In October, National Pizza Month, it seems fitting to take a look at the origins of the hometown specialty.
The pizza nationally known as Chicago-style began when Ike Sewell, a World War II veteran who’d served in Italy, opened Pizzeria Uno with Ric Riccardo of the legendary Riccardo’s in River North in 1943.
An authentic, deep-dish Chicago pizza starts with a thin layer of dough, laid in a deep, well-seasoned pizza pan and pressed up its sides. It’s then topped with an inch or more of mozzarella cheese, the diner’s choice of meat and vegetables and a layer of seasoned crushed tomatoes.
Fennel-laced Italian sausage — not pepperoni — is the meat of choice for Chicagoans. Some pizzeras, such as Lou Malnati’s, layer it on so thick it forms a solid disk.
Just who created the deep-dish recipe is unclear. Uno partisans claim it was Sewell’s inspiration, but others attribute it to Lou Malnati, who worked for Pizzeria Uno before founding his own pizza chain.
In 1971, Italian immigrant Rocco Palese of the erstwhile Guy’s Pizza, whose last location closed in 2012, refined the deep-dish style further by tinkering with his mother’s recipe for scarciedda, an Italian Easter pie from his hometown of Potenza. Thus the “stuffed pizza” was born. This sandwiches a thin, almost unnoticeable layer of dough above the cheese and below the tomatoes, creating a somewhat firmer pizza, capable of holding even more cheese.
Palese went on to found the Nancy’s Pizza chain, named for his wife, Annunziata, in 1974. That same year, Efren and Joseph Boglio, natives of Torino, Italy, opened the first Giordano’s, serving a stuffed pizza they claimed was based on their mother’s Easter pie. Giordano’s and Edwardo’s took the concept even farther by adding ingredients such as spinach or pesto to the “stuffing.”
Most Chicago pizzerias also serve thin-crust pizza, known colloquially as “flat pizza.” Some fans of Home Run Inn and similar pizzerias, typically South Siders, claim this style as the “true” Chicago pizza. Unlike the flexible, breadlike crusts of thin-crust pizzas sold in cities such as New York, Chicago’s flat pizza tends to have a crisp, short crust and is invariably cut into small squares, like canapes, a presentation sometimes called “party cut.” We aren’t sure where this started but we’ve always assumed that it indicates this pizza is meant an appetizer — not a real meal — unlike deep-dish pizza, which is knife-and-fork food.
Since 2006, a number of newer pizzerias, such as Spacca Napoli in Ravenswood have begun promoting Neapolitan-style thin-crust pizzas baked in wood-fired ovens.