A Visual Guide to What Makes Chicago Deep-Dish Pizza Great

During my travels on <i>The Pizza Show</i>, I’ve sampled and tested some of Chicago’s finest deep-dish pizzas. Here’s a quick crash-course on deep-dish anatomy.

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May 24 2016, 2:00pm

chicago-deep-dish-pizza-illustration

Illustration by Alina Petrichyn.
This is like a savory version of an apple pie, only with meat and cheese as the filling instead

New York is a rat race.

Things move fast in big cities, like in Tokyo, where ramen culture involves people eating while standing up. They're out the door in two minutes. In New York, that's what pizza is all about, too. Go to Italy, and you'll sit down with your family to eat pizza, because it's a meal. Here in the Big Apple, the slice has adapted into a fast food; a quick service. But in Chicago, it seems to me like pizza isn't "quick." It's meant to be shared and enjoyed with others, and New Yorkers—myself included—tend to move too fast. We could take a page from Chicago on learning how to slow down sometimes, and for me, that's where the deep-dish taught me a lot.

Chicago is a very cold city for most of the year, and it's a blue-collar town. Right there, you've got a bunch of hungry people that want their bellies filled up. When the Italian populations immigrated to the Windy City, they brought some of their staples with them: pasta, bread, and pizza. And Midwesterners and Italians started intertwining and making their own variations of pizza, but they were always a little bit thicker. The first time I tried my hand at making it, I realized, .

During my travels on The Pizza Show, I've sampled and tested some of Chicago's finest deep-dish pizzas. Here's a quick crash-course on deep-dish anatomy:

It All Starts with the Pan: Chicago deep-dish begins with its legendary cast-iron pans—which don't have handles. Instead, people use tools to grab them out of the piping hot oven. The beauty of these things is that they don't get washed, but periodically seasoned with each deep-dish. All one has to do is wipe out the pan, which lends it this really nice seasoning, which is so awesome.

Then, There's the Dough: They have dough that they pat down until it's nice and flat. Here in New York at Best Pizza, we want to keep all of the air in the dough so that it can rise and puff up, but in Chicago's deep-dish scene, they're pushing it down and pressing it up against the side of the pan so that it's crispy, but they don't mind that it's dense.

The Process: It's all about taking that dough, pushing it around the inside of the pan, and then pressing it up against the side of the pan to make sure that it reaches the sides like an apple pie crust.

The Layers: Once you have that base-layer crust, it's time to start layering: put the cheese down first, because it acts as a protective layer. Then there's always some sort of protective meat. In Chicago, it's always pepperoni or sausage. If it's pepperoni, you layer that on. If it's sausage, it's raw, so you'll layer that on thinly so that you know it's gonna cook inside, and all that fat from the meat starts to seep down to the bottom of the pan. Now you're layering. You've got your dough, your mozzarella, your meat, and then another layer of cheese, oregano, etc. and repeat. Basically, you repeat that process until you get three-quarters of the way up the pizza. Every deep-dish place is a little different and has their own style to this.

Cooking: You give it a little tap to get the air out, fire it into the oven, give it a good 40 minutes—depending on the pizza, the temperature, and the size of the pizza. Now it's all about getting the moisture in the pizza (the cheese, sauce, and the meat), to cook out and allowing all of that grease from the meat fall to the sides of the pan and make the crust super crispy on the bottom. Essentially, you're frying the dough until it gets crispy, golden, and nice. People are always bragging in New York about how quickly they can cook their pizzas, but the deep-dish takes forever.

The Final Result: You take the pizza out, and if you cooked it correctly, it should come off of the pan easily, because the pan is nice and seasoned. Pop it out of the pan and you should have this beautiful cross section: like a thick pie that will stand up and stay straight. If you can get that crust to stay straight, you did it right.

Eating It: It's all about the cross-sections. You want that perfect L-shaped crust, a thin layer of mozzarella cheese, and then your layers that have set in throughout the pie. If you can see those layers and a nice string of mozzarella is pulling off like a scene from the Ninja Turtles, you know you're eating a slice of Chicago deep-dish pizza.