A user’s guide to Chicago pizza (hint: it’s not all deep dish)
By Naveen Rajadhyaksha
Often considered America’s second city, Chicago has built a reputation for good times all while flying under the radar. It’s a city where hard work is celebrated and taking a day off means something. With a population of over nine million residents throughout the city and surrounding suburbs, it can feel like there is always something to debate. Which ‘90s Bulls lineup was best? Will anyone ever actually call it the “Willis Tower?” (The answer is no, team Sears forever.) There are only a couple of things that any self-respecting Chicagoan can agree on. One, never put ketchup on a Chicago dog, it’s just disrespectful. Two, there is always time for pizza. Always.
It’s not all deep-dish
Across the almost 10,000 square miles of residential sprawl, this Midwestern food metropolis is home to thousands of pizza shops. Although we are known for deep-dish, tavern style pies with square cuts are more common.
With a plethora of local chains and small mom-and-pop shops, Chicago covers pizza of virtually every style and price point. If it’s hot out of the oven and covered in cheese, there is someone in Chicago making a stand-out version of your favorite type of pie. Therefore, it would be absurd for anyone to tell you that there is a singular best pizza shop in Chicago (if they do, they are a jamoke). Instead, what I’ve put together below is a list of criteria to indicate if a shop is up to snuff. Use it as an aid for you as an eater to determine if it’ll crush your craving and make you wonder if, in fact, you can sneak one more slice.
Chicago is not New York City. It’s uncommon to find a spot that will sell you just one slice, which means you are going to be ordering a whole pie no matter where you go. When a hankering comes on, it’s important to understand the wait time. While some people are content with places that make you stand in line for hours to be blessed with their food, I say, “No thank you.” Instead, I seek out a place that can get me a pie in roughly 45 minutes, especially on a Friday night. This is the sweet spot for most Chicago pizzas. It’s the right amount of time to stretch the dough, sauce it up and lay down the toppings to my taste. From the time it’s out of the brick oven and at my disposal, my hunger has peaked and I want to start digging into the cheese-covered squares. Most Chicagoans will tell you that “hot and ready” and “under twenty minutes” have no place in our world of pizza. If that’s your goal, stock up on frozen ones. Good things, and in this case delicious things are worth the wait.
Chicago takes dining seriously, but not too seriously. Despite being one of seven cities in the U.S. to be in the official Michelin Guide, it isn’t uncommon to walk into a pizza shop around this city and find one rickety table occupied by a handful of local residents trying to watch a Bears game on a single cell phone. So when you’re looking to dine in for an evening of marinara-induced fun, a few things stand out in my mind.
The first thing I listen for when walking into any sit-down spot is if the phone is ringing. Any place that serves a decent pizza in Chicago will have their phone ringing off the hook. This means a few things. Firstly, it signals a consistent flow of pick-up orders, indicating high demand. Secondly, it assures you that phone orders are not their number one priority, you are. Eventually, someone will answer, jot down the order, and tell them it will be roughly 45 minutes, only to have the phone start ringing again. In my mind, this means this place is in-demand and they are getting food out the door and onto tables.
Waiting for a table isn’t uncommon, especially during dinner time. Take this time as a gift to observe specific Chicago interactions. When people walk into the shop, does the person working the counter know their name and vice-versa? Are handshakes, “hellos” and “give my best to so-and-so” being tossed around just as often as the dough? Small people might call this small talk, but it’s just the perfect amount of conversation to indicate a connection both inside and outside the shop’s walls. This is an institution where building a relationship with sizzling cheese is the bedrock.
Chicago is a city of reinvention that has somehow held onto its old-school charm. Across the city, you will see makers focusing on doing one thing extremely well to create something special. It comes from a desire to bring craft into our work. The pizza shops I’m drawn to focus on the intersection of simplicity and high quality. It’s not uncommon to start with the basics of, say, a tomato-based sauce and focus on punching up the flavors with crushed red pepper, basil, oregano and fresh garlic. Any shop worth its stones is making dough from scratch every day. You’ll find the kitchen stacked floor to ceiling with white plastic containers, providing a visual of the progress they’ve made and the work that remains to be done.
When it comes to toppings, I don’t frequent shops that are trying to do something crazy. I tend to stick to the classics that no one argues about like pepperoni. Interestingly enough, even the smallest shops will have a selection of specials that allows the shop to show off their personal flair. Every time I order from my local spot, I think to myself, “There’s nothing crazy about green peppers, handmade sausage, mushrooms and giardiniera, but why does this pizza taste so good?” When you’re faced with a menu of several choices, here’s a simple rule of thumb: go with the one that’s named after the place. For example, The Michael, The Vinny, The Dimo, The Nacho, etc. Anything with a namesake in Chicago signifies something and someone worth recognizing.
This set of criteria only serves you as much as you’re willing to be adventurous. While walking the streets of Chicago, look for neon signs and hand-painted windows. Follow your nose and trust your gut. There might be a few sloppy squares along the way, but equipped with the information above, you can certainly find some amazing pizza shops in this city. If all else fails, just wait a little longer and someone will inevitably ask, “Youse guys hungry?” to which you should promptly respond, “Hell yeah.”
A short list of places to start your pizza journey
- Pequod’s Pizza, Bucktown
- Art of Pizza, South Loop
- Side Street Saloon, Lakeview
- Vito and Angelo Pizzeria, Avondale
- Piece Pizza, Wicker Park
- Bungalow by Middle Brow, Logan Square
- Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria, Chicago chain with multiple locations
- Spacca Napoli, Ravenswood
- Milano’s, Beverly
- Whatever place is on the corner by your Airbnb.