Deep dish pizza is as accurately named as any food I know. Even if you've never experienced one in person, you already know to expect something imposing and thick, with generous layers of sauce and cheese. You also know that eating one will leave you absolutely and completely full, perhaps uncomfortably so. All of this is true. No matter what what you think about this style of pizza, it's hard not to be impressed by its stature. Which explains why so many visitors to Chicago want to experience the spectacle for themselves, even if food critics tend to disparage the stuff as greasy and too much like a casserole.
I am, in fact, one of those critics. Ever since I moved to Chicago six years ago, I've dismissed deep dish and its cadre of thick-crusted companions as overwrought and heavy, especially compared to other, better, styles of pizza. Yet, no matter how carefully constructed my rants against deep dish were, the crowds kept chowing down. Eventually I developed a nagging feeling that I hadn't given deep dish a fair shot. That insecurity led to this important question: What if I'm wrong about deep dish?
There was only one way to find out. I couldn't just visit a few joints and make up my mind. No, if I was going to learn to appreciate deep dish, I had to go all out and try as many different restaurants as I possibly could. Then I'd be able to look deep dish straight in the eye and tell it what I thought. Plus, I would have eaten enough to feel comfortable declaring the best deep dish in Chicago.
What I Learned
It took some time, and I wouldn't say I fell madly in love, but eventually I developed a kind of understanding of deep dish. This type of pizza just wants to make as many people as possible happy.
To put it another way, deep dish is the summer blockbuster of the pizza world. Sure, it may be overly concerned with car chases and explosions, but mostly it wants a packed house and hero to save the day. What, you may be wondering, is the deep dish equivalent of a handsome action hero? That's easy: cheese. Let's pause for a moment and gaze upon a gratuitous photos of cheese stretching.
See what I mean? Notice how all arguments seem inconsequential in the face of this awe-inspiring sight? Oh, what's that? You'd like another one?
Okay. That's enough. Still, I knew that there was no way I was going to fall for deep dish without attention given to the crust and sauce. Basically, you're never going to get me to watch Lone Ranger; I just had to find the Die Hard of deep dish.
Is All Chicago Pizza Deep Dish?
I had one minor issue: Not all thick-crusted pizza in Chicago is deep dish. In fact, deep dish is just one of at least three different kinds of thick-crusted pizza you'll find here, which is to say nothing of the numerous styles of thin-crust pizza. Though real differences exist, there is confusion because these styles look so similar. Each is thick and features a generous pool of sauce on top of the cheese. Here's a quick and dirty guide.
Deep Dish: The original. It features a moderately thick and crumbly crust, which is topped with loads of mozzarella, toppings, a layer of tomato sauce that is usually on the chunkier side. This is the style you'll find at most of the big name Chicago chains, including Lou Malnati's, Uno's, Pizano's, and Gino's East.
Stuffed Pizza: The first thing you'll notice here is that the ends are actually even taller than deep dish. Instead of crumbly, the crust is flaky, and it's often possible to see distinct laminated layers of dough. But what truly sets stuffed pizza apart is an additional layer of dough above the cheese and below the sauce. Most people don't even know it is there because it's so thin and is the same color as the cheese. Giordano's is the most famous practitioner of this style, though there are a surprising number of places serving stuffed pizza.
Pan Pizza: The distinguishing feature here is a ring of caramelized parmesan cheese, which crisps up in the pizza pan. The crust is also breadier and more in line with pan pizzas you'd find elsewhere in the country. You'll only see pan pizza listed a few places, but they are two big names, Burt's and Pequod's.
Those are the differences, but you know what? Except, perhaps, for food writers, no one really cares. When Eater published a list of the best deep dish in Chicago, Giordano's made the cut, even though it's not technically deep dish. When people come to Chicago, they just want to experience a big, overloaded pizza with lots of toppings, and stopping to explain this classification system gets old fast. Plus, like everything in life, things are never completely clear cut. Some deep dish pizzas have a flaky crust (Tortorice's comes to mind), while a few stuffed pies have crumbly ones (Art of Pizza).
For the sake of this list, any thick-crusted pizza with sauce on top was fair game.
The only problem with such an open definition of deep dish was that this left me with an incredible number of options. Plus, this isn't the kind of pizza that you can casually graze upon over the course of an evening. This is truly filling food, which also takes a decent amount of time to cook. While some Neapolitan pies only need a couple minutes in a hot oven, cooking times for deep dish and stuffed are often in the 30-to-45-minute range.
I sampled all the pizzerias I thought had a chance at taking the top spot. Pretty much every big name spot is here, along with some suggestions from an open thread post and a few from my own research.
- Art of Pizza
- Burt's Place
- Gino's East
- Lou Malnati's
- My Pie
- Pizzeria Uno
The Criteria; Or How to Judge Deep Dish
As I would with any other style of pizza, I evaluated each deep dish by taking a look at the crust, sauce, and cheese. But figuring out what I wanted from each turned out to be slightly trickier than suspected. To get a sense of what I mean, I'm going to have to bring up New York pizza, though I promise this will be brief.
Every element on a New York slice is about the greater good. The hope is that the crust, sauce, and cheese combine to form one balanced bite. If one aspect stands out too much, the whole slice falters (or literally collapses on itself). Deep dish is sort of the opposite. It's just plain bigger in every way, making it is easier to isolate each element and evaluate it. This makes it possible to genuinely appreciate one element, even if another doesn't work as well.
I also realized that toppings are essential. To keep things relatively simple I went with the sausage, because it's both very popular and many places make it in-house. Here were my general guidelines:
- The crust should above all else provide support for all the other ingredients, but that shouldn't come at the cost of having some textural complexity. Instead compact and crunchy, the crust should have a crisp exterior and a light and airy interior. The crust should also have some flavor of its own. Too many deep dish crusts are criminally under salted. I don't know why more people aren't upset about this.
- The tomato sauce should be vibrant, with a good balance of sweetness and acidity. Discernible chunks of tomato are a good sign; a thin and watery texture with loads of dried herbs is not.
- The layer of cheese should be slightly tangy and distinctive, and not just a rubbery layer of goo.
- The fresh sausage should be well seasoned and juicy, which is easier to accomplish with larger hunks than tiny crumbles.
Okay, that's enough talk. Let's get to the results!
Overall Favorite: Burt's Place
Burt's Place is for the doubters. No matter how much you hate, or think you hate, Chicago-style pizza, this pan pizza will win you over. It's all thanks to the crust, which unlike nearly every other pizza I tried, has a shatteringly crisp bottom that quickly gives way to a soft and airy interior. In other words, this is great bread, and owner Burt Katz knows better than to completely cover it up. Instead, it's topped with a thin, yet flavorful layer of cheese, and a simple and satisfying sauce. Scattered about are sizable hunks of sausage, which are nicely salted and juicy.
Oh, and I didn't even mention the pizza's most distinguishing feature: a stripe of extra-crisp, jet-black caramelized cheese, which rings the exterior of the crust. Created when a handful of grated parmesan patted along the exterior of the crust interacts with the cast-iron pizza pan, this final flourish makes the crusts, which are usually an afterthought, the greediest, most sought after bite of all.
We can all thank owner Burt Katz, who developed this style of pan pizza years ago while working at various other restaurants (including Pequod's). He got his own place in the leafy residential suburb of Morton Grove in 1989, which has allowed him to continue making pizza the way he wants to, in an environment he controls completely. That means cash-only, no delivery, and a strict limit on the number of pizzas he feels comfortable making in an evening. (It's always best to call ahead, lest you show up to find out he doesn't have room in the oven for your order, which has happened to other customers both times I visited.) Where most pizzerias in town think of franchising and corporatizing as a sign of success, Burt's is the opposite. Like Chicago's best hot dog stand, Hot Doug's, the restaurant doesn't open if the owner is not there, which ensures a level of quality unmatched by the big-name chains.
Deep Dish Done Right: My Pie
As great as Burt's is, it's technically pan pizza. If you're looking for deep dish straight, with no chasers, make your way to Bucktown's My Pie, which has all the charm and character you'd expect from a joint stuffed into a random strip mall. But what the restaurant lacks in looks, it makes up with the most balanced deep dish offering around. Instead of overloaded and greasy, My Pie's deep dish is light (relatively speaking, of course) and lively, with a bright and chunky tomato sauce, tangy fresh mozzarella, and a crust that is light brown and delicately crisp. In some respects, My Pie feels like a reaction against other deep dish pizzas. It offers real restraint for a dish mostly known for having none. This is also a great choice if you're looking to try the style for the very first time.
Favorite Stuffed Pizza: Bacino's
If you'd rather throw caution to the wind, and cheese happens to be your reason to live, stuffed pizza is what you want. It's taller, meatier, cheesier, and just basically more insane than deep dish in every way. And the craziest pizza around is at Bacino's. The crust is crunchier than most stuffed pizzas, the sauce is chunky and acidic, and the sausage has a truly interesting spice profile. But all that matters not next to the enormous layer of cheese. Measuring about 1/2-inch thick, its stature alone deserves respect. That it is also extremely flavorful, with a pleasing tanginess, completely justifies going back for more.
Favorite Downtown Option: Giordano's
There are still plenty of options if you're visiting Chicago or don't have a car. River North is packed with more oversized pizzas than you could ever want. But if you're looking for the biggest, thickest, meatiest, cheesiest, and most awe-inspiring pizza in the area, it's hard deny the power of Giordano's. This mammoth pizza weighs almost three pounds, and can easily feed a whole family. Though the sides are tall and imposing, the tender and flaky crust is remarkably thin on the bottom, which leaves more room for toppings and cheese. Speaking of which, prepare to be gobsmacked by the amount of cheese here. This is not a reasonable pizza; this is event pizza. It's designed to leave you speechless.
Other Great Options
Below are a few more of my favorites.
Before he left to open Burt's Place, Burt Katz was the co-owner of Pequod's, which explains why these two pan pizzas, and their glorious ring of caramelized cheese, look almost identical. They aren't quite, but those differences are very small. Where Burt's precisely controls the number of pizzas coming of the kitchen, Pequod's is a people pleaser, ready to dish out as many pizzas as the crowds demand. The increased demand means that quality can vary slightly, and the crust is always on the thicker and crunchier side. But Pequod's does have three genuine advantages over Burt's. First, while Pequod's first outlet is just minutes away from Burt's Place in Morton Grove, its second one is in Lincoln Park, which is just a few miles north of downtown. Second, Pequod's delivers (which is awfully convenient during the brutal winter months). Third, the ring of caramelized cheese always seems to be ever-so more deliriously crispy and indulgent here.
Though called pan pizza at the restaurant, the pizza at Louisa's looks much more like deep dish. It tastes like it, too. Which all makes sense considering owner Louisa DeGenero used to work at Due's in River North. The crust is crisp and compact, though is lighter than it looks. The cheese is good, but the sauce is better. Nice and bright, with hunks of tomato mixed in, it's everything I look for in this kind of pizza sauce. It's kind of too bad that Louisa's is located outside the city limits, but I have a feeling that residents in the town of Crestwood like it that way.
As popular as deep dish still is in Chicago, it's impossible not to notice the lack of new restaurants trying the style. Almost all of the places mentioned here have been open for 30 years or more. All of this makes Bartoli's, which opened last year, so surprising. The crust hangs out in the strange middle ground between deep dish and stuffed—it's hard to call it crunchy, but it's not exactly flaky, either. It's loaded with chunky tomato sauce, hunks of sausage, and a nice coating of flavorful cheese. It's a bit wet, but that's a minor issue on an otherwise fantastic pie. Here's hoping more young chefs take up the deep dish challenge.