AS EASY AS CHICAGO PIE
Food reporter and author makes his way around town in search of the Windy City’s best pizza offering
Steve Dolinsky is out to banish long-standing myths about a most divisive topic. It’s not in the realm of religion. It’s not concerning politics. It’s about pizza.
Revelation No. 1: Deep dish isn’t the representative pizza of the Windy City.
Revelation No. 2: Chicago is Pizza City, USA, reigning supreme when it comes to depth and breadth of pizza. (Sorry, New York.)
These epiphanies came from just over a year of sauce-dribbled research by Dolinsky, who is a wellregarded food reporter known as the Hungry Hound at Chicago’s ABC7. He visited 185 pizza places in and around Chicago, and 56 in New York (we’ll get to that), consuming up to four disc-shaped meals in a single day. The fruits of his labour take two forms, both with the same title. The book, Pizza City USA: 101 Reasons Why Chicago Is America’s Greatest Pizza Town, was released in September by Northwestern University Press.
And his new tour company, Pizza City, USA, conducts three neighbourhood walking tours, led by “doughcents,” and one bus tour, usually led by Dolinsky, that share pizza insights and plenty of pie at four pizzerias.
The journalist’s probing into Chicago’s pizza scene began, really, out of sheer annoyance. Dolinsky says he had read too many articles claiming to list Chicago’s 7 Hottest Pizza Places, and he got fed up. The lists were always the same, and he felt like they weren’t representative of “best” in any sense of the word. “I had been to two of the places on the list earlier that week, and I just thought this is stupid, that just makes no sense,” he says. “There’s no critical eye toward anything.”
In the past, he had dug deeply into foods such as pho and Italian beef, sampling and reporting on dozens within each category. He decided to do the same for pizza. As he visited 10 and then 20 and then 30 pizza joints, he felt like he was barely scratching the surface. Not only that, his online pizza posts drew up to 10 times the usual number of views. He was onto something. So he kept eating.
On a Pizza City, USA bus tour in August, the passion for pizza is apparent. Dolinsky starts by addressing that long-held myth about Chicago and pie. “I’m guessing most of you here, when you hear ‘Chicagostyle’ you think of ...” Like a chorus, about half the table answers with enthusiasm: “Deep dish!”
Dolinsky smiles before bursting their bubble. “People who actually live and breathe in Chicago don’t eat deep dish,” he says. “Deep dish is to Chicago what Times Square is to New York,” he goes on.
Real Chicagoans, he explains, are more likely to order a different type of pizza, also native to Chicago, known as tavern-style, which consists of a cracker-thin crust, cut into squares. Dolinsky says that as far back as the 1930s, tavern owners realized that their patrons would drink more beer if they passed around a free, salty snack. Years before stuffed crust and deep dish bubbled into our consciousness, the cracker-thin, square-cut, tavern-style pie was born. Around town, this thin style is far more common than its husky counterpart. “Chicago-style pizza is tavern style. It’s what we’ve been doing here for generations,” emphasizes Dolinksy. “The stuffed and the deep dish are much more Johnny-come-lately.”
After clearing that matter up, our first pizza is served, and it happens to be, well, deep dish. A delicious deep dish, and one that, despite being in Chicago’s most touristy areas, doesn’t make the usual “top seven” lists, although it should, with its corn-meal-dusted crust that is as airy as it is thick, with cheese that caramelizes all around the rim, and a refreshingly bright layer of tomatoes on top (in Chicago deep dish, the layers go crust, cheese, toppings, sauce). We each devour a piece, leaving few “dough orphans,” as Dolinsky calls abandoned nubs of crust, and then visit the kitchen, where our trusty guide shows us the oven used to bake the pizza and passes around a metal, Chicago-made pan so we can hold the tools of the trade.
We hop on the bus and visit Pizzeria Bebu in the Lincoln Park neighbourhood, where we try what Dolinsky refers to as “artisanal” pie, with a thin, bubbly, lightly charred crust and tender centre, topped with an unexpected mix of toppings: pickled jalapeno, pimento cheese and broccoli rabe.
Then it’s on to Pat’s Pizza in the Lakeview neighbourhood for what Dolinsky proclaims “one of the best expressions of Chicago tavern-style pizza.” We get a tour of the kitchen and learn that doughmaking, here, involves a seven-day process. Then we devour squares of that tortilla-thin, crisp dough topped with cheese, sausage and veggies.
Finally, it’s on to Dante’s Pizzeria, a New York-style joint in the Avondale neighbourhood, where we each do our best to devour an enormous, floppy slice. (Dough orphans ensue). At each pizza place, Dolinsky is a little bit pizza Einstein, talking about things like “OBR” (that’s “optimal bite ratio,” and refers to the preferred distribution of crust, sauce, toppings and cheese) and “PIGUE syndrome” (“Pizza I Grew Up Eating ” syndrome, alluding to the inability to distinguish between what’s good and what’s known).
You wouldn’t know it from his enthusiasm level on the tour, but here’s a funny thing about Dolinsky: Pizza isn’t his favourite food. Not even close.
Did he ever think that this would become the category around which his life would revolve? “Absolutely not,” he says. “I thought it would be something Asian. I mean, I love Korean food.”
Yet he was fascinated by what he refers to as “the variability and nuance” he discovered in the Chicago pizza scape. “It sort of became like an archeological dig for me. I just kept unearthing things,” he says.
According to food reporter Steve Dolinsky, deep dish pizza is not the pie style of choice for real Chicagoans. Tavern-style is more popular.
Steve Dolinsky leads a bus tour of pizza eateries in Chicago. He visited 185 pizza places for his new book.