. Well, not often…

It’s so far. It’s a pain in the ass. But I do want people to get out of their comfort zone a little, get off the couch and stop going to the same place. Or even just stop doing delivery. Because delivery, also, is not kind to pizza. It gets soggy, and sitting on cardboard isn’t doing that bottom crust any favors. Ari Bendersky asked me for a story for Crain’s, where do you get delivery from, and I said “We don’t.” I never get delivery. I’d rather just go to the place. Call ahead and then go there, so there’s no lag time.

When I first moved up here, a woman I worked with told me that the best Chicago pizza was the one that spends the least time traveling to your house. So at least for everyday pizza, that’s true. The best one is the one that takes two minutes to get to you.

Like Obbie’s on the southwest side, it’s all delivery, there’s nowhere to sit. I ate it in my car. I ate so much pizza in the back of my car. Tearing open the bag—and then somebody asked me, what’s better, the bag or the box. I have no idea. I never even thought about asking that question. I just eat it right away.

With New Yorkers I always had the debate about double-baked pizza. They would rather bake the pizza, let it sit at room temperature and the cheese sort of set, and then reheat it to order so it doesn’t come out piping hot, where it’s so hot it burns the roof of your mouth. Many New Yorkers prefer that second bake.

I think that’s like a Stockholm Syndrome reaction. You’re stuck getting a slice, so you’re justifying why a slice is better than a whole pizza.

I would rather have a place like Joe’s on Carmine, where they don’t have to reheat it because they have a lot of turnover and nothing’s really sitting that long.

Gigio’s is really good, up on Broadway, that’s a slice joint. It’s a dump, but it’s a really good slice joint. Generations of kids like Monica Eng grew up going there, she swears by it, and it’s legit.

I also think the New York style reheats better, because it is more like bread. All you’re going to do reheating a cracker crust is make it drier and harder.

It’s a very sturdy crust, for sure. Dante’s does a lot of reheating, those are big slices. And then you have a gem like Jimmy’s [Foster and Lincoln], they do a New York slice and they have really good sausage. That’s what I find in New York, is that sausage doesn’t really exist. It does, but it’s terrible. It’s a slice from a link.

In the rest of the midwest you get it but it’s crumbled. And it doesn’t have the flavor of the chunk sausage in Chicago, it’s more like breakfast sausage.

You’re right, it’s kind of sweet, there’s no fennel or oregano. I went to a place on Staten Island called Nunzio’s, and it was slices from a link, no flavor. Even Adam Kuban, who’s a big pizza guy in New York, admits that yeah, Chicago beats New York on sausage. And I think sausage on a pizza is amazing, they go together so well. That’s a big Achilles heel for New York, though they’ll never acknowledge that. They’re happy to have their plain cheese slice.

They don’t know what they’re missing, that’s the problem. They don’t come here enough, and they just don’t know.

That’s just true of so many things. There was that thing a few months ago about how Brooklyn barbecue was the best in the world. I mean… you don’t even know what you don’t know at that point.

Right. It’s good, but it’s no Texas.

 

 

Okay, let’s do some consumer journalism here. If you were going to name some recommendations, maybe a little off the obvious if not totally obscure, for people here, what would they be?

For deep, I would say here, Labriola, Bartoli’s, and Louisa’s.

For tavern, I would say, Pat’s for sure, Barraco’s and Vito and Nick’s.

For artisan, I’d say Pizzeria Bebu, and Robert’s should reopen by the time my book comes out. And for suburban people, I’d say Pizzeria DeVille in Libertyville.

For New York style, I’d say Jimmy’s and Gigio’s, those are my two favorite New York slices.

Stuffed is hard to recommend, although I would say if you’re just dying to have a stuffed pizza, the Suparossa on the northwest side, on Central, is very good. I had a very good stuffed there, after having a not-good Neapolitan at their sister restaurant, called Legno.

I’ve seen that but I’ve never been. And I saw another one over there that you dissed called Porretta.

Yeah, Trattoria Porretta. And they were all over me, but I’m sorry, it just wasn’t good. Now I’ve got this kind of stock answer, and here’s an example—I’m not a fan of Piece, in my neighborhood. And most people I talk to say the same thing, it’s sort of bland, and it certainly isn’t New Haven style like they claim. And I got into an awkward conversation with them at the farmer’s market. They said, why isn’t Piece on your Bucktown walking tour? And I said, because it’s not featured in the book.

And they said, why is that? I said, because I went there twice, when I was doing the book research, and I have the picture to prove it, that I was there, and I just found the crust lacking, and like, the middle of the pie was okay, but it was definitely not New Haven style. The crust isn’t blistered, it’s not a coal-fired oven which is a big issue there, if you’re going to say it’s New Haven.

And they’ve come after me a couple of times on Twitter, and I just want to say look, if you just want someone to say nice things about you, hire an Instagram influencer, give them a free pizza or pay them, and they’ll say whatever you want them to say. But I’m not going to say it’s a great pizza, because it’s not, and I’ve had a few pizzas.

They’re busy every night, they don’t need your help.

They certainly don’t need my help. But there’s just a lot of overrated pizza in town.

What do you hope will come from making people look at Chicago pizza with a fresh eye?

A recognition that tavern cut is our style. It’s a shame, we take it for granted, but it’s so unique. People ask me what’s Chicago pizza, and I say, it’s deep and tavern. That’s why I like doing the bus tour, because there’s both deep and tavern stops.

I hope places like Louisa’s in Crestwood will get some press from this, they deserve it. Barraco’s on the southwest side, Chester’s/Orsi’s which we both agree is really good, Joe’s in Wheeling, Villa Nova in Stickney.

The Stickney thing is funny because when I first went there I was thinking, you know, the middle could have been cooked a bit more. And people all said, you’re supposed to get well done, dummy! And I said that’s ridiculous, you’re not ordering a steak. But then the owner reached out to me and said, I’ve instructed my staff to cook the pizza the right way, well done, every time. So there is no ordering it well done any more.

It’s been very rewarding to see people who took the tour responding on Trip Advisor. It’s split 50-50 from locals and people in the suburbs to people from out of town, and they’re like, “I had no idea there were this many pizza styles,” “I had no idea deep dish could taste good.” That’s what I want to hear.

 

Epilogue: Steve Dolinsky did, in fact, eat a second piece.

 


Michael Gebert is deep disher of Fooditor.


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