Beyond Deep Dish: 12 New Chicago Pizzas to Try Now
Obsessing about pizza is not new to me.
Growing up in Michigan, I was all about Buddy’s Detroit-style pizza, the crispy-airy-cheesy crust, spicy pepperoni nestled under a swath of mozzarella and brick cheeses, with a lick of sweet tomato sauce layered on top. I could even occasionally appreciate the journeyman Little Caesar’s at a friend’s bowling birthday party (it was a thing), or a Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza after school. College in Connecticut exposed me to sheet-pan-sized, blister-crusted New Haven-style pizza (Sally’s and Modern Apizza were the play there), and then it was on to big, sloppy, foldable slices in NYC, eaten on the run — sometimes even in the (gulp!) subway. A stint working for Wolfgang Puck in San Francisco introduced me to California-style pies and hip toppings like smoked salmon with crème fraîche, or shrimp with cilantro pesto. Finally, my family settled here in Chicago, which 30 years ago was the land of deep-dish and tavern-style pizza. I’ve put in the miles. I’m drawn to like-minded pizza obsessives. So, when I wanted to explore the newest pizzas Chicago has to offer, I turned to chef Josh Kulp. You may recognize Kulp as co-chef/owner — along with business partner Christine Cikowski — of Avondale’s wildly successful Honey Butter Fried Chicken and Sunday Dinner Club. But I’m telling you right now that he has devoted his life to the study of pizza, and he is a veritable shaman of pizza cuisine. Sure, we all grew up loving pizza, happily consuming it at birthday parties, Little League banquets, cast parties and the like. But for Kulp, whose father was an excellent home cook who made fresh pizza dough from scratch, it became something bigger.
“Pizza has a couple of elements that drive me crazy and keep me coming back for more,” says Kulp. “The life of pizza dough is endlessly fascinating to me: how it’s proofed, rested, shaped, and cooked all have an effect on the final product. Toppings are fun, of course, but it’s all about the crust for me. Each batch is its own event.”
During the pandemic, pizza has proliferated. Michelin-starred chefs, Indian restaurants, and ghost kitchens alike have turned to pizza. Creative toppings abound; established pizza restaurants are trying on new styles, and pizza has been added to a few surprising menus around town. It travels well, reheats beautifully, fits most budgets, and loves a good pass-through window. Chicago, once known mainly for its casserole-style deep-dish, now supports and welcomes pizza in every form. The new crop of pizzerias (and restaurants now featuring pizza) is impressive in scope, encompassing these myriad pizza types from Detroit-style and NYC Slice to Sicilian- and tavern-style pies.
Kulp doesn’t favor one particular style over another, and he’s no snob. Whether the pizza is from a newbie or long-time stalwart, as long as the ingredients are treated with respect and the dough well made, he’s a fan. His food-exploration travels have taken him all over the United States, and he always makes time to discover the best pizza joints wherever he goes. Kulp’s U.S. (non-Chicago) Top 5 are Pizzeria Bianco (Phoenix), Pizzana (L.A.), Pizzeria Beddia (Philadelphia), Lucali (Brooklyn) and Razza (Jersey City). In town, he frequents Piece Pizza (New Haven style), Spacca Napoli (Neapolitan style), Vito & Nick’s, Bungalow by Middlebrow (Artisan style) and Marie’s Pizza (both tavern style), among others. He’s got some thoughts on some of Chicago’s newcomers as well. Here’s an even dozen to add to your must-try list.
Tavern Style: South Side, Represent
One of Lettuce Entertain You’s two new virtual pizza concepts is Bill’s Original Tavern Pizza, inspired by the South Side tavern-style pizza of RPM Restaurants’ partner Bill Rancic’s youth. He partnered with Pizzeria Portofino’s chef Sam Dickstein to create a totally different pizza than the Neapolitan style offered at Portofino. This is a thin-crusted, square-cut pizza reminiscent of Vito & Nick’s, and like there, the Italian Sausage pie is king with its herby notes of fennel and oregano and a whole lot of cheese — Lugano mozzarella, in this case. Order for delivery, or to carry out at Pizzeria Portofino’s host stand in Chicago, or at Bub City in Rosemont.
Detroit, Pizza City
Lettuce Entertain You gets (virtually) into the game with this late entry into Chicago’s crowded Detroit-style pizza market. B Square Pizza is the result of a partnership between Saranello’s executive chef Michael Brownell and LEYE chef/partner Mychael Bonner (Saranello, Di Pescara, Petterino’s), looking to create a light and airy deep-dish crust with crispy edges and the classic Detroit blend of mozzarella, Wisconsin brick and parmesan cheeses. These are BIG pies, with the 12” yielding 16 pieces (feeds 3-4), and the 16” (25 pieces, feeds 5-6). You can order for delivery, or pick up at Osteria Via Stato in River North, or at Sarnello’s in Wheeling. We opted for delivery and devoured the Mike B’s Special, loaded with sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, shaved onions, olives, and pickled peppers. There were no survivors.