The History of Chicago Deep-Dish Pizza

published Feb 17, 2016
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(Image credit: Christine Han)

In the United States of Pizza, crust is a mark of origin. Cracker-thin means California, one step thicker signals the coal-fired ovens of New Haven, while blistered and thick-enough-to-fold-n’-go means New York. Deep-dish, of course, hails from Chicago, and like many New Yorkers I didn’t understand its charm. With a daughter attending college in Chicago, though, I’ve had the chance for plenty of location taste testing. While I’m still not in love with the pie, we’re good friends now, and I can definitely appreciate deep-dish’s all-American immigrant story.

The Italian Immigration to Chicago

As part of the Great Migration that began in 1880, Italian immigrants poured into Chicago. Poor, Roman Catholic, and usually lacking formal education, they were often ostracized and subjected to economic, political, and social barriers. Nevertheless, by 1920 approximately 60,000 Italian immigrants, the third largest population in the U.S., called Chicago “home.” Families and even small villages were reunited in mini-enclaves (aka “slums”).

At the time, Napolitano and Roman-style pizza — both thin-crust bread dough pies — were popular in port cities like New York and Philadelphia, and in Chicago Pompei Restaurant, which opened in 1909 on West Taylor Street, initially served a thin-crust cheese pizza. As immigration continued, Southern Italian and Sicilians arrived in large numbers and became fruit and vegetable grocers and shopkeepers. They were also skilled tradesmen, including shoemakers, seamstresses, and barbers. They opened food shops, like Gonella’s bakery, Al’s Italian Beef, Turano Bakery, and Pizzeria Napolitano.

The community was challenged by dramatic ups and downs. During the Prohibition Era, Al Capone and his mobster criminality seized the public imagination and Italian social stock plummeted. It momentarily rose when a daredevil Italian pilot completed a transatlantic flight from Italy to Chicago in 1933, and then World War II changed everything for Italian-Americans. Initially, Mussolini and his fascist regime were not seen as a threat. When Italy joined the Axis, Italian-Americans lost pride and opportunity, and pizza’s popularity waned.

But the American taste for pizza was inexorable, especially after the troops came home with a taste for European fare and the budget for a pie. Today there are more than 15,000 pizza places from Boston to Honolulu (franchise versions aside), and it’s safe to say that no two pies are alike. Each pizza bears the stamp of the cook. Perhaps that individualism, altogether American, explains why pizza is now vastly more popular in America than it is in Italy.

The Birth of Deep-Dish Pizza

Chicago deep-dish pizza was the happy consequence of unhappy economic and cultural shifts during World War II. The ingredients necessary for pizza dough — wheat flour, corn oil, salt, and yeast — were not among the rationed foods, and the filling could be made from leftover meats and vegetables. The deep-dish pie was also the perfect meal for manual laborers.

Two entrepreneurs were quick to spot the appetite of the boys marching home. Ike Sewell, an ex-University of Texas lineman, and Ric Riccardo (nee Novaretti), a food business operator of Italian-American heritage, teamed up to open Pizzeria Uno. The first deep-dish pie, sold in 1943, was theirs.

It had a thicker crust than a super-skinny Napoli pie, but not the super-thick crust of a Sicilian one, called Sfincione or Sfinciuni. Rather than being baked on the bottom of the oven, deep-dish was baked in a circular pan, two to three inches deep. The pizza was also upside-down. A thick layer of mozzarella cheese was topped with meat or vegetables, covered with tomato sauce, and topped with crust. The concoction required a knife, a fork, and a napkin — and it was cooked to order.

Uno spawned a brave new world of pizza. First there was Gino’s East, founded by former cabbies and with Alice May Redmond, the African American woman who had done the actual cooking at Uno, in the kitchen pumping out pies with a pronounced corn flavor and a yellow tinge. In 1971, Lou Malnati, who had been co-manager of Pizzeria Uno with his father Adolpho “Rudy” Sr., started his own pizza empire, opening first in the Northshore ‘burb of Lincolnwood. Lou’s buttery crust and fresh, uncooked tomatoes were trademarked into The Malnati Chicago Classic. And two decades later, Lou’s brother Rudy, Jr. opened Pizano’s, a contemporary take on deep-dish, in downtown Chicago in 1991 to great acclaim. The thinnest crust of the deep-dish pies, it’s a bit more bread dough-like in chew that the rest, although still, not the density of a N.Y. Sicilian pie.

Two others, Giordano’s and Nancy’s, are also historically significant. Both opened in the early 1970s, when the idea that a little is good and a ton is better reigned. Both serve behemoth, stuffed pies. Each has ardent admirers, but their soggy second crust makes these pies too different from the gold standard to count as pizza in my book.

Haters Gonna Hate

From Anthony Bourdain to Graham Eliot to Mario Batali, chefs deride the Chicago invention, calling it at worst an abomination and at best unworthy of being called pizza. Foodie comedians have joined in on the oh-so-superior complaint festival.

But in the Second City, deep=dish pies are beloved. Native Chicago-ans, like Ike Barinholtz and Shonda Rhimes, have come out swinging. And when the forelorn Chicago Cubs were finally a serious contender in baseball, Giordano’s marked the occasion with a pie with the insignia emblazoned in Parmesan cheese.

Of course there are chain places that serve insipid, sweet, wanna-be pies that are worthy of chefs’ disdain and comedians’ ire. They are the pies of wrath. But that doesn’t make deep dish less “real” than other versions. After all, surely it’s possible to find bad renditions of any of the regional styles. Importantly, deep-dish pizza offers a clear snapshot of the Italian-American experience in pie through the lens of Chicago. It is the food of memories, of place and time. And it has my respect.