The deep rooted history of Chicago’s deep-dish pizza

Starting with an ancient culinary tradition carried overseas by Neapolitan immigrants, pizza has evolved into a Windy City icon.

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.

Chicagoland
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.

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
Lou 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.

Gino’s East
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 winter day.  

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 time.