Updated: Mar 24, 2021
Three shifts have revitalized the area 'za game. Where's it leading us?
Pizza is having a year.
At least 25 new ventures--sitdowns, takeouts, pop-ups, sideshows, et al.--have opened since March of 2020; both amateurs and professionals alike--including Noah Sandoval of Michelin two-star Oriole--have jumped into the fray. In a single week in February, Eater, The Infatuation, and Time Out Chicago all published listicles on the new spots; the Chicago Tribune had to run a roundup of new spots a mere two months after it published its own updated list of the best options.
That pizza blew up in the pandemic is hardly surprising: it’s portable, holds up well in transit, is the low-moisture mozzarella security blanket we all needed. But what’s striking about the expansion in Chicago specifically has been the commensurate increase in quality: the new pizza upstarts took giant leaps forward in technique and taste compared to the perennial--and, if we’re being honest, kinda mediocre--deep dish and tavern options (and even the many Neapolitan joints that began springing up 10 years ago) across town. It feels like an entire geological era has passed since Chicago Magazine’s last roundup of area pizza in the fall of 2019, when Bungalow by Middle Brow topped the list after a mere six months in business, and maybe a maximum of six of the 25 spots it selected would stand out against the new generation, much less out-of-town competitors.
Flash forward to now: the bench is deep--world-class, really. It’s a real movement, too: there’s an emerging ethos, a set of defining features that provides a framework while still allowing room for new and unique voices.
Here’s the cheat sheet.
The early days of the pandemic pizzasphere were notable for gap filling: Table, Donkey and Stick provided a new Grandmother/bakery pie; Pizza Friendly Pizza and Pizza Fried Chicken Ice Cream played with Sicilian style; Paulie Gee’s added a New York slice; and virtually everyone else did Detroit. Call it necessary groundwork for the shape of things that came later in 2020 and early 2021: a host of novel approaches born from combining styles but resulting in original visions. Milly’s evolved the Pequod’s model by further exploring the boundaries of Detroit-style and deep dish; The Arch merged the cheese frico of a Detroit pizza with the cut of Chicago tavern style. Pizzeria Lobo found the midpoint between New York and Neapolitan styles; Paper Thin Pizza even tried to John Cage crust altogether by creating the barest of undersides.
The result? The end of pizza orthodoxy. A rise in creativity and individuality. And a heck of a lot more fun pizzas. An obvious analogue here is what has happened in New York over the last few years with the dual rise of the high-end slice and a set of new artisans who seemed to channel the spirit of our own Great Lake through the lens of Brooklyn (Ops) or Jersey City (Bread & Salt), but a comparison undersells the innovation: the ingenuity and iconoclasm are our own, and we should celebrate them as such.
Synonymizing pizza with/as bread is hardly a new concept, but you’d have been hard-pressed to find local devotees to the philosophy pre-pandemic in a scene whose defining and dominating features were an herb in sausage and whether to put an additional layer of dough in between layers of, you know, pizza casserole. What Bungalow ushered in was a new phase in which bread baking--and bread bakers--drives pizza: i.e., it’s the bread, stupid.
It’s been a welcome change. Among the standouts, I’d highlight The Arch, whose 72-hour ferment produces a pizza whose underskirt looks, feels, and tastes like ciabatta; the toppings on Pizza Friendly Pizza’s Sicilian basically float on a veritable carb pillow. And, in the ultimate display of bread-forward thinking, we finally got pizza bianca purveyor in Pizza Finestra, a focaccia-like blanket of flour and oil ideal for its mortadella and radicchio sammies or on its own.
So many of the stalwarts of Chicago pizza--Pat’s comes to mind--seem designed to be forgotten, the sort of thing you happily consume at a party but don’t let distract you from conversation or imbibing. The new breed of pies, however, demand attention. Paulie Gee’s produced limited series Detroit pizzas with the flavors of Sichuan eggplant, Kansas City barbecue, and Cubanos; Pizza Friendly Pizza’s R&D pies have included currants and pine nuts, sesame and bacon vinaigrette, clam and guanciale. I’m a sucker for Bob’s pickle pie, which blends the ratchet joy of eating, say, Papa John’s with the flavors of, say, finger sandwiches served at tea. And the Indian pizza at Moti Cafe is a riot of tastes--creamy, salty, sweet, spicy--that deserves a better foundation than the cardboard on which it sits.
New spots even found ways to reinvent the more familiar and classic local template: sausage pizza. Pizza Fried Chicken Ice Cream’s initial forays into Sicilian-style was notable for its heavily seasoned pie, not only upping the fennel quotient in the sausage but the pie as a whole, dousing it in herbs and dropping a substantial slice of basil on top. Table, Donkey, & Stick uses nduja to a great smoky and spicy effect, the creaminess of the spreadable sausage matching the doughiness of its Grandma style.
The paradigm shift in quality isn’t going to change one fact: there is and will be a lot of shitty pizza out there, be it downtown or on Wells Street. One encouraging sign of the new generation, at least, is its likely sustainability: a lot of the upstarts are next to--even in, as is the case with, say, Paper Thin Pizza or Ludlow Liquors--bars, ensuring a stream of foot traffic; still others are bars, as is the case with Pizza Lobo. Lobo, in fact, feels like the blueprint moving forward: rather than making it into the guidebooks or on pizza tours, the goal is to integrate with the surrounding neighborhood, offering a vision and vibe on par with the cocktail bars in the area. It’s worked for Happy Camper, Parlor, and the like in Old Town and West Loop, respectively--why not the same for Logan and the South Loop?
A Moderately Subjective List of The Best Five Pizzerias (Right Now):
Paulie Gee’s (Logan Square): nobody matches PG’s on flavor, particularly a pepperoni and bacon jam Detroit-style pizza whose mix of sweet, salty, spicy, and creamy is positively electric. When on, they make the city's best Neapolitan pizzas, too, but can occasionally overcook them; I have not found their slices to be all that special (though everyone else disagrees).
Milly’s Pizza in the Pan: Almost sculpture like in appearance and surprisingly ascetic in composition: no sugar in the sauce, slightly under-seasoned. Somehow pulls off the magic trick of being deep dish and not at all heavy. Deep craftwork here.
Pizza Fried Chicken Ice Cream: the most punk rock of the bunch: aggressive seasoning of meats and toppings, a tavern-style crust deliberately over-cooked to be “extra crispy.” Divisive, yet unquestionably delicious.
The Arch: the best bread game of the bunch, with an underside like ciabatta and a Detroit-style crunch for a little salt candy. Still learning how to make its toppings work; could be a serious contender over the next six months.
Pizza Friendly Pizza: I admire the craft here, and the R&D pizzas have shown an outré side that bodes well for its future; after three visits, though, still have not had a knockout pizza as I’ve had at the others on this list. But it's definitely good.