My Epic Quest to Love Chicago Pizza

Last week I told you guys about the unique phenomenon of the Chicago hot dog. Today I want to talk about something more well known, but far more controversial: Chicago-style pizza.

Or most specifically, my quest to try to love Chicago pizza.

Let me start out by reminding you that I love pizza. Pizza is probably my favorite food in the entire world. My tastes aren’t terribly discriminating either, I like it all: frozen pizza, take out pizza, authentic Italian pizza, home-made pizza. While my favorite style is probably real New York pizza, I’m of the firm opinion that there is no such thing as bad pizza.

So obviously I was mega-excited when Chicago Pizza Tours offered my the chance to sample their classic pizza tour. After all Chicago is a pizza town, and even if their tastes run a little… unorthodox, pizza is still pizza.

Actually, the Chicago Pizza Tour was really neat. Over the course of about 4 hours you visit four different pizza places (they have a revolving list, so the locations change depending on the day of the week), designed to showcase both traditional and innovative Chicago pizza trends. It’s a bus tour, so their range is much more expansive than a walking tour could be. While you drive across the city, a guide (we had Jonathan, who was wonderfully surly), tells you all about the history of both Chicago, and pizza.

Act One- Pizanos

We started at around 11 am inside a classic Chicago-style pizzeria. Our tour group was surprisingly made up mostly of locals and semi-local midwesterners. My friend Cailin and I were the only ones without ties to the area (this is relevant later). It was here I learned about the complex, controversial history of Chicago Pizza.

 In a nutshell: Chicago style pizza was invented in the 1940’s at the original Pizzeria Uno in downtown Chicago. The owner’s originally intended to open a Mexican restaurant but decided to try their hand at pizza instead. Only, they wanted something heartier than a traditional flatbread style pizza. Nobody can quite agree on who invented it but somehow Chicago-style pizza was born: a kind of franken-pizza with a thick crispy crust, an overabundance of tomato sauce and a heavy dependence on sausage.

At Pizano’s we tried three different pizzas: A traditional deep dish with Pizano’s signature buttery crust and two thin crust squares, one with sausage, one with mushrooms.

The thin crust slices were delicious: crispy with a crust that tasted just unhealthy enough to be totally crave-able. The deep dish however was too doughy for my tastes. Messy and slippery with an overabundance of sauce, the kind of pizza you need a knife and fork for. I went back for seconds on the thin sausage, but when it came to the deep dish, I could barely finish it.

Act Two – Coal Fire Pizza

Our second stop was a departure from traditional Chicago pizza in favor of a new trend: coal-fired pizza. Owned by two guys from Massachusetts, Coal Fire Pizza focuses on the freshest local ingredients and thin crust pizzas fired in a piping hot oven (each pizza takes about 90 seconds to cook. We tried two pizzas here: a white pizza with mozzarella, garlic and basil and a pepperoni pie, both topped with dollops of freshly whipped ricotta.

 

Now that is a pizza

It was amazing. Fresh and savory, crispy and flavorful.It reminded me of actual Italian pizza. I would eat here all the time if I lived in Chicago!

 Act Three- Pequods

Then it was time for a second crack at Chicago-style pizza, this time at Pequods, widely known as one of the best deep dish spots in town. Several different Chicago natives told me I must try Pequod’s and that if I liked Chicago pizza anywhere, it would be here.

I didn’t like it. I actually liked it even less than the deep dish at Pizano’s. My slice was huge and misshapen, more bread than anything else. It was slippery and messy with tomato sauce everywhere. The “caramelized mozzarella crust” just tasted burnt to me. I didn’t even finish.

 Act Four- Flo & Santos

I don’t think I could handle another brick of deep dish, so I was pleased to find out that our last stop, Flo & Santos was something entirely different. An Italian-Polish fusion restaurant specializing in Chicago South Side tavern-style pizza. That’s right: there is more than one kind of chicago-style pizza! In fact, my informal poll of Chicagoans told me that most people here don’t even eat deep dish on a regular basis. Shocking!

South Side tavern-style pizza has a very thing, cracker-like base and essentially no crust to speak of. It’s like the opposite of deep dish pizza, and it really lets the ingredients shine. In this case we tried two different polish-inspired pizzas: the “Flo’s Polish” with kielbasa, saurkraut and smoked bacon and the Italian Beef, which was a spin on Chicago’s Italian beef sandwiches of shaved beef, caramelized onions, cheese and giardiniera- a relish of pickled vegetables. I loved the Italian Beef, it was spicy, crunchy and savory. This kind of pizza I can get on board with.

As the tour came to an end, Jonathan asked us to vote with our hands for our favorite stop of the day. Pizano’s was popular, as was Pequods. Cailin and I were the only ones to raise our hands for Coalhouse. Considering everyone else was local, we were definitely the weird ones.

Either way I left full and happy, although fully unimpressed with deep dish pizza. I can definitely recommend Chicago Pizza Tours for those who want a complete picture of the complec Chicago pizza scene.

Epilogue

As it turns out, I did get one last crack at deep dish nirvana while out with Mike’s colleagues from Woo. I wasn’t thrilled when I heard we were headed to Lou Malnati’s, another famous deep-dish spot with a couple of locations around the Chicago Area. I WAS hungry though, and like I said above, I really love pizza.

To my surprise though, I actually really liked Malnati’s deep dish. The crust was buttery and crispy, not doughy, and while the sauce to cheese ratio still wasn’t where I like it but it wasn’t nearly as gloppy and slippery as other places. The sausage was plentiful and tasty. It was actually pretty good!

I apparently have a lot of opinions on Chicago pizza judging by the length of this post. While I’m still Team New York Pizza, Chicago really didn’t disappoint me in the end. After all, pizza is still pizza, and pizza is good.

Full Disclosure: Chicago Pizza Tours allowed me to attend their tour free of charge. All passionate pizza opinions are my own.

My travel blogger friend Cailin from Travel Yourself also took the tour. You can read her review here: Chicago Pizza Tours aka 3ish Hours of Heaven.

Steph

Stephanie Yoder is a girl who can't sit still! She is the co-founder and editor of Why Wait To See the World. Learn more about her here.

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27 thoughts on “My Epic Quest to Love Chicago Pizza”

  1. As a native Chicagoan, I can’t believe a pizza tour would take you to these places – not impressed at all! The only worthwhile one you tried was Malnati’s, so no surprise it was your favourite. And I did eat deep dish on a regular basis – actually the hardest thing about living in New Zealand is the lack of any decent pizza!

  2. Haha sounds like you had a great time! I love food tours – I want to do more of them. I’ve only ever tried an Australian version of a Chicago Deep Dish pizza, which was kind of like a pizza-pie, with layers of toppings and not overflowing with sauce like the ones you tried! They took it off the menu though, last time I checked – sadness… The last pizza I had (Fijian pizza, in fact) was burnt on the edge and raw in the middle, so now I am def keen for some good pizza!!

  3. I’ve tried deep dish, and I agree – NY style is better, but in the end cheesy dough is almost always good. If I’m being picky, I prefer the pizza in Italy, but it’s not nearly as easy to get 😉

  4. Whether it’s in New York, Ohio, California, Chicago, Naples, Rome, or frozen pizza out of Kauffland stores in Germany…it doesn’t matter, all of it is good. Any combination of cheese, tomato sauce, and bread is going to be good. One of the ingredients actually has to have gone bad for it to be bad.

    If it’s any kind of pizza vs. no pizza – I eat the pizza.

  5. “This is not pizza, this is tomato soup in a bread bowl. This is an above ground marinara swimming pool for rats.” – Jon Stewart on Chicago pizza.

  6. I have always loved New York pizza, but have never tried actual Chicago-style pizza in Chicago. I’ve had deep-dish pizza elsewhere though, and I, too, don’t like the doughiness of it. It usually tastes undercooked to me. Maybe someday I’ll get to try some in Chicago and see if I like it any more…

  7. Yesssss. I took this same tour a couple years ago and LOVED it. It was cool to see so many different parts of Chicago and the pizza that went along with them.

    I actually like most deep dish pizza, but it’s true that nearly every place makes it differently.

    Also, now I’m really hungry.

  8. Yummy pizzas! Aside from the original Italian pizza, I like western pizzas better than the asian versions. Foods from Chicago pizza look yummy. I wish they open a branch here in the Philippines just like other American food chains.

  9. Never tried pizza in Chicago but in New York City I took a simillair pizza trip. In my opinion in almost every place you can find good pizza in scale from 1 to 10. But even if it’s 1 it’s still… pizza and taste quite ok

  10. I only went to Pizzeria Due (Uno’s second Restaurant) when I was in Chicago and I loved their deep dish. Their base definitely wasn’t doughy – it was similar to a crispy, buttery quiche base and I LOVED it. Soudns like Lou Malnatti’s is similar.

  11. Pequod’s is NOT the best deep dish pizza in town- not even close. As a matter of fact, Pequod’s is terrible. They are located in a neighborhood (Lincoln Park) that is full of people, many of which did not grow up in Chicago. For those of us who actually grew up here, the honor of best deep dish pizza will always belong to Lou Malnati’s.

    Lou Malnati’s is by far the most consumed and the most popular deep dish pizza in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. They are all family owned and operated- NONE of them are franchised, and they never will be which is why the quality is EXACTLY the same at every location. Their signature buttercrust recipe is truly outstanding and their sausage is some of the best in the business. Lou Malnati managed Pizzeria Due (Uno’s second location) for 22 years before going out on his own and establishing what went on to become the most celebrated pizza place in the Midwest. Lou Malnati’s is also the most overnight shipped pizza in America.

    Unfortunately, Chicago Pizza Tours does not go there, but they should. If you were to ask any local Chicagoan what’s the deep dish pizza Chicagoans eat the most on any given day of the week, Lou Malnati’s would be the most obvious answer. They will always represent the quintessential Chicago style deep dish pizza. At least you got to eat like a native Chicagoan when you were at Lou’s.

  12. @Steph: When it comes to iconic Chicago foods, there are essentially 4: 1) deep dish pizza; 2) hot dogs; 3) Italian beef; and 4) Thin crust pizza cut into squares with homemade Italian sausage. And when it comes to deep dish pizza and hot dogs, Lou Malnati’s and Vienna Beef are the gold standards for both. They are both steeped in Chicago tradition, and both are by far the most popular among native Chicagoans by a very wide margin. If you’re talking deep dish pizza, no other place comes close in terms of sheer popularity- not even close.

    You could walk into any given Lou Malnati’s location on any given night of the week, and the place will be packed to the gills with local Chicagoans and suburbanites with their families in tow. And they will all tell you that they have been eating Lou’s for entire generations/decades. If there is one pizza place in Chicago that will always stand the test of time, it’s Lou Malnati’s. Other places may be packed with tourists downtown, but the vast majority of Lou Malnati’s locations are located in places that tourists never go (i.e. the suburbs)- places far, far away from downtown. But like I said, what you’ll find eating at these locations are people (lots of them!) who grew up eating Lou Malnati’s- and that is the majority of us. Anyone who denies this is not living in reality. Lou’s is the behemoth in the pizza world here in Chicago, and they didn’t become this successful by making bad pizza.

    Even if deep dish pizza is not your thing, I’m glad you had the opportunity to at least try the one deep dish place that the majority of us eat on a daily basis. If you ever get this way, try Gene and Jude’s for hot dogs in suburban River Grove, and Johnnie’s Beef for Italian beef in suburban Elmwood Park. Both Gene and Jude’s and Johnnie’s Beef will always be the gold standards for hot dogs and Italian beef here in the Chicago area. They are both immensely popular, and have been enjoyed by native Chicagoans for many, many decades. Gene and Jude’s won best hot dog in America when the Food Network Magazine had their 64 Best Hot Dog Places pitted against each other in honor of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. And Johnnie’s Beef was just featured on Anthony Bourdain’s Chicago edition of The Layover. Both places have entire legions of fans that go back many generations and for good reason- they are both the best in their classes.

  13. Living in NYC and enjoying thin-crust $1 slices on the daily is one thing, but when you travel to Chicago and indulge in a deep-dish Chicago pizza, you WILL NOT get that damn thing out of your head!

  14. I’m often in Italiy and am a Pizza-knower and -lover. The pizzas which I ate in the States were not very tasty. But this picture looks very yummie 🙂 I may have go to Chiacago to eat the first good american pizza 🙂

  15. Hey Stephanie! We really enjoyed your review of Chicago Pizza Tours. Encyclopizzeria is a website dedicated to Chicago pizza history and culture. You got a pretty good taste of all that Chicago pizza has to offer. Did you try any places that weren’t on the tour?

  16. If the very act of eating a pizza with a knife and fork lowers the experience, then I wonder if Chicago pizza ever really had a chance with you. I agree with James – delicious pizza is delicious pizza, whatever form it takes.

    I’ve had horrible Chicago pizza, and I’ve had horrible New York style pizza. I’ve had amazing pizza from Lou Malnati’s, and mind-blowing pizza from Lucia’s (in Queens. And yes, I’ve eaten at a bunch of the famous pizza places in NYC).

    I’m now living in Korea and had the crappiest “Chicago” pizza I’ve ever had, but really damn tasty Korean-style pizza. I don’t know why people have to be “Team [insert city]”. It’s all too good not to try. So kudos to Steph for diving in!

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