The question “Who makes the best deep-dish pizza in Chicago?” probably first was posed shortly after the second Chicago-style pizzeria opened. That would be sometime after 1943, for it was then that Ike Sewell and Ric Riccardo opened Pizzeria Uno and started a tradition that to this day shapes Chicago’s culinary image.
Since then, many have tried to answer that question definitively; we last took a crack at it nine years ago. It is a daunting task; naming Chicago’s best pizza is tantamount to selecting the city’s best religion. Just about every pizzeria in Chicago, it seems, has its devoted followers.
The fact that pizza shows up in the unlikeliest places these days only complicates matters further. Restaurants as diverse as Spago, Kit Kat Lounge and Bistro Marbuzet offer respectable to excellent pizza creations. And the hottest pizzeria in town is Piece, which has taken Chicago by storm with its New Haven-style, thin-crust pies. Pizza, in all its size, shape and topping permutations, simply has become too big a universe.
And so we decided to focus on the pizza style that made Chicago famous. Let others bicker over the best thin-crust pizza (actually, you can vote on that very subject in the 2001 Chicago’s Choice Dining Poll, which appears in the Friday section this week); we would concentrate on deep-dish pizza.
This proved more daunting than imagined. When we bravely (or foolishly) launched this endeavor back in June, we invited readers to nominate their favorite deep-dish pizzas. The response was in the thousands. Fortunately, for our stomachs and our budget, there was a lot of duplication. Even so, when the balloting closed a few weeks later, there were more than 100 nominees.
Making the first cut was fairly easy; this largely consisted of calling each nominee and asking, “Do you serve deep-dish pizza?” That eliminated a few thin-crust specialists that were inadvertently nominated. Another nominee turned out to be a private residence.
But, surprisingly, quite a few people got mixed up on the deep-dish vs.thin-crust distinction. On at least three occasions, a restaurant confirmed over the phone that it served deep-dish pizza; we would arrive to find nothing of the sort available. (Even the City of Chicago isn’t clear on the concept. Page 74 of its Official Visitors Guide identifies as “Chicago-style, deep-dish pizza” a picture of what appears to be flattened focaccia topped with pepperoni, tomatoes, olives, garlic cloves and pine nuts. Memo to city: Pine nuts aren’t part of Chicago-style anything.)
More problematic was the issue of stuffed pizza. Stuffed pizza is not quite the same as deep-dish (also called “pan”); it starts with a deep-dish base, but then includes a second, thin-rolled covering of dough that separates the cheese from the sauce. Some of the nominees offered pan and stuffed pizza; some offered only stuffed. After much soul-searching, we elected to include stuffed pizza in the judging. But for those restaurants that offered both, we judged the pan only.
The eating begins
And so we started. About three dozen Tribune writers and editors descended on our 100-plus nominees, searching for pizza nirvana. In the first round, judges tasted three to four pizzas, advancing one or more into the next round (in case two or more outstanding pizzas happened to be grouped together). We changed judges from one round to the next.
Call this competition the Triumph of the Independents. One by one, all of the big names of Chicago-style pizza were knocked out by lesser-known, often single-store operators. Whether this illustrates the judges’ fondness for the underdog, or the inherent difficulty of producing a consistently excellent pizza (it took only one sub-par pie to knock a pizzeria out), in our estimation, the little guys were better when they had to be.
The finalists were rated by a team of four judges–Tribune food and wine columnist William Rice, Good Eating editor Carol Haddix, cookbook author and pizza authority Jill Van Cleave and me-who drove from Streamwood to Hyde Park and many points in between before selecting the winner and runners-up.
In general, we were impressed with the pizza operations we visited. Even though we visited anonymously, and some of our visits were, by necessity, during off hours, we were served a fresh, hot, made-to-order pie every time. We didn’t love every pizza we tried, but every restaurant clearly was serious about producing a quality product.
Admittedly, for some people a pizza isn’t a pizza without sausage, or mushrooms, or even pine nuts. But for consistency’s sake, we focused on the three main pizza components-crust, cheese and sauce.
Originally reported by the Chicago Tribune
by Phil Vettel, Tribune Restaurant Critic