The hottest pizza trend of the last few years has come straight out of Detroit, with its chewy, extra-cheesy pan pizza making waves in major cities from New York to California.
It’s an easy slice to love, pairing the old-school comfort of a Sicilian pie with the American innovation of Wisconsin brick cheese, loaded on generously to form a lacy burnt edge all along the square border. I’ll take it over its bloated Chicago cousin, the famed deep-dish, any day of the week. But I only recently realized that even most Chicagoans’ fondness for the deep dish is, well, tempered.
“We always talk about how tavern pizza is what actual Chicagoans eat. Deep dish is maybe once or twice a year in the fall, to watch the Bears and feel like shit,” notes my colleague and Chicago native Quinn Myers. “Otherwise, there are so many more local joints that do great tavern pizzas I’d get before doing deep dish.”
What is a tavern pizza, exactly?
It’s a pie borne of pragmatism — made in conventional electric ovens, rather than some fancy wood-fired Neapolitan setup that hits 900 degrees or something. The dough isn’t tossed or finessed with meticulous technique like you’ll find in Italy; instead, it’s rolled hard with a pin (or a machine) until it’s thin enough to bake into a crackly sheet that won’t fold under the weight of the toppings. A Chicago tavern pizza might come with just a smear of red sauce and a shower of low-moisture mozzarella, or it might come loaded with fennel-laced sausage, peppers and onions. No matter what, the toppings will run from edge to edge — no big, bland, unadorned rim of crust.
Now, it’s time for the rest of America to catch up, and thankfully, the young roots of a national trend is starting to take hold in places like L.A. and Austin. To wit, deep-dish specialist Gino’s East opened its first West Coast location in L.A. in December, and has just announced it’s selling tavern pizzas.
It’s always been hard to find good deep-dish in L.A., but trying to find the thin cousin preferred by Chicago locals has been more or less impossible. But now that it’s landed in authentic form, I have a feeling that the tavern pizza will start to sell like hotcakes. The tavern pizza is perfect for L.A., a place where balmy summer days inspire one-handed snacking with a glass of cold wine. Hell, it’s perfect for pretty much anywhere, thanks to the simplicity of how it’s made and the versatile deliciousness of the medium.
“It’s an original Chicago creation. You have a beer in one hand and something to eat in the other. It’s a product of convenience. Something you don’t fill up on, so you can get home and eat a real dinner,” as Steve Dolinsky, Chicago food writer and author of Pizza City, USA, boasts in Bon Appétit.
The legend of the Chicago tavern pizza starts in a number of disputed places, but Dolinsky and local pizza geeks like Jonathan Porter swear that Vito & Nick’s is arguably first, and undisputedly the longest-running, tavern pizza purveyor in Chicago, beginning in 1946. Does that fact make it the OG innovator that strayed away from both the foldable New York slice tradition and the casserole-like Chicago deep dish?
Hard to say. St. Louis, the other proud home of a crispy, square-cut bar pie tradition, traces its roots to a man who moved from Chicago and started making pizzas there in 1945. Then there’s New Jersey’s “Trenton tomato pie,” another thin, crisp pizza with toppings that go to the edge… and the South Shore of Massachusetts, too.
Half the fun of this debate is the sheer territorialism of it all, and the amusing in-crowd trivia of knowing that, actuuuually, Chicago’s favorite pizza was never the deep dish at all. While pizza has always been at the center of who-invented-it debate, every region has its tidbits of wisdom from locals who have explored their community’s food culture inside and out. Philly folks sneer at tourists picking between Pat’s and Geno’s for a cheesesteak, knowing that they’ll line up at John’s Roast Pork instead. Having grown up on Oahu, I still shake my head at all the tourists who end up in Waikiki Beach, walking through a simulacrum of Hawaii and shelling out $80 for a shitty “luau dinner” instead of going to Helena’s like the rest of us.
It’s not that the deep dish doesn’t deserve love and respect. “But as someone who grew up in the suburbs, I view it as a holiday treat akin to going Downtown to see the lights,” adds MEL staffer Joseph Longo, another Chicago native. “Sure, we have pride in it. But most Chicagoans, or more loosely Illinoisans, are eating tavern-style pizza.”
And they’re eating more of the stuff than ever before. We all are: Pizza sales are through the roof during the pandemic, with no sign of fading anytime soon. “I think the popularity of tavern-style pizza right now mirrors the popularity of pizza overall in America. Large urban centers have seen the enforcement of stay-at-home orders, even as people lose their jobs and are finding themselves sitting in front of a television for hours at a time,” notes Farley Elliott, senior editor of food news site Eater L.A. “That’s a recipe for massive pizza consumption, mostly because it’s inexpensive to produce and to buy, it travels well and it’s a classic American comfort food.”
In that context, the tavern-style pizza is the perfect tool for catharsis: Densely flavored, easy to snack on and easy to find… well, at least across Illinois. But here’s the upside of a food born with pragmatic intent: You often find it’s easier to recreate at home. There are many excellent dough recipes to learn, but this is a case in which fresh dough purchased from your local market or pizza shop will work great.
How to Make a Great Tavern-Style Pizza
Take a roughly 7-ounce ball of dough, flatten it out with your fingertips, and then roll it with a pin on a floured surface, stretching it into a roughly rectangular shape that will fit on a standard half sheet baking pan. Crank the oven as high as it’ll go — that’s 500 degrees for me — and preheat the sheet pan until it’s ripping hot. Sprinkle a little bit of cornmeal onto the hot tray, lay the thin dough down, and quickly spread on a layer of red sauce, your toppings, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and then a blizzard of low-moisture mozzarella to cover.
The pizza goes into the oven for five minutes, at which point the temperature comes down (to 425 degrees) and the tray goes back in. The trick is to place the tray directly on the bottom surface of the oven, so that it gets more direct, stove-like heat along the crust, just until the cheese starts to bubble and turn dark on the edges. The last step is to cut it into squares that can fit on cocktail napkins, then enjoy.
This isn’t exactly the same thing as what you’ll encounter in a Chicago bar — for that, you probably want a real pizza stone and a pizza pan to work with — but I think the pizza gods may forgive me for this one, considering the humble, workmanlike roots of the tavern-style pie. And with the tavern-style pizza cropping up in American cities yet unfamiliar with the tradition, it’s likely you’ll encounter one in a restaurant near you, real soon.