These epiphanies came from just over a year of sauce-dribbled research by Dolinsky, who is a well-regarded food reporter known as the Hungry Hound at Chicago’s ABC7. He visited 185 pizza places in and around Chicago, and 56 in New York (we’ll get to that), consuming up to four disc-shaped meals in a single day. The fruits of his labor take two forms, both with the same title. The book, “Pizza City USA: 101 Reasons Why Chicago Is America’s Greatest Pizza Town,” was released last month by Northwestern University Press. And his new tour company, Pizza City, USA, conducts three neighborhood walking tours, led by “doughcents,” and one bus tour, usually led by Dolinsky, that share pizza insights and plenty of pie at four pizzerias.
The journalist’s probing into Chicago’s pizza scene began, really, out of sheer annoyance. Dolinsky says he had read too many articles claiming to list Chicago’s “7 Hottest Pizza Places,” and he got fed up. The lists were always the same, and he felt like they weren’t representative of “best” in any sense of the word. “I had been to two of the places on the list earlier that week, and I just thought this is stupid, that just makes no sense,” he says during a phone interview. “There’s not a critical eye toward anything.”
A carb-loading curriculum: Dismissing the deep-dish myth
On a Pizza City, USA bus tour in August, the passion for pizza is apparent. Not just from Dolinsky, who stands at the head of a long table at Labriola , a cafe and bakery on North Michigan Avenue, wearing a black, button-up shirt with a pizza slice patch on its sleeve; but also from the 22 tour participants. About half are from the Chicago area, while others represent New York, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina and beyond. Any awkwardness that arises when dining with strangers dissipates quickly, as the tour members realize they have plenty to talk about. Pizza is a great unifier.
Dolinsky starts by addressing that long-held myth about Chicago and pie. “I’m guessing most of you here, when you hear ‘Chicago-style’ you think of . . .” Like a chorus, about half the table answers with enthusiasm: “Deep dish!”
Dolinsky smiles before bursting their bubble. “People who actually live and breathe in Chicago don’t eat deep dish,” he says. “Deep dish is to Chicago what Times Square is to New York,” he goes on.
Real Chicagoans, he explains, are more likely to order a different type of pizza, also native to Chicago, known as tavern-style, which consists of a cracker-thin crust, cut into squares. Dolinsky says that as far back as the 1930s, tavern owners realized that their patrons would drink more beer if they passed around a free, salty snack. Years before stuffed crust and deep dish bubbled into our consciousness, the cracker-thin, square-cut, tavern-style pie was born. Around town, this thin style is far more common than its husky counterpart. “Chicago-style pizza is tavern style. It’s what we’ve been doing here for generations,” emphasizes Dolinsky. “The stuffed and the deep dish are much more Johnny-come-lately.”
After clearing that matter up, our first pizza is served, and it happens to be, well, deep dish. A delicious deep dish, and one that, despite being in Chicago’s most touristy areas, doesn’t make the usual “top seven” lists, although it should, with its corn-meal-dusted crust that is as airy as it is thick, with cheese that caramelizes all around the rim and a refreshingly bright layer of tomatoes on top (in Chicago deep dish, the layers go crust, cheese, toppings, sauce). We each devour a piece, leaving few “dough orphans,” as Dolinsky calls abandoned nubs of crust, and then visit the kitchen, where our trusty guide shows us the oven used to bake the pizza and passes around a metal, Chicago-made pan so we can hold the tools of the trade.
We hop on the bus and visit Pizzeria Bebu in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, where we try what Dolinsky refers to as “artisanal” pie, with a thin, bubbly, lightly charred crust and tender center, topped with an unexpected mix of toppings: pickled jalapeño, pimento cheese and broccoli rabe. Then it’s on to Pat’s Pizza in the Lakeview neighborhood for what Dolinsky proclaims “one of the best expressions of Chicago tavern-style pizza.” We get a tour of the kitchen and learn that doughmaking, here, involves a seven-day process. Then we devour squares of that tortilla-thin, crisp dough topped with cheese, sausage and veggies. Finally, it’s on to Dante’s Pizzeria , a New York-style joint in the Avondale neighborhood, where we each do our best to devour an enormous, floppy slice. (Dough orphans ensue). At each pizza place, Dolinsky is a little bit pizza Einstein, talking about things like “OBR” (that’s “optimal bite ratio,” and refers to the preferred distribution of crust, sauce, toppings and cheese) and “PIGUE syndrome” (“Pizza I Grew Up Eating” syndrome, alluding to the inability to distinguish between what’s good and what’s known). And he’s a little bit pizza Yoda: “All deeps are pans but not all pans are deeps,” he muses.
Ranking the Second City first in pizza
You wouldn’t know it from his enthusiasm level on the tour, but here’s a funny thing about Dolinsky: Pizza isn’t his favorite food. Not even close. When we had talked by phone, I asked him if he ever would have guessed that this would become the category around which his life would revolve. “Absolutely not,” he says. “I thought it would be something Asian. I mean, I love Korean food.”
So on top of being a pizza expert, he’s something of a pizza martyr. In the research phase, he admits he was taking an over-the-counter drug aimed at acid reflux because the tomato sauce was bothering him, and he also suffered stomach problems from all that cheese. “But my teenagers loved it,” he says. “They come home and there’d be six boxes of pizza in the fridge.”
Pain and suffering aside, he was fascinated by what he refers to as “the variability and nuance” he discovered in the Chicago pizzascape. “It sort of became like an archaeological dig for me. I just kept unearthing things,” he says.
The most controversial of those things might just be the title he’s bestowed on Chicago, and not New York, as Pizza City, USA. He explains it very simply: It’s a numbers game. In his research, he pinpointed 10 distinct styles that, while not all native to Chicago, are well represented around town: thin crust, tavern-style, Roman-style, deep dish, stuffed, Detroit-style, artisan, Neapolitan, Sicilian and New York slice. Energized by that discovery, he took his research to New York to see if the City of Slices could measure up. He visited 56 places recommended by foodie friends, and among them, he noted five types of readily available pizza: New York slice, artisan, Neapolitan, grandma and Sicilian. Half of what Chicago has.
As a pizza academic, Dolinsky hears the same question all the time: What’s your favorite? Of course, there’s no simple answer. With so many categories, it’s complicated and might change depending on how he’s feeling that day. But what’s especially revelatory is this: none of the entries on those “top seven” lists that inspired this whole journey are on his tours. In fact, he says none of them even made it into the 101 spots in his book. That’s what he loves about all this: He can steer even longtime Chicagoans away from the expected and introduce them to some truly stellar pizza, while sharing the rich, colorful history of pizza in Chicago.
And for those who are simply looking for a fun food tour while they’re visiting? He’s got that covered, too. “I mean, it’s the everyman food,” says Dolinsky. “There’s no one that doesn’t like pizza.”
Silver is a writer based in Chicago. Find her on Twitter: @K8Silver.
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If you go
Pizza City, USA bus tour
In three hours, visit four pizzerias that make four distinct styles of pizza, including Chicago-style deep dish, artisan, tavern-style and New York slice ($69). The tour guide, which is often tour founder/food reporter Steve Dolinsky, shares his deep pizza knowledge and fun Chicago trivia along the way. If you’d prefer to walk off some calories, three neighborhood walking tours are also available ($49).