Chicago’s Deep Dish Pizza Is Deeply Misunderstood

Chicago’s Deep Dish Pizza Is Deeply Misunderstood

In 1978, a few months after Marc Malnati got out of college, his father, Lou, died of cancer at just 47 years old. Marc, then in his 20s, took on a more active role in the family business, picking up where his father left off. Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria had just three outposts at the time. Now, there are more than 50 locations in Chicagoland alone.

If you grew up in Chicago, then it’s likely that you’ve had a Malnati pie or some form of deep dish from one of the other big names: Pizzeria Uno, Gino’s East, Pequod’s. Though deep dish lovers may be guilty of what the Chicago food reporter Steve Dolinsky called Pizza I Grew Up Eating Syndrome — the bias toward the pie of one’s childhood — there does seem to be a local consensus that, in the least, deep dish is a high-sided carriage of crust holding mozzarella, tomatoes and other fillings.

The Malnati dough is yeastier and bubblier than most and thus imbued with the aged flavor of long-proofed pizza, while other crusts tend to be thicker and can taste sweeter, almost biscuity. Mr. Malnati’s flaky crust straddles pizza and pie dough with a pop-star wink. Layered with cheese, meat and tomatoes, in that order, the pizza is as tall as a modest quiche and appropriately saucy. It is separate from its cousin, Detroit-style pan pizza, and not necessarily, though sometimes (like the versions you may find at Giordano’s, another Chicago pizza institution), stuffed.

Understandably, deep dish pizza has confused many. Jon Stewart called it “tomato soup in a bread bowl.” (Mr. Malnati took issue with this and even went on “The Daily Show” to correct Mr. Stewart.) The Times Food columnist J. Kenji López-Alt considers it a casserole, which is not incorrect since deep dish was first developed to be a more filling, meal-appropriate menu item than its counterpart, thin-crust tavern-style pizza (which Chicagoans just call pizza).

To consider deep dish pizza is to consider Chicago. Waiting in long lines at beloved spots with a group of friends is part of the deep dish experience, even if the meal is often reserved for special occasions, family parties and corporate outings. It’s the city’s most famous but arguably most misunderstood culinary mascot; to understand it, you have to meet the team of players that make up its world of styles. And if you really want to know the original version, you have to bake one at home.

Many disparage deep dish pizza for being too cheesy, too saucy, too much. But its heaviness was arguably a later feature, especially from the 1970s and on, when newspapers started calling it “deep dish.” Go further back in time, when it was just known as “pizza in a pan,” and you’ll find a light crust, thin and barely an inch up the sides (one might consider it shallow, even), with some cheese, a modest lacy network of sausage and a savory pond of just-cooked tomatoes.

There are few dishes in America whose genealogy can be traced so clearly. A lot of hands went into creating Chicago’s most famous pizza, Mr. Malnati said, and it started with Richard Riccardo, the Northern Italian restaurateur who opened Pizzeria Uno in 1943, a few months after his family moved into the apartment above the abandoned basement tavern.

Mr. Riccardo’s 1945 recipe, adapted and featured here, is probably the oldest-known record of deep dish pizza in America, according to Peter Regas, a financial statistician by day and pizza historian by night. Mr. Regas, 57, who has been researching deep dish for 15 years, found that newspaper recipe clipping during his research and believes that it is the closest depiction of the deep dish pizza that was served at Uno when they first opened. The biggest surprise? The original’s dough was caky and, frankly, not that deep.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, Mr. Regas said, the dough increased in thickness and raised as high as the outer rim of the deep dish pan.

Know that the original recipe for deep dish pizza might not be made at the historical pizzeria anymore. The building is there, but after more than 80 years, how could the same formula still be?

Lou Malnati, the founder of Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria, was “bigger than life,” his son Marc said,” and owned a leisure suit in every color.

Lou Malnati began his pizza career at Pizzeria Uno, managing the restaurant with his father, Rudy Malnati Sr. in the 1950s. In 1971, after Uno’s second owner, Ike Sewell, wouldn’t sell the business to him, Lou left and opened the first branch of the pizzeria bearing his name in Lincolnwood, Ill., a northern suburb of Chicago.

If you’ve been around the block, then you might remember the days when the Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood used to be a McDonald’s. The first thing you’ll see in the building’s spacious kitchen is a wall of aged steel pizza pans, their rough, coal-black surfaces signifying seasoning — built-in taste, Mr. Malnati called it.

That style of deep dish Mr. Malnati, 68, grew up eating is still the kind he makes today. It’s “a symphony of flavors,” he said, right at that first bite, which he takes not off the tip but at the right angle where the crust meets the cheese and tomato.

Deep dish has shape-shifted radically from its early Uno days and splintered off into iterative styles as sons became fathers, and managers became owners of new stores. If there are so many iterations, then how do we know what deep dish is?

As the founder of Chicago Pizza Tours, Jonathan Porter was in search of the Pizza He Grew Up Eating, a biscuity, buttery-doughed number at Gino’s East, famous for its distinguishing yellow-stained crust (which doesn’t come from cornmeal, contrary to popular belief). That particular crust, rich in color and in flavor, might be credited to Alice Mae Redmond, an Uno pizza cook who moved over to Gino’s East, where she most likely developed her own style of dough, something shorter and with more fat, as in a biscuit.

Over the years, Mr. Porter, 46, found that the Gino’s East pizza no longer tasted the same as he remembered it in his childhood. The company had sold multiple times, and he felt that the pizza kept changing, too. Had the recipe changed, or had he?

Mr. Porter got his answer one day while driving around with an old friend. At a traffic stop, he noticed the newly opened Bartoli’s and wondered if it had anything to do with Fred Bartoli, one of the original founders of Gino’s East. As it turned out, Mr. Bartoli’s grandson, Brian Tondryk, was the owner of the new pizzeria, which sells a version that honors the original Gino’s recipe.

At Bartoli’s, Mr. Porter recalled, the pizza was like a butter-yellow time machine: “It really brought us back to the early ’90s and the days that we would go to Gino’s,” he said. It was “exactly the way it used to be.”

If institutions like Pizzeria Uno, Lou Malnati’s and Gino’s East are the Whitney, Celine and Mariah of deep dish, then Pequod’s might be Ariana Grande: deep dish for today’s crispy cheese lovers. Like the crust at Gino’s East, the caramelized cheese crown of Pequod’s pie — its distinguishing factor — is the secret to the restaurant’s popularity and fan base of locals and tourists alike.

“Monday morning pretty much looks like O’Hare Airport with luggage in the front,” said Pequod’s general manager, Sean Asbra. But during the pandemic, when travel was limited, he found that his restaurant was still full — with locals. “The locals are the ones that got us to this point.”

When they moved from the city to the suburbs, those locals preached the word of Pequod’s regal cheese crust. When they moved to, say, California, they proselytized at their children’s schools, at birthday parties, at the grocery store. They were asked, as Chicagoans, “Where should we go for deep dish?” They said Pequod’s. “I mean, that didn’t come from the tourists,” Mr. Asbra, 54, said.

Since 1970, Pequod’s has maintained its status as a mom-and-pop shop, still running just two stores and relying heavily on both walk-in customers and delivery from apps like Uber Eats and DoorDash, which increased the pizzeria’s customer radius by at least 20 miles.

Ask a group of Chicagoans what their favorite deep dish pizza is today, and many, especially younger ones, will say Pequod’s, whose version features not raised sides of dough but of caramelized cheese. Some pizza nuts would consider it closer to a Detroit-style pan pizza and not Chicago-style deep dish, but when Mr. Asbra was asked which style he would consider Pequod’s, he said, “Yes.”

Archival photographs help tell the story of how much deep dish has changed, Mr. Regas said, noting how shallow the original deep dish actually was, among other things. The crust is also lighter, almost caky. It’s not so fermented. In fact, Mr. Regas prefers two consecutive proofs at room temperature (versus an overnight refrigeration) so the yeast doesn’t eat up all the sugar in the dough, which is his favorite part.

Making and perfecting deep dish pizza at home, as Mr. Regas has done over the years, isn’t just a means to eat more of it; it’s also the best way to understand the origins of the dish, and to appreciate it for what it is, not what it isn’t.

This is not to say that other styles that came after it aren’t deep dish. In the world of Chicago-style pizza, time is a circle: It’s all pizza.

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