This feature is not meant to settle arguments about which style is best—as if we could—but rather to celebrate the blessed landscape. So I, a man with a huge pizza passion and no deep-seated regional biases, spent months in search of pies that were particularly fresh, balanced, and distinctive. This being Chicago, I found them in every corner of the city and suburbs. Here, the 25 tastiest pizzas in town and where to get them. (Launch the gallery.) Plus, “64 Lines About 32 Pizzas,” my song and video tribute to the world of Chicago pizzerias.

1 Great Lake (Closed)

Cremini mushrooms, Dante cheese

Thin: Nick Lessins, the chef/owner of Great Lake, is not just in a league of his own; he’s the only one playing his particular sport. You may have heard him called a genius, a god, or a grump, depending on whom you ask and how long they waited for their pizza, but I’ve spent enough time in his tiny Andersonville storefront to conclude that he is none of the above. Lessins—a man with two college degrees and no car—is simply more dedicated and consistent than the competition. Whether the line is out the door or he’s stone alone, the Detroit native focuses on his craft rather than his customers, a fact that a percentage of the public will never understand, much less accept. But he’s exactly the same as he was before GQ, Food & Wine, The New York Times, and everyone else began telling him how great he was. Maybe better.

The creations he shapes so meticulously at his 12-seat BYO are launching pads to remarkable galaxies of flavor that no other Chicago pizzamaker comes close to matching. In his inspired combinations (only three options a night, depending on how Lessins feels and what he finds at the market), smoked bacon may dance with viscous crème fraîche and chives; roasted sunchokes might whisper sweet nothings to sheep’s milk cheese. His latest beauty has a legion of thin, black-peppery cremini mushrooms sinking into decadent aged Dante cheese on a dynamic, bulbous crust. The bread’s collar emphasizes a minuscule crispy exterior embedded with sea salt; its interior is impossibly airy. How Lessins coaxes such miracles from his tiny Montague HearthBake gas oven is one of Chicago’s great mysteries and treasures. 1477 W. BALMORAL AVE.; 773-334-9270

2 Piece

Plain with artichoke hearts

New Haven: When Billy Jacobs opened Piece in 2001, he was told New Haven– style pizza would go over like a lead pepperoni in Deep-Dish Land. Wrong. Piece’s astonishing plain pie (sauce, garlic, Parmesan, and oil on a chewy-crisp, hand-formed crust) replicates New Haven’s legendary Sally’s Apizza without the coal oven (Piece uses a Middleby gas oven). For Jacobs, a Connecticut native whose great-uncle’s produce market was intertwined with Sally’s in the 1940s, the sun still rises and sets in New Haven. “I can confidently say that the third-, fourth-, or even fifth-best pie in New Haven would be the best pie almost anywhere else,” he boasts. And you thought New Yorkers were pizza snobs. 1927 W. NORTH AVE.; 773-772-4422

3 Castel Gandolfo (Closed)


Neapolitan: At some point, we’ve all done “pizza math,” wherein you silently tally the number of slices everyone has eaten before deciding whether you’re allowed to grab another one. At Castel Gandolfo, a criminally underappreciated place with a coal-fired oven, I avoid this dilemma by going alone. I order the tremendous 14-inch Margherita takeout and marvel at it for a moment: concentric circles of oregano-sparked sauce, melted bufala mozzarella, big basil leaves, and a sooty crust besieged with majestic bubbles. Then I eat the whole damn thing on the steps of a brownstone around the corner. The math is easier that way. 800 N. DEARBORN ST.; 312-787-2211

4 Crust (Closed)


Thin: A traditional German Flammkuchen (“flame cake”) is basically a thin pizza with crème fraîche instead of tomato sauce, similar to the tarte flambée that the Alsatians claim just over the border in France. In Wicker Park, Crust replaces crème fraîche with caraway-seasoned béchamel, reinforcing it with crisp bacon chunks and flawlessly caramelized purple onions. The béchamel basically serves as the sauce and the cheese, allowing the char-marked crust some room to breathe. The effect is so creamy and clean you can’t help but turn up your nose at the greasy muddle that passes for most American pizza. 2056 W. DIVISION ST.; 773-235-5511

5 Coalfire


Neapolitan: After softball games at Union Park, which my team almost always loses, we often go to Coalfire. No matter how much we order, it’s never enough. Last time, we polished off eight pies (which may have been linked to the losing). The issue, if you can call it that, is how easy Coalfire’s East Coast–style pizzas are to eat: After two minutes in the oven, they come out so deliciously smoky, pliable, and light that each slice takes about 45 seconds to polish off. You just sort of keep going, and next thing you know, the team’s in last place. 1321 W. GRAND AVE.; 312-226-2625

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6 Lou Malnati’s

Deep-dish with sausage

Deep-dish: The pizza cognition theory, developed by Sam Sifton of The New York Times, postulates that your childhood pizza will inevitably become the measuring stick for all future pizzas. This may explain why every North Shore native goes all drooly when anyone mentions Lou’s, while the Siftons of the world can try it once, shrug, and move on. But there’s a magic to this pizza that goes beyond nostalgia. It starts with the special flaky butter crust—best extra 75 cents you ever spent—and pulses through the vine-ripened tomatoes and lean, subtle sausage. Then again, just in case Sifton is right, maybe you should take the kids to Malnati’s now. 6649 N. LINCOLN AVE., LINCOLNWOOD, 847-673-0800; 29 OTHER AREA LOCATIONS

7 Santullo’s Eatery


New York: The nonstop ball busting from New York friends about the lack of a good NYC slice in Chicago always strikes me as absurd. Do I whine about a dearth of good Chicago pizza in your town? (No, because it’s your town.) The one place we can all agree on is Santullo’s, where Chicagoans and Gothamites napkin-blot the grease, fold our droopy slices, and bury the hatchet. I haven’t found many options in the five boroughs as good as Santullo’s, each piece a sturdy, charred treasure with crisp pepperoni and a blistered collar, balancing crunch and chew in a way that so many New York pizzas can’t. 1943 W. NORTH AVE.; 773-227-7960

8 Burt’s Place

Pan with sausage

Deep-dish: The appeal of this glorious junk trap’s pizza stems mainly from the improbability of its maker. At 73, Burt Katz—inventor of caramelized crust, original man behind Pequod’s and Gulliver’s—looks like a strung-out Santa. But this oddball who doesn’t care about money and hasn’t shaved since the seventies goes to the market every morning for fresh veggies, makes his own smooth sauce, and buys impeccable sausage from a butcher he refuses to name. Every thick, doughy pie that comes out of Katz’s little kitchen is a paragon of freshness: light on cheese and heavy on telltale black marks—and every bit as soft underneath as Burt. 8541 N. FERRIS AVE., MORTON GROVE; 847-965-7997

9 Art of Pizza

Stuffed with sausage

Deep-dish: I never understood the point of stuffed pizza. If regular deep-dish doesn’t provide you with enough bread, just get a calzone and say goodnight. But AoP makes sense of the conundrum, producing a crunchy exterior crust and a doughy interior one. It’s an irresistible, herby combination aided by an acidic-zing tomato sauce and copious sausage nubs so wee and decadent that they cook into perfect little colonies of depravity. And though it strained my back to do so, I picked up the first slice with my hands so my teeth could sink right into the mozzarella. Second and third ones, too. 3033 N. ASHLAND AVE.; 773-327-5600

10 Pequod’s

Pan with sausage

Deep-dish: I had a cute but unpredictable girlfriend in college with whom I broke up and reunited so many times I lost count. Same thing with Pequod’s. I love it, I hate it, I love it, I have a restraining order against it . . . and lately I’m falling prey to its charms again. The thick, golden crust—its edges famously caramelized into blackened perfection by a thin layer of cheese applied before cooking—is brawny enough to shoulder hefty lumps of secretly blended sausage and a gloriously chunky sweet sauce. Take me back one more time, Pequod’s? I’m on my knees. 2207 N. CLYBOURN AVE., 773-327-1512; ANOTHER LOCATION IN MORTON GROVE

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11 Union Pizzeria

Lamb sausage, eggplant, kalamata olives

Thin: Remember when the college-town pizzeria was a dank off-campus basement with greasy, cardboardy scraps and pitchers of watery beer? Now the kids have shiny places like Union, where a professionally trained chef makes organic wood-fired pizzas and skilled bartenders pull perfect pints of French Trappist ales. Vince DiBattista’s best pizza channels a classic Mediterranean combo of tender lamb sausage, smooth eggplant chunks, and meaty Kalamatas, which meld perfectly on the bubbly, charred crust. “When I put it on the menu, I joked that this would be our foodie pizza,” says DiBattista. “Of course, some college kids order it, too.” 1245 CHICAGO AVE., EVANSTON; 847-475-2400

12 Macella


Thin: Poor Puglia. The heel of the Italian boot has a long history of being stepped on. The Goths conquered the region; so did the Normans, Byzantines, Turks, Venetians, and Romans (twice). So you can understand why Giovanni Denigris, the Puglia-born owner of Macello, is quick to differentiate his Pugliese wood-fired pizzas from their more celebrated compatriots. “Our pizza is much thinner and crispier than others,” he says. “Neapolitan is more chewy.” Macello’s energetic Bianca looks like a glossy arugula and cherry tomato salad topped with splodges of creamy mozzarella and a pinch of salt atop a delicate cracker that’s somehow supple and golden brown. Grazie, Puglia. 1235 W. LAKE ST.; 312-850-9870

13 Pizano’s

Thin with sausage

Chicago thin: In a State Street basement, an 83-year-old lady named Donna Marie Malnati may represent our last link to the genesis of deep-dish pizza. The widow of Rudy Malnati—an early player at Pizzeria Uno—and mother of Pizano’s Rudy Malnati Jr., Donna Marie spends her nights fashioning dough balls from an old and secret family recipe. Whatever is in it, the recipe produces the most addictive thin crust in Chicago. Irresistible caramelized edges here and there give way to a buttery, pastrylike base that recalls deep-dish without the backbreaking bulk. It’s got the distinct flavor of history. 864 N. STATE ST., 312-751-1766; TWO OTHER AREA LOCATIONS

14 Coco Pazzo


Thin: It’s a mystery why coppa—a.k.a. capicola, a.k.a. gabagool, a.k.a. dry-cured pork shoulder and neck—doesn’t enjoy the same widespread recognition as prosciutto. First of all, Tony Soprano revered it, and secondly, it’s more tender than prosciutto, thanks to a higher fat content, which makes it the perfect salumi for pizzas like Coco Pazzo’s outstanding lunch-only option. Delicate wisps of coppa collaborate with dabs of tart goat cheese, adorable caramelized cipollini, and even a robust fried egg to create a heady pie. On a lovely bubbled crust full of rugged character, it all comes off flawlessly. 300 W. HUBBARD ST.; 312-836-0900

15 Spacca Napoli


Neapolitan: When Jonathan Goldsmith unveiled Spacca Napoli in 2006, he did it with a passion for all things Neapolitan, and the pizzas from his custom-built oven were miraculous. In the years since, every time a Chicagoan opened another wood-burning-oven pizzeria that turned Naples’s finest export into a tasteless commodity, I felt bad for Goldsmith. After my last few visits to his Ravenswood pizzeria, I feel worse. Spacca’s authentic pizzas are still good, but they’re maddeningly inconsistent: light and transcendent some days, uneven and salty on others. Even when it’s slightly off its game, though, its Margherita—made with impeccable fior di latte mozzarella, San Marzano tomatoes, and Molino Caputo flour—blows away most of the copycats out there. 1769 W. SUNNYSIDE AVE.; 773-878-2420

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16 Apart

Apart signature pie

Thin: Part of what I love about pizza is that I occasionally stumble across an idiosyncratic place that’s not prisoner to any style but its own. Apart, whose menu name-checks Naples, Rome, and New Jersey, synthesizes the pizzas of all of the above, and the result is unlike any of the above. The lovely, blistered Apart, which cradles ample sausage chunks, pepperoni, and champignons, is crisper than an East Coaster, softer than a Roman, and bulkier than a Neapolitan. And it’s meant to be eaten fast: What’s heartbreakingly magnificent right out of Apart’s new oven becomes a limp mess with time. 2205 W. MONTROSE AVE., 773-588-1550; ANOTHER LOCATION IN EDGEWATER

17 Nella Pizzeria Napoletana


Neapolitan: Now that Nella Grassano is no longer in the kitchen at the bright Lincoln Park trattoria built and named for her, where does that leave the place? At the moment, the oven and the celebrated exhibition mirror are in the able hands of Alfredo Colle, another Naples native, whom Francis Ford Coppola discovered at a Neapolitan pizzeria in Paris and brought back to the States. Colle’s scorching Margherita, oblong and firebrick red, is pocked with luscious craters and volcanoes, each oozing smoky, tart flavor. Perhaps best of all, Colle is not afraid to override tradition where necessary, avoiding the soupy Neapolitan oil lagoon that most Americans can’t stomach. The mirror is yours, Alfredo. 2423 N. CLARK ST.; 773-327-3400

18 Gino’s East

Deep-dish with sausage patty

Deep-dish: Gino’s may have secured an impressive following over its 44 years, but once you get past the generations of graffiti and dewy-eyed nostalgia, the volatile pizza has always been a bit like a particularly risky stock. At the moment, Gino’s is up. Way up. The Streeterville legend masters deep-dish by adhering to a careful balance of crust, cheese, and sauce—and with an entire layer of fresh sausage applied in equal measure, it’s like eating a really good open-faced Italian sandwich on buttery, crisp bread. My undistinguished investment portfolio notwithstanding, I’m telling you: Buy now. 162 E. SUPERIOR ST., 312-266-3337; 12 OTHER AREA LOCATIONS

19 Gruppo di Amici (Closed)

Funghi e formaggi

Thin: On a wall near the Forno Bravo oven at this Rogers Park pizzeria is a small black mark. It’s the area where Gruppo’s steel pizza peel rests when it’s not sliding pies around under 500 degrees of wood-fired heat, and it tells tales of myriad creations—some good, some great. My eyes were drawn to the smudge as I watched the pizzaiolo pull out my pizza, a crackery disk swarmed with wispy sautéed mushrooms and goat cheese as soft and supple as the crust was brittle. Wonderful. When I looked back at the oven, the peel was back in its spot, adding another layer of history. 1508 W. JARVIS AVE.; 773-508-5565

20 Louisa’s


Deep-dish: The close-minded cranks who write off deep-dish pizza as nothing more than a corpulent casserole ought to check out Louisa DeGenero’s roadside restaurant before they dismiss the whole genre. DeGenero, an Uno veteran, long ago developed her own version. It’s cooked in a deep pan, yes, but the crust and toppings are hardly exaggerated: Hers is a simple, modest pie with crushed fresh tomatoes, a scattering of cheese, and a crust that’s neither thick nor thin. What it is is buttery, light, and terrific, no matter what kind of pizza prejudices you’re lugging around. 14025 S. CICERO AVE., CRESTWOOD; 708-371-0950

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21 Frasca


Neapolitan: Instead of sauce or San Marzanos or even plum tomatoes, Frasca’s weirdly inspired Margherita employs perky halved grape tomatoes, each of which explodes delicious juice onto the heady basil strips and sedate mozzarella when you take a bite. And every nibble tastes different. You start at the tender tip of your slice, and as you work your way north, the defiant crust begins to offer more of a fight, toughening up before ultimately hardening into a crisp, aggressive exterior. A lot like adolescence. Without the years of resentment, of course. 3358 N. PAULINA ST.; 773-248-5222

22 Gigio’s

Thin with sausage

New York: For 50 years, Gigio’s has been the kind of no-frills, late-night pizzeria where you eat greasy slices off generic white paper plates and drink your RC Cola straight from the can. (Read as: It’s a grunge-hole.) But the pizza—adamantly New York–style in an area that’s pure Chicago—is worth braving the grime. The hand-stretched crust somehow stays crispy on the bottom; on top, lithe cheese curls around homemade sausage and a thin sheet of sauce. If you crave NYC pizza so much you’re willing to eat it under the el with a wide variety of characters, get yourself to Uptown. If not, get it to go.4643 N. BROADWAY; 773-271-2273

23 Paula and Monica’s

Thin with sausage

Thin Chicago: has never been a slice town, for whatever reason. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that Chicagoans are not animals and they like to sit and digest their food before looking for the next kill. So when faced with a place like this tiny West Town storefront, their first concern is the freshness of the wares behind the counter. But Paula & Monica’s tempting cornmeal-dusted jumbo sausage slice ($5) is lighter, yeastier, and bubblier than your typical slice. And cheaper. It’s actually three hulking wedges—one-third of a pizza—and the constant demand means your order probably just emerged from the oven. 1518 W. CHICAGO AVE.; 312-929-3615

24 Parker’s Restaurant & Bar


Neapolitan: Despite being one of the only pizzas in Chicago to earn the famously stringent Verace Pizza Napoletana seal of approval, Parkers’ highly touted Margherita has something very un-Neapolitan about it: a sprinkling of Parmigiano-Reggiano. While this gambit might get a Neapolitan’s biancheria in a twist, I am not from Naples. The nuttier cheese melts right into the usual elements—creamy mozzarella disks, San Marzano tomatoes, and tiny basil leaves on a snappy, bubbly crust—and punches up the proceedings in a satisfying way. Whether a masterstroke, a mistake, or a brazen act of pizza treason, it works. 1000 31ST ST., DOWNERS GROVE; 630-960-5701

25 Aurelio’s (Closed)

Thin with black olive

Chicago thin: South suburbanites love to talk about Aurelio’s old oven, a magical apparatus that supposedly dates back to 1959. People have been asking for their pizzas to be cooked in the old oven for so long that no one knows whether it still exists. (It’s also spawned one of Chicago’s longest-running in-jokes—ordering old-oven-cooked pizzas in every Aurelio’s outpost.) My waitress at the flagship location, a middle-aged lady named Betty, assured me it does exist, then served a quintessential party-cut pie with sweet plum tomato sauce, a thick cheese blend, and a crunchy yet distinctively filling crust. “Some people like it,” she said, “because it makes the pizzas extra crispy.” You got that right, Betty. 18162 HARWOOD AVE., HOMEWOOD; 708-798-8050