Pizza City, USA: 101 Reasons Why Chicago Is America's Greatest Pizza Town

Pizza City, USA: 101 Reasons Why Chicago Is America's Greatest Pizza Town


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There are few things that Chicagoans feel more passionately about than pizza. Most  have strong opinions about whether thin crust or deep-dish takes the crown, which ingredients are essential, and who makes the best pie in town.

And in Chicago, there are as many destinations for pizza as there are individual preferences. Each of the city's seventy-seven neighborhoods is home to numerous go-to spots, featuring many styles and specialties. With so many pizzerias, it would seem impossible to determine the best of the best.

Enter renowned Chicago-based food journalist Steve Dolinsky! In Pizza City, USA: 101 Reasons Why Chicago Is America's Greatest Pizza Town, Dolinsky embarks on a pizza quest, methodically testing more than a hundred different pizzas in Chicagoland. Zestfully written and thoroughly researched, Pizza City, USA is a hunger–inducing testament to Dolinsky's passion for great, unpretentious food.

This user-friendly guide is smartly organized by location, and by the varieties served by the city's proud pizzaioli–including thin, artisan, Neapolitan, deep-dish and pan, stuffed, Sicilian, Roman, and Detroit-style, as well as by-the-slice. Pizza City also includes Dolinsky's "Top 5 Pizzas" in several categories, a glossary of Chicago pizza terms, and maps and photos to steer devoted foodies and newcomers alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780810137745
Publisher: Northwestern University Press
Publication date: 09/15/2018
Pages: 184
Sales rank: 457,429
Product dimensions: 8.00(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

STEVE DOLINSKY is a Chicago-based food reporter. He appears regularly on Chicago's WLS-TV as "the Hungry Hound" and is a regular contributor to National Public Radio's daily program The World. He is also a regular feature writer for the Chicago Tribune and Canada's Globe and Mail, has won thirteen James Beard Awards, and cohosts The Feed Podcast with celebrity chef Rick Bayless.

GRANT ACHATZ is one of the best-known chefs in the world. He has been named Best Chef in the United States by the James Beard Foundation, honored by Time magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World, and has lectured on gastronomy and design at conferences and universities around the world. His three–Michelin star restaurant, Alinea, has been named the Best Restaurant in the World by Elite Traveler magazine.

Read an Excerpt


What Is Chicago-Style Pizza?

The City of Big Shoulders is a city of neighborhoods — seventy-seven to be exact. Each neighborhood has its own flavor. Bridgeport, home to the Daley political machine and more than a few judges, is traditionally Irish. Bronzeville was the gateway for the Great Migration and continues to remain African American. Logan Square is where you'll find skinny jeans and tattoos on your friendly barista, while Rogers Park still qualifies as the city's unofficial port-of-entry for the Indian and Pakistani diasporas (though my friends at Patel Bros., a marketplace for fine Indian ingredients, would argue it's now suburban Schaumburg). The neighborhoods are what make Chicago so wonderfully diverse — a multicolored quilt of different languages, cultures, and tastes. But when it comes to pizza, the city seems to be divided into only two camps along a dual axis: North vs. South and Deep vs. Thin.

North vs. South

Long before the Cubs won the World Series, the city had an identity crisis split roughly along Madison Street, the official "0" point on the North–South grid system that Daniel Burnham devised over a century ago. Streets to the north of Madison belong to the Cubs, while streets to the south are White Sox territory.

Mayor Richard M. Daley and President Barack Obama are proud Sox fans. (The Cubs wisely presented the latter with an away jersey at their White House ceremony, which says only "Chicago" on the front — in case the President didn't care to wear the home jersey, which screams "Cubs" across the chest.) On the other hand, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is often spotted in North Side restaurants and his love for Cubbie blue runs deep.

How does pizza figure into this divide? For one thing, South Side pizza joints tend to make their sauces sweeter. Just look at Palermo's on Ninety-Fifth or Triano's on South Archer. They fess up to using sugar in their tomato sauces. On the extreme side, there's Arrenello's Pizza in Tinley Park, where the sauce is sweeter than a Hershey's Kiss. If you like that sort of thing, I recommend crumbled Sprinkles Cupcakes as an extra topping. A sweeter tomato sauce is definitely a characteristic you rarely see on the North Side.

Chicago also has more pizza chains loyal to their neighborhoods than you might think. North Side legends include Lou Malnati's, Giordano's, and Rosati's. (There are actually two Rosati's, the result of a family feud that split the chain in two; they're mostly in the suburbs.) But did you know about Waldo Cooney's and Barraco's (South and Southwest Sides), or Parlor Pizza and Chicago's Pizza on the North Side? Each of these companies has multiple locations, making our cheese-and-sausage-covered landscape even more nuanced than I previously thought.

The South and Southwest Sides also tend to have more restaurants that double as Italian beef operations, and thus offer giardiniera, the optional pizza topping that consists of an oil-slicked, spicy relish of celery, sport peppers, cauliflower, and carrots. You won't see that option in New York City, and if you come across it in Chicago, get it. The crunchy, spicy condiment is a perfect foil for the rich, cheesy, salty toppings that typically inhabit a thin pie.

Regional North vs. South differences, however, tend to be malleable. For example, several notable North Side chains, such as Giordano's, were actually born on the South Side. Known for its stuffed pies, rather than standard deep-dish, Giordano's is now the official pizza at Wrigley Field — a reality that probably says more about the size of Giordano's venture capital–backed checkbook than the unique quality of their pies. It's a similar story with Home Run Inn, which has a place in many North Side grocery store frozen food sections, but was born on Thirty-First Street, in the shadow of Comiskey Park.

Deep vs. Thin

While pizza flavors and sauces may separate North and South Side Chicagoans, pizza style is not really a differentiating factor. As I mentioned earlier, it's mostly tourists and late-night talk show hosts who think Chicago is a deep-dish pizza town. They make jokes about how we swim in pools of sauce atop double layers of dough and use a knife and fork to eat a simple slice of pepperoni.

Ed Levine, NYC-based founder of the website, authored a pizza book several years ago, and in it he referred to deep-dish as a "cheese casserole." I don't disagree. But what I do take issue with is that Levine claims Chicagoans eat deep-dish every chance we get. This couldn't be further from the truth. Deep-dish may have been created here, but it's simply one of the ten distinct styles of pizza we offer. The only time you'll see a local eating deep-dish is when one of their out-of-town friends or relatives comes to visit and insists they go wait in line somewhere for a ridiculously long time to order one.

"Chicago is a good neighborhood town and it's also a good tavern town," said Tim Samuelson, cultural historian at the Chicago Cultural Center. "The corner tavern is the great gathering place in each community. The [square-cut] pizza wound up being a staple of many classic Chicago taverns. It works out well and it's tasty. You can hold it in one hand and hold your drink in the other, which also marks the big difference [with] New York pizza, where you have to do this elaborate folding — and you still wind up with part of the pizza in your lap."

According to a 2016 Harris Poll on preferences for half a dozen different pizza styles, 15 percent of Americans prefer deep-dish while twice that number prefer thin crust. There's a reason our tavern-style and Chicago-style thins take up the most space in this book. It's what we eat when we want pizza. As I visited restaurants anonymously, asking the person behind the counter which style of pizza they were known for or which was the most popular (many places in and around Chicago offer multiple styles), the majority said "thin." I dare you to eat a slice of deep-dish (or two) and not feel like taking a nap immediately afterward. It's like an afghan for your stomach. Don't get me started on stuffed. While several places offer it on their menus, only a handful consider it their specialty; even fewer do it well enough to warrant a return visit.

Though the dichotomy between deep-dish and thin crust pizzas is one that has more to do with Chicago's reputation than its reality, the fact that these two drastically different foods have thrived within the same city speaks to Chicago's pizza prowess. Each side has its staunch defenders, and — though it's already clear where my own loyalties lie — Chicago could not be Pizza City, USA, without these two distinctive styles, as well as the eight others that complete the picture.


Methodology for the 101

Who made me the expert on pizza? I get this question frequently, and I'm happy to make my case here. Let's forget, for a moment, my professional credentials. I could probably just say I've been covering food professionally in Chicago full-time since 1995, and leave it at that. I've also eaten pizzas at some of the touchstones in America — Bianco (Phoenix), Frank Pepe's (New Haven), A16 & Delfina (San Francisco), Mozza (Los Angeles), and Lucali (NYC). But the thing that truly qualifies me more than anyone else is the fact that I wasn't born in Chicago.

Stay with me.

One of the unfortunate things pizza does is it creates bias. Midway through my research, I diagnosed a common ailment that affects thousands of people, which most likely includes you or someone you know. That malady is the Pizza I Grew Up Eating (PIGUE) Syndrome. The result of countless birthday parties, special events, and high school sleepovers, PIGUE somehow attaches itself to the frontal cortex. Few of us have fully developed palates when we're young (although I'm guessing Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain ate foie gras as teenagers), so it's difficult to assess food accurately in your preteen and teenage years.

The pizza I had as a kid in St. Cloud, Minnesota, was Shakey's. It was our go-to destination after Little League games (followed by Dairy Queen), and it served as a de facto birthday headquarters for me and many of my friends. Do I think Shakey's has the best pizza in the world? Of course not, it's chain food mediocrity along the lines of Pizza Hut, Domino's, and Little Caesar's. I'm wise enough to know that there are plenty of pizzas out there far superior to the processed cheese-and-sweet-tomato-sauce-on-cardboard that defined my childhood pizza eating experience.

PIGUE Syndrome, however, hits Chicagoans especially hard. I can now tell where someone is from based solely on the kind of pizza they love. You like Armand's? I'm guessing you grew up near Elmwood Park. More of an Aurelio's person? Even if you don't insist it comes out of the "old" oven, there's a pretty good chance you grew up in Homewood or Flossmoor. Still think Barnaby's has the best thin crust in the world? Here's some news for you: not only are you from the North Shore but that cornmeal crust is a myth — they only sprinkle cornmeal (as many other smart places do) underneath the pizza to keep the crust from sticking to the bottom of the oven.

And the list goes on. A cult-like pocket of eaters on the Northwest Side is loyal to Trattoria Porretta. Some crazy Norridge devotees swear by Villa Napoli, although after my visit there with Fooditor founder and Chicago Reader contributor Michael Gebert, I'm not sure why. Down in Palos Heights there's a faction that truly believed Anemone Caffé (no longer open) made an authentic Neapolitan pizza, which is like saying the Bears are fielding one of the NFL's top teams right now. The loyalty and stubbornness was truly puzzling, especially after I took two bites.

But I get it. PIGUE affects everyone, and it doesn't matter if the dough is tough or flavorless, the mozzarella is part-skim from a giant bag, or the sausage comes in frozen. No one — not even a professional eater who attempts to judge on an even playing field — is going to change their mind. Which leads me back to my thesis on why I'm the most qualified person to tackle this subject.

I didn't grow up here but I've lived in Chicago for twenty-five years. I have no childhood memories in any of these legendary joints, but I moved here in my twenties, just as my palate started to grow up, and shortly thereafter began eating professionally. I became wise enough to know the difference between a place that made its own gyros (Parthenon) and one that didn't, despite its outsized reputation (sorry, Chuck Wagon). I still had plenty to learn, of course, and still do, but I like to think I don't carry biases around like those misguided souls who still think Gene & Jude's makes the best hot dogs. (Don't get me wrong. I respect their longevity, but it's hard to argue on their behalf when they still sell size 10s, aka "meat pencils," with only a fraction of the holy seven condiments.)

Here's the rub: unlike other homegrown "experts," I'm not afraid to call it like I see it, and I can recognize the effects of PIGUE. Honesty is always the most refreshing aspect of my quest. I don't feel inhibited, as most would, knocking more than a few reputation coasters off their tomato-and-cheese-fortified pedestals (looking at you, Art of Pizza).

I know there are several styles of pizza in Chicago, but I didn't want to define them until I recognized regular patterns. Ultimately I came up with ten pizza categories, including an all-new one: artisan. I'll explain more about my categories at the beginning of each chapter. Some restaurants are featured in more than one category; for example, Paulie Gee's has two notable styles: artisan and Detroit.

I also wanted to give everyone a fair shake, which means that just because one pizza place has a special pie, say an 'nduja (a spicy, spreadable pork salumi from Italy) with fresh ricotta and arugula, and another place keeps things pretty basic, it wouldn't be fair to judge them side-by-side. The one with killer toppings would be far superior, even if the crust or sauce wasn't. So for consistency, I decided to place a standard order: half pepperoni and half sausage. If the pizza place specialized in a Neapolitan-style with a fancier wood-burning oven and listed a Margherita, then that's what I'd order as a baseline, judging just the crust, tomato sauce, and mozzarella (but mostly crust).

I made a point to call ahead before visiting each establishment to ask what their specialty was, to ensure I was trying the proper pizza at each place. In several instances, menus listed multiple styles — thin, extra thin, double-dough, deep-dish, and stuffed — so I'd ask the person at the counter or my server what the restaurant was known for. A few times the server offered up a personal favorite from the menu, which didn't influence me at all. Sometimes a restaurant ended up in more than one category, such as thin crust and by-the-slice or New York-style.

I wanted this quest to be a snapshot in time. One of my colleagues asked why I felt compelled to return to places I'd already frequented, like Lou's. "Why not just use a picture you already have on file?" Because that wouldn't be fair. If you're going to make a list with any credibility, you need to visit the places in question within the same time frame. What if the cook has left after twenty years and a bunch of teenagers are now in charge? Don't you think that might change the quality and consistency? Burt's Place in Morton Grove, a precursor to Burt's later establishment, Pequod's, is a good example. It had been a few years since I visited the original Burt's Place — and since that visit, the spot had been temporarily closed "due to health reasons." So there was no way I could include my older review in a modern pizza roundup. Sadly, Burt passed away a few months after my initial quest was completed; new owners took over, re-creating his original recipes. I had a chance to visit in early 2017, after the grand reopening and during the second wave of tasting for this book. It was pretty good, but not quite as special as I had initially remembered.

Another parameter, at least during the first round of tasting, was to concentrate on pizza places — restaurants that devoted more than 50 percent of their food business to pizza. This did two things: it kept me from going insane on a never-ending treadmill of pizzas, and it whittled down the contenders considerably. But as I restarted the tasting process in 2017, I realized that it would be a disservice not to include restaurants like Quartino and Piccolo Sogno — among others — where they have pizza ovens and churn out very good pies, even if the pizzas make up a small percentage of the menu.

Scoring was pretty simple. Points were awarded for crust, sauce, sausage and pepperoni quality, application and mouthfeel of cheese(s), and overall taste — with crust weighing most heavily in the equation. The ratio was certainly a factor: the term I came up with is Optimal Bite Ratio (OBR). If the crust was good but overwhelmed by too much cheese, then points were deducted. Conversely, that didn't mean I wanted a mouthful of bare baked gluten in every bite.

Finally, I always visited anonymously, without warning, and oftentimes alone, although on occasion I went with a friend or relative who was game. I always paid with my own credit card (essentially spending my book advance on pizzas) and after leaving, I posted a picture and some commentary on Instagram, where I post both @stevedolinsky as well as @pizzacityusa. If you're curious about where I ate in New York City, check out #StevesNYCPizza.


Glossary of Pizza Terminology

Some of the following terms are industry standards. Others I created myself after realizing there were no other words to describe what I intended to say. It's a short list, but if you scan it quickly you'll gain a better understanding of my descriptions of individual places and pizzas.

"00" The type of Italian flour usually used by hardcore pizzaiolos when making a Neapolitan pizza.

beehive Refers to the shape of the brick wood-burning oven that is typically the focal point for a serious pizza operation. This includes a large igloo-shaped bottom where the wood burns and the pizzas cook, as well as a long, slender vent to guide smoke out of the building.

bufala (BOO-fah-la) Fresh mozzarella made from buffalo's milk. When true mozzarella is made in the Italian style, it usually calls for this kind of milk. Domestic producers in the United States often substitute fior di latte, or cow's milk.

char The blackened spots that dot a pizza, usually from excessive hot spots in the oven. Charring is typically more prevalent on Neapolitan pies.


Excerpted from "Pizza City, USA"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Steve Dolinsky.
Excerpted by permission of Northwestern University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Chicagoland Map of the 101
Chapter 1: The Dichotomy of Chicago-Style Pizza
Chapter 2: Methodology for the 101
Chapter 3: Glossary of Pizza Terminology
Chapter 4: Tavern-Style (a.k.a. Chicago-Style Thin)
Chapter 5: Thin
Chapter 6: Artisan
Chapter 7: Neapoloitan
Chapter 8: By-the-Slice
Chapter 9: Deep-Dish (a.k.a. Pan)
Chapter 10: Stuffed, Sicilian, Roman, and Detroit-Style
Chapter 11: The Unremarkables


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Pizza City, USA: 101 Reasons Why Chicago Is America's Greatest Pizza Town 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a great book for pizza lovers, Chicago lovers or both. Dolinsky conducted an amazing amount of research into pizzas in the city and suburbs. What resulted is a comprehensive book on the midwest pizza scene. Most people are not aware of all the different pizza styles (no, it's not just deep dish and thin crust!). This is a fun book that will make your mouth water and give you a ton of places to visit around Chicagoland!