Steve Dolinsky is out to banish longstanding myths about a most divisive topic: pizza.
Revelation No. 1: Deep-dish isn’t the representative pizza of the Windy City.
Revelation No. 2: Chicago is Pizza City, USA, reigning supreme when it comes to depth and breadth of pizza. (Sorry, New York).
These epiphanies came from just over a year of sauce-dribbled research by Dolinsky, who is a well-regarded food reporter known as the Hungry Hound at Chicago’s ABC7. He visited 185 pizza places in and around Chicago, and 56 in New York (we’ll get to that), consuming up to four disc-shaped meals in a single day. The fruits of his labor take two forms, both with the same title. The first is a book, “Pizza City USA: 101 Reasons Why Chicago Is America’s Greatest Pizza Town.” The other, his tour company Pizza City, USA, conducts three neighborhood walking tours, led by “doughcents,” and one bus tour, usually led by Dolinsky, that share pizza insights and pie at four pizzerias.
The journalist’s probing into Chicago’s pizza scene began, really, out of sheer annoyance. Dolinsky says he had read too many articles claiming to list Chicago’s “7 Hottest Pizza Places,” and he got fed up. The lists were always the same, and he felt like they weren’t representative of “best” in any sense of the word. “I had been to two of the places on the list earlier that week, and I just thought this is stupid, that just makes no sense,” he says during a phone interview.
In the past, he had dug deeply into foods such as pho and Italian beef, sampling and reporting on dozens within each category. He decided to do the same for pizza. As he visited 10 and then 20 and then 30 pizza joints, he felt like he was barely scratching the surface. Not only that, his online pizza posts drew up to 10 times the usual number of views. He was onto something. So he kept eating.
On a Pizza City, USA bus tour in August, the passion for pizza is apparent. Not just from Dolinsky, who stands at the head of long table at Labriola, a cafe and bakery on Chicago’s North Michigan Avenue, wearing a black, button-up shirt with a pizza slice patch on its sleeve; but also from the 22 tour participants. About half are from the Chicago area, while others represent New York, Minnesota, North Carolina and beyond. Any awkwardness that arises when dining with strangers dissipates quickly; pizza is a great unifier.
Dolinsky starts by dismissing that long-held myth about Chicago and pie. “People who actually live and breathe in Chicago don’t eat deep dish,” he says. “Deep dish is to Chicago what Times Square is to New York.”
Real Chicagoans, he explains, are more likely to order a different type of pizza, also native to Chicago, known as tavern-style, which consists of a cracker-thin crust, cut into squares. Dolinsky says that as far back as the 1930s, tavern owners realized that their patrons would drink more beer if they passed around a free, salty snack. Years before stuffed crust and deep dish bubbled into our consciousness, the cracker-thin, square-cut, tavern-style pie was born. Around town, this thin style is far more common than its husky counterpart. “Chicago-style pizza is tavern style. It’s what we’ve been doing here for generations,” emphasizes Dolinksy. “The stuffed and the deep dish are much more Johnny-come-lately.”
Inside pizza kitchens
After clearing that matter up, our first pizza is served, and it happens to be, well, deep dish. A delicious deep dish, and one that, despite being in Chicago’s most touristy areas, doesn’t make the usual “top seven” lists, although it should, with its corn-meal-dusted crust that is as airy as it is thick, with cheese that caramelizes all around the rim and a refreshingly bright layer of tomatoes on top (in Chicago deep dish, the layers go crust, cheese, toppings, sauce). We each devour a piece, leaving few “dough orphans,” as Dolinsky calls abandoned nubs of crust, and then visit the kitchen, where our guide shows us the oven used to bake the pizza and passes around a metal, Chicago-made pan so we can hold the tools of the trade.
We hop on the bus and visit Pizzeria Bebu in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, where we try what Dolinsky refers to as “artisanal” pie, with a thin, bubbly, lightly charred crust and tender center, topped with an unexpected mix of toppings: pickled jalapeño, pimento cheese and broccoli rabe. Then it’s on to Pat’s Pizza in the Lakeview neighborhood for what Dolinsky proclaims “one of the best expressions of Chicago tavern-style pizza.” We get a tour of the kitchen and learn that doughmaking, here, involves a seven-day process. Then we devour squares of that tortilla-thin, crisp dough topped with cheese, sausage and veggies. Finally, it’s on to Dante’s Pizzeria, a New York-style joint in the Avondale neighborhood, where we each do our best to devour an enormous, floppy slice. (Dough orphans ensue.) At each pizza place, Dolinsky is a little bit pizza Einstein, talking about things like “OBR” (that’s “optimal bite ratio,” and refers to the preferred distribution of crust, sauce, toppings and cheese) and “PIGUE syndrome” (“Pizza I Grew Up Eating” syndrome, alluding to the inability to distinguish between what’s good and what’s known). And he’s a little bit pizza Yoda: “All deeps are pans but not all pans are deeps,” he muses.
Dolinsky hears the same question all the time: What’s your favorite? With so many categories, it’s complicated and might change depending on how he’s feeling that day. But what’s especially revelatory is this: None of the entries on those “top seven” lists that inspired this whole journey are on his tours. In fact, he says none of them even made it into the 101 spots in his book. That’s what he loves about all this: He can steer even longtime Chicagoans away from the expected and introduce them to some truly stellar pizza.