I’m ashamed for calling myself a pizza fanatic yet never visiting Chicago in the past 10 years. It’s a good thing that shame has ended, thanks to a couple days I spent in the Windy City this past November while touring in support of my new book. I hit TONS of pizzerias and the vast majority were facilitated by a true pizza hero names Jon Porter. I first met Jon years ago, just as he was starting a company called Chicago Pizza Tours. Our companies are not related, but I consider him a real pizza brother. Since he started the company, we’ve met several times and even spent some quality time at the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas a few years ago! But after all that, I’m proud to say I have FINALLY experienced the fruits of Jon’s labor and the tour was awesome. Here’s the scoop.
Tour tour met at Pizano’s Pizza and Pasta, a pizzeria that belongs to one of the most important families in Chicago pizza history. It’s located at a super central location, so very easy to find for an out-of-towner such as myself. It was there that we met Jon, who owns the company and runs lots of the tours, and a tour guide who works for him named Jonathan (I know that’s going to be complicated, but I’ll stick with those name variations). Jon took a back seat and let Jonathan run most of the tour and he was awesome. Super relaxed and informal enough that you didn’t feel like you were receiving a lecture.
Jonathan gave us some info about Chicago pizza history before bringing out not one, but TWO tastings. Chicago has a reputation as a deep dish pizza town, but there is a native thin crust style thats at least as important. Pizano’s makes both so we tried a slice of each. Both were really good! But the tour has four pizzeria stops so we hit the road as soon as everyone finished because there was no time or stomach room to waste.
The tour rides all over Chicago and stops change all the time, so we cruised around in Dough Force One, a swanky mini coach that fits around 16 people. While driving, Jonathan (and sometimes Jon) gave us some great Chicago history. I loved the tour because it was so much more than just pizza, so you could learn a ton about the city while also hitting some serious pizzerias.
My favorite stop of the day might have been our second pizzeria. It’s a little walk-up spot called Italian Fiesta. It’s famous for being the favorite pizzeria of the Obama family, but there’s not a single sign bragging about it. Very cool little place with a killer thin crust pizza.
But as much as I loved Italian Fiesta, I was most interested in deep dish. I knew about the big nationally-known places like Uno and Gino’s East and Giordano’s, but one name kept popping up when I asked serious pizza freaks for advice: Pequod’s. It’s a cool spot with a perfectly casual atmosphere and gnarly pizza. There’s one in Morton Grove but we hit the Chicago location.
Check out this slice, overflowing with big chunky sausage and framed with a crunchy caramelized crust. It’s beautiful. I’m writing this as it’s snowing outside my window and all I want to do is crawl inside it and take a nap.
But the tour is not just about pizza that’s indigenous to Chicago, it also covers pizza styles that are not native to the city. Neapolitan pizza is exploding around the country and Chicago has a few solid spots for it. We stopped at Nella’s, where we had the pizza Margherita. This was a nice comfort slice because it wasn’t loaded with toppings, as the other Chicago pizza has been on the tour. That made it the perfect palate cleanser!
After those four stops, just every single person on the bus full and ready to hibernate. I loved it, not just for the pizza but also for the super well-rounded education about the city. I can see it being just as interesting for locals as it was for me as a tourist. In fact, there were at least two locals on the tour when I took it and they LOVED it! Good pizza, good info, great tour guide(s)… thanks to Jon and Jonathan and William the bus driver!
I’ve been saying it for a while now: New York needs a deep dish pizzeria. The mark of a good pizza city is variety and while NYC has a good amount, we’re missing a very large piece of the pizza style pie. Yes, I’ve seen the various Daily Show pieces about how deep dish isn’t even pizza and I do feel strange being forced to eat my slice with a knife and fork, but every slice has its place and I truly believe deep dish pizza is an acceptable format.
Chicago has its fair share of New York style pizzerias, but most New Yorkers have never experienced deep dish pizza because we just don’t have access to it. Sure, there are a bunch of Pizzeria Uno (oops… I mean Uno Chicago Grill) locations around the city but they are only in pizza deserts where you have no other option. But all of that has changed. In the midst of all the Chicago-NYC pizza hubbub on The Daily Show, a tiny bar/restaurant opened in the Soho/South Village nook on Macdougal just south of Houston Street. Emmett’s has about six tables and a bar, not too dissimilar to the original Uno in Chicago. But there’s one major difference: Emmett’s makes a great pizza.
The space is adorable, complete with a rad green glider bench out front. But there’s no loud proclamations boasting about deep dish pizza, it’s much more subtle. Two brothers run the place and they’re all about Chicago pride. It’s probably wise to keep the place understated. Tensions could produce a dangerous situation.
Most wanna-be deep dish pizzas just have a thick crust, but that’s garbage. Emmett’s is the real deal, with a dense biscuity crust covered with stringy cheese, loads of toppings and a highly seasoned plum tomato sauce. I really enjoyed the robustness and zing of this sauce, it’s a great counterpoint to the usual laid back tomato of most New York pizza sauces.
I loved the chunky sausage. It was perfect for the pie and totally reminded me of the sausage I ate on Chicago pies in November. It balances the dense crust in a way thin crumbly sausage cannot. But the crust was the real telltale sign that whoever is back there making these pizzas has done some serious Chicago pizza homework. The owners are a pair of brothers from the Windy City and they clearly have their pizza act together in a way I really respect.
The rest of the team agreed and the four of us took down an entire large pie. That’s not a big deal for a NY style pizza, but more than one slice of this stuff creates a seriously different experience. But as you can see from the photo above, people in New York just cannot be restrained by the tyranny of a knife and fork. I think all of us went for the open-face hand-hold method for at least a portion of each slice.
This is the perfect place to hole up on a cold night. It’s tiny, so get there early. Deep dish pies take a while to bake, but there’s a good beer selection to keep you company. If you get annoyed at the 45 minutes it takes to make your pizza, just remember it’s wayyyy shorter than the flight to Chicago.
Every month, TEAM SPT gets together for an evening of intense pizza study. Past events have brought us to New Haven, canned tomato tastings and pizza making workshops. Last month we agreed it was time to get our hands dirty and do some serious trench work, so we ordered pizza from all the major chains within delivery distance of my Brooklyn apartment and conducted a not-so-scientific chain pizza showdown.
First up was Little Caesar’s. I thought they had gone out of business years ago, but it turns out they’re the third highest grossing pizza company in the country! Locations are scattered in NYC and really only in low-income neighborhoods in the outskirts of Brooklyn and the Bronx. I get it — they have a “large” pizza (it’s just 14” as opposed to the usual 16-18” large) for only $5 and there’s little to no wait time to get a pizza. It’s clearly going to be a low-quality pizza, but not everyone wants imported Neapolitan flour and San Marzano tomatoes. Fast food pizza is a necessary evil.
Truth be told, I had only had LC’s once before and I completely forgot about it until weeks after we tried it - so this felt like it was my first taste. It was the first pizza of our test because LC’s doesn’t deliver (they’re take-out only) so we picked up a HOT-N-READY® pie. I have to admit, I was pretty excited to finally try Little Caesar’s. It’s the closest pizza to my apartment and I felt guilty for walking past it every day. I was also pretty hungry, so they clearly had the best positioning of the night.
While I’d never eat this again on purpose, I thought it wasn’t the worst of the night. The CSR (cheese-to-sauce ratio) was pretty even. I might even say it was the sauciest of the night. Shredded low-moisture mozzarella has a tendency to slurp up sauce and I was surprised at LC’s moisture level. The crust was floppy and soft, as expected from the conveyor oven bake, and the cheese had a reasonable pull without getting in the way. The pie’s temperature upon arrival was 130 F, which (SPOILER ALERT) turned out to be the average for the night.
Overall, I’d call this a very solid desperation pizza, one you only fall back on when all else fails. You’ll feel guilty immediately upon taking the first bite, but you’ll move on with your life and pretend it never happened.
The second pie of the night was from Domino’s. We wanted to order the exact same pie from each place, but I think this one’s technically a specialty pie. I have a longer history with Domino’s than I do with the others we ordered for this test. My family never ate it when I was a kid. I remember the family mantra “Domino’s tastes like cardboard” and that alone prevented me from ever ordering it even in my darkest hour. Then Domino’s famously changed their recipe in 2009 and I felt it was my job — no, my responsibility — to give it a go. If the new version was an improvement, I’m glad I never had to deal with the old version. A couple years passed and decided it might be fun to get to know the pizza industry better by working some pizza jobs, one of which was as a delivery boy for my local Domino’s. I worked for about three weeks and made just over 100 deliveries.