We’ve all done it. But come on. Walking a couple of blocks to a deep-dish tourist staple and collapsing into a cheese-induced coma back at the hotel sets a pretty low bar in a town steeped in pizza history.
In fact, Chicago has perfected its favorite pie in 10 distinct styles, says Steve Dolinsky, the ABC 7 Eyewitness News Hungry Hound—and he wrote the book on pizza, just last year. Another truth Steve reveals in his new book, Pizza City, USA: Deep-dish is for tourists. Locals like the thinner tavern-style pizza, cut into squares, no fork needed.
No matter how you slice it, miles of cheesy, spicy, saucy territory await, and Steve’s book can direct you to the places that do it best.
Easier still, hop on his Downtown Loop bus tour ($69; pizzacityusa.com). Or tag along on a walking tour of the Downtown Loop, Wicker Park-Bucktown neighborhoods or the West Loop, and taste your way through as many as four styles of pizza perfection. At each stop, an owner or manager whisks you into the kitchen and spills its secrets while wait staff loads your table with pies.
Just arrive with an appetite. It’s not promoted as an all-you-can-eat experience, but that’s pretty much a given. “By the third stop, most people are waving the white flag,” Steve says.
Spacca Napoli serves up a classic wood-fired Neapolitan Margherita and variations with gourmet toppings like prosciutto, arugula and Sardinian artichokes.
The Tasty 10
Strike out on your own to taste test Steve’s pizza pick in every style:
Tavern-style Vito and Nick’s Pizzeria, 8433 S. Pulaski Rd. This is pizza with balance: an ultrathin crust bearing perfectly blistered burn marks and a harmonious mix of toppings.
Detroit Union Full Board, 3473 N. Clark St. Baked in the characteristic crisp rectangle with brick and mozzarella cheese around the perimeter; soft, focaccia-like interior with a crunchy undercarriage and two stripes of tomato sauce across the top.
Neapolitan Spacca Napoli Pizzeria, 1769 W. Sunnyside Ave. Chewy, blistered crust; crushed San Marzano tomatoes; and creamy-sweet Fior di Latte cheese placed haphazardly—just as it’s served in Naples.
Thin Boiler Room, 2210 N. California Ave. A delicate, cornmeal-flecked dough bakes up with a crisp edge, and every bite offers the optimal mix.
Deep-dish Labriola, 535 N. Michigan Ave. Meticulously mixed dough delivers a good chew, and it’s sturdy enough to hold in your hand. Pecorino Romano jazzes up the mozzarella, and a complex sauce layers on flavor.
NYC slice Jimmy’s Pizza Cafe, 5159 N. Lincoln Ave. One of the best deals in town—generous slices with a crust like ciabatta that’s evenly blackened on the bottom for an audible crunch.
Artisan Pizzeria Bebu, 1521 N. Fremont St. Achieves what few artisan pies can: an ultrathin middle that stays firm and impossibly crispy, so it’s able to hold a generous layer of sauce.
Sicilian D’Amato’s Bakery and Subs, 1124 W. Grand Ave. The dough—embedded with cheese and sauce, and light like a good focaccia—makes this pizza remarkable. It’s sold by the slice; ask for a corner or edge piece.
Roman Bonci, 161 N. Sangamon St. An impossibly light bottom crust with a soft interior is made with a custom flour blend and two fermentations. Local, seasonal toppings on a pizza that’s cut to order.
Stuffed Suparossa, 4256 N. Central Ave. The cheese stays pleasantly soft in this stuffed pie, and the wisp of a top crust doesn’t overpower its fresh, vibrant tomato sauce and flavorful house-made sausage.
Steve pulled up a chair in 185 restaurants to pick his 101 faves. Top 5 maps help you find your next fix; a methodology chapter and glossary with terms like “cheese pull” equip you to break it down like a pro ($24.95, Northwestern University Press). Pizza City, USA: 101 Reasons Why Chicago Is America’s Greatest Pizza Town by Steve Dolinsky
Journalist Steve Dolinsky talks about what he learned eating Chicago pizza almost daily for six months.
Why did you decide to write a book about pizza?
I was tired of reading yet another listicle of the best pizza in Chicago that had no solid research or legwork behind it. I had tackled things like “the best Italian beef,” so I thought, How hard could pizza be? I thought I’d do 40 or 50 places and call it a day. And I ended up going down this crazy rabbit hole, because Chicagoans get emotional about pizza. People started chiming in on social media with things like, “Any list without Phil’s Pizza in Oak Lawn is no list at all!” So then I’d have to go to Phil’s in Oak Lawn.
What’s the secret to great pizza?
Two things: the dough and what I call OBR—optimal bite ratio. In other words, you get dough, cheese, sauce and topping in every bite. A good pizza has to have that balance.
None of the city’s icons made the Top 5 list in the deep-dish category. Why?
I really was cheering for every place I tried. If a restaurant didn’t make the book, it’s likely because the dough wasn’t good enough or OBR was bad.
You call Chicago America’s No. 1 pizza town. How so?
I think it’s the city with the most pizza variety in the country. Other cities offer one-note experiences, but it’s pretty hard to argue with Chicago’s range.
Chicagoans love to experiment. We also love to eat. New pizza places open every month here. When Rick Tasman, former COO of P.F. Chang’s, approached Gabriele Bonci about bringing Roman-style al taglio [pizza] to America, they knew Chicago’s West Loop was the best place to start.
Al taglio (“by the cut,” in which pizza is cut to order) at its best is notable for its soft, crumb-riddled interior and a distinctive, crunchy bottom. Americans love crispy, crunchy bottom crusts, which is why this style will be the next big thing in pizza. By the way, Bonci’s second location in the United States? Wicker Park, only a few miles away.
Ready to get your hands doughy or time travel to America’s pizza past? Continue your adventure here:
DIY nirvana Pizzeria Uno at the corner of Ohio and Wabash hosts weekly classes ($45) on making its signature pies. Learn to pinch the crust, crush the plum tomatoes and layer on the ingredients in the right order for deep-dish perfection: cheese slices, toppings, sauce, tomato chunks and an 80/20 mix of Parmesan cheese and fresh oregano. You’ll also learn the secret to those perfect crispy crusts: 600-degree ovens that blast heat from below.
Classes require eight students, so gather a group or leave yourself some scheduling flexibility to ensure you get a day with enough attendees.
Kitsch cache If your love for memorabilia rivals your affection for pizza, stop by the U.S. Pizza Museum at the Roosevelt Collection, a hip open-air mall in the South Loop. Some displays offer lessons on the history of pizza in America, but this spot is at its best in “who knew?” and “remember that?” territory. Exhibit A: an album wall with midcentury pizza-theme greats like Lou Monte Sings Songs for Pizza Lovers. And anyone who grew up in the ’80s can respect an original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Pizza Thrower boxed set (with motorized disc-fire action!). Admission is free.