Chicago pizza styles: pan pizza and deep dish stuffed pizza

As a dad who is typically responsible for preparing meals, every once in a while I cheat and order out. One of our take-out staples is (of course!) pizza. Luckily, living in Chicago, we have a lot of options. Despite getting plenty of thin crust hankerings, I’m going to leave that alone for now and talk to you about Chicago-style. Why? Because if Steve Harvey and the Family Feud crew decided to survey 100 people about things folks eat in Chicago, I’d be shocked if our unique pizza didn’t pull in the number one answer. Not necessarily because it’s all Chicagoans eat, but because it’s probably (rightly or wrongly) the most famous foodstuff in the city. And while some will tell you pizza is pizza is pizza, it really isn’t. In fact, just like its thinner counterparts, Chicago-style pizza has differences both in terms of type and quality—and many people (local and tourist, alike) are lost when it comes to navigating the city’s distinct types of thick-crusted goodness. Luckily, I’m here to assist. Why should you trust me? Because.

I grew up on Chicago’s North Shore in Skokie, IL. What’s that? You’ve heard of Skokie before? Well, before I move on, let me help with that too. Skokie is the town referenced by Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects. In fact, my main rival in Little League baseball was a team sponsored by a company named Quartet—(spoiler alert) not a barbershop quartet, mind you, but an outfit that dealt in office supplies (like the board in the movie!). It’s also the site of Old Orchard, the mall referenced in Mean Girls (though, O.O. is a beautiful outdoor mall 10 times better than the indoor one depicted in the movie). Alright, now that I got that out of the way, you can focus on what we’re here for: the pizza!

You know those people/articles who/that claim real Chicago people (if you grew up in Chicago proper: I get it, I’m from a suburb, but we had alleys, an “L”, and CTA buses, so get over it) don’t eat Chicago-style pizza? They’re wrong. We eat it, and we love it. Growing up, my house was about 10 minutes from the original Lou Malnati’s restaurant in Lincolnwood, IL and my family grabbed a “Lou’s” about once a week for years. For reference, the name “Malnati” is to Chicago pizza what the name “Ray” is to New York pizza. Actually, I don’t know enough about New York pizza to say that, but just know that the Malnatis are pizza royalty in Chicago, with ties to Pizzeria Uno (what I consider to be the trailblazer, and not to be confused with their franchise friendly Uno’s Pizzeria & Grill), Lou Malnati’s, and Pizano’s.

After high school, I ventured off to college about 15 minutes east to Northwestern University in Evanston, IL. There, I discovered Giordano’s. Today, there’s a Lou’s near campus, but at the time, Giordano’s was the king of town, and my, what a gracious ruler it was. Every Monday, they offered half-priced pizza. What a deal! Needless to say, my friends and I ate a lot of ‘za and it was during my time in college, switching from Lou Malnati’s to Giordano’s, that I became acquainted with the subtle distinctions in Chicago pizza.

The Lou Malnati’s of my youth was deep dish pizza. This differs from the Giordano’s of my college years, which was stuffed pizza. And this differs from the one-off celebratory thick-crust-fake-out-Chicago-style-pizzas of attended Bar Mitzvahs and sports banquets, or the all-you-can eat pizza lunch buffets which dealt in generic pies known as pan pizza. Whoa (read in your best Joey Lawrence voice)! I told you it’s a lucky thing I’m here to sort all this out. And now, I’m going to give you more info than you bargained for—which will come in handy the next time you visit my hometown and someone says, “Let’s get pizza!” Alright, so what makes them unique? Generally, it’s all in the order (or layering) of the ingredients, though there are subtle differences in texture as well. Here goes!

Pan Pizza

pan pizza

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This is what I consider to be fake-out Chicago-style pizza. Here’s the deal: One of the key elements of a Chicago-style is it’s made in a pan so it’s thicker. But, just because it’s thick, doesn’t mean it’s genuinely Chicago. Do some consider pan pizza to be a Chicago favorite? Probably, but not me! Pan pizza is a thicker-crust option that isn’t particularly unique to the biggest city in northeast Illinois. Now, before you get upset, this doesn’t mean it’s not tasty. It is! It’s just to say that it’s not what one truly ought to be thinking about when one wants Chicago-style pizza. Think you may have gotten duped the last time you ordered Chicago-style? Then read on to keep from getting scammed in the future! Here’s the rundown of the pan pizza:

  1. Crust: Like all pizzas, the crust is where the pizza meets the pan. The bottom crust of a pan pizza is often softer, doughy, and chewier than either the deep dish or stuffed. The pan’s outer crust (edge) will also most closely resemble a thin crust’s outer crust, only on steroids (read: bigger and thicker). The pan pizza has a more rounded outer crust with a consistency closest to an Olive Garden breadstick (yes, I know Olive Garden breadsticks are better; it’s a metaphor).

  2. Sauce: You can root out a pan pizza from a mile away by noticing the sauce sits right against the doughy crust, under the cheese. Additionally, you’ll likely notice the consistency is a bit more watered down and smooth than either sauces of the stuffed or deep dish.

  3. Cheese & Toppings: Like a thin crust pie, the pan pizza can go either way with the order in which it finishes off the pizza—cheese then toppings, or toppings then cheese. Typically, for ease of identification, you’ll see cheese then toppings. As a result, the cheese will be more browned and baked on than gooey. As for toppings, you’re not likely to see anything different than what you’d see on a thin crust ‘za.

If I want pan (fully realizing I’m eating something other than Chicago-style), I go here:

Alright, now that I helped you recognize the faux-Chicago pizza (again, still good, and if you’re into it, that’s great), onto the real deal. The following descriptions represent general attributes typical of authentic deep dish and stuffed pizzas, respectively. Can you run into variations? Sure. As is often the case with things culinary, cooks and chefs can get creative, either to innovate or to stand out. That being said, the tried-and-true pizzas, from my experience with each, will look like what’s outlined below.

Deep Dish Pizza

Chicago style deep dish pizza

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This is what I consider to be real-deal, Chicago-style pizza. Why? Because that’s what I grew up on! Also, because many accounts attribute the origins of Chicago-style pizza to Ike Sewell (Pizzeria Uno) and the Malnatis, and this is what’s served at their restaurants. How do you know it’s deep dish? Here’s the breakdown:

  1. Crust: The golden crust is a full-blown paradox: crunchy but not hard, crumbly but solid, and buttery, oh so buttery. Though thicker than thin crust options, if you look at the lower layer of dough, you might find it to be thinner than you thought. The outer crust is more jagged than its thick-crust siblings, and finishes a bit smoother on the palate with its buttery crunch. Pro tip: When ordering out, make sure your pizza comes “uncut” in order to preserve the right crust consistency.

  2. Cheese: The next level up from the crust is the cheese—lots and lots of cheese. Typically, the cheese isn’t of the grated or shredded variety, but full melted slices. It’s gooey, and it’s delicious. It’s cheese, after all.

  3. Toppings: Atop the cheese sit your toppings. More likely than not, the toppings are loaded and dense. When you order veggies, it looks like you raided a salad bar. When you order pepperoni, they’re stacked upon each other. When you order sausage, the classic spots give you a patty I affectionately call “slab o'”! You might get sausage crumbles (large crumbles) at the newer haunts, or by simply asking for it at the older ones, if that’s your thing. Different from the stuffed pizza below, the deep dish toppings can be distinguished without digging through your pizza—at least, not that much.

  4. Sauce: Over your toppings sits the sauce. Sometimes, the sauce resembles crushed tomatoes, and other times, the sauce looks more like stewed tomatoes. Either way, it tends to be pretty thick and provides the finishing touch to your deep dish pizza. It’s also what keeps the cheese gooey and free from browning as much as the aforementioned pan pizza. Pro tip: Don’t like all that sauce? Just order it “easy sauce” next time.

If I want deep dish, I go here:

Stuffed Pizza

Chicago style stuffed pizza

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Emerging later in the game than the deep dish pie described above, stuffed pizza has grown in popularity, especially among the out-of-town crowd and those who, historically, didn’t live downtown or on the North Side. Up until somewhat recently, North Siders had more deep dish options, and South Siders had greater access to stuffed pizza. This is probably why my mother-in-law from Garfield Ridge (a southwest Chicago neighborhood) still prefers Giordano’s to Pizzeria Uno. What’s a stuffed pizza like? Here’s the skinny:

  1. Crust: This crust is a bit more solid and smooth. The dough tastes a touch sweeter, but it’s also a bit drier. The outer crust sits pretty high, and is softer and thicker than its deep dish counterpart. And while it’s more breadstick than cracker, it’s thicker and more dense than what you’ll see with a pan pizza.

  2. Cheese & Toppings: To the naked eye, it’s tough to distinguish what comes first, the cheese or the toppings. Is it toppings then cheese, cheese then toppings, or cheese then toppings then cheese (yow)? Pragmatically, it doesn’t really matter. What you want to know is there’s a lot of cheese, and a lot of toppings (though, I suppose “stuffings” would be a better name, right?). They’re going to appear more mixed together than the clearer layering of a deep dish. In my experience, the toppings of a stuffed pizza are sprinkled generously, but not overloaded, and the sausage comes in a more crumbled form rather than a deep-dish-style patty.

  3. Dough: This is where things get wild. Above your cheesy toppings sits another thin layer of dough. This double-dose of dough is where the term “stuffed” comes from. If you’re not looking for it, you might mistake it for cheese, but it’s not. You’ll definitely notice the consistency is different in that it’s not melty nor gooey. Because it doesn’t sit on the pan, it differs from the crust on the bottom. It doesn’t dry up, and the color remains more similar to that of the cheese. Like a dessert pie, this layer of dough will likely have slits cut into it so as to let moisture out while it cooks—a particularly good idea if you like a lot of veggies (and prefer to keep the inside of your mouth from getting scalded!).

  4. Sauce: Like the deep dish pizza, the stuffed is finished off with sauce on top. Generally, you’ll only see a pureed and seasoned coat of tomatoes, reserving the stewed variety for the deep dish. Alert: You may not be able to tell what’s in your pizza due to the sauce and extra layer of dough. This sometimes makes it tough when you have an indecisive family that orders a half-and-half pizza. If you think this may become an issue, please speak to your local pizza professional, and request some guidance (if you have kids, that means you, because it will become an issue). Aside: as a kid, we once tried to order pizza in quarters and it was a nightmare.

If I want stuffed, I go here:

The next time you’re in The City of Broad Shoulders, keep these tips and suggestions in mind to find the pizza that will satisfy your inner tourist and your Chicago-style cravings. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which one you prefer. Try each and find the one that you like most. If you want to be as Chicago as you can, I prefer deep dish because of its historical roots. But, stuffed pizza, while a bit younger, has its origins rooted firmly in the Second City too. Enjoy!

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