Chicago is Pizza Central, my friends. Grab a slice.
Just got back from a trip to NYC, and I must say, they’ve got nothing on Chicago pizza. Here, we embrace all styles, from Rome and Naples to Detroit and the Quad Cities. Whether square, round, oblong, deep-dish or thin-crusted, wood-fired or grilled, all forms of pizza are welcome — yes, even the famed NYC slice, folded down the middle and shoveled in your mouth while running to your next appointment to avoid telltale splatters of sauce and cheese on your blouse or necktie.
Listen, I’m all about the cheese, but for a truly great pizza, it all starts with the crust. Each style has its champions, but you just can’t beat the flavor of a dough with a long and slow fermentation process, which is, of course, a luxury that few high-volume places can afford. For true Italian-style pizza, 00 flour must be in the mix.
To top off the perfect crust, there are options. You’ve got your red (tomato sauce) and your white (no tomato sauce, often béchamel instead) pizzas, but add green (herb and nut pesto, puréed kale), orange (butternut squash or pumpkin), brown (truffle cream, duxelles) and yellow (puréed corn) to your list to create a rainbow of delicious.
Add a blanket of freshly shredded or hand-torn mozzarella, fontina, parmesan, pecorino, or basically any cheese, followed by a finely curated selection of toppings (artisanal pepperoni, sausage, pancetta, market-fresh veggies and herbs) strewn over the surface (or under the cheese, if that’s your thing), and your pizza is complete: It’s the food of the gods. No need to despair, vegans, because everyone deserves (and gets) the pizza they want in Chicago. Leave off the cheese. We don’t judge.
Choosing a favorite pizza is a fool’s errand. Given the strong opinions of our pizza-obsessed populace and the ubiquitous pizza greatness in our fair city — here’s looking at you, Spacca Napoli, Piece, Barnaby’s, Pequod’s and other longtime favorites — we’ve got to give it up for the sheer audacity of these 12 most notable new(er)comers, continually pushing boundaries and bringing the flavor. They’re playing with the big dogs and making their mark.
161 N. Sangamon St., Chicago, 312-243-4016
If you haven’t yet experienced Roman-style al taglio pizza, get ready for your world to be rocked at this West Loop newcomer, the first American outpost of pizza master Gabriele Bonci. Belly up to the counter, where 15 or 20 large, oblong pizzas are on display, with countless inspired topping combinations in rotation. The pizza is sold by the pound, cut with sharp Fiskars scissors to your size specification. This is not thin-crust pizza, but crispy beneath, with an airy crumb. It’s scrumptious. The flour mix, imported from Bonci’s Italian mother ship, is a blend of 0, 00 and whole-grain flours.
Show-Stopper Pizza: Roman classic potato, mozzarella and rosemary ($12.99/pound). This is what started the potato pizza trend.
8541 Ferris Ave., Morton Grove, 847-965-7997
When longtime owner Burt Katz died in 2016 after selling his beloved pan pizza joint, his loyal followers (Anthony Bourdain among them) wondered what would become of his legacy. Happily for all concerned, Jerry Petrow purchased Burt’s Place in late 2015 and learned the recipes and techniques of the signature caramelized crust from Burt himself. The restaurant, closed for almost two years, was renovated and reopened in March 2017. A second pizza oven was added, so the output from the kitchen is speedier, and more people can be accommodated. But Petrow is still using Burt’s well-seasoned deep-dish pizza pans, so all is well.
Show-Stopper Pizza: Medium pan pizza with fresh spinach, sausage, and mushrooms ($21). That crust!
Lakeview: 3707 N. Southport Ave., Chicago, 773-477-2625; West Town: 1321 W. Grand Ave., Chicago, 312-226-2625
I was a little late to this party, but now I’m the guest that won’t leave. We’re talking wood-oven fired, blistery thin-crust pizza with just the right amount of tang and chew, insane toppings and a full bar. Who can blame me? Two locations, both jam-packed from the moment they open. Table service is fast and efficient.
Show-Stopper Pizza: Pepperoni & Whipped Ricotta ($17), with mozzarella, ricotta, garlic, arugula and thick-cut pepperoni. Why is whipped ricotta better? It’s like eating a cheesy cloud.
127 W. Huron St., Chicago, 312-754-0700
Not a pizzeria, per se, but a full-scale Italian restaurant in the heart of River North with really yummy thin-crust, Neopolitan-style pizza, especially when you do it up “Stella-Style,” which means the crust is cut and shaped into a star, each point enclosing a generous dollop of fresh ricotta cheese. Sneaky … and oh, so tasty.
Show-Stopper Pizza: Tartufata, Stella-Style ($18), with white sauce, speck, spicy salami, mozzarella and truffle oil. Judicious use of truffle oil; ridiculous excess of cheese and meat. Perfetto.
West Loop: 1048 W. Randolph St., Chicago, 312-243-6000; 3719 N. Harlem Ave., Chicago, 773-716-3000
Owner Nick Nitti actually trained as a pizzaiolo in Naples, Italy, and received his official verification from the Vera Pizza Napoletana (VPN), so this pizza is the real deal — wood-burning oven, San Marzano tomatoes, fresh Italian mozzarella and all. Forno Rosso is also importing a special gluten-free flour mix and does a careful preparation with specially designated gluten-free equipment; the taste is quite faithful to the “real” thing.
Show-Stopper Pizza: Pistachio Pizza ($19), with locally sourced sausage, fior di latte mozzarella, Pecorino Romano, pistachio pesto and fresh basil. Deeply flavored and delicioso.
899 Green Bay Road, Winnetka, 847-386-9141
Owner/pizza maker Matt Halack started with a mobile wood-fired oven, making a name for himself with terrific seasonally inspired pizzas at local farmers markets and catering gigs. Now expanded to a brick-and-mortar spot in Hubbard Woods, Grateful Bites brings it every day with a sourdough crust, fermented for a few days to give it just the right tang. Kids will love watching the pizzas being made and baked right in front of them.
Show-Stopper Pizza: Elote ($16), with mozzarella cheese, roasted corn, mayo, cotija cheese, cilantro, chili powder and lime. Brilliant idea — and it works.
1126 Central Ave., Wilmette, 224-215-0305
Downtown Wilmette really started hopping with the introduction of this hotspot, complete with bespoke-tiled, wood-fired pizza oven imported from Naples. Thin-crusted with a nice chewy texture to the outside. They import the flour and the mozzarella from Italy, and they follow the strict rules of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana.
Show-Stopper Pizza: Carni Italiane ($18) has all the meats: hot sopressata, house sausage and pancetta combine with fresh mozzarella, basil, chili and olive oil. And God said: Let there be cholesterol.
West Loop: 108 N. Green St., Chicago, 312-600-6090; Wicker Park: 1824 W. Division St., Chicago, 872-315-3005
Sure, this West Loop spot is a little fratty, but the fact is they make a solid “Neapolitan-inspired” pizza, meaning thinner crust from a wood-burning oven, but with enough cheese to remind you of New York. Unique topping combinations with punny names attract a millennial crowd. Order it to go and they throw in a personalized Parlor Pizza cutter.
Show-Stopper Pizza: Brussels Shuffle ($16), with dry-cured pancetta, fresh mozzarella, garlic, shaved Brussels sprouts, parmesan and lemon zest. Enough green that you can feel virtuous; enough pancetta to make you happy.
1521 N. Fremont St., Chicago, 312-280-6000
Neither thin nor thick, this pizza crust is just about perfect: a crispy, charred bottom with enough heft above to support the sauce, cheese and whatnot. And oh, there will be toppings, because industry vet and owner Zach Smith has got it going on in the palate department. The best news is that any pizza can be ordered half and half, which makes choosing a favorite that much easier. Lincoln Park never tasted so good.
Show-Stopper Pizza: Little Neck Clam ($16), with panna (cream sauce), garlic, clams, parsley, lemon and mozzarella. The New Haven pizza snob within me was in mollusk heaven.
Lincoln Square: 2200 W. Lawrence Ave., Chicago, 773-433-5959; West Town, 1924 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago, 773-645-4949
Brought to you from the Fifty/50 Restaurant Group (Portsmith, The Sixth, The Fifty/50, Steadfast, etc.) and inspired by the Quad Cities pizzas of co-owner Greg Mohr’s childhood, where the pizza crust was flavored with toasty malt. Each pizza is hand-tossed, toppings underneath the melty cheese. Hot out of the oven, it’s hand-cut, with scissors, into strips. That’s just how they do in the QC.
Show-Stopper Pizza: Taco ($22/$27), with taco-seasoned sausage, Roots pizza sauce, Quad Cities mozzarella blend and cheddar cheese, topped with lettuce, tomatoes and taco chips. Taco sauce and sour cream served on the side. Unconventional, yes, but your mouth will be wowed. It’s all about the texture and temperature contrasts.
1307 Chicago Ave., Evanston, 224-714-3100; Revival Food Hall, Clark Street, Chicago
From the team that brought us Union Pizzeria down the block in Evanston comes Detroit-style square pan pizza that brought me right back to my Michigan childhood, only — dare I say it? — better. Baked in a custom black metal pan, the focaccia-like crust picks up a caramelized cheesy crusty edge. You’ll fight over the corner pieces.
Show-Stopper Pizza: Wild Mushroom ($25), with fontina, melted leeks, walnut pesto and wild mushrooms. These aren’t the toppings of my Detroit childhood, but they are certainly my favorite now!
355 E. Ohio St., Chicago, 312-631-3877
Somewhere between Chicago thin-crust and New York-style slice pizza lies Urban Crosta, where the pizza is cooked in a “stone oven.” Located in Steeterville in the old Robert’s Pizza location, they try to make the most of a very odd space. Toppings like Steak & Chimichurri are inventive, and the crust has a toothsome quality to it that’s quite appealing.
Show-Stopper Pizza: Urban Crosta Artichoke ($13.50), with marinated artichokes, mozzarella, parmesan and roasted cauliflower sauce. That sauce isn’t a gimmick. It’s straight-up addictive.
Editor’s Note: There were three highly touted spots that I couldn’t quite make it to, but they come seriously recommended from people with palates I trust, so be sure to check them out as well. I know I’ll be heading their way once I recover from my two-week long Chicago pizza odyssey.
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Julie Chernoff, Make It 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 sits on the boards of Les Dames d’Escoffier International and Northlight Theatre. She and husband Josh are empty nesters since adult kids Adam and Leah have flown the coop. Rosie the Cockapoo relishes the extra attention.