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The United States of Pizza: Illinois (Chicago Edition)
Here at Slice, we're looking for the best pizzas everywhere. This week, we've got recommendations for slices and pies in the Chicago area. Don't worry, the rest of Illinois is coming soon! Here's my guide to the city's best. What are your Chicagoland pizza favorites?
A City of Many Pizza Styles
I think of Chicago pizza like I think of the city's architecture. It is the birthplace of some magnificent styles of which the citizenry is rightfully proud. At the same time, it's a place where the people are more than willing to welcome concepts developed elsewhere. So while many of Chicago's pizza eaters may have been raised on deep dish, stuffed and thin crust tavern pizzas, we continue to embrace the best of what the rest of the world has to offer and make it our own. The result, in both buildings and pizza, is a rich and diverse tapestry that is unmatched anywhere in the world.
Deep Dish Pizza in Chicago
More from Steve Dolinsky.
Top Five Chicago Pizzas According to Ed Levine
Vito & Nick's
Top Five Chicago Pizzas According to Jeff Ruby of Chicago Magazine
More from Jeff Ruby.
Deep dish pizza, introduced to the world at Uno's in 1943, typically starts with a sturdy bottom crust with some kind of corn flavor. Originally, there was corn meal involved, but lately more and more places opt for a combination of corn oil and food coloring. On top of the crust is a significant helping of mozzarella followed by toppings and a pool of chunky tangy tomato sauce.
My gold standard for a deep dish pizza is the biggest local chain, Lou Malnati's. Lou actually started off working at Uno's before going out on his own. His father Rudy was an original employee at Uno's and an early manager. In fact, there a very plausible theory that it was Rudy and not Uno's co-owner Ike Sewell who actually invented deep dish. Regardless, his family definitely puts out some delicious pizza. My favorite pizza to get at Lou Malnati's is the Lou, which when done right is about as good as pizza can get. It starts with a butter crust, a magnificent crisp, airy, slightly chewy and, yes, buttery piece of bread. The cheese is primarily mozzarella, but is accented with Romano and cheddar for some extra sharpness. The toppings are fresh spinach, mushrooms and sliced tomatoes and all of that is covered with a chunky, tangy sauce that is close to worthy of drinking on its own. Multiple locations throughout Chicagoland; loumalnatis.com; Slice review.
Another son of Rudy Malnati's started another of Chicago's best deep dish pizzerias, Pizano's. While the quality of pizza put out by the two branches of the Malnati family are only slightly different, there are some significant differences in style. The crust at Pizano's is thinner and crisper and the pizzas have far less sauce. But that sauce is spectacular and the toppings are all top-notch. Because there's a little less heft to it, Pizano's is my go-to place when introducing people to deep dish pizza. Everyone I've taken there has been hooked.864 N. State Street, Chicago IL 60610 and two other locations; 312-751-1766; pizanoschicago.com; Slice review.
Louisa's Pizza & Pasta
If Louisa's Pizza & Pasta were located in downtown Chicago, it would be world famous and locals would complain about it being overrun with tourists. The pies put out in south suburban Crestwood by former Due's employee Louisa DeGenero are nothing short of spectacular. Her crust is more like an outstanding piece of rustic buttery bread, and everything that goes on top of it is equally good. Oh, and she gets extra points for growing her own herbs.14025 Cicero Ave Crestwood, IL 60445; 708-371-0950; Slice review.
Those are my three favorites, but there are plenty of other places making delicious deep dish pizzas in Chicago. Other pizzerias that deserve high praise are the original Uno's, 29 East Ohio, Chicago IL 60611; 312-321-1000; unos.com; Slice review, Gino's East, 160 East Superior Street, Chicago IL 60611 and 13 other locations; 312-266-3337; ginoseast.com; Slice review; and My Pie. 2010 N. Damen Ave., Chicago, IL 60647 and one other location; 773-394-6900; mypiepizza.com; Slice review
Stuffed pizza was introduced to the world in 1974 at Nancy's and Giordano's. The style, purportedly based on the owners of each restaurant's family recipe for Easter Pie, is often confused with deep dish even by Chicagoans. They do look alike, and both feature a thick sauce on top, but the crust on most stuffed pies is flaky not crumbly, they're usually made with shortening instead of butter. And stuffed pizzas actually are stuffed. The bottom crusts is topped with a massive quantity of cheese that has the toppings mixed in, and on top of that (but under the sauce) is a layer of dough so thin that most people don't even realize it's there.
Art of Pizza
Art of Pizza makes my favorite stuffed pizza in Chicago. Local food blogger Michael Gebert of Sky Full of Bacon agrees:
Sometimes I wonder if stuffed is quietly dying out; there are stuffed places all over town, but it's a rare day that a new one opens. Art of Pizza is one of the newer ones; it opened sometime in the early 90s, I believe, and made its mark with fresher-tasting ingredients, especially the zingy tomato sauce. I frankly can't tell you how the sausage or other meats are, because eating meat on this thick a pizza would kill you dead. I order spinach pizza, and pretend that that makes me virtuous, somehow.
3033 North Ashland Avenue Chicago, IL 60657; (773) 327-5600; Slice review.
Giordano's is the most successful purveyor of stuffed pizza in Chicago and for good reason. The slightly sweet and tangy sauce is made from fresh tomatoes and the massive pile of whole milk mozzarella would be good on a piece of cardboard, but on their well-executed flaky crust, it's simply delicious. This was the pizza I grew up on and it's one that I still crave every few months. Multiple locations throughout Chicago; giordanos.com ; Slice review.
Bacino's actually started after a deal fell apart between the owner and the founders of Giordano's. Not surprisingly, the pizza at these two spots is similar. I have found Bacino's to be a little more consistent than Giordano's, a fact I attribute to there being so many more of the latter. When it's on, I think Giordano's is better, but I've never been disappointed by Bacino's. 2204 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago IL 60614 and three other locations; 773-472-7400; bacinos.com; Slice review.
Other popular places for stuffed pizzas are Nancy's 2930 N. Broadway, Chicago, IL 60657 and over 30 other locations; 773-883-1977; nancyspizza.com; Slice review; and, for a much thicker top crust, Connie's Pizza 2373 S. Archer Avenue, Chicago, IL, 60616 and six other locations; 312-326-3443.
Thin Crust Pizza
Deep dish and stuffed pies may hog the spotlight sometimes, but thin crust is king in many Chicago neighborhoods and suburbs. The square cut pizza, referred to by most in town simply as thin crust, is also known as bar pizza, tavern pizza, Chicago style thin and Midwestern thin. The style is actually popular in much of the Midwest.
Typically, the crust is thin and crisp and is topped a heavy dose of mozzarella and sauce and, at a substantial number of places in Chicago, some outstanding fennel sausage either made in-house or by a local butcher. In many of these places, the crust is purely functional, serving to hold up toppings and add some texture. While I strongly believe that there are plenty of Chicago thin crust places serving up delicious pies with decidedly mediocre crusts, the ones that really stand out are those that provide a crust worthy of the rest of the pizza.
A case in point is Pat's Pizza, where the thin flaky crust is almost akin to a crisp phyllo. It has been my favorite thin crust pizzeria since the first time I had it, and Ed Levine also puts it in his Chicago Top Five. 2204 North Lincoln Avenue, Chicago IL 60614; 773-248-0168; patspizza.info; Slice review.
Vito & Nick's
Vito & Nick's probably gets more press attention than any other Chicago thin crust pizzeria, and it's not because the walls are covered with ugly brown carpet. Well, the ambiance may help, but it's the pizza that makes Vito & Nick's special. The sausage is outstanding, but my favorite pizza there comes topped with housemade Italian Beef and giardiniera.
LTHForum has named Vito & Nick's one of Chicagoland's Great Neighborhood Restaurants, noting that "Vito & Nick's is so ingrained in the Chicago thin crust pizza firmament, that it is considered the de facto standard to which all Chicago thin crust pizzas are compared."
Guy Fieri explains much of the place's greatness, including uncovering that the secret ingredient in their crust is milk:
I've been writing weekly reviews for Slice for two and a half years, and because Chicago is such a great pizza town, I still get the thrill of discovering old places that are absolutely stellar. A few weeks ago I had that thrill at Villa Nova after being prodded a couple of times by Serious Eats reader cpd007. I'll let him explain why:
The homemade Italian sausage at Villa Nova is the best sausage I've ever had on a thin crust pizza. Pat's on Lincoln Ave. is a real close second only because Pat's sausage pieces are a little smaller than Villa Nova. It's just the most downright tasty thin crust pizza I've ever had. Everyone I know who has ever tried Villa Nova has always walked away saying that was the best thin crust pizza they ever had.
6821 Pershing Road, Stickney, IL 60402 and 3 additional locations; (708) 788-2944; Slice review .
D'Agostino's Pizza & Pub
Michael Gebert puts D'Agostino's in his top 5, with this advice:
Strategically placed between the bars near Wrigley Field and where free parking for Cubs games starts, this place does big business on game days, which is why I've never stepped inside it. Instead, I get its crackly-crisp thin crust delivered regularly. Don't order cheese; the tomato sauce alone is insipidly sweet. It takes something with a little spice to it, like pepperoni or sausage, to create perfect harmony and make one of the city's best thin crusts.
1351 W Addison St, Chicago, IL 60613 and three other locations; (773) 477-1821.
Bill's Pizza & Pub
Another Gebert favorite is Bill's Pizza & Pub:
Poke around the far suburbs and you'll find lots of little regional chains loved in their neighborhoods; everyone knows the south side's Vito & Nick's (technically not a chain, since the original denies paternity of the rest) and some know Aurelio's, but who knows Sanfratello's or Fox's or John's, which has left Calumet City to move entirely across the Indiana border? Anyway, my favorite like that is Bill's in way-north Mundelein, not only for the first-rate thin crust but for the hunting-lodge-gone-insane atmosphere. Eating pizza while staring down a dead squirrel dressed like Robin Hood-- that's fun for the whole family!
One last Gebert favorite:
Real slice pizza in Chicago needs to come from a borderline–scary dive, where, if you're lucky, the owner is shooting the breeze with a couple of Chicago cops (or perps), the pizza sits out in a plexiglass carousel waiting to be thrown in a hulking Faulds oven, the menu includes things like fried clams or mushrooms that you'd never touch in a million years, and Maury Povich is revealing paternity on the splotchy 13" Zenith dangling from the ceiling. This ancient place nestled amongst the Indo–Pak restaurants on Devon fits that to a T; get a big triangle with lumps of weirdly funky sausage and a shelf of cheese on top. To go.
2154 W Devon Avenue, Chicago IL 60659; 773-465-5400; villapalermo.com.
Best of the Rest of Pizza Styles
There have long been other styles of pizza in Chicago, most notably a few very popular places serving pan pizza and bakery pies, as well as the occasional New York-style slice joint. But in the past decade or so, Chicagoans have really embraced some pizza styles beyond the big three. Ten years ago, Chicago did not have a Neapolitan pizzeria, a coal oven thin crust pizzeria, a Roman pizzeria, a New Haven pizzeria, or a place that anyone would call artisanal. Today, every single one of those categories has not only arrived but appears to have some serious staying power.
American Artisanal Pizza
Just a couple of years old, Great Lake exploded into the national pizza consciousness when Alan Richman of GQ declared a pizza he had there to be the best in the country. Here's what he had to say:
Nick Lessins...makes each [pizza] as though it is his first, manipulating the dough until it appears flawless, putting on toppings one small bit after another...His cheese pie, prepared with fresh mozzarella made in-house, grated Wisconsin sheep's-and-cow's-milk cheese, and aromatic fresh marjoram instead of basil, was slightly shy of unbelievable. The next day I returned to try the same pie topped with fresh garlic and mortadella...He sliced the meat very thin and laid slices of it over the pie the moment it came out of the oven. The mortadella, with its combination of burliness and creaminess, was a meaty addition to the earthy, bready crust. This pie—creative, original, and somewhat local—represents everything irresistible about the new American style of pizza-making.
Steve Dolinsky and Chicago Magazine's Jeff Ruby agreed, both naming Great Lake the best in Chicago. So did LTHForum, which named it a Great Neighborhood Restaurant. And so did...well, I think the picture is crystal clear. 1477 W. Balmoral Avenue, Chicago IL 60640; 773-334-9270; Ed's Slice review from September 2009 and my Slice review from January 2009.
The difference between pan and deep dish is often blurred. As a general rule, I find that deep dish has either corn meal or corn oil in it, a crumbly crust and the sauce is on top while pan pizza has no corn, a softer crust and the cheese is on top. But there are plenty of exceptions to the rule, most notably at Burt's Place, where the focaccia-like pizza has the sauce on top and blows minds daily.
This spot has garnered rave reviews in the LTHForum, which named Burt's One of Chicago's Great Neighborhood Restaurants:
Burt has spent 40 years developing and perfecting his style of pizza. It has a wonderful caramelized crust and the sauce is obviously made from fresh ground tomatoes. The flavor and texture of the crunchy sweet peppers contrasts wonderfully with the warm tangy sauce and melted cheese.
8541 North Ferris Avenue, Morton Grove IL 60053; 847-965-7997; Slice review.
Another very similar and very delicious pizza can be had at Burt's previous pizzeria, Pequod's. 2207 North Clybourn Avenue, Chicago IL 60614 and one more location; 773-327-1512; pequodspizza.com; Slice review.
There are a couple of fine examples of Bakery Pizza in Chicago, but one shines above the rest. Chicago food writer and former Serious Eats contributor Michael Nagrant wrote about Italian Superior Bakery:
Unlike other stalwarts in town, Superior's version is less bready and dense than most. The crust also has a ridiculous versatility and resiliency in that it is almost equally satisfying, hot, cold, reheated, or fresh out of the oven. The guys down at the bakery generally start their 2 a.m. bread-baking shift with a "breakfast" slice or two. The loose sausage and sweet onion toppings and the creamy salty ricotta (made fresh by a local woman), basil, and tomato are my favorite combos. Capped off by a caramelized bubbling blanket of mozzarella and lightly spiced but mostly sweet pure sauce, this is one of my top five pies in Chicago.
D'Amato's also puts out a delicious bakery pizza. 1124 W Grand Ave., Chicago, IL 60622; 312-733-5456. And every once in a while, Great Lake surprises customers with a version that I've never had but I have strong reason to believe is outstanding.
When Spacca Napoli reintroduced Chicago to Neapolitan pizza in 2006, the town defined by its gut-busting pizza could not have been more welcoming. LTH users crowned it one of Chicago's best neighborhood restaurants, saying that the owner's passion for the art of pizza was obvious: "Great pizza always starts with eating great bread, and in this Spacca Napoli excels like no other." 1769 West Sunnyside, Chicago IL 60640; 773-878-2420; spaccanapolipizzeria.com; Slice review.
Since Spacca Napoli proved Neapolitan could work, a number of places have followed suit. The most well known is Nella Pizzeria Napoletana, 1769 West Sunnyside, Chicago IL 60640; 773-878-2420; pizzerianella.com; Slice review (Nella Grassano has left since the review was written). Another very good option is Antica Pizzeria, 5663 N. Clark Street, Chicago IL 60660; 773-944-1492; Slice review.
Coal Oven Pizza
Coal oven pizzerias are few and far between in Chicago, but this is a classic case of quality over quantity. Both Jeff Ruby and Michael Gebert pick Coalfire as one of the five best in the region and LTH members named it a Great Neighborhood Restaurant. Gebert writes:
One of only two stops on the last coal delivery route in the city (the other is D'Amato's a couple of blocks away), this is not my favorite Neapolitan style pizzeria, though it's good and they're very friendly. But it's definitely my favorite Neapolitan joint for leftover pizza the next day, even eaten cold straight out of the box. I can't explain this, but it's true.
Ruby is also a big fan of Castel Gandolfo for coal oven pies:
I order the tremendous 14-inch Margherita takeout and marvel at it for a moment: concentric circles of oregano-sparked sauce, melted bufala mozzarella, big basil leaves, and a sooty crust besieged with majestic bubbles. Then I eat the whole damn thing on the steps of a brownstone around the corner.
Personally, I love Castel Gandolfo and when the pies are sufficiently cooked, I'm also a big fan of Coalfire. But last week I tried another coal-fired spot called Slyce in the distant suburb of Wauconda, and I'd rank Slyce higher than either.
New York Style
Chicago doesn't have a thriving New York slice scene but there are a couple of places that are far better than the average slice available in the five boroughs. For a very good if extra cheesy New York slice, the place to go is Gigio's. 4643 N. Broadway Street, Chicago IL 60640; 773-271-2273; Slice review.
New Haven Style
If a Chicagoan craves New Haven pizza, they only have one option (besides getting on a plane to Connecticut.) Fortunately, Piece is very much a winner. The place has been packed virtually every night since it opened nearly a decade ago. Jeff Ruby, who named one of its pies the second best in Chicago, wrote:
When Billy Jacobs opened Piece in 2001, he was told New Haven- style pizza would go over like a lead pepperoni in Deep-Dish Land. Wrong. Piece's astonishing plain pie (sauce, garlic, Parmesan, and oil on a chewy-crisp, hand-formed crust) replicates New Haven's legendary Sally's Apizza without the coal oven (Piece uses a Middleby gas oven).
There are two very different styles of pizza referred to as Roman and Chicagoans are fortunate enough to have examples of both. Pizzeria Via Stato serves up a cracker crust that is among the thinnest physically possible. The crust has some nice blistering that gives a little extra flavor and every pizza is topped with high quality and very well thought out combinations of ingredients. 620 N. State Street, Chicago IL 60610; 312-337-6634; osteriaviastato.com; Slice review .
For a less refined version of the same theme, it's worth checking out Candlelite, which is not billed as a Roman pizzeria but serves up a similar insanely thin crusted pie. 7452 N. Western Avenue, Chicago IL 60645; 773-465-0087; candlelitechicago.com; Slice review.
The second variety of Roman pie can be found at a few places, but none do it better than Pizza Rustica. The toppings are fine but it's the crust that makes the pizza special. The airy, crispy and oily crust is an excellent bread with a special secret –it's made with lard. 3913 N. Sheridan Road, Chicago IL 60613; 773-404-8955; pizzarusticachicago.com; Slice review.
Ruby put a flatbread from Crust in his top five:
A traditional German Flammkuchen ("flame cake") is basically a thin pizza with crème fraîche instead of tomato sauce, similar to the tarte flambée that the Alsatians claim just over the border in France. In Wicker Park, Crust replaces crème fraîche with caraway-seasoned béchamel, reinforcing it with crisp bacon chunks and flawlessly caramelized purple onions. The béchamel basically serves as the sauce and the cheese, allowing the char-marked crust some room to breathe. The effect is so creamy and clean you can't help but turn up your nose at the greasy muddle that passes for most American pizza.
More, More, More!
As always, this Chicago guide is a working list. If we've missed your favorite Chicagoland pizza spot, chime in in the comments below. We really appreciate your intel.