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I spent a total of two days in Chicago last month and managed to visit 19 pizzerias. It was my first time in Chicago since 2003. I’m not a big fan of restaurant reviews, so think of these more as abbreviated recollections of my experiences at each place. I might do more in-depth reports later but people ask me about pizza in Chicago so often I just want to use this as a quick reference guide. It’s split into two parts because Chicago pizza is too massive to fit into one post. See part 1 here. The post is organized with a description first, then a photo below. Enjoy!
Marie’s Pizza & Liquors
Marie’s is an absolute gem, owned and operated by the same family since 1940. It’s a good 20 minutes north of the Loop, so don’t expect to stumble upon it if you’re wandering around downtown Chicago. This is a real joint -oozing with the “this is who we are” honesty that makes me fall in love with some restaurants even before I taste the food. It’s more like a bar with tons of seating than it is a pizzeria. The seating of which I speak is luxurious plush red vinyl and I really do need to post more photos of the interior. The pizza is typical tavern style thin-and-crispy cut into squares. Truth be told, it’s not the most remarkable pizza in the world, but Marie’s is off the charts on the vibe-o-meter and a real piece of Chicago’s pizza story.
Pizzeria da Nella Cucina Napoletana
Regardless of the city’s reputation as a deep-dish town or its true roots as a thin crust refuge, Chicago has some very non-Chicago pizzerias. Nella is a traditional Neapolitan pizzeria. They have it all: the wood-fired oven, “00” flour, imported tomatoes. But sometimes having all the goods doesn’t necessarily make a great pizza. Keep in mind I am basing my entire opinion on one visit in the middle of the day, but this was not a stellar pizza. The oven seemed low and the pizza, which usually takes about 90 seconds in this oven, clocked in at 2:30. That’s a big difference and resulted in a dry crust. Some might even prefer this over traditional Neapolitan but I give a low score on execution of the style.
Want a serious deep dish pizza the locals actually eat on purpose? Pequod’s is it. There’s cheese shoved up between the crust and the pan (like Detroit style) and it caramelizes in the most beautiful way imaginable. Some even order it with extra carm for a degree of intensity rarely displayed by mere mortals. I had a pie with sausage and pepperoni, (aka just the basics for a meaty midwestern appetite) and really loved how the crunch of the crust combined with the soft padding of its cheesy surface. It had less sauce than other deep dish pizzas and generally felt like the badass of Chicago’s pizzerias.
Here’s another non-Chicagoan pizzeria in the Windy City, one that’s all about New Haven, CT. If you’re not familiar with the style, you need to head to Pepe’s and Sally’s on Wooster St or Modern Apizza on State Street in New Haven RIGHT NOW! Piece dishes up huge dense-crunchy crust pizza in big trays like Frank Pepe’s. Their pies are topped with restraint rather than maladroit. The place has a very active feel, almost like a sports bar but without too many televisions. I thought the pizza was totally solid and I’d definitely be here all the time if I lived in the neighborhood. It’s the kind of place to enjoy with a big group of friends, as I did with my buds Patrick and Kristy, the wonderful couple who designed and built my beautiful pizza tours website!
Pizano’s Pizza and Pasta
Chicago has a great lineage of famous pizza families, one of which goes by the name Malnati. Lou Malnati’s was mentioned as my favorite classic deep-dish in the first part of my Chicago pizza rundown but what I didn’t mention is that Lou’s father Rudy ran the original Pizzeria Uno. The story goes that Rudy put in the work but was never given any part of the business, so Lou opened his own shop so he would have something of his own. Lou’s half-brother Rudy jumped into the pizza game in 1991 with Pizano’s to cut yet another slice of the pie. This place does a thinner deep dish with a jagged raised edge, completely different from the mainstream deep-dishers. It’s very very good!
The story of pizza is tied closely to that of baking technology and the Faulds oven at Sano’s explains so much about Chicago’s distinctive crust styles. This beast is a revolving deck oven, with four steel trays that circulate through the ~450 degree heat. The company was located close to Chicago so their ovens are all over town at some of the older places (at least those that have yet to replace them). But this report is about the pizza, not the oven, and in that category I’m sad to say that my slice was pretty close to inedible. It was late at night and this was a refrigerated pie that they reheated. I promise I’ll give them another try with a fresh pizza on my next visit, but for now it’s a slice I’d like to forget.
Pizza hasn’t been in the United States for very long, but since it took 50 years before it took off there’s quite a bit of folklore regarding its origins. As much as the Malnati’s and Pizzeria Uno lay claim to certain degrees of greatness, the dish existed on Taylor Street at a time when non-Italians were completely oblivious to the comings and goings of the neighborhood. Pompei was a bakery that also served simple pizzas as far back as 1909, giving it a pretty good claim to the “first pizza in Chicago” award. But they’ve moved locations to a much more modern facility that’s more cafeteria than pizzeria. Not worth a special trip.
I know, this is a weird one. It was the last stop on a full-day adventure and yet I somehow managed to eat several slices. Maybe it’s the fact that the topping combinations are so off-the-charts weird that I just needed the contrast. We ordered two taco-themed pizzas, which our server thought was the gutsiest thing to ever happen in the restaurant. The crust is sweet and malty, so it sets the pace for an unusual pizza-eating experience. Not a place to experience Chicago pizza, but a good break from the norm.
This is one of the best Neapolitan pizzas I’ve ever eaten. The crust has a chewy interior protected by a delicately crispy exterior. Cheese is milky and smooth with bright accents thanks to its simple crushed tomato compliment. I’ve eaten so many pizzas in this style and there’s something intangible that happens when you come across something to basic that it needs not hide behind any distractions. You could ignore the gorgeous wood-fired oven, you could disregard the rays of light pouring in from all angles, you could neglect to notice the humble dedication to the staff’s craft, not just of making pizza but of feeding people.