The Early Roots of Chicago Pizza
Pizza, a culinary tradition from ancient times, has undergone a remarkable evolution in Chicago, especially with the emergence of the iconic deep dish. From its humble origins in Italy to the immigrant-rich neighborhoods of Chicago, pizza’s journey in the United States is a tale filled with innovation and distinctiveness.
To understand the birth of deep-dish pizza, one must delve into the roots of its predecessor, the Neapolitan pizza. Originating in the 16th Century in Naples, Italy, these flatbreads were initially inexpensive street food for the working class. Over time, the concept of pizza spread across Italy and beyond, eventually making its way to the United States.
The Chicago Twist: Tavern Style Thin Crust Pizza
Italian Influence in Chicago
In the early 20th century, Italian immigrants from the Campania region settled in Chicago, similar to those in New York. Unlike their counterparts on the East Coast, these early Chicago pizza makers were not bakers but bar owners. This distinction led to the tavern-style thin-crust pizza, a crispy alternative to the traditional deep dish, and it gained popularity during the Great Depression.
The Rise of Tavern Pies
Tavern owners, looking to attract patrons after the end of prohibition, began baking thin pizzas, offering them for free with drinks. Notable establishments like Vito & Nicks, operating since the 1920s, contributed to the popularity of this style. However, the true game-changer was yet to come.
Enter Deep Dish: A Texan’s Vision
Ike Sewell’s Vision
Texas businessman Ike Sewell entered the scene with a different vision. Originally aiming for a Mexican-style restaurant, Sewell and his partner, Ric Riccardo, shifted their focus to pizza. Wanting to stand out, Sewell envisioned a more extensive, taller pie filled with toppings – the birth of the deep-dish concept.
Pizzeria Riccardo’s Struggles
The launch of Pizzeria Riccardo in 1943 faced challenges. Deep-dish pizzas took almost an hour to bake, unlike the quick-cooking New York-style pizzas. The pizzeria struggled dark and off the beaten path until a local food critic’s review turned the tide, leading to its eventual success.
The Deep Dish Conundrum: Who Really Invented It?
While Ike Sewell claimed to have “invented” deep dish, questions remain about the actual recipe’s origin. Sewell, with a background in alcohol sales, likely didn’t create the recipe himself.
The Malnati and Redmond Connection
Adolpho “Rudy” Malnati, a bartender turned manager at Pizzeria Riccardo, and Alice Mae Redmond, a dedicated employee, are believed to have played crucial roles in creating the deep dish recipe. The debate over the true inventor continues, but Sewell’s advocacy secured his place in deep dish history.
Deep Dish Goes National: Franchising and Competitors
Pizzeria Uno’s Expansion
After Riccardo’s death, Sewell expanded with the help of Rudy Malnati and his son Lou, opening Pizzeria Due. Pizzeria Riccardo became Pizzeria Uno in 1955. Sewell’s successful franchising agreements and competitors led to the nationwide growth of “Chicago-style deep dish.”
Competitors and Chains
The success of Pizzeria Uno spawned competitors, including Lou Malnati’s and Gino’s East, which individuals started with connections to the original restaurant. Franchising expanded nationally, but the number of Pizzeria Unos has since decreased.
Reinventing Deep Dish: Katz, Pequod’s, and Burt’s Place
Burt Katz’s Innovations
Burt Katz, starting in 1963, introduced innovations in deep-dish pizza. He experimented with crust textures, eventually creating the “caramelized crust,” a unique and crispy variation.
Legacy of Katz’s Pizzerias
Katz’s legacy continued with restaurants like Pequod’s and Burt’s Place, where his caramelized crust and commitment to deep dish excellence live on.
Chicago’s Pizza Landscape Today
A Windy City Icon
Today, deep-dish pizza is a Windy City icon, tracing its roots from ancient culinary traditions to the immigrant neighborhoods of Chicago. From Pizzeria Uno to the thriving competition, the deep-dish pizza has become synonymous with Chicago’s culinary identity.
Birthright and Debate: Pizzeria Uno and the Malnatis
Original Home of Deep Dish
Seventy years after its inception, Pizzeria Uno remains the original home of deep-dish pizza. While there is little dispute about it being the birthplace, debates persist about its actual creators.
Malnati Family’s Claims
The Malnati family, particularly Rudy Malnati Sr., asserts that he played a pivotal role in the recipe’s creation, distributing deep-dish slices on Chicago street corners. The story involves struggles after Riccardo’s death and Lou Malnati’s eventual departure to open his successful chain.
The Malnati Legacy: Lou’s and Pizano’s
Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria
Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria, founded in 1971, succeeded with a less dense deep-dish pizza featuring quality ingredients and their trademarked Buttercrust. The debate continues about who holds the original recipe.
Rudy Jr., Lou’s half-brother, opened Pizano’s in 1991, claiming to possess the original recipe their mother gave. The ongoing debate adds another layer to Chicago’s deep-dish saga.
Gino’s East: A Different Path
A Unique Connection
Connected to the origins of deep-dish but distinct from the Malnati-Riccardo-Sewell saga, Gino’s East opened in 1966. Former Uno cook Alice May Redmond played a crucial role in its success.
Gino’s East Experience
Known for its wood and stucco walls covered in graffiti, Gino’s East offers a delightful and thick deep-dish experience, further enriching Chicago’s diverse pizza offerings.
Exploring Chicago’s Pizza Diversity
A Culinary Journey
Chicago’s pizza scene is a tapestry of deep-dish, thin-crust, artisanal, and wood-fired pizzas. One can embark on a Chicago Pizza Tour to savor this diversity, exploring the city’s pizza history and sampling its various offerings.
From Naples to Chicago
A Culinary Icon
From its humble origins in Naples to the bustling streets of Chicago, pizza has evolved into a culinary icon. With its layered indulgence, Chicago’s deep-dish stands as a testament to the city’s rich immigrant history and culinary innovation. Whether indulging in a classic deep-dish slice or exploring the diverse pizza landscape, Chicago offers a flavorful journey through pizza history.