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Food We Love: A Chicago pizza tour explores deep dish, tavern style, pan pizza

Welcome to Food We Love, our Sun-Times video series featuring stories about Chicagoans and the food they love. Each episode has a new story about a hidden gem, secret recipe, family food tradition, unusual favorite dish or one of Chicago’s famous food specialties. Our host is Chicago journalist Linda Yu, who loves cooking at home, as well as exploring new restaurants throughout the city.

In today’s episode:  Linda goes on a pizza tour with Chicago food writer Steve Dolinsky to try different types of Chicago style pizza. You’ll want to watch each one of the three videos to learn more about deep dish; tavern style and roman inspired pan pizza.

Linda Yu loves finding new recipes to share with Chicagoans in her series Food We Love.

Chicago’s a pizza town

It’s no secret that deep dish is Chicago’s best known pizza tradition, but what may be a surprise is how many other types of pizza varieties are also considered Chicago-style and which is actually the most popular among Chicago residents.

Food writer Steve Dolinsky, who spent months exploring Chicago pizza for his new book “Pizza City, USA,” found there are ten unique styles of pizza in our city:

  • Deep Dish
  • Tavern Style
  • Thin crust
  • New York-style
  • Artisan
  • Neapolitan
  • Stuffed
  • Sicilian
  • Roman
  • Detroit Style

We are going to dig into three of those pizza styles starting with deep dish but first a little background on Steve Dolinsky’s pizza quest.  Dolinsky — a 13-time James Beard Award winner and ABC7 Chicago food critic — has done his research: he ate pizza up to 3 times a day for months, testing, munching, devouring and enjoying  pizzas from scores of city and suburban pizza joints. To level the pizza competition, he ordered half sausage/half pepperoni at every sitting.

The result? Dolinsky discovered that Chicago boasts ten distinct types of pizza, way more than New York City offerings, and that’s why he believes the Windy City earned the Pizza City title. His book also includes some of the complicated Chicago pizza history, his favorite pizza places as well as advice about how to judge the quality of a pizza.

For those who want an even deeper dive in Chicago pizza, Dolinsky or his “doughcents” also guide tours throughout the city.  One stop always focuses on deep dish, one of the pizza styles most identified with Chicago.

Deep Dish: LaBriola Ristorante

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We went to LaBriola just off Chicago’s Magnificent Mile for deep dish, the pizza style invented here in Chicago in the 1940s.  At LaBriola, the deep dish is the combination of dough, cheese, toppings and sauce that create an inches high pie. Talking with Dolinsky, we learn to carefully look at the quality of the pizza dough and savor its level of crunchiness. Other unique features of this particular pizza include the type of cheese that tops that dough, as well as how well the toppings are sourced and spread.

What about the crust?

LaBriola pizzaiolo (pizza chef) Mike Clark points out the way he makes sure cheese reaches the outer edges of the pizza crust so that as they bake, the cheese begins to overflow, creating finished pizzas with a charred edge of cheesy goodness surrounding the outside of each deep-dish creation.

Did you ever think about OBR when enjoying Chicago pizza?

That’s what Dolinsky calls Optimal Bite Ratio. That means each bite of pizza should have the perfect balance of crunchy crust, cheese, sauce and topping.  Not too much crust, not swimming in a pond of sauce, not too little topping.

Roman al Taglio pan pizza: Bonci

Two hundred kinds of pizza.

That’s what is on offer at Bonci, the year old roman al taglio pizza shop in Chicago’s West Loop. If you haven’t heard of roman al taglio, it means “pizza by the slice made in rectangular pans.” “Varieta” should be added to  the name since the variety of ingredients on these thin crust pizzas range from prosciutto to burrata to eggs to potatoes to zucchini to n’duja (a spicy sausage) and more.

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Dolinsky included to Bonci in his book, so we stopped by during a busy lunchtime to learn more. Dolinsky found Bonci’s roman al taglio is one of his favorites of the ten distinct styles of Chicago pizza. Bonci is a Rome, Italy based pizza company and its two Chicago locations are the company’s first foray in the U.S.

At Bonci,  three different flours go into making the dough for this unique pan pizzas. The fluffy, airy crust almost eats like focaccia.  15 to 20 kinds of pizza are usually offered at any given time.  If one sells out, another creation takes its place. Ask the server to cut a small portion of as many pizzas as you like, you pay by weight.

Would you choose sausage and tomato sauce roman al taglio, or opt for pizza with no tomatoes and no cheese?

Tavern style: Pat’s Pizza

A pizza dough mixer that came off a battleship; a dough roller than had to be manually re-calibrated to thinner than thin, and a printing company that couldn’t understand why their paper was being used to age pizza dough. That’s part of the story behind Pat’s Pizza and Ristorante in the Lakeview neighborhood where the Chicago pizza tradition is now in its third generation.

It is one of Dolinsky’s top picks so we went along to try to the tavern style pizza served there. Tavern style is thin, cut into small squares, and according to Dolinsky, it’s the type of pizza eaten by most Chicagoans.

The Pizza City U.S.A. book notes that tavern style developed because pizza restaurant owners and bartenders knew salty food would lead to higher beer sales. The squares of pizza meant patrons didn’t notice how many of the small portions they were eating so it was easy to eat more.

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Pat’s Pizza  is usually one of the stops on the Dolinsky pizza tours. One of the reasons this pizza restaurant stands out over the thousands of tavern style establishments:  its ultra-thin, ultra-crispy, ultra-tasty crust.

Gina Pianetto is the third generation of her family to run Pat’s.  Her grandfather, Pat, started the restaurant, bringing his whole family into cooking, serving and running the restaurant. His son Nick (and Gina’s dad) was the second generation.  Nick told his wife Linda she just needed to help out for a few months while he worked to improve their beloved restaurant and pizza.  29 years later, and after the loss of Nick, Linda finally retired last year.

Nick’s contribution to his brand of tavern style pizza is the thinnest of thin crusts.  In the back of the kitchen sits a huge mixer, so ancient it now takes the thump of a hammer to get it started.  Nick had the dough roller manufacturer come in to alter the machine to his specifications.  His pizza crust could be no thicker than the thickness of a stack of seven sheets of paper…. exactly. Then, a special paper to hold the crusts for 3-4 days to remove the moisture.

Dolinsky says the result is a crust that crackles when you bite into it.  OBR, Dolinsky’s Optimal Bite Ratio, is critical here.  A small square of pizza, with each bite containing a balanced combination of crunchy crust, cheese, sauce and topping.  Just reading about it makes you want a beer and pizza, doesn’t it?

For more information on Steve Dolinzky’s pizza tours, check out this website.

We hope you’ve enjoyed this segment of “Food We Love with Linda Yu.” Check the links below to watch Linda’s other #foodwelove videos. Each one has a great story plus recipes for you to try at home. You can also follow Linda on social media.

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