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Chicago’s great pizza debate: deep dish vs. tavern-style

Chicago takes its pizza seriously. In January, the well-intentioned folks at New Era released a special edition Chicago Cubs hat with a deep dish pizza patch in honor of the city’s most famous food. One problem: Most locals strongly prefer Chicago’s thin Tavern-style pizza and champion it as their definitive pie

“It’s like when people visit New York just to go to Times Square and see a play,” Chicago food expert and 13-time James Beard Award winner Steve Dolinsky told us. “Coming to Chicago just to have deep dish? No. Don’t do it.” 

Chicago deep dish pizza

Deep dish was born in the kitchen of the original Pizzeria Uno in 1943, invented by its camera-shy chef Rudy Malnati or outspoken owner Ike Sewell, depending on who you ask. The second location – Pizzeria Due – opened up down the block more than a decade later. The next major player, Gino’s East, came about in 1966. 

“About one per decade,” Dolinsky explained. “It wasn’t something generations of people grew up with. Eventually, it became a tourist attraction. It was big among locals, too, but it’s not something that we eat on a weekly basis.”     

Thin-crust, meanwhile, has deeper roots in Chicago. Before Prohibition ruined all the fun, each of 77 of Chicago’s neighborhoods featured a community tavern. That’s where Chicagoans congregated after the factory whistle blew, and barkeeps made thin-crust pizzas to extend their stay. The early bar pies, Dolinsky says, were made in makeshift rigs no larger than toaster ovens. The slices – often topped with fennel-forward sausage and Chicago’s beloved giardiniera – were easy to grip, light on the belly, and extra salty; the perfect catalyst for another beer.      

The genesises of the two styles are heavily intertwined. Lou Malnati, Rudy’s son from his first marriage, launched his titular deep dish empire in 1971. Rudy Jr. – the product of his second marriage to Donna Marie Malnati – opened Pizano’s in 1991.       

Lou Malnati & family (via Lou Malnati’s online)

Pizano’s aimed to touch on both strata. In keeping with his father’s legacy, they churned out lots of deep dish. For his tavern-style pizza, Rudy Jr. called upon his mom to help him develop the recipe for their widely-acclaimed dough.  

“Whatever is in it, the recipe produces the most addictive thin crust in Chicago,” Chicago Magazine’s Jeff Ruby once wrote. “Irresistible caramelized edges here and there give way to a buttery, pastry-like base that recalls deep-dish without the backbreaking bulk. It’s got the distinct flavor of history.”

Mama Malnati’s creation was also praised by Oprah, who deemed it to be her “favorite” thin-crust pizza.  

Mama Malnati was a fixture in the Pizano’s kitchen for decades, where she made the dough up until just a few years ago. Finally, on the cusp of her 90th birthday, she retired from restaurant life. 

In January, Mama Malnati passed away at the age of 93 and Rudy Jr. held a celebration of her life at Pizano’s. But, before she died, she left her son with one final request for the memorial.

“I don’t want that damn thin-crust pizza,” he said she told him. “The only thing I want served is our original deep dish sausage and cheese.” 

Among Chicagoans in the deep vs. tavern-style debate, Mama Malnati was in the minority. Eventually, Dolinsky believes that thin will be in with the national crowd.      

“Every time I take people on a tour and they’re from out of town, they can’t stop talking about how unique that pizza is. There’s something so unique and special about it.” Dolinsky said. “Really, it just needs a better marketing department.”

Steve Dolinsky’s Pizza City USA takes pizza enthusiasts behind the counter for a taste of Chicago’s best shops and restaurants. In between tours, Dolinsky serves as the “Hungry Hound” of ABC 7 in Chicago and host of the Pizza City podcast

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