The Ultimate Chicago Pizza, Built From Four Different Pies
No food is more polarizing or hotly debated than pizza. Consider, for example, the internet firestorm from a couple years ago when Jon Stewart labeled Chicago pizza “an above-ground marinara swimming pool for rats.”
But even those who disagree with Stewart bicker among themselves about what makes a great Chicago-style pizza. Deep dish, stuffed, or thin crust? Which toppings are the best? Who’s got the best crust? To settle things, we’re building the ultimate Windy City pie by combining the best parts from some of the best pizzerias in Chicago.
Crust: Pan-Style with Cheesy, Crispy Edges
From a strictly anatomical standpoint, the crust is what makes a Chicago-style pizza—both deep dish and tavern-style thin crust—unique. In a deep-dish pie, dough is fit into a pan, where it serves as the sturdy base for all the fillings and toppings that make it a knife-and-fork meal.
Place that Does It Best: Pequod’s
Considering the other elements that’ll end up going into our ultimate Chicago pizza, that’s the route we’re going, but with an important twist: caramelization. Pequod’s has perfected the art of a deliciously crispy crust—its chefs have been sprinkling a ring of cheese on the edges of their pies for the last 40-plus years, which explains why the shop is universally considered one of the best pizzerias in Chicago.
Runner-up: Bartoli’s Pizzeria
They add mozzarella to their dough as they roll it, so you still get a crispy, slightly cheesy crust, just not as pronounced or obvious as Pequod’s.
Sauce: Chunky, Tomatoey, and Flavorful
Lost in the novelty of the deep dish pizza’s sometimes brick-like crust and always-more-than-doctor-recommended layer of cheese is arguably the dish’s most crucial ingredient: the sauce. Any run-of-the-mill pizza place can use a standard, thin marinara-like sauce. Part of what makes Chicago-style pizza different is the chunky, almost pasta-like sauce used. That’s why we’re putting it on our pizza.
Place that Does It Best: Lou Malnati’s
You’d be hard-pressed to find a more painstakingly built or tastier sauce than Lou Malnati’s. Every year, Lou’s sends a team to California to meet with tomato farmers, conduct taste tests, and hand-pick which tomatoes will be used in the company’s pies over the following 12 months. This helps give the sauce its bright-red look, chunky texture, and a touch of sweetness that helps balance the savory toppings and salty cheese.
Runner-up: Louisa’s Pizza
The sauce here is simple, which is why it’s so good. Along with chunks of tomatoes, herbs grown in a garden behind the restaurant are tossed in to give it a freshness that’s hard to beat and worth the drive out to Crestwood.
Cheese: More than Just a Wad of Mozzarella
When it comes to pizza, cheese can be a contentious issue. For some, the waves of melty cheese that fill stuffed pies are pure heaven, while for others, too much cheese can overwhelm the pizza’s other ingredients. For our pizza, we’re settling on a spot right in the middle: not too much, but definitely not skimpy, either. You’ll find this happy medium at Bucktown’s My Pi Pizzeria.
Place that Does It Best: My Pi Pizzeria
But it’s not just the amount of cheese that makes My Pi’s pizza so good. The pizzeria sources its cheese from central Wisconsin, where grain-fed dairy cows produce the milk from which it’s made. A blend of up to four of those cheeses is used in each pizza, giving each one a slightly different—but always delicious—taste that helped it earn the title of Best Pizza in Chicago in Chicagoist’s 2016 pizzeria bracket.
Runner-up: Art of Pizza
Their pizzas are also made with Wisconsin cheese, which is baked with dried oregano to keep every bite full of flavor, even if you go with no other toppings.
Toppings: Sausage, Peppers, Onions
Go to virtually any Chicago pizzeria, and you’ll see one thing they all have in common: a house specialty with sausage, green peppers, and onions. The mixture of spicy, fennel-dotted sausage and savory veggies is undeniably Chicago, which is why it’s gracing our perfect Chicago pie.
Place that Does It Best: Vito & Nick’s
One of the best places in the city to find this classic combo is South Side institution Vito & Nick’s, home to a thin-crust pizza that earns rave reviews and has been featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive-ins and Dives (they also include mushrooms on their special). Vito & Nick’s recipes haven’t changed for generations, and they have no reason to: if you can make Guy Fieri swoon over a pizza, you’re probably doing things right.
Runner-up: Villa Nova
You know when you get stuck with a square of thin crust that’s weak on toppings? It’s a bummer, and it’s also not an issue with the pizza at Villa Nova. Their pies are evenly dotted with bites of housemade sausage so that each and every square has at least one piece.