The deep rooted history of Chicago’s deep-dish pizza
Pizza in the United States is deeply embedded into the nation’s culinary consciousness, from thin crust in New York to wood fired in San Francisco.
But Chicago’s version took the concept in a much more indulgent direction, filling a thick crust with inverted layers of cheese, meat and tomatoes, all of it creeping up the side of an oiled steel pan. Today, deep-dish pizza is as central to the Windy City as Wrigley Field.
An immigrant story
To appreciate the story of deep-dish, you must first look back to the Phoenicians, the Greeks and the Romans. Flatbread, the ancestor to the contemporary pizza, was first documented in a Latin text from 997 AD, in southern Italy near Lazio, with subsequent references noted throughout the Mediterranean, from Spain to Greece.
By the 16th Century, modern-day pizza (from the Italian word pinsere, which means to pound or stamp – a reference to the flat dough) began to take shape in the Italian city of Naples. The thriving port was home to throngs of working class residents who lived in dense neighbourhoods around the Bay of Naples. Small rooms and cramped quarters meant most of their living was done outdoors, and people looked for food that was inexpensive and quick to eat. Baked in a hot oven and sold street-side, paper-thin pizza became the quintessential fare for the Neapolitan poor. Tomatoes brought back by traders from the New World topped the dough, along with an occasional smattering of anchovies, garlic or cheese.
Over the next decades, pizza grew in popularity, moving beyond Naples and spreading across both the country and social strata. In the 17th Century, Queen Maria Carolina d'Asburgo Lorena, wife of the then King of Naples, Ferdinando IV, famously erected a pizza oven in their summer palace. In 1889, Neapolitan pizza maker Raffaele Espisito created the infamous Pizza Margherita – a simple blend of tomatoes, mozzarella and basil – to honour the Queen of Italy, Margherita of Savoy, birthing one of the most classic pizzas to date.
Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, Neapolitan immigrants arrived in the US, like many Europeans of that time, in search of factory jobs. Before long, Chicago was home to a thriving community of first and second-generation descendants, hungry for the thin pizzas that represented their culture and culinary roots. Eventually two entrepreneurs, Ike Sewell and Ric Riccardo, decided to create something different: an Italian-American version of pizza. In 1943, the pair opened Pizzeria Uno in the Chicago’s Near North Side neighbourhood, serving a new style pizza with a deeper dish, crunchier crust and inverted layers – a far cry from the classic Neapolitan version.
Slice into a deep-dish pizza and your knife sinks through layers of meat and vegetables, thin tomato sauce, dense mozzarella cheese and finally, a resistant cracker-like crust. The cake-like pan is first coated in olive oil, then topped with a white and semolina flour dough mixture, which gets pressed against the deep pan’s round bottom and edges. The olive oil slightly fries the dough during the baking process, giving it a distinct golden crunch. Before hitting the oven, a layer of sliced mozzarella is covered with vegetables and meats, typically Italian sausage, then topped with a sweet layer of crushed tomatoes. The inverted layers of ingredients prevent the cheese from burning, while the meat, vegetable, sauce and crust marry their flavours.
More like a savoury layer cake, Sewell and Riccardo achieved their dream to create a pizza unlike any other. And Chicagoans bit (literally). Soon, deep-dish pizza was no longer considered an immigrant tradition, but a Chicago-born icon.
Birthright: Pizzeria Uno
Today, Pizzeria Uno is a big brand with a changed name, Uno Chicago Grill, as well as more than 200 cookie-cutter chain restaurants from Massachusetts to New Jersey, South Korea to Pakistan. But there is something special about stepping into the original location in downtown Chicago, still named Pizzeria Uno. Large groups of tourists circle the building, waiting for their turn to enter the packed restaurant. Inside it is dark and boisterous, with a gilded ceiling, chequered floors and wooden tables. Shakers of Parmesan cheese, red chilli flakes and oregano sit in empty deep-dish pans on tabletops.