Illustration: Greg Clarke

The bratty, contrarian spirit lurking inside me has long wanted to set up a taste test between Domino’s Crunchy Thin Crust pizza and a standard bearer for Chicago tavern-style pie. Though this sounds like a stunt, I’ve been honestly curious to see how they would compare; I do really like tavern-style pizzas and, in a previous life, I really liked Domino’s. I like the same thing about both: the cut, the crunch, the corners. 

The thought came roaring back now that Pizza Hut, with a robust advertising push, has dropped this Chicago contribution to the pizza pantheon nationwide: “The all NEW Chicago Tavern Style Pizza from Pizza Hut is full of crispy bites and bold flavor. Inspired by the bar pies of Chicago, and crafted with a touch of Pizza Hut magic, our NEW Chicago Tavern Style Pizza goes hard.”

While it didn’t take long for Chicagoans to start dunking on it, this product rollout says something about trend-casting: thin-crust pizzas identified specifically as “Chicago tavern style” are going big. The term has been around for decades but it hasn’t always been definitive. About five years ago a friend visiting from New York and his group wanted to try all the local specialties and asked for my recommendations for deep dish. I gave a few but urged them to check out some places for tavern style. They went to My Pi in Bucktown and loved it, but the guy behind the counter had no idea what “tavern style” meant. “We just call it thin crust,” he said. 

The term broke big last year when New York Times food columnist J. Kenji Lopez-Alt wrote a widely circulated piece about Chicago’s best tavern-style pizzas and devised a recipe based to some degree on the one used at Kim’s Uncle Pizza in Westmont. Because pizza is the most obsessed-over food, the obsessives went wild.

Lopez-Alt had been on the thin-crust beat for some time. In 2018 he wrote this piece on Serious Eats, which gave props to Domino’s. As someone who has spent much of my life in the American South, I know Domino’s thin crust has an almost cultish appeal. Maybe that’s because it’s really the only thin-crust game in the region, where places like Mellow Mushroom rule. (I know Mellow’s is objectively mediocre pizza with a leathery malty crust and silly toppings, but sometimes when I go back to Atlanta I crave it. Taste of home.) 

Last fall, when I was in Oxford, Mississippi, for the annual Southern Foodways Alliance symposium, I finished off one night at an afterparty thrown by a bunch of Southern chefs, including the great Ashley Christensen of Poole’s Diner and other restaurants in Raleigh, North Carolina. Ding dong: A delivery driver arrived with stacks of Domino’s, all thin crust. Everyone descended on them with professions of love. Hanna Raskin, editor of the invaluable Southern journal The Food Section saw the story and commissioned an article where Southern chefs professed their love for Domino’s thin

Pat’s crust on the left, Domino’s on the right.

“It’s almost like eating a super delicious pastry,” Christensen said in the article, admiring its “laminated quality.” Jason Stanhope, a James Beard-award winning chef from South Carolina, praised the construction of the pie and called it “perfectly salty and fatty and crunchy.” 

Southerners like to heap praise on deserving store-bought products from big food companies, whether it’s Publix Bakery coconut cake, Milo’s bottled tea, Sister Schubert’s frozen Parker House rolls, or Glory Foods canned collard greens, and I heartily cosign on all. Ditto Domino’s.

So the time came for my taste test, which I’ve conveniently left to the end of this article to avoid the pitchforks. The most-loved and most-iconic tavern style closest to my house is from Pat’s Pizzeria. I ordered a medium pie, half cheese/half pepperoni, from both Pat’s and Domino’s, set them up side by side and invited people in my orbit to try both. 

I found that Pat’s pizza had milkier cheese and tomato-ier sauce, both of which easily detached themselves from the crust when we tried to pry pieces apart. The crust was spotted black from the oven and crunchy in the way of, say, the corner of a flour tortilla quesadilla or a pita chip. I liked it. The Domino’s pizza on the other hand was blander but better constructed, with a uniformly golden brown crust and a sheer cheese topping that melded into it. It tasted like it had more fat in the dough, so it was both super thin and super flaky, like the bottom of a buttery croissant. Our group, none of us native Chicagoans, all liked the Domino’s better. We kept eating it, little square by little square, until it was no more and then made inroads into the Pat’s pie. 

I’m not saying that Domino’s has better pizza but perhaps it does belong in the conversation as an example of a certain kind of short crust style now that tavern style is gearing up as a huge trend. Please take every opinion I make with a grain of salt, though. After all, I’ve admitted that I sometimes crave Mellow Mushroom. Opinions are all personal and should be shared. 

Soft serve surprises

If you love soft serve ice cream, then check out two new spots bringing some flavor swag. LTO, a.k.a. “Limited Time Only” on the patio at Avondale’s Guild Row through the summer. Chef Jamie Davis has been devising flavors such as caramelized white chocolate and goat cheese, blackberry, rhubarb, and black sesame. Over at the new Bar Parisette, where Madalyn Durrant is chef, the flavors have included salted vanilla and blueberry/lavender. During happy hour the “shake frites” snack combines crisp fries with a sidecar of vanilla soft serve.