Ode to Chicago Style Thin Crust

This is my tribute to Chicago Style Thin Crust Pizza – yes, before you ask, it is indeed a thing.

This is the food that started it all for me. It’s the first food that I got homesick for and the first food that became integrated into my sense of regional identity. It’s the food that got me interested in the regional nature of some food preferences, and the food that I began to proudly and vehemently argue on behalf of over drinks with friends or with strangers online. If there’s any food I could write flowery prose about, this would be it. By the time this is over, I anticipate this will be the longest blog post I’ll ever write. If you wanted a short read, my apologies in advance. If you read it all, thanks for hearing me out!

Chicago Style Thin Crust Pizza (CSTCP henceforth) is a fitting place to start this project out. My favorite type of pizza and prime candidate for favorite food of all time is CSTCP. If you don’t trust my bona fides on this subject and want an independent source – this article from an extremely well written pizza blog is a great place to start.

Tavern Origins

What makes Chicago style thin crust different than New York’s version? If you’ve managed to avoid the few pictures and links with pictures so far, you’ll notice this pizza sliced more like cake than pie. It goes by different names – square cut, party cut, tavern cut – but it’s the standard, default, assumed preference at every CSTCP restaurant I’m intimately familiar with. The origins of this cut are that this pizza was set out to hold over beer drinkers in taverns so that they wouldn’t leave to find food.

Side note – while the pizza has shifted from being served at the bar to being served at a restaurant booth with salt, pepper, Parmesan cheese, and red pepper flake shakers at the end – it still pairs perfectly with a pitcher of beer.

Square slicing leaves the pizza with more numerous, smaller slices and thus can be shared between more people. It’s also easier to hold, you don’t really need a plate. An interesting outcome of this is three varieties of slices existing in the same pizza. You have:

  • Corner Pieces – the four fringes of the pizza that make what’s closest to a triangle on the entire pizza. Typically, these are eaten first since they’ll be the coolest and can taken down in one bite.
  • End Pieces – the three to six slices between the corners. These are typically eaten second, since the pizza will still be pretty hot and these give a surface not covered in cheese to pinch. The end pieces are slightly longer than they are wide. This is my favorite piece.
  • Middle Pieces – are the nine to thirty-six slices in the center of the pizza. These have no edge crust to grab and are typically saved for last – with the interesting eating method of holding from the bottom or just resigning to getting your fingers greasy – after all, napkins exist. These are as close to perfect squares as the employee slicing it is accurate.

Square slicing of a circular pizza is pretty contentious in a lot of circles. I love it, but I can concede that if you grew up only eating triangular slices, you might never get on board. I think one of the unsung pros is the compromise this cut gives to what I’ll call “crust tossers” – the folks who nibble down to where the sauce and cheese stops and give up. If you’re a crust tosser, take a middle piece – no waste.

But don’t think this is New York pizza with a different cutting philosophy

The “Cracker Crust” makes all the difference.

New Yorkers are pizza folding geniuses. It’s an art I’ve yet to master. But there’s absolutely no flop to CSTCP, it’s what is often dubbed, “cracker crust”. While I’m less than a novice at making pizza, I hear this has to do with the pizza dough being rolled rather than tossed as they do on the East Coast. Tossing makes an airier crust, while the rolled dough is dense. If I had to go off the cuff – I’d assume cracker crust is also cooked harder – not sure if that’s faster, longer, or both – because it always seems more “well done”, for lack of a better term.

The result is a satisfying texture that’s somewhere between crunch and chew. If you’re trying to imagine it, I hope you’re not thinking of stale baguettes or burnt toast. Its not even remotely like saltines, the texture is more ciabatta to NY’s foccacia. While I love New York’s style, eating it feels like ripping away something that wants to be eaten. It’s very fluffy. Awesome in its own right, but the texture is nowhere near as satisfying especially when you’re used to something else.

Cheese and Sausage

Ask people what their favorite type of pizza is and you’ll probably get an answer about toppings rather than style. Apparently, survey shows across the country, that answer tends to be pepperoni. Chicagoland, however, is not the rest of the country. We’re all about that sausage here. Data verifies that sausage is the topping of choice, regardless of pizzeria.

In some other parts of the country, I don’t much like sausage on pizza. Here – sausage pizza is rightfully Italian sausage, accordingly seasoned, pork, and almost always laced with fennel seeds. While I can’t speak for every pizzeria outside the “pizza belt”, I often am disappointed when my slice of sausage tastes like it has Jimmy Dean’s breakfast sausage on it. That won’t do it.

Another key difference – something that’s a thing of beauty if you ask me – is that our pizza makers put the sausage on raw. Cooking it first and then adding that brown sausage to bake with the cheese gives it an almost crumbly texture that I don’t like as much. Sausage dollops on Chicago pizzas are more tender, and since its not pre-cooked, the fatty goodness is split between being retained in the sausage leaving it moist and soaking below the sauce, penetrating the crust with delicious pork grease.

One of the most interesting quirks of linguistics that I have never heard or read anybody else talking about ever is how South Suburbanites order pizza. Both of my parents spent most of their lives in the South burbs, and they always said “Cheese and Sausage” when placing their order. This does not mean half cheese, half sausage. If we were splitting it between them and my sister and I before we liked meat on pizza – they’d say “half cheese, half cheese and sausage.” I always found this peculiar growing up in Northwest Indiana where people tend to just say sausage. Was the pizzeria going to leave off the cheese if they didn’t specify cheese and sausage? If this isn’t a quirk of linguistics, and adding “cheese and – “ before sausage is code for extra cheese, I’m unaware. Nowadays I won’t bother ordering it any other way.

The cheese itself is important, as you can imagine. This isn’t St. Louis, Chicago pizzerias use non-processed, Italian cheeses. Mozzarella and provolone are givens, but I know Scamorza is featured on at least one family favorite. What’s more important is the application. There’s quite a lot of cheese on top and it should coalesce into on solid layer. Its not a fragile patchwork laid upon the sauce. To quote iconic chain Beggar’s Pizza – “we lay it on thick”. CSTCP should not have a large patch of uncovered crust on the periphery. Since the pieces are smaller and lighter, you don’t need as much surface area to grab onto. And the cheese should absolutely have some degree of that cherished browning effect. To this day, a pizza with cheese as white as snow just doesn’t look as appetizing to me. Caramelization and the Maillard Reaction are keys to my gastronomic happiness.

As far as other toppings, Pepperoni on CSTCP isn’t too unusual – after all a lot of us are meat lovers – but apparently this is the norm for some people? Personally mushrooms, onions, and green peppers would join my sausage before I considered pep. There are some fun alternatives you can do, some I plan to discuss on a restaurant specific article to come soon. First and foremost, though, the topping is Cheese and Sausage.

cstcpfull

Photo – Chicago Style Thin Crust Pizza from Aurelio’s – half cheese, half cheese and sausage

Chicagoland’s or the Midwest’s?

If you thought of rushing to the comments to educate me that this style is not unique to Chicagoland, and your Great Lakes, rust belt metropolitan area that doesn’t rhyme with Le Groit has pizza joints offering the exact same thing – I’m aware. This blew my mind because for the six years I spent in Central/Southern Indiana – I could not find this style after looking high and low. It is allegedly eaten from Minneapolis, Minnesota to Columbus, Ohio. Fans of Donato’s – settle down please.

Outsider’s Pizza is a frozen company pizza that on its surface stands exactly what I stand for – giving pizza spotlight to lesser recognized pizzas. So far, they have variations on two styles – one is the very worthy Detroit style, if you’re interested enough in pizza to stick around this long you’re probably familiar. The other one is…. Milwaukee?

Per Outsider’s website, “Milwaukee is the birthplace of the classic bar pie. Because, of course it is.” I found only some dubious evidence supporting this claim, but most people agreed that Milwaukee style pizza is not a thing. But that means Chicago style thin crust isn’t either? Are both just attempts to localize a phenomenon that while still unique, applies to a region as large as the whole Midwest?

Well maybe. And even if I ascertain skepticism to defend the claim that tavern pizza started in Chicago, this is still a worthwhile discussion to spread awareness of a style that gets no love. I can’t blame Outsider’s for calling tavern pizza Milwaukee’s, they couldn’t effectively market it if they said this is Chicago pizza, they’d need a giant asterisk attached. And I’m sure you already know why.

I’ve stomped all around the Midwest, but this is not a pizza I’ve tried elsewhere. So far, I can only ascertain perceived difference, and can’t speak to them with authority, but here’s what I feel sets apart CSTCP from other Midwest tavern pizzas –

  • As said before, thick juicy Italian sausage
  • Thick layer of cheese that if you don’t bite off well enough, will slap your chin
  • Ideally has semolina (looks like cornmeal but apparently its not) on the bottom.
  • The kicker – that characteristic sweet sauce!

Sweet sauce is the hallmark that often ruins close attempts elsewhere. I don’t even know for certain that all CSTCP has sweet sauce, but the ones I love do. It balances out the cheese blanket nicely. My favorite joint keeps their recipe on lockdown, but imitation recipes tend to always have a sizable portion of sugar and according to a few folks – beer.

Regardless, if you’re reading this as an Ohioan or a Wisconsinite, please substitute my usage of CSTCP in with tavern pizza – and let me know your favorite place to get it, because I’d love to stop and try some next time I’m visiting.

Second Pizza of the Second City

This post has gone well over a thousand words so far without mentioning the double D, barely hinting at its existence. There will be a post on it to come, if not several as I review establishments around the city. In case you were wondering – I like Deep Dish Pizza, too – I ate it on occasion growing up, still eat it today, and I defend it against the ridiculous notion that you shouldn’t eat pizza with a fork. Or that somehow deep dish can’t be considered a pizza and ought to be sold as casserole. Or that the mere presence of it in the city invalidates Chicago’s worthiness to host a pizza museum. Chicago’s two styles are the set of siblings who normally bicker endlessly but stick up for each other when that neighbor kid picks on one.

But too often I find myself defending “Chicago pizza” on behalf of deep dish. Us thin crust fans are living in the shadow of the shadow where “Chicago pizza” is a proxy for deep dish. On the national level, the “other” style is brushed under the rug. Any mention of this “other” style is met with surprise that it exists, and sometimes disbelief that it’s authentic. Even Zagat produced a video about variety of pizza in the city that completely skipped CSTCP.

It’s possible, with a little cherry picking, to frame this as a North Sider/South Sider spat, thin crust lives in the shadows of the deep dish just as all the media attention is given to the tourist friendly part of the city. If it’s even known in the first place, it’s forgotten about. (That’s right, your boy is a White Sox fan!)

Chicago Deep Dish was born at Pizzeria Uno (disputed) in upscale River North and Thin Crust was born at Vito and Nick’s (disputed) in blue collar Ashburn.

O’Hare has an Uno’s Express, Midway has a Home Run Inn.

Wrigley has a Giordano’s, Comiskey, The Cell, The G Spot has a Beggar’s.

The metaphor being that Deep Dish gets to use the abbreviation CHI during the World Series, thin crust had to keep CWS as the perennial afterthought.

Grubhub data even backed up the bold claim that Chicagoans prefer thin crust. “Deep Dish is tourist pizza!” my thin crust brethren cried. But that data can reasonably be disputed. Beyond everything the linked article mentions, GrubHub data doesn’t account for the proportionately greater number of in-restaurant orders with Deep Dish. Unlike CSTCP, deep dish and delivery don’t go hand in hand – if you can imagine a poorly paid youth carrying a hefty, tomato sauce covered pie in a cardboard box – it’s clear there’s a reason why restaurants serve deep dish in the dish.

But my North Side/South Side rant is disingenuous without this (I did admit that it was cherry picked!) There are plenty of thin crust options on the North Side as well as Deep Dish places on the South Side. If there is a divide, perhaps it’s an urban/suburban one – as thin crust has proliferated wildly out here.

My favorite restaurant

The geotag I selected for this post is the original location for Aurelio’s Pizza in Homewood, IL. Aurelio’s may not be the first CSTCP, but it was my first. Much of what I wrote about CSTCP, I had Aurelio’s in mind. The sweet sauce is a particular aspect that pride themselves on. Since moving back, I’m working on amassing the collection of perforated cardboard logos.

It’s geographic footprint matches my own – heaviest in the South Suburbs and spread across Northwest Indiana due to the large amount of transplants moving across state lines, my parents included. They also have branched out locations where Chicagoland transplants live en masse. Arizona, Florida, one in the suburbs of Atlanta – and the Godsend for me at the height of pizza homesickness before moving back – a recently built location in Fishers, just north of Indianapolis.

I consider Aurelio’s to be a good standard bearer for CSTCP as a style, its old and established, clearly popular, and people across all corners of Chicagoland have at least heard of it. If somebody shuns the suburbs, it has city limits cred with a location in the South Loop and a location in Wrigleyville. When folks hear my passionate rants about thin crust and ask me where they can try it next time they’re in Chicago, I tell them Aurelio’s.

Not a One Restaurant Show

I’ve already name dropped a few establishments but let’s group them into one collective. Like most big cities across the country, Chicagoans can’t agree on a universal best anything when it comes to food. CSTCP is no exception. If you’re reading this as somebody familiar with the pizza, you may have your opinions already. There is usually quite a bit of loyalty that goes into it.

Vito and Nick’s is supposedly the OG purveyor, and I have yet to complete a pilgrimage to this fine establishment – following the footsteps of Guy Fieri who attempted to spread the knowledge of Chicago thin’s existence on his nationally televised triple D episode. There are only two locations, and the second one is called out as being such. It’s on my list and if you read into a certain sentence in this post, you might already know what my plans for this are.

Home Run Inn is another very early purveyor, with the tavern origins to boot. I’ve had Home Run Inn on a few occasions, but I regularly eat their frozen pizza. If this is stocked near you, I highly encourage you to try it – it’s a pretty faithful frozen pizza adaptation of our new favorite food. Just be sure to give it the ole square cut, unlike what they show in the picture on the box.

Aurelio’s, Beggar’s, and Rosati’s have many locations peppered across stretches of the suburbs. I name these three because they exist in my familiar South burbs and NWI, I understand there’s some others like Barnaby’s that exist North of the city but not down here.

And of course, here in Northwest Indiana, we have chains of our own. Gelsosomo’s is perhaps the most preeminent, but Langel’s is quite successful as well. Sanfratello’s has roots in Glenwood, IL – but that one I spent my childhood going to closed down after a long run. Today it survives at two locations here in Lake County. It does seem that most good pizzerias have at least two stores – my dad swears by Stephano’s pizza in Winfield – yet there is another location back in Lansing.

Across the city and its suburbs, different pizzerias may be popular but the experiences are similar. I was very amused to see this starterpack by u/IC_Eu on Reddit –

kkognazimc911.jpg

It seems the West suburban places use the same carry out boxes as those in Northwest Indiana. There’s probably one supplier in Chicago that covers all the places. One addition I would add to this starter pack is making the restaurant’s name end in an apostrophe s. Because if it didn’t, older Chicagolanders would insert it anyways. It’s over by the Jewel’s after all.

It should also be noted that Chicagoland Pizzerias tend to just make both styles. There might be one they excel at and are therefore more-so identifiable with that type, but it’s in their wheelhouse to satisfy everyone. Lou Malnati’s makes a pretty great thin crust. Beggar’s is perhaps just as known for deep dish as they are thin crust. There’s even some that also venture into a third type of Chicago pizza – stuffed. More on that another day.

The Story of my Relationship with this Food

I must admit – I was ambivalent toward this food for much of my childhood. This was the pizza my parents ordered when they got their way, I’d enjoy eating it, but that didn’t change the fact that I was upset that I didn’t get my greasy, drunk on cheese, chain pizza I ate at sleepovers with friends. In high school, I disliked CSTCP sausage so much that my fun fact for a local public television high school trivia competition was that I hate fennel. At a younger age, I was critical of party cut itself – I asked my parents to order it triangle cut since that’s “how normal people eat it.”

But this is the pizza that made me realize the local version was something special. Where I went to college in Central Indiana wasn’t devoid of decent pizza, but there was nothing anywhere near the same vein of what I ate at my parent’s behest. As my food horizons expanded living among other young adults, I tried the same sausage pizza on a visit back home, with the same sausage I had only years earlier told a potential audience of dozens that I hated. And what I found was that I actually really missed it. As my tastes matured, I saw what my parents saw in this pizza and then I couldn’t go back to Pizza Hut and Papa John’s. I certainly had many memories eating pizza made by the national chains, but I didn’t have nostalgia about it.

Is this a tale of wanting what you can’t always have? Perhaps. But now I could hypothetically order Aurelio’s every day and I still eat it quite a bit. I see it as scratching exactly what this blog’s niche attempts to cover. Spreading awareness of a local specialty that’s easy to take for granted.

Its food that is shaped by the unique tastes of a geospatial area. Its food that becomes a cornerstone of local culture, hedging against the blanket of erasure by the popularity of cheaper national alternatives. Its food that is craved by the Chicagoland diaspora in the sun belt, asking their favorite pizzeria’s social media account to open up shop in Mesa because it will do so well there. And hopefully it will be food that recent transplants or tourists can seek out and appreciate.

end piece

Photo – End Piece – with my dog hoping to get some sausage.

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