Chefs' Picks for Chicago Pizza
Chefs’ Picks tracks down what the pros are eating and cooking from coast to coast.
Pizza lovers who are partial to Chicago’s signature pie are very particular about where to indulge their devotion to this thick-crust tradition. Loyalties run as deep as the rich layers of sauce, cheese and toppings that compose the pies themselves, which are so filling that just a slice or two is enough to satisfy. Even the most high-end chefs have been known to give in to their cravings for this comforting dish that has a cult-like following. Here some chefs from Chicago and elsewhere share their favorite spots for a slice of deep-dish in the Windy City.
Nick Sutton may be executive chef of Chicago’s chic Vol. 39 lounge and Boleo, a hip Latin American spot with a rooftop perch, but he likes to chill out away from the scene when he’s not at work. “I really enjoy a casual spot [where] I can sit down with a comfortable atmosphere after a long day in the kitchen,” he says. His go-to order: the Malnati Chicago Classic from Lou Malnati’s made with sausage and extra cheese. “Lou’s never fails to deliver the entire experience for me,” Sutton says. “As a pork lover, nothing beats the full layer of sausage, bubbly cheese and vine-ripened tomato you get in every single bite. I must say that I’m also a crust guy, and the flavorful Buttercrust seals the deal.” Sutton is passing his devotion to Lou Malnati’s deep-dish tradition on to the next generation, having made sure his children’s first taste of a Chicago-style pie was by way of a pizza from his beloved spot. “When my family wants more upscale than standard takeout, this is always my go-to,” Sutton notes.
As the executive chef at Sixteen, Thomas Lents is known for his beautifully plated dishes that are as stunning as the panoramic views of the city at his two-Michelin-starred Chicago restaurant. Though he spends his days immersed in the creation of elevated American cuisine, even Lents can’t resist the siren call of a hefty slice of Chicago-style pizza. And Pequod’s is where he heads for a piece of this hedonistic pie. “Since the loss of Burt Katz and his wonderful, eclectic Burt’s Place, Pequod’s is the place to go to get that magical caramelized cheese crust that you only find in Chicago,” Lents says. “I always order mine with sausage, black olives (for some reason since childhood I have always loved canned black olives), mushrooms and giardiniera — always hot giardiniera. And I ask for it well-done.”
Chef Zach Walrath of Chicago’s Florentine agrees that Pequod’s is the top deep-dish spot, though his preferred pick is a pepperoni and sausage pizza. “[The] Pequod’s version is perfect from a chef’s point of view,” Walrath says. In addition to loving the caramelized crust, he waxes poetic about the “stringy, stretchy, cheesy goodness” that’s layered on top, along with generous portions of sausage and pepperoni and a hearty sauce. “The sauce is just sweet enough to balance the savory sausage, which is in half-dollar-size chunks, along with a full layer of pepperoni on top,” Walrath says. “There’s so much pepperoni — half is caramelized and a little burnt on the ends, but in the best way possible!” So craveworthy is the combination that Walrath warns about the dangers of overdoing it: “You’ll want to eat two or three slices, but one will do you in!”
Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder
Having been raised by parents from the East Coast, Executive Chef Heather Terhune didn’t exactly embrace Chicagoans’ unbridled enthusiasm for deep-dish pizza during her time in the Windy City. “This will get me into trouble; [I] love Chicago, but I don’t love the deep-dish pizza,” she says. However, during her 18-year stretch there before moving to Milwaukee to open the Mediterranean-focused cafe, Tre Rivali, Terhune was drawn to a pizza standout of a different sort: the Pizza Pot Pie from Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Company.” This delectable departure from a standard deep-dish pie features a pizza crust bowl that comes stuffed with sauce, cheese, sausage and mushrooms. “It is an individual serving and has that ‘comfort food’ feel to it,” Terhune says.
Executive Chef Pedro Avila’s workdays in the Windy City may be well behind him, but his passion for Chicago-style pizza has not dimmed. Currently helming the kitchen of David Burke Prime Steakhouse in Connecticut, Avila champions the pies from Gino’s East in Chicago. “They have the best deep-dish. [It’s] crusty on the outside and soft and juicy on the inside — pretty much the texture of a good bagel,” he says. According to Avila, the sauce is the kicker that sets this pizza apart from a standard pie. “All the flavors are well-balanced: tangy, sweet and spicy,” notes Avila, who is also a fan of the pizzeria’s thin-crust option.
For a deeper dive into Chicago’s best pizza joints, check out Food Network’s gallery devoted to the Windy City’s pies.