Donna Marie Malnati, doughmaker extraordinaire from one of Chicago’s first families of pizza, dies at 93

‘Mama Malnati’ helped her son develop the thin crust of Pizano’s. But she never switched her pizza allegiance from deep dish.

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Donna “Mama” Malnati helped develop the crust at Pizano’s pizza restaurants, operated by her son Rudy Malnati Jr.

Donna “Mama” Malnati helped develop the crust at Pizano’s pizza restaurants, operated by her son Rudy Malnati Jr.

Provided photo

Donna Marie Malnati was Chicago pizza royalty.

Her husband, Rudy Malnati, developed his pizza prowess while working at Pizzeria Uno, the birthplace of deep dish pizza.

He passed on his knowledge to the next generation, who started pizza dynasties of their own. Their son Rudy Jr. founded Pizano’s and her stepson Lou established Lou Malnati’s.

Though “Mama Malnati” helped her son develop the thin crust of Pizano’s, Rudy Malnati Jr. said she never switched her allegiance from deep dish.

She left explicit instructions on the food to be served at the upcoming celebration of her life.

“I don’t want that damn thin-crust pizza,” he said she told him. “The only thing I want served is our original deep dish sausage and cheese.”

Mrs. Malnati, a registered nurse who learned the secret of making good pizza dough from her husband, died Jan. 3 in Chicago at 93, according to her son.

Young Donna grew up in Muscatine, Iowa, the daughter of Florence and Harold Carter. Her father operated a second-hand store. During World War II, she worked at an arms plant. Then, her son said, “She got on a bus, said goodbye to her mom and dad and off she went to Chicago” to study nursing at Northwestern University and work at Wesley Memorial and Passavant Memorial Hospitals.

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When she dropped in one day at Pizzeria Uno, 29 E. Ohio, Rudy Malnati “was on the floor running the restaurant,” their son said. Malnati would go on to operate Pizzeria Due and Su Casa, a Mexican restaurant.

When they got married, they celebrated at Riccardo’s Restaurant, owned by Ric Riccardo, who has been credited with starting Pizzeria Uno with Ike Sewell. 

Mrs. Malnati was still creating crust at Pizano’s four years ago, when she was approaching 90. “Her kitchen magic was the dough. She handled the dough, and I handled the restaurant,” her son said.

Chicago Magazine singled out her expertise in a 2010 article on pizza. In a State Street basement, an 83-year-old lady named Donna Marie Malnati may represent our last link to the genesis of deep-dish pizza,” Jeff Ruby wrote. “The widow of Rudy Malnati—an early player at Pizzeria Uno—and mother of Pizano’s Rudy Malnati Jr., Donna Marie spends her nights fashioning dough balls from an old and secret family recipe. Whatever is in it, the recipe produces the most addictive thin crust in Chicago. Irresistible caramelized edges here and there give way to a buttery, pastrylike base that recalls deep-dish without the backbreaking bulk. It’s got the distinct flavor of history.”

“It was always super–cool to go to Pizano’s and know that Donna Malnati had a personal hand making the pizza for many years,” said Tim Samuelson, the city of Chicago’s cultural historian.

After a long night of dough-making, her son said, Mrs. Malnati might enjoy a Campari cocktail or a Black & White Scotch whisky.

Pizano’s features a rigatoni dish named in her honor, Hot Mama’s Pasta, made with a spicy tomato cream sauce.

“Everybody called her ‘mama,’ ” her son said.

Her husband died in 1974. In addition to her son Rudy, she is survived by four grandchildren. Her son Robert and stepson Lou died before she did. A celebration of life is planned from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday at the Pizano’s at 2106 S. Indiana Ave.

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