5 Unexpected Places to Find Deep-Dish Pizza in Chicago
Chicagoans have a fraught relationship with their deep-dish pizza. I would imagine it’s not that different from how residents of New Orleans feel about the French Quarter. On the one hand, these tourist attractions bring in visitors and give their respective cities a unique leg up on other destinations. But how many locals from the Garden District or Uptown actually spend time at one of the many frozen daiquiri bars getting a go-cup?
As someone who’s lived in Chicago for 30 years, I’ve felt the same way about touristy deep-dish as my counterparts do about Bourbon Street. But the problem in my Midwestern city is that not all deep-dish pies are the same. Some pizzerias are local favorites; others have turned into nationwide chains.To make matters worse, stuffed pizza, a subcategory of deep-dish, muddies the waters further, confusing both locals and tourists alike.
For the record, stuffed pies (Giordano’s, Nancy’s, Suparossa) have a second, thinner layer of dough that covers the cheese and toppings, which then gets buried beneath a thin layer of tomato sauce, separating the sauce from the rest of the pie. This renders that extra layer of dough soft, like a noodle, since it’s sandwiched between cheese and sauce. You get impressive cheese pulls for your Insta feed, but after a couple of bites, you’re forced to throw in the towel. (Every summer, you see visitors walking around downtown with carryout boxes from these places, and I always wonder what the hell they’re going to do with a cold, stuffed pizza in their hotel room).
The other problem with deep-dish has – until recently – been a heavy reliance on a few legendary names, all located within walking distance of the Michigan Avenue hotels. Uno’s, Due’s, Gino’s East and Lou Malnati’s are the Four Horsemen of the Pizz-Apocalypse. But only Lou’s seems to maintain consistent quality and a solid link to the past (admittedly difficult when you have more than 60 locations).
Which is why I want to share a few deep secret spots with you.
One of them just turned 50 last year, but most locals still don’t know it, and the others? Relatively new. Notably, four of these pizzas also fall into the “caramelized cheese crust” category. By placing mozzarella slices up along the perimeter of the pies before baking (much like they do in Detroit with shredded brick cheese), many of these pizza makers are emulating the late Burt Katz, who made long-fermented pan pizzas with caramelized crusts that were adored by Chicagoans. Throughout his 52 years in the pizza industry, he ran first Pequod’s, and later, Burt’s Place, often acting as the sole pizza maker at each establishment. When it comes to the cheesy edges Burt dreamed up, you can call it caramelised, or call it a Maillard reaction, but either way, it’s a pretty delicious addition to a slice that’s already fairly hefty.
Caramelised or not, new or old, centrally located or worth a trip, check out these spots the next time you’re heading out for deep-dish.
George Bumbaris couldn’t find a good deep-dish pie in his neighbourhood, so in the middle of 2021, he opened this namesake in Edgewater on the far north side of Chicago. Based on a Greek sesame seed-topped focaccia called lagana, he begins with an all-natural starter (practically unheard of among his peers) and a two-day fermentation. Thin slices of Grande mozzarella get shingled across the bottom dough, forming a protective barrier against the deep red, slightly thickened sauce made from a mix of Stanislaus Full Red Pizza Sauce and Filetto di Pomodoro. Bumbaris leaves an inch or so around the perimeter unsauced, so the cheese gets wonderfully browned. He adds toppings (just opt for sausage like the locals who know) and a sprinkling of Romano before baking, and he shuns herbs such as dried oregano, which I think wouldn’t hurt. The pies emerge firm and riddled with coarse cornmeal on the undercarriage.
Most deep-dish pies in Chicago fall into one of two camps when it comes to the crust and crumb. They’re either crisp on the outside with a very tight crumb (My Pi, Lou Malnati’s), or they’re puffy and chewy, the result of more oil in the dough (Labriola, Gino’s, Bartoli’s). But thanks to his use of an all-natural starter, George’s pizza straddles that line. There is a fairly firm crust, but the interior is dotted with air pockets as a result of the fermentation. The slices have some heft, but you can easily remove them from the pan with one hand and hold each slice with just a few fingers, unlike the knife-and-fork monstrosities usually featured by out-of-town reporters. The result is a slice with good chew, sizable, but not overwhelming.
Robert Maleski did what a lot of furloughed chefs did in 2020: Start a new business. Named for his grandmother and created as a nod to the late Burt Katz’s style of deep-pan pizza, Milly’s had been operating out of a commercial kitchen in Chicago’s artsy, centrally located Logan Square until early 2022, when Maleski finally landed a permanent brick-and-mortar address. Milly’s is now tucked among the pho shops and Vietnamese jewelry stores on Uptown’s West Argyle Street. Like Bumbaris, Maleski leaves the perimeter sauce-free, getting a lovely, darkened cheesy edge that travels from the top to about halfway down the side of the pie. Colourful jalapeños and peppadew peppers stand out as a foil to the milky clouds of soft ricotta dotting several of his pies; many have become Instagram darlings. Like other New School deep pie makers, Maleski nails the Optimal Bite Ratio (OBR), so you experience equal amounts of sauce, cheese, crust, and toppings in every bite.
Rich Labriola has had baking in his blood for more than 30 years. After selling his commercial bakery in the nineties, he started a suburban café offering wood-fired Neapolitan pies, eventually opening a store downtown, right off Michigan Avenue. After seeing one too many monstrosities, Labriola wanted to reinvent the deep-dish, but he also was inspired by Katz. Using a biga – a pre-ferment of water, flour and yeast – to kickstart his dough, he places thickish slices of Grande mozzarella across the bottom, forming a solid protective barrier against his chunkier reduced tomato sauce applied by hand. Labriola achieves a deeply burnished edge on his pies, which — like so many tavern-style pies in Chicago — are also lined underneath by a layer of coarse cornmeal. Since the pies bake for upwards of 45 minutes at 530°F, he’s able to use raw, bulk Italian sausage that is pinched and pressed onto the pie, which renders the fat over the course of the bake. I’ll let you imagine what that does to the flavour of the pizza.
Larry Aronson opened My Pi on Loyola’s campus near Lake Michigan in the summer of 1971, just five months after Lou Malnati opened his eponymous restaurant in suburban Lincolnwood. Inspired by the original Pizzeria Uno downtown, Aronson made a few tweaks of his own, but he kept the original shape and size intact from Ric Riccardo’s version at Uno in the 1940s. Aronson’s son Rich attended the Culinary Institute of America and worked in fine dining before the lure of the family business proved too much. Today, he runs the joint, which occupies a sliver of a strip mall in Bucktown, and Larry (now well into his 80s) still makes the secret spice packet that goes into the tomato sauce. The pies are firm – and yes, easy to hold with one hand – and that beguiling tomato sauce makes it hard to eat just one slice.
Fennel-jammed sausage is de rigueur. Unlike Milly’s or Lefty’s, which feature a uniform height all the way across the pie, My Pi pizzas have a higher edge than middle. They also heat up beautifully from frozen, which is probably why they’re so popular on Goldbelly these days. Lou Malnati’s may be the 900-pound gorilla when it comes to Chicago deep-dish, but My Pi is truly the little engine that could. It continues to surprise plenty of locals with its quality, derived from a strict adherence to the 50-year-old recipe.
You may have noticed a recurring theme here: Burt Katz. The force behind Gullivers (now closed), Pequod’s, and ultimately, Burt’s Place, was the first to begin featuring a Detroit-like caramelized frico along the upper perimeter of the pie in the 1970s. After Katz fell ill in 2015, John Munao and his best friend, Jerry Petrow — both of whom worked as commodities traders at the Chicago Board of Trade — made him an offer to buy the business. After Katz died, the two friends started Burt’s 2.0. But they soon had a falling out, and Munao left to open Lefty’s in Wilmette, about 15 minutes north. The pie is similar, but for legal reasons, not exactly the same. Claiming to be the “Home of the Caramelised Crust,” Lefty’s carries on that tradition started some 50 years ago: mozz-protected base, fennel-laced sausage and thick sauce, with a finished slice you can easily hold in one hand while you scroll on your phone with the other.
Honorary Mention: Uncle Jerry’s Pizza Co., 133 W. Main St., Cary, IL, 224-888-8663, @unclejerryspizzacompany Jerry Czerwinski spent 20 years working on his dough recipe, doing it in his free time when he wasn’t making a living as a carpenter. In 2021, he and his family took the plunge, opening a pizzeria in the same space as the butcher shop where he gets his sausage (naturally). In the process, he’s created a sensation in the northwest suburbs. It’s just over an hour on the train from Ogilvie Station to Cary, but once you get there, you need only hop across the street.
Jerry’s pies are stunningly thin in the middle, but have a majestic wall worthy of Game of Thrones and covered in Bacio cheese. The slices are as firm as any artisan pie, with virtually no tip sag. If you’re up for a little adventure to “the country” and you want to try a pizza with no other in its class, Jerry’s is worth the trip.