Deep dish, thin crust, napoletana, chicago thin crust, wood fired, coal fired, detroit style, stuffed, new york style…. Chicago, Naples, Detroit, New York…whatever or where ever you prefer, PIZZA is never too far away. I mean, it really is the perfect food…salty, crunchy, spicy, sweet, sour and even smoky. Even growing up, when I was learning about the Four Food Groups (yes, that’s how old I am) …pizza technically was a bread, dairy, fruit/vegetables and meat. I remember all the kids arguing about how healthy pizza actually is, the teachers didn’t have a prayer! LOL! Fact is, pizza is amazingly versatile and most people can find a kind they like, even those that want gluten free crusts and have lactose allergies. We all have our favorites, but living in the pizza capital of the world, it’s a hard thing to narrow down, but it had to be done…broken down by category and I even put some misses in there, so I hope I can provide some insight to those that still are sorting it out and for those that live outside of this pizza mecca 🙂
Ok, I have to start with the quintessential of them all, the Chicago Deep Dish. Yes, it’s a giant pizza casserole…don’t try and eat it with the perception that it compares to anything you’ve ever had before. Yes, you eat it with a fork and knife, at least part of the way until it’s contained enough to finally pick it up! Deep Dish pizza is one of its kind and it definitely serves it place in pizza history. The construction of this pie, starts with a crust, cheese, toppings, sauce, dusting of parmesan and spices. Yes, it’s also out of order to the typical way we see pizza. It essentially is a pie, a savory pie with layers of filling cloaked in a buttery golden blanket. So as unorthodox as it’s construction is, the way one consumes it should also be unorthodox…which is why I mentioned fork and knife.
Now, being in Chicago, this was a tough decision as deep dish pizza here actually stems from a hierarchy that started with one man and one recipe. Since then, family members have broken off from the original and tweaked recipes to make them their own and open up their own pizza places, but I supposed that’s the case in most foods with long histories. Oddly, my favorite, isn’t the Uno’s, which is the original. I am a Gino’s East fan. I love that butter crust, it just takes a little bit of the density out, and replaces it with this flaky, airiness that allows me to focus more on the toppings…or filling I should say. There are 2 that I love here and one is the sausage wheel which is exactly what it sounds like. It sits right above that layer of cheese and below the top layer of sauce. It covers the entire circumference of the pizza, which ensures you will get some in every bite, YOU GET A SAUSAGE, YOU GET A SAUSAGE, EVERYONE GETS A SAUSAGE!!! Ahem…ok, that sounded bad…back to pizza. The other thing I love about Gino’s East is their spinach. They don’t just take a bunch of leaves, unseasoned and plop it on the pizza…oh no, these guys chop it, season it with garlic and herbs, then put it on the pizza to mingle all the flavors, it’s the best vegetarian option for pizza, in my opinion. They actually have an appetizer on their menu that is basically a fried stick of cheese and that spinach mixture, so if you can’t eat a whole pizza, at least try the spinach sticks!
There are definitely close contenders to Gino’s East that I love that include Lou Malnati’s which has the crispiest crust, Uno’s, which the original will always be on my list but the wait is too long to frequent, and I can’t count out Pequod’s as I love their unique take on the concept with the caramelized crust. I will say the biggest miss is Giordano’s. I go there always with the hopes that their deep dish has gotten better, but at the end, I literally end up choking on their cheese, I just can’t take it. However, mad props for their thin crust.
Now, this is a tricky one because it’s the most common style of pizza as it spans from being available in fine dining establishments to dive bars. Thin crust pizza as we all know, is the typical pizza as we grew up eating. It starts with crust, sauce, cheese, topping. Growing up, Pizza Hut & Dominoes were on the forefront of thin crust pizza…Papa John’s was introduced to the line up later on when I was out of college. I don’t need to get into the details of the pizza itself, because I won’t insult your culinary knowledge. However, I will say, Chicago really screwed up the thin crust by cutting it in squares. No, I just don’t care what the logic is. See, pie is cut in slices, pizza is a type of pie, therefore, pizza should always be cut in slices…the day I see an apple pie cut in squares, I will accept my pizza being cut in squares. I am sure other cities cut in squares, but I’ve only actually experienced it here, so I blame Chicago.
Moving on…my favorite thin crust is from a deep dish place, Lou Malnati’s.
Their pepperoni and mushroom thin crust is on my monthly checklist. They don’t drown the toppings in cheese, there is enough in each bite, and for some reason that crust makes my mouth water. I don’t know what it is, and trust me, I’ve tried to recreate it. See, when I order thin crust, I want leftovers…the thing about leftovers is that they have to reheat well. Lou’s reheats in the oven so well. The crust crisps back up, the cheese is gooey again and the toppings are still perfect. There’s nothing worse than having amazing pizza the night before and then having a soggy mess the next day…it kills me! So yes, I have three simple criteria that need to be met…balance, crust, and sustainability. But I am not that bad, as I can vouch for those that meet 2 out of 3. Some of my other favorites include Beggar’s, Giordano’s, D’Agostino’s, and The Beer Bistro (I mean $5 on a Monday night for a quick dinner, plus they will cut TRIANGLES!). As for the misses, there are waaaay too many places that offer thin crust pizza that it’s just not fair to even list those that don’t and for that matter, I feel that in this case, it’s really about an individual preference and even geographical location.
REALLY THIN CRUST
This actually is a sub category of the thin crust, but I feel that it’s made such a mark in the pizza culture that it actually deserves its own recognition. So, just like deep dish, there is an origin story that starts in Naples and it’s a style known as Napoletana. This pizza must be made with San Marzano tomatoes that are grown in volcanic areas near Mt. Vesuvius and fresh mozzarella cheese from Campana, well the milk from the water buffalo that are indigenous to those marshlands. There are also specific, yeast, kneading and rolling instructions as well as the cooking temps and timing. Thing is that this simple pizza ended up not being so simple as to getting an official certification to be called “napoletana”. Most just say “napoletana” style, which pretty much means that it’s the same freaking pizza, but I won’t pay a stupid amount of money for those tomatoes. Truth be told, not sure that most of us can even tell the difference. Now the whole coal fired versus wood fired argument to me is not the most important thing. Both ovens cook at high temps to reduce cooking times to about a minute or so per pizza, both methods provide a slightly charred crust with beautiful bubbles of cheese on top, and both methods give off this smoky flavor that only enhances the already immaculate concoction that exists. I personally love this style of pizza, mainly because my mouth literally dances the waltz between the sauce, cheese and crust…1,2, 3.1,2, 3.1,2,3…sauce, cheese, crust…sauce, cheese, crust…you get the drift. It’s so magical to me 🙂
As for my favorites, I didn’t discriminate between wood and coal, but CoalFire is my absolute favorite place. I don’t know what they do to that crust, but it’s perfectly chewy and crispy, the sauce
is tangy as they didn’t try to balance it with sugar, the cheese is perfectly distributed and their n’duja sausage is the perfect mix of salty and spicy but to top it all off, or bottom I should say, the char on the crust is spot on, dark in spots, but not all over…that would be burnt. I keep coming back to this pizza and sometimes I add fresh basil and sometimes I add ricotta which is added on after cooking so that the cool cheese combined with the hot pizza makes for of a swing dance than a waltz! As for any places that miss horribly, I honestly have never had a horribly bad experience with this style of pizza. They all have their nuances, but honestly from Balena, where the pizzas are more artisan to Blaze, a “chipotle” style fast food place, I’ve always had a great pizza. Other favorites of mine that I can truly recommend because I have eaten there so many times include Sono WoodFired, Balena and even the new Forno Rosso in the West Loop (still need a few more visits, but love it so far!). Look out for Paulie Gee’s in Logan Square as well, I was a part of their test runs and it was a serious contender!
HOT’ N READY
So this section is basically for those of you that just want to grab and go. Pizza delivery can take too long and carryout requires too much planning. Where can you get pizza that isn’t frozen, ready to eat and doesn’t use cardboard for a crust? First of all, grocery stores have an awesome prepared foods section these days. When I was growing up, we had the rotisserie chicken, the deli and maybe a salad bar. The evolution of the grocery store has been remarkable. You can now get great pizza, grilled to order steak, fresh rolled sushi and even and a glass of really good wine in one place and within minutes. It’s insane how a place that was just there to shop for essentials, is now a multi-functional local hotspot. It’s a social thing now to grocery shop! In a weird way, it’s not so ironic, as the place itself is in the business of selling food and drink. It’s just interesting how it took so long to create another revenue stream using what was already available.
Oh, how I digressed, but point is the pizza options these days in grocery stores don’t come out of a rotating holding oven with congealed cheese, they come fresh out of an actual oven with delicious toppings. Whole Foods has the best pizzas made to order or even by the slice. They use fresh ingredients and make their sauces in house. My personal favorite is the pepperoni and mushroom, because they use portabella mushrooms and these large uncured pepperoni slices, not the small dinky ones that come in the packages. This stuff is freshly sliced with the perfect fat to salt ratio. It’s less than $12 and is even good the next day reheated in the oven at 425 degrees for 5-7 minutes 🙂
Now, as for fast food or a lunch spot because you are over Potbelly’s and Corner Bakery. I just discovered Blaze. It’s been around in Chicago for a few years now, but just started expanding this past year. In fact, for this blog, I just ate there this afternoon for lunch. The line itself was long, but again it was lunch time in the business district, of course it’s long. The line took n
o more than 5 minutes to get through as the pizzas are cooked within 180 seconds (3 minutes)…their tag line, not mine. The ordering was a little hectic and loud as the set up in a lot like Chipotle, where you can build your own. I was kinda obsessed with the dough machine that made the most perfect rounds I’d ever seen complete with that rim around the edges to prevent sauce spillage. Anyhow, the pizza was thin, crispy and sooooo good! The plain cheese is $5 and the make your own is $8.45, no limits on toppings, of which I got…you guessed it, pepperoni and mushroom. There is an option for sea salt and oregano to put added at the end, I’d opt out for the sea salt, it was too much. The pepperoni and mushroom was awesome, as they used fresh mozzarella, not shredded. This is also a great quick option for dinner if you are in a hurry as they have salads and also serve beer and wine. I love this alternative to the burgers, salads and sandwiches that have totally taken over the corporate lunch world.
Pizza is not so simple anymore, there’s a whole world of it out there for all tastes. Some like it thick and saucy, others small and quick…sorry, couldn’t help myself. A lot of you will agree with my choices and others will tell me I’m nuts and will argue with me for the rest of my life. If you have been somewhere that I haven’t, share it with me! Heck, share it with all of us! Those of you that want to try deep dish that haven’t because of access, you can order a frozen version online from Lou’s that’s actually really good. So whether you fork it, fold it or just hold it, just eat it and most importantly…ENJOY IT!