You haven’t really been to Chicago unless you’ve had deep-dish pizza. Made in a cake pan and built upside-down, Chicago-style deep-dish pizza is thick, crusty, and comes with tomato sauce on the top, a layer of sausage in the middle, and plenty of mozzarella on the bottom.
Make no doubt about it, folks. Midwesterners, especially those who live in Windy City, like their meals—and their pizza—hearty. It’s kind of hard to imagine deep-dish pizza having come out of California.
When it comes to Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, many are asking… is it really pizza?
Chicago-style deep-dish pizza is “real” pizza. It’s a style of pizza that came to be as Italians came to the U.S., settled in the Midwest, and brought their grandmothers’ recipes with them—accustoming these recipes to the tastes, toppings, and cooking techniques in their new home.
The roots of pizza date back all the way to antiquity. Romans made flatbreads that they called panis focacius and topped with cheese, olives, and herbs. Today, we call this bread focaccia, another staple of Italian baking.
Modern-day pizza was invented by Raffaele Esposito in 1889 in Naples, the third-largest city in Italy and the regional capital of the Campania province.
Here’s how the story goes.
Where Modern-Day Pizza Comes From
Queen Margherita of Savoy, the wife of King Umberto I of Italy, was on a visit to the Royal Palace in Naples. The palace was one of the four residences near Naples used by Italy’s royal families.
Someone from the Royal Palace had commissioned Raffaele Esposito, local pizza chef and owner of a tavern called Pizzeria di Pietro e Basta Così, to make a pizza in honor of the Queen. At the time, pizza was a local street food sold in bakeries and taverns.
Esposito topped his pizza with red San Marzano tomatoes, white buffalo milk mozzarella, and green fresh basil leaves to represent the Italian flag—and named it Margherita Pizza after the visiting Queen. Little did he know that he had created Neapolitan-style pizza, which would sooner or later take over the world.
Neapolitan pizza is made by following strict guidelines for the origins of the ingredients, recipe, and technique. The dough consists of wheat flour, yeast, salt, and water. It must be kneaded by hand or in a low-speed mixer. It’s risen for a day, ideally, topped with local ingredients, and cooked for 60-90 seconds at a temperature of approx. 905°F in a wood-fired pizza oven.
Today, Neapolitan pizza has its own association, is registered as a Traditional Specialty Guaranteed (TSG) product in Europe, and is included on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage.
Traditional Neapolitan-style pizza is also completely different from Chicago-style deep-dish pizza. Why is that the case—and does that mean that the latter isn’t real pizza?
Like all things when it comes to pizza history, you need a little more of the background story to know the answer.
As Italians from Naples and its surrounding villages traveled from one neighboring town and country to another, Neapolitan-style pizza kept spreading in Italy and Europe throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
Across the Atlantic ocean, things were different.
How Pizza Became Popular in the United States
Pizza didn’t become a thing in the United States until the early 1920s.
Italy was recovering from an economic collapse after World War I (1914-1918). Looking for a better life abroad, 4 million Italians had moved to America by 1920.
For comparison, that represented more than 10% of the foreign-born population of the U.S. at the time. During WWI, Italy’s population was approx. 36 million.
Most of the Italians who came to America were poor. They didn’t have much to bring but the dream of a better life, a few dollars in their pocket, and recipes of their grandmother’s cooking.
Luckily for foodies like you and me, pizza was one of those memories. And it wasn’t just Neapolitan-style pizza that came to the U.S.
A Lesser-Known Style of Italian Pizza
460 miles away from the town of Naples is the island of Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean sea and one of the 20 regions of Italy.
Apart from being known as the crime capital of Italy and housing Mount Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe, Sicily is a beautiful region with colorful people and a rich pizza history.
Sicily is the birthplace of sfincione, a pizza that’s very different from the one they make in Naples.
Also known as Sicilian pizza, sfincione is a style of pizza typically made by Italian grandmothers on New Year’s Eve and sold by street food vendors on the Feast of San Giovanni (or St. John the Baptist) on June 24th.
Sfincione is a hearty pizza topped with tomatoes, onions, anchovies, and lots of sheep’s milk cheese. It’s rectangular-shaped and comes with a thick, fluffy, and spongy crust.
Sicilian-style pizza is the epitome of homemade pizza. You don’t need to have advanced baking skills to make one. There’s no need to toss the dough or roll it out. And you top it with plenty of tomato sauce and cheese before baking it in the oven.
Apart from making gourmand Italians in Palermo make strange seal-like noises when filmed for “The Pizza Show” on Munchies (see below), sfincione is a straightforward, delicious, and filling meal for the hungry pizza eater.
The anchovies and rectangular shape aside, does anything about sfincione seem familiar to you?
Looking for shows to binge on while you’re cooking tonight? Check out my list of the best cooking channels on YouTube.
How Deep-Dish Pizza Become Popular in Chicago
Sooner or later, every recipe will change to fit the taste of the locals who make it, the ingredients that they have at hand, and the unique ways in which they—and their families—like to cook and eat their food.
This is exactly what happened to pizza when 4 million Italians flew their home country and travelled across the Atlantic ocean to live and work in the U.S. Some of them settled in the Midwest, including Chicago.
They found jobs, bought homes, and settled in America. What didn’t change was their love for homemade Italian food. Yet life in America was very different compared to life in their home country.
Unlike in Italy, where poverty was everywhere, even blue-collar workers in the U.S. at the time had access to an abundance of food. Suddenly, they didn’t need to put a little mozzarella on your pizza because they wouldn’t have any left for tomorrow. Or go easy on the sausage because there’s only that much left.
In the U.S., traditional Italian cuisine evolved from la cucina povera, the cooking of the poor, to Italian-American cuisine, a style of cooking where tomatoes, cheese, and meat came in abundance.
This brings us to Pizzeria Uno, the first pizzeria in Chicago. Opened in 1943, by restaurant owner Ric Riccardo and American athlete Ike Sewell.
Pizzeria Uno is the first restaurant known to sell Chicago-style deep-dish pizza.
This brings us to the story of Pizzeria Uno, the first pizzeria in Chicago. Opened in 1943 in Chicago’s Near North Side neighbourhood by Ric Riccardo and Ike Sewell, Pizzeria Uno is the first restaurant known to sell Chicago-style deep-dish pizza.
Ric Riccardo (born Richard Novaretti) was an Italian-American restaurant owner and Ike Sewell an American athlete and businessman. The two paired up to originally open a Mexican restaurant, but somehow the idea changed to a pizzeria.
The twist to the story is that Riccardo and Sewell didn’t want to open any pizzeria. They wanted their restaurant to sell Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, a style of pizza that Chicagoans of Italian descent probably already made in their homes, yet wasn’t commercially available anywhere.
They hired chef Alice May Redmond, bartender/bar manager Adolpho “Rudy” Malnati Sr., and waitress Helen Delisi and opened Pizzeria Uno for business.
It’s hard to trace back who exactly from Pizzeria Uno’s owners and employees should get the credit for Chicago-style deep-dish pizza as we know it today.
It’s probably Alice May Redmond, as she was the only one who actually knew how to cook, but that can’t necessarily be proven.
Whoever that person is, we can thank him or her for the thick crust, mozzarella on the bottom, layer of sauce meat on the middle, and tomato sauce on the top pizza that grew all so popular in Chicago and the Midwest.
The more you learn about the history of pizza across cities in the United States, and you’ll uncover a pattern over, and over, and over again.
It starts with someone opening the first pizzeria in town. Sooner or later, their employees (or their employees’ families) open up pizzerias of their own in another part of town.
Some pizzerias will remain open to this day, others will close, third will become big restaurant chains across a single or multiple states (in rarer cases, across the entire country).
So go the stories of Gino’s East, Lou Malnati’s, and Pizano’s.
In 1966, Sam Levine and Fred Bartoli opened Gino’s East just off Michigan’s East in downtown Chicago, the second-oldest pizzeria in Chicago. Before opening their first restaurant, Levine and Bartoli owned four taxi companies.
They hired Alice May Redmond, the same Alice May Redmond who helped opened Pizzeria Uno, as well as her sister, Ruth Hadley.
In the 1940’s, Lou Malnati started helping his father, Rudy Malnati, to co-manage the Pizzeria Uno.
In 1971, Lou and his wife Jean opened up a deep-dish pizzeria of their own called Lou Malnati’s in Chicago’s northern suburb of Lincolnwood.
It’s hard to tell the role that Rudy and his son Lou played in the making of the original deep-dish pizza recipe at Pizzeria Uno. What I can say is that they for sure knew how to make pizza.
Today, Lou Malnati’s is a chain of pizza restaurants that makes some of the best deep-dish pizza in Chicago. The chain is privately-owned by the Malnati family and run by Lou’s sons, Marc Malnati and Rick Malnati.
In 1991, Lou’s half-brother, Rudy Malnati Jr., got into the deep-dish pizza game and opened a restaurant of his own called Pizano’s.
Today, Pizano’s has five locations on Madison Street, State Street, Dearborn Street, by McCormick Place, and in Glenview. If you haven’t been to or ordered pizza from one of them, you’re definitely missing out.
So goes the family tree of Chicago-style deep-dish pizza.
Chicago-style deep-dish pizza is as real as pizza gets. Sure, it’s not the same as the tavern-style pizza they also make in Windy City or dollar-slice you’d get at a New York pizza joint. Just like the sfincione they make in Sicily is different from Neapolitan-style pizza.
That’s the thing about pizza. The Romans made it thousands of years ago. Raffaele Esposito topped it with tomato sauce in 1889. From the moment Italians started moving from their home country to the U.S. they started making Italian-American pizza in their new homes.