Obsessing about pizza is not new to me.
Growing up in Michigan, I was all about Buddy’s Detroit-style pizza, the crispy-airy-cheesy crust, spicy pepperoni nestled under a swath of mozzarella and brick cheeses, with a lick of sweet tomato sauce layered on top. I could even occasionally appreciate the journeyman Little Caesar’s at a friend’s bowling birthday party (it was a thing), or a Stouffer’s French Bread Pizza after school. College in Connecticut exposed me to sheet-pan-sized, blister-crusted New Haven-style pizza (Sally’s and Modern Apizza were the play there), and then it was on to big, sloppy, foldable slices in NYC, eaten on the run — sometimes even in the (gulp!) subway. A stint working for Wolfgang Puck in San Francisco introduced me to California-style pies and hip toppings like smoked salmon with crème fraîche, or shrimp with cilantro pesto. Finally, my family settled here in Chicago, which 30 years ago was the land of deep-dish and tavern-style pizza. I’ve put in the miles. I’m drawn to like-minded pizza obsessives. So, when I wanted to explore the newest pizzas Chicago has to offer, I turned to chef Josh Kulp. You may recognize Kulp as co-chef/owner — along with business partner Christine Cikowski — of Avondale’s wildly successful Honey Butter Fried Chicken and Sunday Dinner Club. But I’m telling you right now that he has devoted his life to the study of pizza, and he is a veritable shaman of pizza cuisine. Sure, we all grew up loving pizza, happily consuming it at birthday parties, Little League banquets, cast parties and the like. But for Kulp, whose father was an excellent home cook who made fresh pizza dough from scratch, it became something bigger.
“Pizza has a couple of elements that drive me crazy and keep me coming back for more,” says Kulp. “The life of pizza dough is endlessly fascinating to me: how it’s proofed, rested, shaped, and cooked all have an effect on the final product. Toppings are fun, of course, but it’s all about the crust for me. Each batch is its own event.”
During the pandemic, pizza has proliferated. Michelin-starred chefs, Indian restaurants, and ghost kitchens alike have turned to pizza. Creative toppings abound; established pizza restaurants are trying on new styles, and pizza has been added to a few surprising menus around town. It travels well, reheats beautifully, fits most budgets, and loves a good pass-through window. Chicago, once known mainly for its casserole-style deep-dish, now supports and welcomes pizza in every form. The new crop of pizzerias (and restaurants now featuring pizza) is impressive in scope, encompassing these myriad pizza types from Detroit-style and NYC Slice to Sicilian- and tavern-style pies.
Kulp doesn’t favor one particular style over another, and he’s no snob. Whether the pizza is from a newbie or long-time stalwart, as long as the ingredients are treated with respect and the dough well made, he’s a fan. His food-exploration travels have taken him all over the United States, and he always makes time to discover the best pizza joints wherever he goes. Kulp’s U.S. (non-Chicago) Top 5 are Pizzeria Bianco (Phoenix), Pizzana (L.A.), Pizzeria Beddia (Philadelphia), Lucali (Brooklyn) and Razza (Jersey City). In town, he frequents Piece Pizza (New Haven style), Spacca Napoli (Neapolitan style), Vito & Nick’s, Bungalow by Middlebrow (Artisan style) and Marie’s Pizza (both tavern style), among others. He’s got some thoughts on some of Chicago’s newcomers as well. Here’s an even dozen to add to your must-try list.
New York Style or Fuhgeddaboutit
If you prefer your pizza New York Style (meaning big slices that can be eaten on the run, as long as you’ve got that all-important folding technique down), there are four new contenders in town. Kulp is bullish on Ryan Lee’s Fold Pizza Co., a pop-up that you follow on Instagram to find out what is available each week. “You can tell he’s obsessed with pizza,” says Kulp. “The sharp cheese, tangy and rich tomato sauce… it reminds me of Beddia, and that’s high praise.” Chef Lee sees Fold as his outlet to practice his passion and thinks of it as more of a “thin-crust Jersey slice, with just enough crackle when you bite into it,” but still foldable. The best part? The pizzas are free, as long as you make a donation to the featured charity, which in the past has included hunger relief (Greater Chicago Food Depository, No Kid Hungry) and racial justice (My Block My Hood My City) and mental health awareness (Hope for the Day, NAMI). Doing good and eating great pizza at the same time is a warm feeling in these cold times.
Kulp also recommends the new pandemic pizza window at Paulie Gee’s Logan Square, where they’ve added New York-style slices to their repertoire. The concept has proven so popular that they’ve just opened Paulie Gee’s Wicker Park Slice Shop (in the former Bonci Wicker Park space). You can order whole pies as well as slices, chosen from a display case you can see from the sidewalk and reheated in one of their big electric PizzaMaster ovens. Pazza Pizza in Old Town is also serving up thin-crusted, super-cheesy slices of deliciousness — of course, whole pies are an option, but we’re talking big, New Yawk slices here — and while you can’t go wrong with plain cheese, the Buffalo Chicken & Bacon is a tantalizing option as well.
Rounding out the bunch is Pizza Lobo, another option in pizza-rich Logan Square. Dan Snowden (of the late, lamented Bad Hunter) gives his sourdough pizza crust a few days of cold fermentation before creating these masterpieces. The white-sauce pizza with Brussels sprouts, pancetta, red onion, pecorino and charred lemon honey is among the many offerings worth your attention.
Tavern Style: South Side, Represent
One of Lettuce Entertain You’s two new virtual pizza concepts is Bill’s Original Tavern Pizza, inspired by the South Side tavern-style pizza of RPM Restaurants’ partner Bill Rancic’s youth. He partnered with Pizzeria Portofino’s chef Sam Dickstein to create a totally different pizza than the Neapolitan style offered at Portofino. This is a thin-crusted, square-cut pizza reminiscent of Vito & Nick’s, and like there, the Italian Sausage pie is king with its herby notes of fennel and oregano and a whole lot of cheese — Lugano mozzarella, in this case. Order for delivery, or to carry out at Pizzeria Portofino’s host stand in Chicago, or at Bub City in Rosemont.
It’s easy to figure out what’s on the menu at Pizza Fried Chicken Ice Cream, where they hit on the three most important food groups. But this Bridgeport place, which started out making big Sicilian-style slices, has switched to cracker-thin, tavern-style pizza. Order online for pickup or delivery; start with cheese and build your dream combo from there. The sausage gets high marks.
A New Chicago Deep Dish
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Deemed “amazing” and “a true labor of love” by Kulp, Milly’s Pizza in the Pan is named for chef Robert Maleski’s beloved grandma, and his pizza style inspired by the late Burt Katz’ legendary deep-dish pies with its perfectly caramelized crust, each slice a meal in itself. Maleski is working out of a ghost kitchen in Logan Square, the new epicenter of Chicago pizza. He’s doing it all himself, and it’s a labor-intensive process, so hours — and pizzas — are limited. But Kulp says it’s well worth the effort, each “amazing” pizza adorned with “great toppings and a bright, beautiful tomato sauce.” Vegetarians will love the Clickbait, loaded with Castelvetrano olives, red onion, mushrooms, mini peppers, kumato tomatoes, jalapeño, Calabrian chilis and fresh ricotta cheese.
When in Chicago, Do as the Romans Do
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If you’re looking for a fabulous, non-traditional calzone, head to Superkhana International for their famous rendition with butter chicken. But visit Superkhana’s side window for their new pandemic pizza pop-up, Pizza Finestra (“pizza window” in Italian), where they’re serving up Roman-style pizza (think Bonci) to great acclaim. “This is crispy, Old World-style Italian pizza, with plenty of olive oil in the crust,” says Kulp, reverently. “It’s like an art project.” Toppings on the long oval pies are purposefully spare to let the crust shine, as in the Pizza Bianca (just olive oil and salt), the Pizza Rossa (brushed with a perfect tomato sauce), or the Pizza Con Patate e Rosmarino, the classic Roman topping of thinly sliced potato, onion and rosemary.
Detroit, Pizza City
Lettuce Entertain You gets (virtually) into the game with this late entry into Chicago’s crowded Detroit-style pizza market. B Square Pizza is the result of a partnership between Saranello’s executive chef Michael Brownell and LEYE chef/partner Mychael Bonner (Saranello, Di Pescara, Petterino’s), looking to create a light and airy deep-dish crust with crispy edges and the classic Detroit blend of mozzarella, Wisconsin brick and parmesan cheeses. These are BIG pies, with the 12” yielding 16 pieces (feeds 3-4), and the 16” (25 pieces, feeds 5-6). You can order for delivery, or pick up at Osteria Via Stato in River North, or at Sarnello’s in Wheeling. We opted for delivery and devoured the Mike B’s Special, loaded with sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, shaved onions, olives, and pickled peppers. There were no survivors.
Cheffed-Up Sicilian Style
The nomenclature is a little tricky: is it Grandma-Style or Sicilian-Style pizza? The shape is similar, as both are stretched into a rectangular metal pan that’s been anointed with a fair amount of olive oil. But the Grandma pie is so named because the Italian nonna didn’t have time for the longer fermentation of the Sicilian pizza pie — she had to feed her family! The Grandma has a thinner crust, and the garlicky tomato sauce is traditionally ladled with a heavier hand. I think of Sicilian-style pizza as more of a restaurant pie; the dough gets a longer fermentation, and though thicker, the best of them will sport a crispy exterior crust with a light and pillowy interior. The Sicilian is also substantial enough that you can really go to town with the toppings, and these two new versions come from chefs with a Michelin pedigree.
Michelin Bib Gourmand-winner Table, Donkey and Stick had never offered pizza before the pandemic, but it had been making its own crusty breads and serving up gorgeous boards with unctuous cheeses and house-made charcuterie since it opened. Pizza — the ultimate take-out and delivery food — was a pivot, and it has proven a valuable one. The dough is long fermented, with just the right amount of chew. Intriguing options include the ‘Nduja, topped with house-made spreadable salame, smoked onions, and mushrooms, or perhaps the Eggplant and Spinach with smoked eggplant “caviar,” spinach, and Calabrian pepper.
Ukrainian Village newcomer Pizza Friendly Pizza is a collaboration between restaurant group 16” on Center and two-star Michelin chef Noah Sandoval (Oriole, Kumiko). “This one is super delicious,” says Kulp. “It’s truly its own style, and he’s put a lot of effort into that gorgeous crust.” The pizza, available by the slice or as a whole pie, is served through a carryout window in the tradition of most great street food. These are thick, square Sicilian pan slices but with plenty of loft, and you can taste the welcome tang of fermentation in the crust. Fabulous combos like the Fig & Pig (confit pork, roasted figs, caramelized onions, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar), The Apple of My Pie (apple, Gouda cheese, caramelized onion, thyme, and hot honey), and the charred Pepperoni and Basil (made with Ezzo’s pepperoni, fresh burrata, and basil) will keep you coming back to see what else Sandoval has up the sleeve of his chef coat.
The Arch, a DMK restaurant, just opened inside The Railway Exchange in the South Loop. Brian Huston (The Publican, Boltwood) is the executive chef, and along with baker Matt Pontarelli (Boltwood, Publican Quality Bread), has created a hybrid pizza with nods to Chicago, Roman and Detroit styles — but this is no Frankenstein creation. It’s a carefully researched and developed pie that will push all your buttons. The sourdough crust is fermented for a few days, the crushed tomatoes are from Chris Bianco (of Pizzeria Bianco fame), and the toppings are locally sourced whenever possible. These pizza rounds can be bought piping hot on site or via delivery; you can also opt for the take-and-bake option. Our White Pizza, topped with mozzarella, ricotta, pecorino, garlic, and basil, came out of our home oven all puffy-crispy crusted and gloriously cheesy, the perfect kickoff for our stay-at-home Super Bowl viewing.
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Julie Chernoff, Better’s dining editor since its inception in 2007, graduated from Yale University with a degree in English — which she speaks fluently — and added a professional chef’s degree from the California Culinary Academy. She has worked for Boz Scaggs, Rick Bayless, and Wolfgang Puck (not all at the same time); and counts Northlight Theatre and Les Dames d’Escoffier International as two of her favorite nonprofits. She currently serves on the national board of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, an advocacy group addressing hunger issues in the U.S. and Israel for the nearly 46 million people — veterans, children, seniors, tribal nations, and more — who go to bed hungry every night.