Anthony Bourdain struggled to call Chicago Deep Dish a “pizza.” For good reason, maybe. The late chef and culinary guru loved many things about Chicago: “…tall towers, hard corners, and sharp elbows. And, of course, food.”
But that deep dish pizza? Not so much: “[It’s] a concoction I’ve always strongly believed to be lasagna in a crust [more] than anything that could bear the proud name of pizza.”
Jon Stewart, television host, is firm in his opinion. He claims it’s not pizza at all, calling it “tomato soup in a bread bowl. … I don’t know whether to eat it, or throw a coin in it and make a wish.”
No matter how you feel about it, or which is your favorite–this is much like discussing politics or religion–Chicago deep dish pizza is famous and one of the city’s must-eat dishes.
The truth about deep dish pizza
It’s not just that Bourdain and Stewart weren’t born and raised in the Windy City. You may be surprised to learn that not every Chicagoan goes weak in the knees at the thought of a five-pound, two-inch slab of cheese that takes an hour to bake. In fact, polls show that we prefer thin crust “tavern” pizza, which is always cut in squares. (For an example, check out my favorite spot, Vito & Nick’s, which is 100 years old in 2020. For the record, I was going there long before Guy Fieri “discovered” it.)
Deep dish is mostly a tourist food. Kevin Pang, of The Takeout, explains, “I would say the majority of deep dish pizza that’s consumed in town is within a one square mile radius of River North, and 80 percent is consumed by tourists.”
Does all this mean it’s not good or worthwhile? Absolutely not! It’s delicious! But I would be misleading you if I said it’s what Chicagoans adore and eat as often as possible. Here are a few reasons:
- It’s expensive. At Pizzeria UNO (my choice…more to follow) a medium-size 10-inch (serves 2-3) Classic Chicago deep dish is $21.99. At Lou Malnati’s, it will cost you $23.45. Giordano’s? $26.35. Compare these to a LARGE Vito & Nick’s…$20.00. (Fun fact: V&N is so old-school, they only take cash.) Your call.
- It’s calorific. You don’t need to be a Registered Dietician to suspect that a slice of deep dish is going to have lots and lots of calories. Not to bog you down in details, but a slice of deep dish pizza is about 630 calories, with 34 grams of fat. The thin crust version isn’t like eating celery, but it’s about 360 calories, with 20 grams of fat.
- It takes forever. When you decide you’re in the mood for deep dish, plan ahead. Have a snack. Order an appetizer. Expect to wait 45-60 minutes, depending on how busy the place is and what’s in your pizza. A thin crust takes about 15 minutes in a restaurant oven.
If you’re coming to visit, sure, we’ll find a place to have an authentic Chicago Deep Dish Pizza. That’s probably the only time I eat it.
The history: who was first?
The Chicago deep dish pizza community is small. Everyone who claims to have invented it is either related to someone else who also claims it, or they worked for someone who claims it. There may even have been a taxi driver or two involved.
The “invention” timeline is tight. Within a few years, places were cranking out the same product, with variations on the crust or seasoning. Otherwise, it was all pretty much alike.
I go with the Pizzeria UNO story, partly because of the building it’s in, and partly because if I get to choose my deep dish, it’s UNO. It all begins in 1943, at the corner of Ohio and Wabash, a couple of blocks off of what’s now the Magnificent Mile.
Ike Sewell had the idea of an upside-down pizza. The crust stayed on the bottom, but all the other ingredients were reversed, with the tomato sauce on top. This was important, because there was so much cheese that having tomatoes on the top keep the whole thing from drying out during the hour it required to bake.
Sewell pitched the idea to Ric Riccardo, who loved Italian food and also happened to rent out the 4th floor of the Ohio and Wabash building for his Pelican Bar & Tap. Paying for pizza was unheard of–it was a freebie, meant to keep folks drinking longer. And it was brilliant.
Riccardo’s Pizza became famous, especially for tourists. So it went from free to being its own thing. In 1955, it changed names to UNOs, because it was first. “Chicago-style” pizza was born. The concept quickly spread, with others advertising they were the first.
Here are the stories of some of the other famous spots still around:
Two taxi drivers, Sam Levine and Fred Bartoli, who knew the area and hung around Ric’s, started Gino’s in 1966 because it seemed like a better idea that driving cabs. The thing is, they didn’t know a thing about pizza, so they hired Alice Mae Redmond, a black woman who had developed the dough recipe at a competing pizza restaurant and who had been at that company for 17 years. (Hmmm…wonder where that was…maybe UNOs??)
One of the other employees at Riccardo’s was Lou Malnati, who struck out on his own in 1971, declaring his deep dish to be the most delicious of all. Giordano’s opened in 1974, re-creating Mama Giordano’s double-crusted “Easter Pie” recipe from Torino, Italy. Lou Malnati’s half-brother, Rudy, Jr., opened Pizano’s in 1991.
On and on it goes. I’m not about to tell you which is best–too risky. It would be like convincing you the White Sox are better than the Cubs..or vice versa. Here are a couple of articles that list some favorites. Not all are in Chicago, and many have multiple locations. Now it’s up to you!
- The Essential Deep Dish Pizza Restaurants in Chicago
- The Best Deep Dish Pizza in Chicago
- The 13 Best Deep Dish Pizza Places in Chicago
The recipe–from Pizzeria UNO!
A couple of years ago, I took the Deep Dish Cooking Class at Pizzeria UNO. It was a full morning, starting at 8:30 am. About 40 of us gathered in the small restaurant (it was in pre-Covid times) to spend the next three hours learning how to make our own pizzas, and then eating them for lunch. We left with an appreciation of the process and the time involved.
Everyone received a ring-bound pamphlet with everything that was covered during the class. There’s nothing difficult about making your own Chicago deep dish pizza. It just takes time.
Before I give you the recipe for a basic 9-inch pie, three things to know if you’re going to successfully duplicate the UNO pizza:
- Use corn oil. It’s abundant in the Midwest (think local ingredient) and less expensive than olive oil. It also contributes to the taste of an UNO pizza.
- Only buy canned San Marzano tomatoes, peeled and pureed. That’s all you’ll need and use. No cooking–scoop it straight from the can.
- You’ll need a 9-inch pie pan. The crust is 2-3 inches deep, so a springform pan may be better.
The dough: make it ahead
At Pizzeria UNO, dough is made every day…for the next day or two. They recommend an 8-to-48 hour rise. You may want to do the same. You can go ahead a portion it, or even make a double batch and freeze half for future pizza-fests.
PIZZA DOUGH for one 9″ deep dish pizza (serves 2)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup water, room temperature
2-1/2 ounces corn/vegetable oil (olive oil if you insist)
1 teaspoon fast-acting yeast
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1. In mixing bowl, add water and yeast. Stir until completely combined. It should start to bubble (“bloom”) in 5-to-8 minutes.
2. Add 1-1/2 ounces corn oil, sugar, and salt. Stir. Then add 1-1/4 cups flour and mix with your hands to form a ball. Knead dough on a floured surface (about 3/4 cup total) until it’s no longer tacky, about 3-5 minutes.
3. Place dough on a plate and cover it with plastic wrap. Let it sit about 30 minutes.
4. In a 9-inch pizza pan, add 1 ounce of corn oil and coat the bottom of the pan.
5. Place dough in the center of the pan and use your fingers to work it out to cover the bottom of the pan. Then use your thumbs to pinch the dough up the sides of the pan, about 1-1/2 inches.
6. Voila! You’r ready to add your pizza ingredients!
Time to add your ingredients!
There is only ONE rule to creating your own deep dish pizza: You must (repeat, MUST) cover the dough with mozzarella slices. Be generous: 4-to-6 ounces of slices.
If you’re making a sausage pizza, the raw bulk sausage (that’s the Chicago way) goes on next: about 6 ounces. If you’re a pepperoni person, no worries, you can layer as you like.
After the mozzarella, pile on your favorites: pepperoni, mushrooms, peppers, onions, crushed red pepper, olives, giardiniera (another Chi-town fave), or your own secret ingredients. Feeling healthy? Drop in some spinach leaves.
Spoon on the San Marzano tomatoes. A 28-ounce can should be enough. (If you didn’t buy the crushed kind, crush them by hand before adding.) Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese, as much as you want.
Baking…then the enjoyment!
Place the oven rack in the middle position. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
When your pizza’s assembled, place the pan on the rack and cook it for an initial 30 minutes. Check it to see if the crust is getting golden and the cheese is melting. It probably won’t be done, so keep checking at 10-minute intervals. Ovens vary, so be patient.
When the crust is golden, the cheese is gooey, and the sauce is bubbling, it’s done. Take it out, cut into 4 pieces, and serve immediately.
Well, what do you think?
I’m curious about your experiences and opinions concerning Chicago Deep Dish Pizza. Do you like it? Love it? Have you got a favorite place? Share your thoughts in the comments!