15 Best Pizzas in Chicago (Slideshow)
October 6, 2014
15 Best Pizzas in Chicago
Even those who love and proselytize the buttery, flaky, crust and overload of cheese and sauce that is Chicago deep-dish style will tell you what you may not know about the city’s pie scene: there’s more nuance to Windy City pizza than cast iron and waiting for a half an hour for your pizza to cook. There are plenty of tavern-style and thin-crust pies that deserve just as much attention as deep-dish icons like Gino’s, Uno, Lou Malnati’s, Burt’s, and Pequod’s. These, and other pizza icons make determining Chicago’s best extremely difficult, but this year’s panel of experts narrowed it down to 15 spots that were better than all the rest.
#15 Pizzeria da Nella, Chicago, Ill. (Diavola: Tomato Sauce, Mozzarella, Spicy Salami, Red Pepper Flakes, Basil, Olive Oil)
Deep-dish dominates in Chicago, but as Spacca Napoli has shown, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for great Neapolitan pizzas too. There’s similar quality at Pizzeria da Nella in Lincoln Park, where pies are made in a wood-fired brick oven operated by former Spacca Napoli pizzaiolo Naples native Nella Grassano. Grassano has been credited with turning a light on in the city's collective consciousness, demonstrating what New Yorkers have been saying about pizza forever: that there’s much more to pizza than deep dish and tavern cracker crust. The pies at Pizzeria da Nella show off a little extra signature charring and chewy-crispiness, adding texture and crunch.
#14 Pizano’s, Chicago, Ill. (Rudy's Special: Mozzarella, Sausage, Mushroom, Onion, Green Pepper)
Along with Katz, "Malnati" is another name synonymous with Chicago pizza history. Rudy Malnati Sr. opened his first restaurant, Pizzeria Uno, in 1943. Uno and his son Lou went on to storied success. But his other son Rudy has been just as much a part of any conversation about Chicago’s great pizzas since he opened Pizano's in 1991. There are now six Pizano’s locations, all known for serving equally good thin and deep-dish pizzas. You have a choice between their buttery and flaky "world famous, gourmet, deep-dish pizza" (don't forget to allow a half hour for it to cook), or the thin-crust 12-inch or 14-inch pies.
#13 Piece, Chicago, Ill. (Pepperoni and Banana Peppers)
Thin, New Haven-style, counter-stretched pies are served at Wicker Park pizzeria Piece. All pies are topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano, oregano, and olive oil, and you have the choice of going red (traditional tomato sauce and mozzarella pizza), plain (red sauce garlic, Parmigiano, and olive oil, but no mozzarella), or white (plain crust brushed with olive oil, diced garlic, and mozzarella). In addition to traditional toppings, you can top pies with spinach, jalapeños, and banana peppers, pick from a list of premium toppings that include mashed potatoes, artichoke hearts, bacon, and clams, swap in goat cheese or feta instead of mozzarella, or decide to go with a barbeque sauce base instead of tomato sauce.
#12 Marie's, Chicago, Ill. (Marie's Special Pizza: Sausage, Green Peppers, Onions, Mushrooms)
Marie’s of Albany Park has been around since 1948, and walking inside it almost feels like you might be able to step back in time to the year it opened. Marie’s current owner, Nadine Karavidas, carries on a family tradition begun by Theodore Karavidas, who named the restaurant after his second wife. The big block letters spelling out “LIQUORS,” the red cursive “Marie’s,” and the red piebald brick of the storefront seem to call out from the backlot of a movie set. This is old-school Chicago, a restaurant that you enter through its liquor store, where the air is pleasantly saturated with the scent of red sauce and pizza, and there are red vinyl booths and wood paneling in the dimly-lit dining room. The menu features "double dough pizza" (thick, but not deep-dish thick) and a thin-crust pizza that’s thin and crispy with a relatively colorless undercarriage.
#11 Vito & Nick’s, Chicago (Sausage)
In a city dedicated to deep-dish, this family-owned restaurant has been serving thin-crust pizzas to Chicago residents for decades, and as the note on their website demonstrates ("If you don’t know about us, you will"), the owners are fairly confident in their popularity. The thin-crust, tasty sausage, and generous cheese and sauce covering will likely leave you in agreement.
#10 Giordano's Pizza, Chicago (Special Stuffed Pie)
It wasn’t enough for Chicago to invent its own deep-dish pizza style — no, they had to invent two. The recipe for Giordano's stuffed pizza is one that the restaurant claims has evolved over more than 200 years, beginning outside Turin where Mama Giordano, "famous around town for her exquisite cooking," was most well-known for her most beloved meal. Her "Italian Easter Pie" became a double-crusted, ricotta-stuffed tradition in the Giordano family, one Italian immigrants Efren and Joseph Boglio, the original owners of Giordano’s, used in 1974, on Chicago’s historic South Side, when they opened their first pizzeria. The stuffed pie features a thin bottom crust topped with nearly an inch of cheese and toppings then topped by an even thinner crust layer then topped with a slightly chunky tomato sauce. Whether or not you believe anything this thick is served in Italy and claimed there to be Italian, there are now some 40 Chicago locations (and three in Florida) serving this version of stuffed pizza.
#9 Falco's Pizza & Pasta, Chicago, Ill. (Sausage Thin Crust)
“In 1956, Vito and Anna Falco came to America with only their family and a dream” notes Falco’s site. “By 1964 their dream became reality when they opened the original Falco’s Pizzeria on the south side at 87th and Washtenau.” Heartwarming, right? Delicious, too. At Falco’s, pizza is made with the restaurant’s unique sauce and hand-rolled crust loaded with cheese and toppings. While known for its thin-crust sausage pizza, customers can mix and match with crusts of double dough and “Garlic Italiano,” and toppings including pineapple, garlic, jalapeño, and anchovies.
#8 Pizzeria Uno, Chicago, Ill. (Numero Uno: 'The One. 'The Best)
It’s interesting to note that deep-dish was not an overnight success (they had to give it away until customers became acclimated), and that the thick, buttery pizza wasn’t the first inspiration for Pizzeria Uno. Consider Chicago Tribune’s restaurant critic Phil Vettel’s report about its beginnings, which suggests, "Chicago-style pizza may owe its existence to a bad enchilada."
Uno founders Ike Sewell (a Texan) and Ric Riccardo first planned to serve Mexican food, "But one of the sample meals the partners tested made Riccardo so sick that he rejected Mexican food entirely." When Riccardo suggested pizza, which he’d tried in Italy during World War II, Sewell had in mind a more substantial version.
Thus, the style featuring "buttery ‘out-of-this-world’ crust," and generous amounts of cheese. Sure, the company is now based in Boston. No, you don’t have to visit Chicago to experience it (according to the company, there are more than 140 Uno Chicago Grill restaurants in 24 states). Some pizza experts may quibble about where it should rank compared with the city’s other deep-dish pies, but there’s something to be said about a pilgrimage to the original (though the only Chicagoans visiting will be there on behalf of out-of-town guests) and ordering "Numero Uno — The One. The Best" topped with the works: sausage, pepperoni, onions, peppers, mushrooms, chunky tomato sauce, mozzarella, and Romano.
#7 Gino’s East, Chicago (Cheese Deep-Dish)
Gino’s may be the ultimate in Chicago deep-dish, with a history dating back nearly 50 years. The story starts with two taxi drivers and their friend, who became frustrated with rush-hour traffic and decided to open their own pizza place. Just off the famed Michigan Avenue strip in the heart of downtown, the restaurant has been considered a city mainstay ever since. Its walls are covered with graffiti – it’s a Gino’s tradition to carve your name on the wall if you’re a dedicated patron. There’s a buttery crust that crumbles from your first bite stuffed with a layer of fillings (ranging from sweet Italian sausage to pineapple) topped with a healthy serving of mozzarella, and finished with crushed vine-ripened tomatoes. Their success has led to 11 locations, and expansion into neighboring Wisconsin.
#6 Burt’s Place, Chicago, Ill. (Cheese Pie)
The name Burt Katz is just about as synonymous with pizza as you can get in Chicago. He got into game of opening pizzerias with literature-references for names in 1963 when he got involved with Inferno (since closed). He’s opened and moved on from success after success ever since. There was Gulliver’s, opened in 1965, where he stayed until 1971, And Pequod’s (named for Captain Ahab’s ship in Moby Dick), which he opened in 1971 and sold in 1986. The years have been kind to his legacy at his former spots, but his success has bulwarked at Burt’s Place, launched in 1989. Burt’s is a more restrained Chicago deep dish — a thinner base, a sensible use of cheese and sauce, and that iconic Burt Katz caramelized crust.
#5 Lou Malnati's Pizzeria, Chicago, Ill. (Chicago Classic: Deep Dish with Sausage, Crust Made with Butter and Mozzarella)
The first Lou Malnati's Pizzeria opened in 1971 to much acclaim, and it’s now a Chicago institution. Lou died of cancer just seven years later, but his family kept his dream alive, expanding it to some 36 locations. The Lou Malnati’s deep-dish experience comes in four sizes: 6-inch individual (for one), 9-inch small (two people), 12-inch medium (serves three), and 14-inch large (enough for four). So you most likely will just be ordering one or two if you plan to finish them, even with a few friends (unless you’re not planning to eat anything else that day). Make sure one of those picks is The Malnati Chicago Classic, made with Lou's lean sausage, extra mozzarella, and vine-ripened tomato sauce on buttercrust. "It's authentic Chicago!"
#4 CoalFire Pizza, Chicago, Ill. (Margherita)
You don’t expect pizza restraint in a city known for deep dish, but that’s what owners Bill Carroll and Dave Bonomi advise on the menu at their coal-oven Neapolitan pizzeria: “Due to the delicate nature of our crust, and the care we take to ensure maximum quality, we recommend: one to two toppings per pizza, no more than one vegetable topping, and evenly balanced toppings (i.e. half toppings are not recommended).” Crowds have heeded that advice for more than seven years, enjoying the bubbly, slightly charred thin crust that emerges from Coalfire’s 800-degree clean-burning coal oven.
#3 Spacca Napoli, Chicago (Diavola: Blended San Marzano Tomatoes, Mozzarella di Bufala, Spicy Salami, Basil, Calabrian Chili Powder, Extra Virgin Olive Oil)
Spacca Napoli stands out from the rest of the Chicago pizza pack due to its unique take on Neapolitan-style pizza. The restaurant has garnered a long list of accolades, from the 2013 Michelin Bib Gourmand Award to a 95 percent "like" rating on Zagat. The pizza is consistently applauded for its authenticity (owner Jon Goldsmith travels to and from Naples regularly to study the region’s flavors). The menu differentiates pizze rosse (made with red sauce, tomatoes, and olive oil) from the pizze bianche (olive oil but no red sauce). Customers can dine on the prosciutto e rucola, bianca con bufala, bufalina, or salsiccia when they're looking for an expertly prepared pie, but the signature pie identified by Spacca Napoli is the diavola: blended San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala, spicy salami, basil, Calabrian chili powder, and olive oil. Questo è tutto ciò che serve!
#2 Nellcôte, Chicago Ill. (Sunnyside-Up Organic Egg: D.O.P. Fontina)
Named for a French mansion once inhabited by the Rolling Stones, Nellcôte is the place you go for pizza whose flour is actually milled by the restaurant and a super-thin crust that has been described by Serious Eats’ Daniel Zemans as being akin to whole wheat in texture and flavor. There are eight “fork and knife” pizzas including pies with Taleggio and ramp, wood-roasted mushrooms, broccoli, n'duja, and housemade fennel sausage, but the move here is the Sunnyside-Up Organic Egg with D.O.P. fontina, mozzarella, and arugula, which, unless you have an egg aversion (so sorry), will probably sound as runny, luxurious, and delicious as it actually is.
#1 Pequod's, Chicago Ill. (Deep Dish with Sausage and Pepperoni)
Pequod’s founder Burt Katz moved on after just a few years to take a break before opening a new pizza stalwart in 1989, Burt’s Place. But the years have been kind to his legacy. Pequod’s deep dish pizza, known for its caramelized crust, is celebrated for the chewy, crusty, quasi-burnt cheese crust that forms along its outer edge against the side of the pan that adds a welcome degree of texture.