Some people malign it as casserole. Others simply love to hate it. But as a native Chicagoan and lifelong enthusiast of all variations on the tomato pie, I don’t care what people say: I’m here to defend my city’s most infamous dish. Scratch that: I’m here to sing its praises, because Chicago deep-dish pizza is a towering, molten, glorious gut-bomb that deserves some serious love and respect.
Don’t believe me? Well, you’ll just have to try a bite. Don’t worry, I’ll wait. Sure, it might look a little different than the pizza you’re used to, but who doesn’t love a pile of bread, melty cheese, and bright, sweet-tart tomato sauce? Chicagoans (or most of us, at least) don’t eat deep-dish very often, but when we do, it’s an occasion unto itself, one where we’re happy to sit together and wait for 40 minutes in anticipation, either with out-of-town visitors, or to satisfy a craving for something comically fun—and comforting—to eat. What’s not to love about a food that’s really a party? We don’t fuss, we just call it pizza.
Of course, like any food, not all deep-dish pizza is created equal. I set out on a quest to taste all of Chicago’s most celebrated pies, hunting for the ones most worthy of occupying your stomach’s valuable real estate.
What Is Deep-Dish Pizza?
Editor's note: Text in this section is partially pulled from a 2014 article on the best Chicago deep-dish, written by Nick Kindelsperger.
Chicago deep dish is remarkably distinct from pizza as it’s known elsewhere. Baked in a tall, circular pan, it features a thick crust filled with cheese on the bottom, toppings (optional) in the middle, and sauce ladled on top. But here’s the tricky thing: 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 in the Windy City, which is to say nothing of the numerous styles of thin-crust pizza. Though real differences exist, there’s 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, and 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's 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.
Those are the differences, but you know what? Except, perhaps, for food writers, no one really cares. 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, while a few stuffed pies have crumbly ones. For the sake of this list, any thick-crusted pizza with sauce on top was fair game.
Deep-dish pizza isn’t meant to be a delicate dish. It’s one that hits you over the head with the simple overabundance of cheese, sauce, and toppings. So judging a deep-dish pizza is an easier task than one might think. It’s all about allowing yourself to indulge in every bite. Here’s my personal criteria:
- The Crust: I’m not looking for my crust to mimic artisan-quality bread. Instead, I’m looking for utility, something that can stand up to all that cheese without becoming a soggy mess. The outer texture of the crust should be crisp, especially on the bottom, and the line where the dough meets the cheese should be baked through without being doughy or gummy, which is a serious issue for all too many deep-dish pies.
- The Fillings: Is the pizza gloriously decadent, or does it feel like it’s lacking something? Are the ratios of sauce to cheese and cheese to crust lopsided, or are they consistent throughout? Most importantly: is there enough cheese, and does it pull away with satisfying yardage of gooey strands?
- The Sauce: Sauce is the rug that ties the room together. You’ll see lots of varieties of sauce in deep-dish pizzas, running the gamut from tomato purée to sauce with massive chunks of the fruit to a combination of both. Acid and sweetness are key: the sauce needs both in order to cut through all that cheese, meat, and vegetables to achieve balance in every bite.
While not a judgement criteria, per se, the most important rule for eating deep-dish—and this one is really, really, important—is to eat the pizza at the restaurant, right after it’s been pulled out of the oven. You risk burning your mouth, but just as a car’s value depreciates as soon as it’s out of the lot, the clock is ticking on the deliciousness of your deep-dish pizza as soon as it hits the box. You can expect the experience to change in the span of five to ten minutes. Delivery and takeout just don’t do deep-dish any justice, but if you absolutely have no other way to enjoy it, ask for the pizza to remain uncut so the bottom stays somewhat intact in transit. (Leftovers? Deep-dish does in fact reheat pretty well; just be prepared for a slightly soggy-bottomed crust. The oven is a good option, but using a covered, non-stick skillet on medium heat for seven to 10 minutes should do the trick. Whatever you do, don’t microwave it.)
The hands-down most classic version of deep-dish is some variation of the term “Chicago special,” which includes fennel sausage, mushrooms, onions, and green bell peppers. But, for this lineup, I sampled the pie that each pizzeria considers their specialty, which ranges from classic cheese slices to some more out-there creations, including chicken pesto and individual spinach pies.
Walk into a Giordano’s and you’ll feel like you’re in a new version of an old-school Italian restaurant: Check out the red-and-white-checkered tablecloths and the nostalgic old-timey framed photos on the walls. This Chicago-based chain is unapologetic about the quantity of cheese they generously pack into every pie, creating what’s definitely the tallest deep-dish variation on this list.
Their specialty is the Chicago Classic Deep Dish: a vertical, architectural marvel of stuffed crust pizza. It’s photogenic in a defiant way—right when you pull a slice out of the pan, you can practically measure the cheese pull in yards, not inches. It’s a visual show-stopper with a crust that's crispy on the outside and pillowy on the inside; it reminds me of pressed and layered white bread, but somehow it remains appealingly fluffy while being dense enough to hold up to what’s sandwiched inside. The sauce is on the puréed end of the spectrum, and just sweet enough to counterbalance all that cheese.
In terms of hometown heroes, Lou Malnati’s is a legend. It’s also a Chicago-based chain with a unique, ultra-crisp, buttery and pie-like crust, which is crumbly and thin at the edges. If you order one with sausage (you should), be prepared to encounter a disc of meat on top that spans the entire pizza, covered in a chunky, brightly acidic layer of tomatoes.
If you’re a visitor to Chicago and ask for recommendations, be prepared to hear about this place from almost everybody, as its ubiquity means it’s a very nostalgic place for many people. There are many locations, ranging from take-out-only counters to large, shiny full-service restaurants all around the city.
My Pi’s crust is a study in texture. Fresh out of the pan, the bottom crust is crisp, a coveted quality you don’t often see in a deep-dish pizza, and it stays that way longer than most. The sauce features large, chunky tomatoes, some almost big and juicy, verging on steak-like, which, when combined with a lighter hand on the cheese, makes this pizza supremely satisfying.
Even though there’s not much seating inside the joint, you should definitely try to snag a tiny counter stool or, even better, a spot at one of the picnic tables outside during one of Chicago's coveted summer months, because you’re going to want to eat it while the crust is as crunchy as possible. And as blasphemous as it sounds coming from a Chicagoan, the chicken pesto pizza is where it’s at—the pesto transforms the entire pie with its herbal bite.
Pequod’s looks and feels like an old dive bar, but step inside and you’ll find a pizzeria packed with both native Chicagoans and visitors alike. The pies are technically pan pizzas, which have a thicker bottom crust with crispy, greasy fried texture to it. Pequod’s is best known for the dramatic halo of toasty, nearly blackened cheese around the rim of the pies. For a lot of deep-dish pizzas, the edges can be (and often are) neglected, but the crisp cheese exterior is as prized as the edge of a Detroit-style square pie. The house specialty sausage pie is definitely the way to go; Pequod’s sausage pieces are the size of gumballs and are plentiful and juicy.
Chicago doesn’t see newcomers to the deep-dish scene with much regularity, so the fact that Labriola opened in 2015 makes it a bit of a baby, relatively speaking. It’s just a few steps away from Michigan Avenue if you’re strolling the Magnificent Mile, looking for a place to sit down and relax from all that walking.
Like Pequod’s, Labriola’s pies come with that rim of dark, burnt-looking cheese—but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s baked too long. Go for the Danny’s Special, which is gloriously crowded with toppings in the best way: It’s packed with an exorbitant quantity of sausage, bell peppers, mushrooms, and onions, The toppings are a meal in themselves, but mixed with the focaccia-like crust, melted cheese, large pieces of crushed tomatoes in the sauce, and crisped cheese ring as a final bite and you’ll understand why this pizza works so well.
This little seat-yourself market is a grab-and-go lunch place for busy office workers and college students, but you can ignore the salad bar and make a beeline for the individual whole pizzas up front. These baby pies have a crisp, appealing crust, with just the right ratio of toppings to cheese for its diminutive size, along with a bright and acidic sauce. While the toppings-to-crust ratio is pretty high, these pizzas never get soggy and retain their original crunch while you’re eating them. They might look small, but don’t be fooled. You’ll be fueled for longer than you think.
Bartoli’s is small, brightly lit, and less beat up than most pizza places in Chicago, while still retaining a hometown feel. They serve a lively spinach deep-dish pizza that’s a welcome departure from the Chicago classic quartet of sausage, mushrooms, onions, and bell peppers. The vivid green, garlicky spinach mix is bright and flavorful, which makes for a wetter slice that creeps its way over your plate...but thankfully, the bottom crust stays nice and crunchy to deal with the slow lava flow of molten cheese that’s counterbalanced by a sweet, chunky sauce.