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"Eating triangular-cut pizza is like playing checkers, square-cut is like chess."

The declaration from Shawn Dockter, CEO of Minnesota's Heggies Pizza, is baffling on the surface — just as baffling as why Minnesotans prefer their pizza on cracker-thin crusts and cut in squares. The style is so emblematic of the state that Dockter once lobbied former Gov. Mark Dayton to declare the square cut Minnesota's official pizza style.

Reader Alexis Polen of Hugo was just one of several who asked Curious Minnesota, the Star Tribune's reader-driven community reporting project, to explain why the region has become synonymous with super-thin-crust pizza that's cut into squares.

She's from Maryland, her husband is from Wisconsin; they lived in Washington, D.C., and New York before moving to the Midwest. Polen had never seen square-cut pizza before she started visiting the area with her soon-to-be husband. "He started taking me to all of these places — Carbone's, even Pizza Ranch — and his favorite frozen pizza is Jack's."

The pizza he celebrated was a dish completely foreign to Polen. "It's not just the squares, but the crust. That super-thin, cracker crust — it's an atrocity," she said. It should be noted that the Midwesterner she married could be heard in the background, shouting with unintelligible indignation.

Clearly, this is a family torn.

A Windy City import

No one can pinpoint how or when this style of pizza landed in Minnesota, but chances are it came from Chicago. The city might be known for deep dish, but there's also a tavern-style pie that's seen a recent surge in popularity. The New York Times' J. Kenji López-Alt spent months studying the pizza in an attempt to unlock its secrets.

López-Alt's obsession led him to journalist Steve Dolinsky, a pizza obsessive who's written two books on pizza, one devoted to Chicago's rich pizza culture. He linked the popularity of the crispy, thin-crust pizza to blue-collar bars. Traced back to the 1940s, the pizza, its pieces cut to fit perfectly on a square cocktail napkin, was a salty way to encourage liquor sales.

While Chicago's tavern style is revered for its crispy crust, the crusts are a little softer in Minnesota. Case in point: Sammy's Pizza. Founded in 1954 in Hibbing, its several locations across northern Minnesota serve a thin, slightly softer crust with only a crunchy ring folded around the exterior.

Minnesota chef and author Amy Thielen wrote about how hard it was to nail down the proper, super-skinny crust in "The New Midwestern Table," her essential regional cookbook. She came to the startling discovery that the best way to achieve the crust wasn't low leavening, but no leavening.

That's not the case with some of the region's iconic pizzas. Broadway Pizza, which started serving slices in Minneapolis in 1953, includes leavening — "but not much," said Dan Kelly's Broadway Pizza franchisee Erik Forsberg. He agrees that a square cut is a superior piece of pizza, allowing for more pieces, which leads to more pizza eating.

The squares also fit with the unwritten Minnesota Nice moral code. Perhaps the most sacred — even ahead of standing too close — is never, ever take the last bite of food.

Minnesota-style pizza makes it easier to leave the last piece behind and still get your perfect slice. And that's where the game of "pizza chess" Heggies' Dockter references begins. First, one eyes the ideal piece of pizza, but doesn't take it. (That would be unbearably rude.) Because the heat of the pizza makes negotiating a cheese-topped bite dangerous, its best to take one of the little triangles first — it's the amuse-bouche of a tavern pie. Then take another, all while ensuring others get a good piece, just not yours.

The ultimate bar food

There are urban legends about what made St. Paul's Red's Savoy pizza so good, but no one ever questioned that the thin crust, heaped with cheese and toppings and served on cafeteria trays, should be cut into anything but squares. Earl "Red" Schoenheider opened the original in 1965, the pizzeria dominated by a laminate-topped bar with a built-in elbow rest. Red's Savoy is now a franchised business, with several locations across the metro — including a new drive-thru in Minnetonka — and proudly bills itself as " 'Sota-style pizza."

Researching the histories of other local, beloved square-cut institutions, the best we can tell is that this pizza style emigrated from Chicago to Minnesota somewhere in the mid-1900s. That's when places like Red's Savoy, Sammy's, Broadway and Mama's pizza in St. Paul opened. All carry a singular style that has become emblematic of how we like to enjoy pizza — with plenty of pieces and a crowd to share them with.

Perhaps the real question is, why wouldn't you cut a thin-crust pizza into squares? Triangle slices flop and falter, causing a cheese and topping cascade. Or perhaps the reason the style not only persists but thrives in Minnesota is tied to our love of great, old bars. The popularity and devotion to tavern-style pizzas, such as Heggies, means only a small, low-profile oven that fits easily behind a bar can turn any bar into a restaurant.

As for the Polens, it's a family drama that has seeped into the next generation. Their young son already shows a propensity for Jack's frozen pizza.

"At least we can agree on Melt in Stillwater," said Polen. "We love their crust."

Then we broke the news: Melt Pizza Co. just added square cut, thin crust to the menu.

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Read more Curious Minnesota stories:

How did egg coffee become a Minnesota tradition?

How the heck did Minnesota end up with a state muffin?

Corn dog vs Pronto Pup: Why are people so loyal to one or the other?

Why is a casserole called hot dish in Minnesota?

Correction: In a previous version of this story, Erik Forsberg's title was incorrect.