A Deep Dive into Deep-Dish

Welcome to the best of Chicago’s signature pizza
By Dan Epstein

For all the changes that Chicago has undergone since the end of World War II, some Windy City traditions remain reassuringly unaltered by time. The Cubs still play baseball at Wrigley Field, the Chicago River is dyed green before every St. Patrick’s Day parade, and the bronze lions that nobly guard the Art Institute of Chicago are bedecked with festive wreaths every Christmas season. And over at the original Pizzeria Uno, tourists and locals alike still line up to feast upon classic Chicago deep-dish pizza, just as they have since the ‘50s.

Upon entering the River North institution, it becomes clear that the interior hasn’t changed much, either. Aside from a pair of flat-screen TVs (which tonight are showing the Cubs and Bulls games), the cozy, tin-ceilinged basement space looks and feels pretty much like it has for the last six decades. Customers still squeeze themselves into small, padded booths along the western wall, perch at the bar on the other side of the narrow room, or gather around the tiny tables wedged in between. The servers at Uno’s (as the locals call it) still greet you with a cheerful “Welcome to the birthplace of deep-dish pizza,” and the air is still thickly permeated with the mouthwatering aroma of said pies being baked to crusty, cheesy, tomato-y perfection in a kitchen just a few feet away. And once again, you know — just as surely as you’ve ever known anything in this life — that you will not be leaving here hungry.

UNO's Pizzeria in downtown Chicago. Photo courtesy of Alex Garcia/ Special to FAR
Locals enjoy UNO's Pizzeria in downtown Chicago. Photo courtesy of Alex Garcia/ Special to FAR
An ad showcases UNO's signature deep-dish pizza in downtown Chicago. Photo courtesy of Alex Garcia/ Special to FAR
Metal pans for each size of pizza at UNO's Pizzeria in downtown Chicago. Photo courtesy of Alex Garcia/ Special to FAR
People enjoy UNO's Pizzeria in downtown Chicago. Photo courtesy of Alex Garcia/ Special to FAR

The topic of Chicago-style deep-dish pizza has long been controversial among pizza aficionados. Some purists believe that deep-dish is markedly inferior to New York-style pizza; others claim that it doesn’t really qualify as pizza at all since the tomato sauce on a deep-dish pie sits atop the cheese (as opposed to the other way around), the densely layered slices are too thick to fold — and, in order to actually enjoy the pie at its hottest, one must eat it with a knife and fork. There are also some Chicagoans who far prefer the cracker-thin, square-cut “tavern style” pizza that can be found throughout the Midwest, while those who do worship at the deep-dish altar argue endlessly and passionately on behalf of their favorite local chains or neighborhood joints, citing any number of subtle variations on basic deep-dish preparation as cause for utter elation or unmitigated horror.

But whatever your take on Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, there’s no denying its iconic status. As popular as Chicago-style hot dogs or Italian beef sandwiches may be in this corner of the universe, deep-dish pizza remains Chicago’s signature culinary item. According to Tim Samuelson, the official Cultural Historian of the City of Chicago, the reasons for this extend beyond the pizza’s innate deliciousness. “Deep-dish pizza is substantial and no-nonsense,” he explains. “So it fits nicely into the ‘stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders” imagery branded by ‘Chicago,’ Carl Sandburg’s oft-quoted 1914 poem to the city.”

Indeed, one can easily imagine Sandburg — who once summed up his famous poem as imparting the message, “Maybe we ain’t got culture, but we’re eatin’ regular” — smiling approvingly at Chicago’s unpretentious (and reliably filling) deep-dish pie. It’s highly unlikely that he ever ate the stuff himself, however, since the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet had already moved to a farm in Michigan (and would soon decamp to his Connemara estate in North Carolina) by the time Ric Riccardo was conducting his first experiments with what would eventually become known as Chicago-style deep-dish pizza.

The owner of Riccardo’s, a popular downtown restaurant and bar located in the shadow of Chicago’s landmark Wrigley Building, the Italian-born Riccardo opened a second spot in 1943, in the nearby basement of his apartment building at 29 East Ohio Street; the Feds had shut down its former occupant, the Pelican Tap — a speakeasy popular with underworld figures — after one customer fistfight too many had spilled onto the surrounding sidewalks. Riccardo called it the Pizzeria, then quickly changed the name to Pizzeria Riccardo, hoping to cash in on the success of his other place. As its moniker suggested, Riccardo’s new joint specialized in pizza, a dish that was still considered quite exotic in the U.S. at the time. However, the pizza that Riccardo served was quite different from the Italian pizza he’d grown up with.

“Traditional pizza was more of a snack or side dish,” Samuelson explains. “Riccardo wanted a hardy pizza that would constitute an entire meal. He made it in deep, straight-sided pans, pressed in a generous layer of dough tapered up the sides, then applied generous layers of cheese, sausage and tomato sauce in a sequence many would consider upside-down. All was baked into a bubbling mass with the tapered dough edging nearly blackened. And thus was born Chicago deep-dish pizza.”

Delicious as all of that certainly sounds, Riccardo’s clientele didn’t quite know what to make of his new concoction; according to Samuelson, they were so “perplexed” by the pizza that Riccardo was forced to “put out samples as free bar food, in order to get patrons to try it.” Once they got past their initial misgivings, however, Riccardo’s customers fell in love with his pies; and thanks in part to the promotional acumen of Ike Sewell, Riccardo’s garrulous business partner, Pizzeria Riccardo soon began attracting diners from all over Chicago.

These days, Sewell is widely credited as the inventor of deep-dish pizza — there’s even a bronze plaque to that effect on the front of the original Uno’s building — but Samuelson says that this is incorrect. “In earliest extant interviews, Sewell freely credited Riccardo,” he explains. “The fact of the matter is, Sewell wasn’t even there at the very start.” Nevertheless, Sewell did much to elevate the presence and popularity of deep-dish, especially after Riccardo’s death in 1954. The following year, with the lines for their restaurant already getting out of hand, Sewell and longtime Pizzeria Riccardo manager Rudy Malnati, Sr. opened a second restaurant in a similar basement space, just a block north on Wabash Avenue. They called their new spot Pizzeria Due, renaming Pizzeria Riccardo as Pizzeria Uno; Riccardo’s original pies were served at both locations. In 1978, Sewell franchised the Uno’s name and concept to a company in Boston, which began opening Uno’s locations all around U.S., and even in other countries. (As of 2014, the company counted 140 Uno’s locations in the U.S., as well as franchises in Puerto Rico, Honduras, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Pakistan.)

“The Pizzeria Uno-franchised restaurants in other cities have variations [on the original recipe] which make them not quite the same,” warns Samuelson, who has been a devoted Uno’s fan since he first visited the place as a child in the early ‘60s. But he happily notes that, at the original Uno’s and Due’s locations, one can still sink one’s teeth into the real deal. Whether you’re topping your pie with a copious layer of meat or veggies, or sticking with plain ol’ cheese, the ingredients in an Uno’s pie are all fresh and plentiful, and the chunky tomato sauce is intensely flavorful. And then there’s the crumbly, almost cake-like crust, which perfectly supports the pie’s contents, yet is also subtly delicious in its own right. It’s no wonder that people keep coming back for more; Ric Riccardo clearly knew what he was doing.

Given the popularity of Uno’s and Due’s, it was only a matter of time before competitors emerged on the Chicago deep-dish scene, such as the popular local chains My π (opened in 1971) and Giordano’s (opened in 1974). “There was even a guy from London who reportedly rifled through Pizzeria Uno’s garbage and tried to bribe employees so he could open a deep-dish pizzeria there,” laughs Samuelson.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the best of the new breed of deep-dish pizzerias had direct links to Uno’s and Due’s. The perennially popular Gino’s East on East Superior Street, for example, was opened in 1966 by Alice May Redmond, formerly a chef at Uno’s; Delisi’s Pizza, a fixture in West Rogers Park until it sadly closed its doors in 2010, was opened in 1977 by former Uno’s waitress Helen Delisi; and Louisa’s Pizza, which still attracts deep-dish aficionados to the village of Crestwood, southwest of Chicago, was opened in 1981 by former Due’s employee Louisa Degenero.

The most successful Uno’s offshoot, however, is Lou Malnati’s, founded in 1971 by one of Rudy Malnati’s children. (Another son, Rudy Malnati, Jr., opened the smaller Pizano’s chain in 1991.) Now run by Lou’s sons Marc and Rick, Malnati’s pizza remains consistently excellent from location to location, despite boasting 48 outlets in the Chicagoland area. Rick Malnati, via the chain’s website, claims that the secret to the chain’s consistency is the water that they use for their crust: “Only Chicago’s finest Lake Michigan water can produce a truly delicious Chicago-style deep-dish pizza crust,” he says. This may explain why it’s so hard to find genuinely good Chicago-style deep dish outside of the Windy City, but there’s clearly more than just Lake Michigan magic at work in Malnati’s flaky, buttery crust, which has become legendary in itself.

“No other pizza in the world tastes like this,” says Seth Gordon, as he digs into a slice of “The Lou,” Malnati’s signature pie, which combines hefty helpings of spinach, mushrooms and sliced roma tomatoes with a blend of mozzarella, romano and cheddar cheeses on a garlic-y version of their (literally) patented Buttercrust™. Gordon, a music instructor at an elementary school in Norfolk, Virginia, is visiting Chicago with his wife, sister, brother-in-law and two nephews; like many of the other patrons seated here tonight in the sleek, faux-”space age” interior of the Lincoln Square branch of Malnati’s, Gordon and family went to see the Cubs play at Wrigley this afternoon, and are following up one classic Chicago experience with another. “Honestly, I prefer New York-style pizza,” Gordon admits. “But Chicago deep-dish is such a specialty, and it’s something I can’t get anywhere else — especially Malnati’s, with their sweet crust. It’s not the kind of thing I’d eat every day; but whenever I’m in Chicago, I always have to get it!”

The crust is also a big part of the draw at Pequod’s Pizza — though unlike at Uno’s, Due’s or Malnati’s, you won’t find many tourists at this always-packed local favorite, which is located on the westernmost edge of Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. Originally opened in 1971 in the northwest Chicago suburb of Morton Grove, Pequod’s is famous for serving deep-dish pies with a uniquely blackened crust of caramelized mozzarella. The caramelized crust was the invention of original owner Burt Katz, who sold the business to local businessman Keith Jackson in 1986 (and now runs the acclaimed Burt’s Place in Morton Grove). Jackson opened a second Pequod’s in Lincoln Park in the early ‘90s, and the latter location’s pies have consistently landed at or near the top of annual “Best Chicago Deep-Dish” lists ever since.

As befits a self-proclaimed “Blackhawks bar,” Pequod’s neon-lit, exposed-brick interior is covered with gear and memorabilia from the city’s venerable NHL franchise, and the restaurant’s raucous “neighborhood sports bar” vibe makes the pizza on the menu seem almost incidental, at least until you see the glorious, piping-hot pies being ferried from the kitchen in black, cast-iron pans. “It’s like, cheese, cheese and more cheese!” marvels one Pequod’s patron, as a gigantic, still-bubbling pizza lands upon his table. As with Uno’s and Malnati’s, Pequod’s doesn’t skimp on the cheese or any other toppings, though their tomato sauce is smoother, tangier and more marinara-like. And the crust, dear lord, the crust — it’s so delectably smoky and chewy that it actually manages to upstage the rest of the already outstanding pizza.

“Our customers ask us all the time if they can just order our crust as an appetizer,” laughs Romy Richardson, Pequod’s manager of public relations. (Answer: They can’t.) “Typically, when they make it to their second slice, people will eat the crust first — just in case they can’t finish it, they’re like, ‘We don’t want to miss out on this!’”

As Richardson implies, it can be difficult to make it through two slices of Pequod’s pie in a single sitting, and the same holds true for all of Chicago’s deep-dish pizzas. However hungry you may be when ordering your pie, you’ll inevitably find yourself eating leftover slices for lunch or dinner the following day. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

“Deep-dish is best when eaten fresh at the restaurant,” says Samuelson. “It loses a lot when taken home as a carry-out, but it’s still darned good…

“My health-conscious wife rolls her eyes and says I shouldn’t bring [leftover deep-dish] in the house,” he continues. “But when I do, the pieces seem to mysteriously disappear at a faster rate than I eat them. Hmmm — I just can’t figure it out!”

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