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A Guide to Chicago Pizza: From Deep-Dish to Tavern-Style and Beyond

By  Tanveer Ali and Howard Ludwig | January 13, 2015 6:15am | Updated on December 27, 2016 10:41am

 Ahead of Pizza Week, DNAinfo offers a few tips, terms and factoids that set Chicago's pizza tradition apart.
Pizza in Chicago
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CHICAGO — This city takes its pizza seriously.

And there's so much more to it than deep-dish.

Here's a guide that will have you on your way to talking seriously about pizza in Chicago.

The Difference Between Deep-Dish, Pan & Stuffed Pizza (Yes, There is a Difference)

One of the most misunderstood things about Chicago pizza is about its most famous kind: the deep-dish.

(Remember when Jon Stewart said he hated it, and that New York pizza was somehow better? He sort of apologized for that.)

Outside Chicago, it's the only kind of pizza that people associate with the city. But even when people in the city talk about it, they tend to lump three distinct types of pizza into one category.

Here's how those three types are different:

Classic deep-dish pizza

There are three things that separate true deep-dish pizza from imitators: oil, dough and cheese.

The pan is greased with corn or vegetable oil, says Jonathan Porter, founder of the Chicago Pizza Tour.

On top of that goes the "very fragile and oily" dough that is smashed into the pan until it covers the lip and bottom. Some deep-dish pizza dough, such as Lou Malnati's, has a butter crust.

Once the dough is in place, slices of mozzarella go atop, followed by the toppings and the sauce.

Where to get it: Pizano's, Lou Malnati's; Gino's East, Bartoli's, 1955 W. Addison St.; and Pizzeria Uno, 29 E. Ohio St.

Stuffed pizza

Think of stuffed pizza as an extreme version of the deep-dish pizza.

"Stuffed pizza is a lot bigger than deep dish," Porter said.

The dough is less moist, more buttery and more garlicky than true deep-dish pizzas.

Stuffed pizza dough is usually run through a sheeter before it is placed in a pan.

Here's what makes it stuffed: shredded cheese is placed atop that dough, and a second, thinner dough is placed atop that. (Then there are the other toppings.)

Pretty decadent right? Just look at this one from Giordano's.

Where to get it: Bacino's, 2204 N. Lincoln Ave.; Giordano's; Nancy's, 3970 N. Elston Ave.; and Phil's Pizza D'Oro, 5800 N. Milwaukee Ave.

Pan pizza

The key to these types of pizzas, which you can find at Pequod's in Lincoln Park or at Connie's locations, is how the dough is baked.

"One of the big traits is that they will parbake their crust by cooking it halfway, then freezing it," Porter said.

At Pequod's, the pizza makers add a special touch when placing the pie back in the oven by adding cheese between the dough and the pan. This is what gives the crust its burnt look and delicious taste.

Where to get it: Pequod’s, 2207 N. Clybourn Ave.; Connie's Pizza; Medici, 1327 E. 57th St.

There is an Entire Style of Chicago Pizza the Rest of the World is Clueless About

Out-of-towners might be surprised to find a significant number of locals (South Siders in particular) prefer pizza with a wafer-thin crust to that of the deep-dish style otherwise associated with our great city.

Call this South Side-born pizza tavern or pub style. For many, this trumps the deep-dish as the true Chicago pizza.

The story of how it was made goes like this, Porter says: Back in the day, working-class people on the South Side would get out of work, head straight to their local taverns, drink then go home.

To keep their customers drinking, "the bars got the idea to create a pizza that is a little less breadlike," Porter said.

"The pizzas had a cracker-style dough and are a little more salty than usual," Porter said. "The bar owners decided to cut the pizzas up into cocktail squares and give them out for free.

The tradition may have some Italian roots, too.

Daniela Barraco, manager of Barraco's Pizza in Mount Greenwood, said pizza in Italy is cut into squares. Grandpa Vito Barraco is credited with bringing his recipe for thin-crust pizza from Sicily in 1962.

Such pizza is often topped with an equally thin, slightly sweet sauce. Jerry Carter-Bey, manager of Leona's Restaurant in Morgan Park, said this thin variety of pizza is a top menu item on the Far Southwest Side.

His restaurant at 11060 S. Western Ave. switched to hand-rolled pizza dough seven months ago. The goal was to keep the pizza as thin as possible without drying out or burning it in the oven — a consistent problem with the old crust.

"It looks better than our old pizza. It tastes better and everything," Carter-Bey said.

Where to get it: Fox’s Restaurant & Pub, 9956 S. Western Ave., Vito & Nick's Pizzeria, 8433 S. Pulaski Road, Barraco's Restaurant, Pizza and Catering, 3047 W. 111th St.; Italian Fiesta, 1400 E. 47th St., 1919 E. 71st St. and 8058 S. Halsted St.; Flo & Santos, 1310 S. Wabash Ave.; Pat’s, 2679 N. Lincoln Ave.; Marie’s Pizza and Liquors, 4127 W. Lawrence Ave.; and Leona's Restaurant with six locations throughout Chicago. 

There Are So Many Other Types of Pizza in Chicago

Whether imported or concocted right here, the types of pizza in Chicago are rather endless.

Here are some of our other favorite types of pizza pie:

Bakery pizza

Typically made with Italian bread dough that’s rolled out onto sheets, bakery pizza is topped with cheese and a light spread of sauce. Once baked, the pies are displayed in Italian bakery cases throughout the city.

Eat the pizza cold or ask for a warm-up. With a day’s notice, most places will let you order a whole sheet in advance.

The key, said Jimmy Impallaria, who runs Bridgeport’s Impallaria Bakery, is letting the dough rise for a while before it hits the oven. “You’ve got to give it some floor time, let it sit awhile. It gets a better texture that way. It’s more like pizza bread,” he said.

Where to get it: Impallaria Bakery, 2952 S. Wallace Ave; D'Amatos, 1124 W. Grand Ave.; Ferrara Bakery, 2210 W. Taylor St.

Breaded steak pizza

If you’re gonna go big, don’t mess around. Order a breaded steak pizza from Ricobene’s, 252 W. 26th St. in Bridgeport, which marries the South Side restaurant’s famous breaded steak — hand-trimmed cuts of beef fried in a blend of bread crumbs — with its pan pizza. The only toppings it will allow are sweet peppers, giardiniera or jalapeños, just like its treasured sandwich.

Frozen pizza

A restaurant chain with locations on the South Side and in the suburbs, Home Run Inn is known for one thing to many of us: Its amazing frozen pizzas.

Trust us, it beats other kinds of frozen pizzas.

'Homemade' pizza set-ups

Perhaps a step up from heating up a frozen pie, many Chicagoans opt for homemade pizza set-ups. Customers choose from a variety of fresh crusts (thin, original or deep-dish). The set-up then includes enough freshly made sauce, grated cheese and toppings for all three pizzas. The thin-crust, Italian sausage pizza set-up is a steady favorite.

S&T Provisions in Mount Greenwood has been selling pizza set-ups since 1960, said manager Scott Giaretta. S&T's sausage pizza set-ups cost $14.49, while a cheese pizza set up costs $11.99.

"Any time you get a processed or assembly-line pizza, it's not going to be as good," Giaretta said.

Neapolitan pizza

These are pizzas in the most classic sense. No Chicago spin to these.

"If people say their pizzas are Neapolitan, they need to be certified to be able to say that," Porter said.

These pizzas use certain types of dough, mozzarella cheese and tomatoes.

Where you can get it: Spacca Napoli, 1769 W. Sunnyside Ave.; Pizzeria da Nella, 1443 W. Fullerton Ave,; Nellcote, 833 W. Randolph St.; Pizza East, 113 N. Green St.

Pizza pot pie

Available only at Lincoln Park's Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Co. (2121 N. Clark St.) this dish is basically what it sounds like: Sicilian bread stuffed with cheese, sauce and classic pizza toppings. You can take the pies home frozen too.

Thick-topping pizza

For those looking for hearty pizza, a some Chicago restaurants really pile on the toppings. These thick-topping pizzas aren't the Chicago-style, deep-dish pizzas that require a fork and knife. Rather, the crust is thin but weighty enough to stand up to the mounds of cheese, sausage and other toppings heaped atop this heavy pie.

Get such pies at Milano's Pizza & Specialties in Morgan Park and Beggar's Pizza with three locations on the South Side.

"As a kid — and even still as an adult — my dad would cut off the crust on his pizza slices to save for me. It is buttery and a perfect combination of crunchy and doughy. I'm still amazed by the amount of cheese and toppings Milano's crust can support," said Annie Regan, a former Morgan Park resident said.

Chicago Does Your City's Pizza Better Than Your City Does

We'll hand it to other parts of America. We love eating floppy thin-crust pizzas, otherwise known as New York-style. The Neapolitan type of pizza made in Connecticut called New Haven-style is wonderful too. And we really enjoy "Quad Cities"-style pizza with its malt crust, scissor cut, and the toppings hidden underneath the cheese.

But we can do it too, and do it well. Jimmy's Pizza Cafe, 5159 N. Lincoln Ave. in Lincoln Square, serves up simple cheese slices just as good as any in Manhattan. (Their garlic knots are amazing too.)

Piece Brewery and Pizzeria, 1927 W. North Ave., does New Haven thin-crust style impeccably.

And Roots Handmade Pizza, with one location at 1924 W. Chicago Ave. and two more on the way, made us fall in love with the Quad Cities style that originated on the Illinois-Iowa border.

All of this is really to say Chicago pizza is the best. And if you ever run into someone who says otherwise, you'll know how to tell them they're wrong.

Click here to see the DNAinfo Chicago staff's favorite pizzas in the city.

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