Chicago's Best Pizzas with Steve Dolinsky
Whether it’s deep-dish or thin-crust, Neapolitan or New York-style, Chicago’s pizza offering is multifarious and, some might say, magical. So who better to guide us through the city’s bewildering pizza options than award-winning food journalist, TV presenter, author and Chicago resident Steve Dolinsky, whose ‘Pizza City USA’ podcast and tours cut through all the waffle to deliver the lowdown on Chicago’s best pizzas. Here’s Steve's pick of the pies.
Paulie Gee’s Logan Square
Locals like Derrick Tung at Paulie Gee’s Logan Square (2451 N. Milwaukee Ave.) have been innovating, making their own versions of the Motor City original, now sweeping the country in popularity. In some cases, his rectangular pies nearly eclipse the wood-fired artisan pies his shop was initially built upon (which themselves are based on the namesake in Greenpoint, Brooklyn). More recently, Tung has started selling NYC-style slices out of his front window, but his 'Logan Squares' hold their own against anything coming out of Michigan. They’ve become so popular, he recently installed giant new Pizza Master ovens to accommodate the growing lineup. He’ll usually offer a Carnivore and an Herbivore, but I find very little disagreement among peers when it comes to his 'U.S. Pizza Cup'. Hiding a layer of earthy bacon jam beneath melted white cheddar, along with that cup-and-char pepperoni from the well-regarded Ezzo Sausage Co. in Columbus, Ohio, you don’t miss the Brick cheese that classic Detroit pies are built on. Post-bake, he pipes on creamy-soft whipped ricotta, showers the thick squares with a chiffonade of fresh basil and then drizzles them with Mike’s Hot Honey, the de rigueur condiment found in many artisan pizza joints these days.
ROMAN AL TAGLIO
Gabriele Bonci is not to be messed with. Looking like an Italian wrestler, arms fully tatted and gut protruding from his midsection, the founder of Rome’s Pizzarium has expanded on a style called Roman al Taglio (by the cut). With the help of people like Rick Tasman, a former P.F. Chang’s executive, and Chakib Touhami, the brand is now slowly expanding around the U.S. Under the LLC of Bonci USA, their first outpost was in the West Loop (161 N. Sangamon St.). A second location in Wicker Park recently closed, but they have plans to add stores in the suburbs and another in the city; a shop in New Orleans has opened while another is planned for Miami.
The 'al taglio' refers to a process involving scissors. You tell the employee behind the counter how much of the pizza you’d like – using your fingers or other pantomime – then they’ll cut it from the rectangular pan and weigh it. You pay by the pound. The slices are topped with all manner of seasonal and regional specialties. Personal favourites include a thinly-shaved zucchini accented with freshly-ground black pepper and bright lemon zest, but you’d be just as struck by how good the potato-mozzarella is, or the octopus. They recently started making an Italian Beef flavour with the namesake, thinly shaved, plus housemade giardiniera.
The pizzas are stretched and baked in large steel rectangular pans, but after they’ve baked on the stone decks of the Castelli ovens imported from Italy and you’ve placed your order, the employee will reheat the slice in a different oven, then cut them into tiny, almost tapas-sized squares for easy eating. The focaccia-like interior is a result of three flours, a lot of water in the dough and a 36 to 72-hour fermentation. The second bake ensures a hallmark of all Roman pies: they must be crispy.
Pizza Friendly Pizza
Photo: Courtesy of Pizza Friendly Pizza
The latest Sicilian to hit our deep and cracker-thin loaded shores comes as a result of a collaboration between a Michelin-starred chef and a local hospitality group – both of whom were forced to make a pivot during the pandemic.
As executive chef of Oriole, Noah Sandoval garnered two Michelin stars last year. He’s also a partner with Julia Momose at Kumiko/Kikko down the street, so his typical workday involves meticulous prepping of luxe ingredients such as ossetra caviar or king crab while donning chef’s whites during service. The restaurant is on indefinite hiatus, however, and their website optimistically hopes for a reboot, but there’s nothing definite. The chef has had a lot of free time on his hands.
Meanwhile, Bruce Finkelman’s company – 16” On Center – a partner at Oriole and operator of several bars and restaurants in town (Dusek’s, Longman & Eagle, Moneygun) was looking to do something different with Bite, the tightly-packed, nearly 30-year-old café next to the Empty Bottle in Ukrainian Village, which, he acknowledged was “going to have some extreme difficulty to survive” in a post-COVID world. I met Finkelman years ago shooting a story at Longman, and last year, curated a year’s worth of local neighbourhood pizzeria pop-ups at Revival Food Hall, which 16” On Center runs, in an effort to promote my book and weekly pizza tours.
The friendly chit-chat and late-night texts between Sandoval and Finkelman progressed pretty rapidly, from a mundane discussion about a band playing at the Bottle on 7 March, to a full-on freak out six days later, talking about what they were going to do about their respective businesses with everything on lockdown.
To achieve his crispy, craveable undercarriage, Sandoval uses a thin layer of Crisco (although he says he learned traditional bakers used lard, he wanted to be able to offer slices to vegetarians, so that was out). He leaves his 5-day fermented dough in the pan for about 12 hours, then bakes them at 525 degrees for just 10 minutes. They’ll rest an hour, then get a final bake at 500 degrees with toppings for 12 minutes.
Right now there are four options: a cup-and-char pepperoni (again, Ezzo, which is ironic, since Sandoval’s inspiration – Prince Street in NYC – uses the Rosa Grande brand) with aged parmesan and fresh basil, a vegetarian with rapini and chèvre, lemon and garlic (vegan on request), an earthy mushroom with creamy burrata and spicy Calabrian chiles and then one special pie designed by their chef de cuisine, Rueben Villalobos.
I’ve tasted both the pepperoni and the mushroom, and as delicious as they both are, the experience of eating them is as much textural as anything else. The squares look hefty, but when you lift them, they are as light as an iPhone 4; biting into them – revealing that tight crumb – you experience not only the top-notch ingredients Sandoval has sourced, but the interplay between sweet and heat, crunch and chew, crisp and soft. The undercarriage is textbook: as golden as a McDonald’s french fry, riddled with craters as if you’re looking at the moon through a telescope. It’s the best Sicilian slice in Chicago, full stop.
TAVERN-STYLE (CHICAGO’S ORIGINAL PIZZA)
Most visitors have no idea what style of pizza born-and-bred Chicagoans actually eat. That’s partly because deep-dish didn’t get invented until 1943, and ever since then, it has dominated our pizza landscape with deep, circular steel pans filled with all manner of dough, cheese, sauce and sausage (don’t get us started on stuffed pizza, an invention from 1971 that took deep-dish to a completely different playing field).
Tavern has been, for nearly a century, the real 'Chicago-style pizza' for locals. Born in the neighbourhood taverns, meant as a way to get thirsty patrons to buy more beer, it’s cut into squares, the better to fit on a cocktail napkin. Pat’s Pizza in Lincoln Park celebrated 70 years in business this year, and shows no signs of slowing down, thanks to 3rd generation owner Gina Pianetto. Her grandfather, Pat (technically Nick, but his nickname stuck) created the family’s thin pizza in 1950, passing it on to his son, Nick (Gina’s dad).
The pizzas are passed through a dough sheeter specially designed to roll dough extra thin, and after they’re rolled out, they’re kept in a cooler, between sheets of paper that draw moisture from them. After a total of six days, the dough is ready to use. Like most local joints, sausage is king, but the pro move is to get it with giardiniera, Chicago’s beloved condiment of fiery, oily pickled celery, chilies, carrots and olives. Intended for our Italian beef sandwiches, it elevates nearly every pizza to new heights, especially these thin-and-crispy specimens.
From the fine folks who brought you Simone’s in Pilsen, The Boiler Room, nearly hidden beneath the California Ave. Blue Line CTA stop, delivers a recycled DIY aesthetic, complete with old Twilight Zone episodes on screen behind the bar. But their pizza puts this program front-and-centre. Take a quick look to your left as you enter. You’ll see the pizza guys tossing their dough for a ton of pies that will eventually be sold by the slice.
I visited The Boiler Room with a friend, so we weren’t interested in slices and opted for my usual: a half-sausage, half-pepperoni whole pie. There are plenty of other whack-a-doodle options here, including Thai cream-cheese sauce, curry, serranos, beet bruschetta . . . but for this stop, we stuck to the half-and-half rule.
My friend and I literally let out an audible gasp when our server placed a comically large 20-inch pizza in front of us. Even if we hadn’t been planning to try other pizzas on this day, there would have been plenty to bring home. Aside from its scene-stealing size, the pizza is a beauty. On the pepperoni side, wide circles cover every possible bit of real estate, looking like a map from Dubai’s Urban Planning Department. On the other side, crumbled, beautifully seasoned sausage complements the melted cheese. Beneath it all, a delicate, cornmeal-flecked dough maintains a crispy edge. This is OBR (Optimal Bite Ratio) at its finest among the thin-crust cool kids.
Robert’s Pizza & Dough Co.
Photo by: courtesy of Robert’s Pizza & Dough Co.
Robert Garvey has spent the past twenty years with an obsession. He says he had a slice-a-day habit growing up in New York City. That led to five years of almost daily baking experimentation to come up with his ideal pizza. Like any good pie, it’s all about the dough. It’s a cold rise in a refrigerator for three days, and then he gives it a long time to proof when it comes out of the cooler.
Garvey handles the dough like it’s a precious stone or treasured relic, careful not to overwork it. He uses his fingers rather than a roller to put a little bit of air in the crust, which gives it a nice, light chew in the finished product. The sauce is homemade, sausage is carefully sourced, and additional toppings include Brussels sprouts with bacon, a seafood version with clams and shrimp, and Peking duck with hoisin. After just under ten minutes in a gas-fired oven, the pizzas emerge beautifully crisp on the edge. A wire rack beneath elevates the pies, preventing them from getting soggy and maintaining a crisp bottom crust.
It’s all part of the plan to create the perfect slice. “The middle is kind of a nice, soft chew; then it moves to a nice crunchy chew, then you finish with that nice big heel, which is a terrific finish to the slice,” he explained.
I couldn’t agree more. And good news for celiacs: Robert’s has a gluten-free option (although I can’t attest to its quality).
Jonathan Goldsmith has become not just a pizzaiolo, he has, over the past 15 years, become one of Chicago’s true ambassadors for Neapolitan pizza. He lectures on the subject of pizza-making at trade shows and conventions, travels to Italy regularly, and has made the art and tradition of Neapolitan pizza his mission since he opened on a quiet stretch of Sunnyside Avenue in 2006.
If children dreamed of becoming a Neapolitan pizzaiolo when they grew up, like some kids fantasise about playing in the NBA or NFL, they’d have posters of Goldsmith up on their walls, elbow-deep in flour or poised at the mouth of his oven, peel in hand, ready to turn or dome a pie.
All of the hallmarks for a fine Neapolitan are here: “00” flour; the fior di latte cheese, which is oozing, creamy-sweet, and placed haphazardly about the hand-formed spheres; and the San Marzano tomatoes, crushed into part-sweet, part-acidic oblivion. The telltale crust—puffy and blistered—has a remarkable chew that comes from a long fermentation. Early on, when Spacca Napoli first opened, I felt that the pie centres were too thin and too wet (I know true Neapolitans adore this tomato-cheese puddle), and while I enjoyed the cornicione, I rarely praised the interior. Things have changed (perhaps the recipe has been tweaked), and those droopy interiors are a thing of the past. The dough these days is a little bit more structured, and the other dozen or so pizzas all feature top-quality ingredients, such as arugula, imported prosciutto, housemade sausage, and rapini, a green cruciferous vegetable.
As my 12-inch deep-dish with sausage is placed in front of me (the 'Russo'), I like what I see: generous, chunky icebergs of fresh tomato lightly seasoned with fresh herbs; fragrant, juicy, jagged-edged pieces of sausage (from Russo in suburban Alsip) nestle within melted mozzarella; and then—the best surprise of all. As I lift out my first piece, I see that outer edge, just like at Pequod’s—a caramelised, darkened, thin layer of cheese, clinging to the perimeter, all the way around. Underneath, I notice how firm the dough is; as I cut into it with my knife, I realise it is actually crispy all the way around, and so I pick up the rest of my piece with my hands, and summarily devour it. The ratio. Unlike Pequod’s, they figured out the OBR.
I bet it was hard for Labriola to temper his ambition in a high-profile restaurant with his name on it. After burning through some chefs and a lot of sleepless nights— forever trying to figure out if tourists really wanted extruded pasta and handmade cavatelli—turns out all they want is a good pizza. Here, in the shadow of the former Tribune Tower and across the street from a gigantic Nordstrom’s, he and his staff have cracked the code: they offer a deep-dish pizza that both tourists and picky locals like me actually crave.