-- The scene: In 1943, Ike Sewell made pizza history when his Chicago restaurant, Pizzeria Uno, introduced "deep dish." It was the most novel form of pizza seen in this country since the original thin crust Neapolitan-style arrived from Italy in the early 20th century. The concept was so successful that he opened a second nearby location, Pizzeria Due, and then sold the brand, which became a nationwide chain, first called Pizzeria Uno and today Uno Chicago Grill. As far as chain fast-food restaurants go, Uno is pretty good, and satisfies the deep-dish urge in a pinch. But if you want great Chicago-style deep dish pizza, you have to go to Chicago - or at least near Chicago, where countless deep dish choices proliferate. I have eaten repeatedly at all the major players, including the original and still largely authentic Uno and Due locations, Giordano's and Gino's East, but my favorite is Lou Malnati's.
While deep dish almost certainly debuted at Uno's, its creator is disputed, and according to mid-1950s reports in the Chicago Daily News, the unique recipe was actually invented by Sewell's head chef, one Rudy Malnati. Rudy in turn passed the tradition on to his son Lou, who opened the original Lou Malnati's in 1971 in the Lincolnwood neighborhood, and today the company is run by his sons, Marc and Rick. The family-owned group has 33 locations around greater Chicago. I hesitate to use the word "chain," since every Lou Malnati's is a bit unique, and each feels like a standalone restaurant, and in every case the pizzas are still handmade on the premises from scratch with little of the factory preparation and drop shipments common to the chain methodology.
But there is a commonality to the feel of a Lou Malnati's, and each is sort of a neighborhood pizza tavern. Most have a full bar you can eat at, table service and simple decor, accented by lots of Chicago sports memorabilia including framed jerseys, hockey sticks, footballs and the like. A few have outdoor seating, and most are great places to watch sports on television. The welcome is warm and the pizza is always hot and fresh, made to order. I have been to a few, but my favorite is the downtown River North location.
Reason to visit: Deep-dish pizza, chocolate-chip pizza
The food: Chicago-style deep dish pizza is a combination of traditional pizza, pie, and casserole. A cast-iron pan, usually about 2 inches deep, is lined with dough, forming vertical outside edges, and then filled with tomato sauce, cheese and whatever toppings are desired. By tradition, Chicago is a meat-centric former-stockyard city, and all forms of meat rule here, but especially sausage. Unlike pizzerias elsewhere, link-style sausage is uncommon, and the ground-patty form much more prevalent, including at Lou Malnati's where the best sellers are the Chicago Classic, with sausage and cheese, and the Lou, a 4-cheese blend of mozzarella, cheddar, parmigiana, and romano with spinach and mushrooms. Pizzas come in four sizes: an individual serves one; a small, one hungry person or two having salads or apps; a medium feeds two very comfortably, and the large up to four.
"What is deep dish pizza?" asks owner Marc Malnati rhetorically. "First I tell people what it isn't. People come in thinking it's this big pile of ingredients, heavy and hard to eat. But it's not. We're going for a thin crust, but it has to be thick enough to hold all the sausage, a pound of cheese and all the tomato. It's a container that we make as light as possible. It's all about the crust: a flaky, buttery crust is the foundation we build on."
Deep-dish pizza is much thicker and gooier than any other form, even New York's thick Sicilian. But the crust itself is not especially thick, it's the stuffing and copious cheese that gives it heft, and it is the crust that really sets Lou Malnati's apart. Some deep-dish purveyors (Gino's East comes to mind) take a sturdier, more cornmeal-based approach, but here the crust is rich and decadent yet light, more like pie crust than traditional pizza dough. Another unique thing about deep dish is that the top layer is always tomato sauce, with the cheese underneath, rather than vice versa, because deep dish pizzas have to bake in ovens for 25-45 minutes, and anything but sauce on top would brown and burn in that time.
There is an ongoing debate which is better, Chicago-style or New York-style, but this is missing the point. Deep dish is completely unique, to thin-crust pizza what oranges are to apples -- both just happen to be fruits, and each has its own appeal. Deep dish is the sort of thing you might suddenly crave out of the blue - I know I do. And while these days you can get completely authentic Neapolitan pizza all over the world, and pretty fair imitations of New York pizza in much of the country, you can only get great deep-dish pizza in Chicago, which makes it a must-try for visitors. For this reason, while Lou Malnati's also serves thin-crust pizza, to me that is completely missing the point.
They have a full menu of appetizers like bruschetta and fried calamari, soups and salads, plus pasta entrees and meatball subs, and many of them are perfectly fine, but nothing you can't get as good or better elsewhere. Not so for the deep-dish pizza, which is unparalleled, at least among the multiple-outlet pizzerias. The one other thing on the menu definitely worth saving room for is the unique chocolate-chip pizza, a freshly baked warm chocolate-chip cookie in an individual pizza-sized pan, topped with local Homer's vanilla-bean ice cream and whipped cream. "We have terrific desserts, homemade tiramisu, brownie sundaes, but everyone wants the chocolate-chip pizza," said Malnati.
If, like me, you become occasionally addicted, they do a huge business in shipping frozen pies, and unlike thin-crust versions, for which absolutely no-good frozen variation exists, deep dish ships remarkably well and loses little in translation in your kitchen. "If people move away from Chicago and don't eat deep dish, they die within 2 years," joked Malnati while explaining why, "We are by far the largest shipper of pizza in the world."
Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes - it's something I always look forward to visiting Chicago for.
Rating: Yum! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $-$$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)
Details: River North location, 439 North Wells Street, Chicago; 312-828-9800; loumalnatis.com/default.aspx
Larry Olmsted has been writing about food and travel for more than 15 years. An avid eater and cook, he has attended cooking classes in Italy, judged a BBQ contest and once dined with Julia Child. Follow him on Twitter, @TravelFoodGuy, and if there's a unique American eatery you think he should visit, send him an e-mail at email@example.com.