In recent years, it has often felt like when one sees food-centric discussion of Chicago-style pizza on the web, the thesis of the essay almost invariably comes down to a single point of interest: The fact that deep dish pizza is not actually the go-to, everyday pizza for sauce, dough and cheese-loving Chicagoans.
This is indisputably correct, and as those same essays will quickly point out, the role of “everyday pizza” is instead filled by what Chicagoans simply refer to as thin-crust pies, but the more discerning and food-minded instead know as Chicago tavern-style pizza. This is what a Chicagoan orders on a random weeknight when they forgot to thaw anything for dinner; what they absentmindedly snack on while watching a Bears game at the bar; what they inhale at 2 a.m. during the middle of an all-night rager. Nobody is ordering deep dish for delivery in the middle of the night, because deep dish takes too damn long for the business of “I’m high/drunk and need pizza to arrive as quickly as possible.” Deep dish is a culture of its own; one that amiably exists alongside tavern style pizza in Chicago and has its own charms, but deep dish is first and foremost an event. One goes out for deep dish in the same sense that one goes to church on Easter Sunday or the mall on Black Friday—it’s a whole production rather than simply a tool that fulfills a necessity.
What so many of the essays about Chicago tavern-style pizza seem to miss, though, is what genuinely separates these pies from the other “thin crust” pizzas of the world, and thus what makes the style unique in its own right. Because suffice to say, Chicago tavern-style pizza has little if anything in common with a frozen Digiorno, or a floppy, foot-long New York sidewalk slice. This is its own class of pizza, and one whose charms are just as readily apparent to Chicagoans as the more famous deep dish.
So let’s dive in to what Chicago tavern-style pizza truly is, and what makes it great.
The first thing we need to do is obviously to define our terms. What are we implying when we refer to tavern-style Chicago pizza?
Well, for starters, we’re talking about the oldest style of pizza produced in the city, as the more famous deep dish didn’t start to gain prominence until some point in the 1940s. The “tavern-style” pie, on the other hand, evolved much more slowly, wherever Italian immigrants in the city thought to make it. This style of pizza isn’t particularly associated with singular inventors or proprietors, but is instead more associated with the city and its drinking establishments, where it was a natural incentive to visit/stay at the bar.
Tavern-style Chicago pizza typically can be defined by the following qualities:
— The crust, obviously, is thin. It should go without saying that this implies “thin in contrast with deep dish,” but it’s also considerably more thin than in almost any classic New York pizza slice. Rather than being hand-stretched, the dough is rolled out into a circle, which makes it more firm and thin. It’s then baked longer than most other pizza doughs would be, which results in a drier, crispier, crunchier texture. Tavern-style pizza dough of this sort may still have some chew to it, but the edges in particular can often be quite crunchy, with a buttered cracker-like flavor they get from baking directly on a metal/stone sheet or very shallow pan.
— Most tavern-style pizza crusts terminate at the edge with little to no “bump” or noticeable crust area—they’re simply crisp and breadstick like, and perhaps slightly chewy. This allows the maker of a tavern-style pizza to spread sauce, cheese and toppings all the way to the edge in many cases, meaning that in some cases you can barely see the crust at all. Certainly, you’ll never see the one or two inch ring of chewy dough that one finds at the outside edge of a New York pizza slice. With that said, some Chicago tavern-style pizza makers do have crust edges that are slightly more dramatic or noticeable, with a crimped, almost laminated edge that evokes buttery puffed pastry. The Home Run Inn pizza below has this sort of pastry-like edge, while a Barnaby’s pizza is dusted with cornmeal and crimped for a similarly alluring texture.
— As one will notice when looking at tavern-style pizza photos, this type of pizza is pretty much invariably cut into small squares rather than long, traditional triangular slices. These smaller squares are easy to tear off and eat with a single hand, and the thin, crisp bottom crust means that a proper square piece of Chicago tavern-style pizza will never droop when held from an edge with a single hand. It’s a style of pizza that makes sharing very easy, as you can get exactly as many small pieces as you want, and eat it without needing a plate to hold it. You can even eat a piece with one hand while holding a beer (or small child) with the other hand. Likewise, the sturdiness of this style means that it can hold a thicker layer of toppings without any worry that it will collapse or droop.
— In terms of toppings, the same ingredients popular nationally are also popular in Chicago—although notably, it’s the one major region where fennel-heavy Italian sausage trumps the ubiquitous pepperoni as the most popular single topping. With that said, a “supreme” or house special pizza from any Chicago tavern-style pizza joint will often include both, because why deprive yourself of multiple forms of pork? The most notable aspect of toppings on tavern-style pizza isn’t really the inclusion of odd ingredients, but the sheer amount of toppings often contained on each pie—once again, held firm by the sturdiness of the thin and crispy bottom crust.
— Finally, Chicago tavern-style pizzas are often very heavily covered in cheese, and the cheese is often the last topping added—something I always took for granted while eating pizza in the Chicago suburbs as a kid, but have since come to realize is nowhere near a universal maxim. Regardless, this often has the effect of covering all the toppings on a Chicago tavern-style pizza under a solid blanket of cheese, which effectively holds them all in place so they can’t fall off a piece when lifted. It also means that a Chicago tavern-style pizza can look a little strange, because all you see at first when you look at it is cheese. Only the sausage-shaped lumps imply the presence of the city’s most iconic pizza ingredient.
In a nutshell, Chicago’s tavern-style pizza is great because it offers both ease of consumption and bombastic flavors in equal measure. It’s a great style of pizza in particular for those who believe that good pizza is all about the toppings—and I happen to be one of those people—rather than dough, sauce, or attractively stretching cheese. You can keep your floppy New York slice and its three discs of greasy pepperoni—I’d rather have a cheese-clad square absolutely inundated in sausage, peppers and mushroom. It’s a style that is both utilitarian and delicious, humble and less focused on aesthetics than it is on getting the job done.
It’s also a very successful business model for many bars, literal taverns, and pizzeria chains around the Chicago area, with many of the chains known for tavern-style pizza stretching back close to 100 years at this point. Chains such as Barnaby’s, Barraco’s, Aurelio’s, Pat’s and Vito & Nick’s put the style on the map, and remain institutions to this day—nor does anyone think of their pizzas as a “special occasion” event for out-of-towners, as one will likely hear about Unos or Lou Malnati’s. If you’re a Chicagoan, this is the pizza you hold near and dear. It’s the pizza you buy to celebrate kids’ birthday parties and high school graduations. It’s what you eat on Halloween night as you wait for trick ‘r treaters to traipse up the driveway. Tavern-style pizza is the hum and flow of a Chicago existence, doled out one crisp square at a time.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more food and drink writing.