For me, so far, the highlight of the stay-at-home order has been eating a 12-inch tavern-style pizza from J.B. Alberto’s (1326 W. Morse Ave.). From opening the box to see those perfectly ruled square cuts, to biting through the thick, gooey cheese to reach the crispy crust, that pizza was just about the best $20 I’d ever spent.
According to Yelp, a lot of Chicagoans have been feeling the same way. On the site’s map of the most popular delivery order unique to Illinois during COVID-19, thin-crust pizza is No. 1.
“Our business has been fantastic,” says J.B. Alberto’s owner Tony Troiano, whose restaurant, which was takeout- and delivery-only even before the pandemic, has been selling more pies than ever. “Our business model was perfect for COVID. Four o’clock, we get blasted with dinner rush. People are just eating, watching Netflix, consuming libations.”
Deep dish pizza, beloved by tourists, is such a well-established Chicago cliche that when Jay Leno did a week of Tonight Shows here, he joked about hotels placing a Pizzeria Uno pie under every pillow. But most Chicagoans prefer thin-crust pizza, sliced into squares. It’s the quintessential Chicago pizza, and it may be the quintessential Chicago food, period.
Even more than deep dish, tavern-style pizza is a uniquely Chicago delicacy with a uniquely Chicago story. According to Peter Regas, a local pizza historian who blogs at pizzahistorybook.com, pizza didn't catch on in Chicago until after it did in New York City. While the food was served in Italian bakeries here in the early 20th Century, and the first pizzeria, Granato’s, opened in 1924 on Taylor Street, pizza wasn't popular among Chicago's masses until the early 1940s, after the end of Prohibition.
As a result, pizza was served mostly in taverns, often as an enticement to drink alcohol. Possibly because taverns usually didn’t have silverware or plates, the owners sliced the pizza into little squares, which could be set on napkins. (Similar horizontal cuts can also be found on Quad Cities–style pizza and the St. Louis provel cheese pizza.)
Chicago tavern owners were also less beholden to Old World traditions than New Yorkers, many of whom hailed from the Campania region of Italy, where pizza originated. The New Yorkers hand tossed their dough, just like their forebears. Chicagoans rolled theirs, eventually leading to the use of mechanical sheeters. The machines were faster and more economical than rolling pins, and also produced a thinner crust than a hand-tossed pizza.
“Chicago’s pizzeria culture was formed primarily by non-bakers who went into the tavern business and used pizza as a side product,” Regas says. “East Coast pizzeria culture was formed far earlier by Campania-born bakers and thus was more organic, more traditionalist.”
East Coast pizzerias also put more emphasis on sauce, while Chicago taverns piled on the cheese to produce “a heartier meal as opposed to a snack.”
The same methods are still used to produce Chicago tavern-style pizzas. Candlelite (7452 N. Western Ave.), which has been in business since 1950, uses a sheeter to roll its dough, says co-owner Patrick Fowler. The result is a crust that’s almost as crisp as a cracker.
“The tavern-style thin crust is almost as thin as you can get,” says Fowler. Any thinner, and the pie would be nothing but cheese. “[I've] never seen it as thin in other cities. Deep dish does exist in other towns, whereas thin crust does not. There’s Pizzeria Uno, and the whole folklore about that. I think people think it’s a cool story, but [deep dish] is not as regularly consumed.”
(Deep dish is also a bad takeout/delivery option; it takes 45 minutes to prepare, and doesn’t hold up as well for reheating or next-day cold pizza.)
Even on the heels of National Italian Beef Week, there's an argument to be made that tavern-style thin-crust is not just the No. 1 Chicago pizza, but the No. 1 Chicago food altogether. Italian beef, hot dogs, and Polish sausage are legacies of the city’s slaughterhouse past. Thin-crust pizza is adaptable to a future in which meat is more expensive and less popular. You can order it with sausage and pepperoni, or without. Even a vegetarian pizza contains three of the four original major food groups. It has only one flaw: when a round pizza is cut into tavern slices, you end up with those little corner triangles that are nothing but crust.
“You give that to the person you like least at the table,” suggests Fowler. “Save the middle for people you like.”