Chicago's pizza styles: a guide
Food writer Steve Dolinsky set himself a mission: to methodically work his way through the pizza joints of Chicago and its suburbs to identify the best examples of the many styles on offer. These are his picks.
Food writer Steve Dolinsky tested more than a hundred different pizzas to complete his mission. To say that he’s an authority on the various pizza styles of the city, which is so often pigeon-holed as a city of deep-dish and nothing else, would be an understatement. In his book Pizza City, USA, he takes you by the hand and guides you through the city’s streets and its suburban tracts towards the beacons of the city’s pizza landscape. We’ve taken his city recommendations and published them here for your eating pleasure.
Chicago has a special connection to pizza. I say it’s the city with the most pizza variety in the country. Just Google “Chicago pizzerias” and you’ll get more than four hundred thousand results.
The true pizza landscape in Chicago is far more diverse than the deep-dish stereotypes suggest. Though our unique regional style is notable and is often quite delicious when done right, as are the regional styles in St. Louis and New York, it’s hard to argue with Chicago’s range of offerings. I’ve had plenty of opportunities as a professional food reporter to assess and, if you’ll forgive me, chew on it, and the pies discussed in my book are all the evidence I need to say that Chicago truly deserves the title “Pizza City, USA.”
Call it hubris or just plain crazy, but over the course of two months, I managed to sample pizzas from a staggering seventy-six different locations throughout Chicagoland (referring to the combination of city and suburbs, including the five collar counties, that form a continuous border around the city proper).
As for varieties, I tallied ten distinctive types in my research: tavern-style, thin, New York-style, artisan, Neapolitan, deep-dish, stuffed, Sicilian, Roman, and Detroit-style.
There are several committed artisan chefs working in Chicago today, giving their ultra-wet doughs up to three days of rest to properly ferment and develop plenty of air pockets inside, which results in extra flavour, character and a more pleasant chew. Bread bakers refer to this as “open crumb structure.” They don’t over-handle the dough, treating each sphere as gently and tenderly as they would give a newborn a bath. They meticulously source (or more likely, make) their sausage, and they know most of the farmers who grow the produce for their toppings. Some even have impressive wine lists. In short, I’m talking about restaurants with very talented cooks in the back who use only the finest ingredients they can get and also happen to make pizzas for a living.
Where to get it
LaBarra, 3011 Butterfield Rd, Oak Brook, 630 861 6177, labarraristorante.com
Pizzeria Bebu, 1521 N. Fremont St, 312 280 6000, bebu.pizza
Stella Barra Pizzeria, 1954 N. Halsted St, 773 634 4101, stellabarra.com
Coalfire, 1321 W. Grand Ave, 312 226 2625, coalfirechicago.com
Roman (pizza al taglio)
Those rectangular pans are also displayed front and centre inside Bonci, one of the most exciting new pizza places in Chicago. Gabriele Bonci partnered with an American investor to bring his unique Roman-style pizza al taglio to the masses. I find it interesting that they didn’t open their first and only United States branch of the popular Roman pizzeria in New York City, but I’m certainly pleased they’re in Chicago. Incidentally, when referring to “Roman-style,” there are technically two types of pizza in play, which I learned after emailing Union Square Hospitality Group CEO (and Rome aficionado) Danny Meyer. One is cracker-thin and round, much like what you’d find at Martina in New York City or at Pizzeria Via Stato in Chicago. The other style is a denser, slightly thicker (Sicilian) style of pizza that is cut to order and weighed in front of you, since you’re paying by the pound. Places like Alice and Bonci in Rome are known for this style.
Bonci’s pizzas are recognized for their beguiling dough, which manages to be soft, chewy, light, airy and crispy all at once. Sliced with scissors and then weighed, the pizza is available in a number of seasonal flavors, such as roasted pumpkin atop supple burrata or sheep’s milk ricotta studded with thinly sliced zucchini. Since you choose how much of each flavor you want cut off and weighed, you can try a few without breaking the bank. I wouldn’t call the pizzas Sicilian or even focaccia-like, as those doughs tend to be more dense and spongy. Bonci has introduced Chicago (and for that matter, America) to true Roman-style pizzas, adding yet another feather to the city’s sauce-laden cap.
Where to get it
Bonci, 161 N Sangamon St, 248 705 0402 or 1566 N Damen Ave, 872 829 3144, bonciusa.com
Pizza Metro, 1707 W Division St, 773 278 1753, pizzametro.com
Pizzeria Via Stato, 620 N State St, 312 642 8450, osteriaviastato.com