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
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
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
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
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.
Pizza is delivered dense and hot, with the server using the traditional
“pan gripper”, an industrial-strength tong-meets-wrench tool used exclusively to
transport the scalding deep-dish pizza pans. With a heavy spatula, pre-cut
slices of weighty pizza are dished out. Intense layers of cheese and tomato
sauce fill the pie-like crust, inches high, to the browned edges. This is
undeniably a knife-and-fork affair. A few bites satiate, and though it is
tasty, it is not Chicago’s best. But people come here mostly for the tradition,
not the world’s finest slice.
The Malnati family
Seventy years after it opened its doors, Pizzeria Uno still stands as
the original home of the deep-dish. And while there is little disagreement that
the pizza was first served at here, there is great debate around Sewell and
Riccardo as its true creators.
A particularly muddled detail involves one of Chicago’s most famous
pizza families, the Malnatis. Adolpho “Rudy” Malnati, Sr – a one-time employee at
Pizzeria Uno – claimed that it was his spark of genius that created the recipe.
He and Riccardo, according to the Malnati family, would hand out slices of Pizzeria
Uno’s deep-dish on Chicago street corners in the hopes that passersby would
give it a taste. Sewell, the Malnatis assert, came later. Records of either
Sewell or Riccardo making pizza, or even showing any ability in the kitchen are
noticeably absent, fuelling the claims.
According to the Malanti storyline, after Riccardo’s death, Rudy and his
son, Lou, co-managed Pizzeria Uno until Rudy Malnati, Sr also passed away. Lou
struggled to find his place in the restaurant after being told he was an
employee, just like everyone else. Frustrated, he abandoned ship to open his
own restaurant in 1971: Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria in the North
Shore suburb of Lincolnwood.
Lou’s versus Pizano’s
Malnati’s Pizzeria was quick to find success, and has sprouted locations throughout
Chicago and its suburbs. The pizza is noticeably less dense than Pizzeria
Uno’s, with a lighter hand of cheese and tangier crushed tomatoes. The pizza is
filled just below the crust’s top edge, leaving more room for its trademarked –
literally – Buttercrust. In is this rich crust – a departure from the
traditional dough used in deep-dish, which uses oil over butter – quality
tomatoes and lean sausage come together in perfect, deep-dish harmony, forming their
signature pie, The Malnati Chicago Classic (also trademarked).
The story does not end here, however. Lou Malnati had a half brother,
Rudy Jr, who opened his own joint, Pizano’s, in 1991 in downtown Chicago. A
waiter at Pizano’s divulged that Rudy and
Lou’s mother, Donna Marie, gave Rudy Jr the original recipe developed by Rudy
Sr himself. So while Lou went off to Lincolnwood, Donna Marie spent her nights
in the kitchen rolling out dough from the secret recipe at Pizano’s. Who is
using the original recipe today remains a point of debate.
But Pizano’s is good. Really good. The restaurant, like many Chicago pizza
spots, is dim and its walls are covered in local paraphernalia: pictures of local
basketball legend Michael Jordan; stills from the iconic Chicago film, Blues
Brothers; and signed headshots of the local Blackhawks hockey team.
Red-and-white checked linens cover high tables and well-versed waiters spout
long lists of local beers and handcrafted sodas.
Here, the crust is lighter, a brilliantly buttery piecrust with a golden
caramelised outer layer giving in to a flaky, crumbly interior. The crust
crawls high on the pizza pan but the filling, like at Lou’s, is modest and of quality.
Slices of Wisconsin mozzarella are topped with a garlicky, yet subtly sweet
tomato sauce, and the fresh basil and homemade sausage pack a punch. It is, for
all intents and purposes, a more refined deep-dish than the others, and
ultimately – at least for me – one of the most satisfying.
Falling outside the Malnati-Riccardo-Sewell saga, yet intimately
connected to the origins of deep-dish, is Gino’s
East, just off Chicago’s famous Michigan Avenue. Opened in 1966, this is
the second-oldest deep-dish spot in town after Pizzeria Uno. The founders, Sam
Levine and Fred Bartoli, hired former Uno cook Alice May Redmond and her sister
Ruth Hadley to run their kitchen with nearly instantaneous success. Today, the
original spot still stands, famous for its wood and stucco walls covered in graffiti,
courtesy of decades of patrons’ scribbles. And the pizza? Delightful and thick,
with a cornmeal-tinted crust and lashings of sweet and chunky marinara sauce. Oozing
cheese, heavy dashes of oregano and – if you so choose – crumbled Italian
sausage round out Gino’s pizza, perfect for warming your insides on a Chicago
Tour for more
Chicago’s windy streets are dotted with deep-dish, thin-crust, artisanal
and wood-fired pizzas. To taste them all, book a tour with Chicago Pizza Tours and take a
seat on their bus, aptly named “Dough Force One”. The bus traverses the city,
backstreets and neighbourhoods, guiding visitors on a tour of local spots,
inside kitchens and through Chicago’s pizza history one knife-and-forkful at a