Food critic Alison Cook delves deep into the Chicago pizza scene


My individual deep dish pizza at Lou Malnatis on State Street in Chicago was an unexpectedly primitive little thing.

My sparse, ancient knowledge of the deep dish genre had steeled me for goop and grandiose, but instead I was faced with a modest rim of pastry crust encircling discreet layers of cheese, tomatoes, and slices of sausage.

It was about the size of a saucer. Its crust rose maybe an inch and a half. The fill layers could not be more than an inch deep.

The crust was more of a crispy shortbread than a bread-and-butter affair. That was a cake, well: the kind of cake that could be traced back to the Middle Ages when it was a big deal to put things in a firm crust. As my editor was later to point out, when I emailed the photo it looked more like a tomato quiche.

And to my surprise, I enjoyed it. As in “find it pleasant” or “would eat again”.

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I was determined to make my peace with deep dish while visiting the city where it was born as an American pizza pan. What drew me to Malnati’s was partly its fame, partly its location three blocks from my Michigan Avenue hotel, and partly the fact that they offer individual cakes so I wouldn’t have to jump on a big, costly proposition that I did would never finish.

There are Chicago deep dish meccas that are more popular with connoisseurs, such as Pequod’s or My Pi, the food hall kiosk recommended by connoisseur Steve Dolinsky. He’s the Chicago-based food journalist and pizza writer who takes visitors around the city on special pizza tours. Just to give you an idea of ​​how seriously they take the genre here.

But Malnati’s was just too convenient, and I had other pizza genres to try out while vacationing in this pizza-crazy city. In my head I had called the trip my pizza cation – a chance to address the serious pizza deficit I’d built up in the long, dreary months since the pandemic broke out.

My waiter advised me to order Malnati’s “Chicago Classic” sausage pie. “This is a sausage town,” he told me firmly. My first surprise – and I should have expected it – was the 30 minute wait, which you are warned about directly on the menu.

The dough crust needs to bake; Cheese and tomato have to merge; the edges need to toast properly. It’s a cake after all, not my favorite Neapolitan affair, which I snapped out of a 900 degree wood-burning oven after a minute or so, max.

Nothing about my little pizza turned my head: the cheese, the tomato, the close-meshed sausage slices that are hidden in it (not above!) Were all pleasant. But they melted into a soothing whole in this crispy dough ring. I got it.

In fact, I understood why people would order Malnati’s frozen pies in the mail to be baked at home. If you grew up using deep dish as a cherished comfort food, I suspect these would work just fine.

But I was much more interested in visiting the Chicago outpost Bonci, the famous Roman pizza al Taglio, which slices up its large, rectangular, focaccia-like patties and sells the pieces for a pound price.

Bonci opened its first location outside of Italy in 2017 here in the West Loop, right on the West Randolph Street restaurant row. (Au Cheval, The Girl and the Goat, and The Aviary are all within easy walking distance.)

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For someone obsessed with pizza, cruising the pizza line at Bonci is like a colorful circus with ten rings. The selection is neatly labeled and incredibly attractive. I picked three flavors – each rectangular length was conveniently cut into segments for better sharing with my two pizza friends – and I was having a hard time picking a favorite.

Perhaps it was the deeply caramelized fried onion parmigiana number, the hearty strings of onion weaving in and out of the salty cheese, and the skillful touch of tomato, the crispy-bottomed focaccia-like crust that came to your order in one of the Deck ovens are rolled up again. This isn’t a doughy focaccia style … the cold fermented crust made from imported Italian wheat flour is thinner, with no inner dough pillow.

Still, I wish I had ordered more of the simple potato and mozzarella pizza that is so elemental and satisfying. I watched a whole pan being assembled by one of the cooks in the narrow open kitchen, and I must say I dreamed of having a whole tray all to myself.

My friends and I discussed whether the meatball pizza beat the one made with arugula, sundried tomatoes, and creamy bufala mozzarella lumps. Okay, I thought the roasted red peppers on another slice would have roasted deeper and maybe got a bit of a spicy marinade first; and that a version layered with wafer-thin eggplant slices needs more singing and seasoning.

Even so, we were by and large happy to swap parts out in our tiny counter niche at the back of the slit-like room. Well, apart from the reduced wine selection that came canned and was no better than you might expect. Hope this is a pandemic rollback because bonci pizza is too fun to eat with crappy wine.

I wish they opened a bonci in Houston. Vinny’s Slice eatery here, run by the Agricole folks, is closest to this, but while enjoying Vinny’s Slices I kept coming across the damp interior issue that can plague a thickly crusted cake. If they found out about this regularly, I would be a regular.

On our last night in town, the second dinner (yes, you read that right) was over Spacca Naples, the highly regarded Neapolitan place run by certified piazzaiuolo Jon Goldsmith. It’s super serious, with a good wine list, a gorgeous wood-burning stove tiled in a wheat spray design, and a lovely, upscale neighborhood feel.

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I hate to admit it, but there’s nothing quite like it in Houston for thin-crusted, crowned, searing pies made with appropriately restrained amounts of serious ingredients.

Unfortunately, my former favorite, Pizaro, started increasing the topping quotient on their Neapolitan cakes after the founder retired and left the business to his children. Her Detroit and New York styles are still very good, but the Neapolitan just doesn’t hit me like Neapolitans anymore. And while I like The Neapolitan cakes from Pizzeria Solario pretty much, the ingredients there just aren’t as strictly selected as Spacca’s.

So, for a moment at least, I sat down with gobbling up a lot more than I should have from Spacca’s bufalaina pizza with its simple mixed San Marzano tomato sauce, poufs of buffalo milk mozzarella, and basil leaves. Much burn mark on the crown with a high crest; and on top of a Diavola cake with soft Fior di Latte Mozzarella and thin, shiny coins of red and peppery Calabrese Soppressata.

One day in Houston I am eating such a fine Neapolitan pizza again. That’s one of the thoughts that keep me alive. Seriously.

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