The month of April is home to National Deep Dish Pizza Day (April 5) so we decided to crown the king of Chicago deep dish. While there are many different styles of pizza: Chicago deep dish or thin New York-style, we can all agree that they are all delicious and make you extremely unattractive when devouring them. But where did it all begin?
While the creation of pizza has been speculated by many, one age-old tale has been told over many generations that may answer this pies puzzling origins. A tale of a man from Naples, Italy by the name of Mario Pizziano was shopping at a local market rings true for many pizza historians. Mario was a simple pastry chef who specialized in cakes that was known for favoring large, oversized pants with big back pockets. While shopping, Mario put his tote bag down to test some tomatoes for ripeness, when a young hoodlum swiped his bag.
Mario ended up purchasing two pieces of bread, two slices of mozzarella and two tomatoes with some basil for a sandwich he planned to make once he returned home. When Mario went to pay, the clerk asked him “How-a You gonna carry this-a home?” Mario responded with “That’s-a Ok. I’m gonna put them in my back pockets.” Mario cut the tomato in half so he could fit one side in each back pocket. He lined each pocket with one piece of bread, one piece of cheese, one tomato slice and some basil.
After his three mile walk home, Mario walked into his kitchen. Weary of his travels and still catching his breath, Mario sat down without thinking and heard a loud splat. “Oh-a NO!” screamed Mario. Forgetting that his groceries were still in his back pockets – he had sat down and flattened his dinner. “What-a I’m-a gonna do now?!” His brother Luigi had just returned home from his union plumbing job and consoled Mario. “What’s-a wrong?” Luigi asked. Mario told him of his troubles.
Luigi recommended that Mario stack the two circular, flattened sandwiches into one of his cake molds and bake it like a cake. “What’s-a matta which you?!” exclaimed Mario, labeling the notion preposterous. Luigi insisted that it could be a hit if they marketed it correctly and it would give Mario the opportunity to show up his arch-nemesis: Chef Boyardee. Mario and Chef Boyardee were rivals while attending The Culinary Institute of Naples where Boyardee bested Mario in every class. Five years earlier, in 1592, Chef Boyardee received critical acclaim when he discovered America and Mario never heard the end of it. Many of you know of Boyardee’s great, great, grand son – Christopher Columbus, Director of Home Alone and most notably – Home Alone 2: Lost in New York.
Poised to surpass Boyardee’s success, Mario and Luigi started selling the pies and calling them “pizzianos”. They later changed the name to “pizza” after the initial idea gave way to another failed creation of their’s – a piano made out of pizza – which more suitably fit the name “pizziano”. Their success was to be short-lived, within three months of the “pizza” being a hit, a law was passed outlawing oversized jeans due to shoplifting. Mario traveled to the US to escape persecution for his fashion sense and landed in Illinois where he opened up shop and thus led to the creation of the Chicago deep dish pizza.
So, now that we’ve gotten the true story of the deep dish pizza… what is the recipe behind it? While reviewing these deep dishes, I did research and attempted to crack Lou Malnati’s recipe. The key to any good pizza whether deep dish or thin is to use whole milk mozzarella. Whole milk mozzarella doesn’t only taste different than 2%, part skim mozzarella – it also melts differently. Whole milk mozzarella has a higher fat content which is referred to as “butter fat”. This effects how the cheese breaks down due to it’s consistency. As the butter fat heats up, it turns into an oil that gives the cheese a much different, creamier flavor. If you are looking to get a super creamy cheese, mix some ricotta with shredded mozzarella prior to baking.
Most Chicago deep dish pizzerias use crushed tomatoes as opposed to straight tomato sauce. This gives a fresher, but less salty taste to the pizza. As for the crust – this is where the true secret lies: deep dish pizza crust is essentially a pie crust with either panko bread crumbs or corn meal on the bottom. To achieve the Lou Malnati’s “butter crust” effect, simply put two melted tablespoons of butter into the pan, then lay the dough over it before baking. Do not over bake the crust as an ideal deep dish crust is a crispy, golden brown on the outside while soft and doughy on the inside.
I’m not gonna give away any secrets, but many of these pizzerias list the logos of the products right on their box. Products such as Bel Gioioso cheese, Fontanini meats and 6 & 1 sauce are a staple of one of these top deep dish pizzerias.
Now that we all know the basic ingredients of the Chicago deep dish pizza, let’s get down to the testing. How did we conduct our testing? Over the course of 14 months, three participants ate and rated deep dish pizza from 13 of the most highly regarded deep dish pizzerias. From old (Gino’s East) to new (Pequod’s ) from Evanston (Gulliver’s) to downtown (Pizzeria Ora) – we matched them all up against one another.
There is nothing more depressing than ordering a deep dish for pickup, getting home and realizing they included plastic silverware for five people when it’s just your slob-ass dining alone.
Within the last month of testing, we actually bought five pizzas from the top rated chains and put them head to head. After serious weight gain and much deserved body shaming – a winner emerged from the ashes. So here you have it – all you need to know (and some things you’d rather not know) about Chicago’s finest deep dish pizza joints.
Year Established: 1996
While many have raved about their thin crust, I found their deep dish quite disappointing. Overall the pizza wasn’t terrible, but there are many deep dish pizzerias that I would recommend over Rosati’s. I even gave it two attempts, ordering both times from the River North location on La Salle Street. The pizza was overcooked both times and super salty. The crust had a cracker-like consistency due to it being overcooked.
The ingredients also seemed fairly cheap: the sausage is super low quality and cubed – which I found quite unappetizing. Why not jus throw some lunchables cubed ham bits on it, then? Quality sausage should have no casing on it and should be moderately cooked (grey, but not pink) while not being overcooked and rubbery. The saltiness of the sauce and the overcooked cheese made this dish difficult to finish. It was hard to say if it was from the sauce itself or they just over season (salt, oregano, basil) the pizza.
I wouldn’t be so critical, but here’s the kicker: $29 for a large! Dissapointing and expensive! I almost called afterwards to complain which would have been a first – it was that bad! It’s easy to hate yourself after polishing off half a deep dish by yourself in your studio apartment, but it’s rock bottom when the pizza wasn’t even worth the 3,000 calories you just consumed. Rosati’s definitely gets the award for the “KICK ME IN THE BALLS AND TAKE MY MONEY PIZZA”.
12. Gino’s East
Year Established: 1966
Highly regarded as one of the original Chicago deep dish joints (and one of the few that you can buy in your grocer’s freezer section) Gino’s rings true to their original recipe. Overall, Gino’s East delivers a decent pizza, but was not one of our favorites. My least favorite aspect being the crust. This highlight of Gino’s was the two options they give you for sausage. I recommend the “patty sausage” as opposed to crumbled, make sure you have a living will before consumption.
I like that you get crumbled sausage or patty sausage option. I got patty but it might have been a little much as it didn’t reach the crust. There was a huge lack of cheese which was the main thing that hurt it. Thin layer of cheese directly above the crust. The crust I am not thrilled about as it is yellow & reminds me of cornbread. This is also available frozen at local grocery stores, not bad for grocery frozen pizza just a deep dish Red Baron basically that is 2lbs.
11. Pizano’s Pizza and Pasta
Year Established: 1991
Created by the son of Rudy Malnati (Creator of the original deep dish – Pizzeria Uno) Pizzano’s continues on with an alternate take of deep dish as opposed to Lou’s or Uno.
Taken from Pizano’s site: My father, Rudy Malnati Sr. opened his first restaurant, Pizzeria Uno, in 1943. Located in Chicago, he featured “Deep Dish Pizza”, an innovative creation that made a meal of pizza, which had previously only been eaten as a snack.
He loved traditional food based on authentic recipes using quality ingredients. And he was a stickler for making sure this is what his customers received from his kitchen, along with warm, friendly service and a comfortable setting in which to enjoy these fine dishes.
I opened Pizano’s in 1991 and this legacy is our foundation. I learned about pizza from my father with that knowledge developed our now famous thin crust pizza that Oprah has called “her favorite” and the USA Today listed as top 10 in the Nation. We feature great food steeped in Italian tradition, skillfully prepared from the highest quality ingredients, and served in an inviting atmosphere in which to celebrate friendship and family.
Not very deep for a deep dish but has adequate cheese the sauce is lacking in taste but that probably due to it being crushed tomatoes than an actual sauce. Crust is awesome, possibly the best crust of all, sausage was good.
Year Established: 1963
Known for using Fontanini crusts and ingredients, Connie’s was actually the most cost-efficient pizza of this list. Kind of a Papa John’s-style pizza, the crust being very similar. Not very deep dish like, kind of screwed us on toppings, but for $11 large you can’t beat it. Typically red sauce, cheese is kind of Pizza Hut like though. Very fresh though. Mondays are two for one so I will have to give Connie’s as the best value.
9. Pizzeria Ora
Year Established: 1996
Pizzeria Ora lacked overall toppings and cheese which was its weakness. Mushrooms were so overcooked they were extremely tiny. They did put a good amount of sauce on it which was the highlight of this pizza. It was a true sauce and not simply crushed tomatoes like Lou Malnati’s. Didn’t have that wine taste that Lou Malnati’s is known for, (which I am not fond of) but had a more salty taste that I preferred.
The pepperoni was wet & undercooked which ultimately hurt the pizza. Pepperoni should always be somewhat on the crispy side as it needs to be cooked in order to release the oil that gives it more flavor. I know sauce goes on the top layer of deep dish pizzas, but I think pepperoni is better crispy so it should be cooked on top or separate. Overall – the sauce was the best thing, then crust, then toppings. The lack of cheese was the biggest weakness which many pizzerias fall guilty of – just like Pizzano’s.
8. Pizzeria Due
Year Established: 1955
An offshoot of Pizzeria Uno due to it’s booming success and also because Uno didn’t have enough room to expand. Ike Sewell of Pizzeria Uno, did another wonderful thing: He opened another Chicago Pizzeria and called it Pizzeria Due on the opposite street corner in the lower level of a beautiful, Victorian mansion. The rest is legend. Pizzeria Uno and Pizzeria Due have become the most celebrated Pizzerias in the world. The pizza is pretty close to Uno’s recipe while remaining unique, personally – I liked Pizzeria Uno better.
7. Bacinos of Lincoln Park
Year Established: 1986
Similar to many deep dish pizzas with its pie like crust. Tons of mozzarella. They put the toppings underneath the top sauce, mixed in with the cheese. This hurts the overall flavor of the toppings as it mutes the flavor. I.e. The pepperoni is soggy and wet cause it’s cooked inside whereas it would crispy and acidic if it was cooked on top. I will say this: they put the toppings all the way to the edge of the crust which a lot of places (Lou’s) does not. Whereas as Pizzeria Uno had too much sauce and not enough cheese, Bacino’s is the opposite- too much cheese and not enough sauce. The ideal deep dish would be somewhere in the middle. Bacino’s was quite satisfying mostly due to the toppings. The crust was pretty great too as it had a flaky texture to the outer brim. Definitely one of the best deep dish spots in Lincoln Park.
6. Pizzeria Uno
Year Established: 1943 (The Original Deep Dish Pizza)
Crumbly pie-like crust which is the best aspect of the pizza. Overall pizza was undercooked with too much sauce and lacked cheese. Sausage was not as good as Lou’s and the giardanera was a little too spicy. While the crust is good, it’s also a little too thick – the pizza is about 70% crust. The proportions are a little out of whack: should be less crust, more cheese, less sauce.
Due to our initial review, we decided to give it a another chance on the second day. As with many italian foods (pizzas, lasagna) the dish can taste better on the second day after a night of refrigeration. This is due to concentration and reduction. Once cuisine has been cooked and goes through a cooling process, the moisture evaporates (reduction) and allows the food to almost have a stronger taste than it originally had (concentration). Tomato sauce contains a lot of moisture so a night of cooling will make it more robust, same with cheese. Uno’s proved to be much better on the second day. The hand made giardanera seemed to mellow and wasn’t as spicy.
As you read earlier, Pizzeria Uno and Duo are from the same creator – Ike Sewell. For Uno, Ike changed things back in 1943 when he created Deep Dish Pizza. Some folks call it Chicago deep dish pizza. Ike figured that if you combined some of Italy’s old, authentic recipes with impressive quantities of the finest meats, spices, vegetables and cheeses, pizza would become a hearty meal. So he opened Pizzeria Uno as a fine restaurant specializing in his new Chicago Deep Dish Pizza, and it wasn’t long before the restaurant had more customers than it could handle.
5. The Art of Pizza
Toppings: 9.2/10 (Generous toppings but not the best)
Year Established: 1971
Voted #1 Chicago Deep Dish by both The Chicago Tribune and Thrillest, I thought hands down, this would be my #1. Well, it wasn’t. This was probably the heaviest deep dish I ever lifted which is a good sign that they didn’t screw you on the toppings. The Art of Pizza refers to their pies as “stuffed pizzas” versus “deep dish”. Super thick stuffed pizza with tons of toppings, great quality on all aspects only problem is … The pizza itself is just bland. Decent amount of cheese & toppings but… It’s just bland. Tried the stuff vegetarian & stuffed sausage & mushroom. Toppings are of good quality (not as good as Lou Malnati’s) sauce is ok (better than Lou Malnati’s but not as good/robust as Pequod’s ) and they don’t skimp on the cheese (not as good as Giordano’s) but overall the most important thing is taste. Crust was ok, a little on the bready side (not as good as pizzanos) It’s a solid pizza (literally too, pretty damn heavy) but after one piece I was just like “Meh”. They need to do something with the sauce & give it more flavor like Pequod’s . Had high expectations after this place was voted #1 by Chicago tribune.
Year Established: 1965
Located on the border of Evanston and Chicago, Gullivers is probably one of the most overlooked deep dish places in Illinois. I personally think it rivals the quality and taste of Lou Malnati’s, but lacks the toppings so this deep dish is not as dense. Granted it was cheaper than Lou Malnati’s so you get what you pay for.
Toppings: 8.9/10 (Best Cheese)
Year Established: 1974
Awesome, tons of mozzarella stacked like a lasagne, sauce on top. The high point is the mozzarella/ricotta like mixed cheese and its distinct saltiness. Giordano’s sucks as far as toppings go. Low quality and not much to choose from like Lou Malnati’s. Pepperoni is the way to go. Their sausage is of low quality & not much. Gist deli peppers were barely noticeable unlike Lou Malnati’s. Giordano’s has an undercooked doughy consistency to it which I like but does not taste that great cold due to this fact.
First time I had Giordano’s – I preferred it to Lou Malnati’s, but after several times – I realize that a Lou’s butter crust, sausage with giardinera peppers beats any Giordano’s pizza. Giordano’s crust also has kind of a “dog biscuit” taste to it. I know what you’re thinking – “how do you know what dog biscuits tastes like?” Well as a child I went through a brief phase of eating dog biscuits. My parents weren’t thrilled & they tried to put the biscuits on the top shelf to keep them out of my reach. Alpo Liver Snaps were my guilty pleasure & I’m sure my current family dog, Daisy, wasn’t too pleased with me eating her treats. Giardano’s has a thick slab of cheese on their pizzas – more than any other pizzeria so I will award them as the best cheese. Only complaint is that the cheese & bread have a mild garlic hint to it which doesnt really enhance the flavor of the pizza.
2. Lou Malnati’s
Crust: 9.4/10 (Best Crust)
Year Established: 1971
Lou’s is the most hit-or-miss pizzeria chain of all the deep dish joints. It’s been my personal experience that the Gold Coast location is the superior pizza while the River North location is lacking. Lou’s comes in first for crust and hits the top three as far as toppings goes. Their sausage is not as good as Gino’s East sausage as it has a strange meatball-like taste. The sauce on top is not a traditional pizza sauce, but more like crushed tomatoes which left the pizza bland as it could have used salt. The crushed tomatoes has a wine like taste to the sauce. Multiple times our pizzas were undercooked. On my second and third visits (sad I know), I realized Lou Malnati’s is much better than Giordano’s if you order it correctly – butter crust, sausage, mushrooms and giardinera peppers. Lou’s is of much higher quality and fresher ingredients whereas Giordano’s seems processed and pre-cooked with lower quality toppings. It’s Lou’s lack of sauce & cheese that is where Giordano’s beats it. Lou’s kind of screws you on the cheese too.
Sauce: 9.8/10 (Best Sauce)
Crust: 9.4/10 (Burned Caramelized Outer Crust)
Year Established: 1992
Tucked away on the corner of N Webster and N Clybourne, Pequod’s is Chicago’s best kept secret. There are actually three styles of deep dish: deep dish, pan pizza and stuffed pizza. Deep dish uses a bowl shaped crust with the sauce actually being the top layer on the surface (Lou’s). Pan pizza is simply a regular style pizza that has a much thicker, deeper crust (Pequod’s). Stuffed pizza is more similar to a lasagna and is the densest of all (The Art of Pizza). It has thick crust but is layered unlike a pan pizza and typically has it sauce at the very top unlike a pan pizza. Pequod’s is actually a pan style pizza which made me expect less of it. But, it might be my favorite. Best sauce of anyone. Somewhat overcooked and very robust and a little on the salty side.
Main thing I don’t like about Lou Malnati’s is there wine flavored, crushed tomato-like sauce & Giordano’s just tastes processed. There is a lack of cheese on Pequod’s but it’s so good you barely notice. The edge of the crust is caramelized giving it a fried liked burning of the crust, but it tastes awesome. It’s the sauce that seems to burn over the crust while they’re baking it which gives it a salty, robust taste. I really don’t consider this deep dish, the reason is – it’s mostly bread from the crust that makes the pizza so thick. There’s also a huge lack of cheese. Even though this pizza is awesome: the lack of cheese ultimately hurts it.
Honorable mention goes to Piece pizza who is one of the top pizza places in Chicago, even though they don’t do deep dish. Good regular thin, but long New York slice style pizza. Enjoyed the green peppers & onions. Crust was hard and chewy at the end.
If you’re in the Evanston area – Leone’s isn’t too bad either.