Chicago pizza expert and author Steve Dolinsky and I take our seats at a red-and-white checkered picnic table out in front of My Pi Pizza in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, just as owner Rich Aronson emerges with a signature deep-dish pizza.
Think You Know Chicago Deep-Dish Pizza? Think Again
Rich cuts the pizza into quarters with the blade of a stiff metal spatula and lifts a slice by its crust, holding it high in the air to show that the crust is sturdy and crisp enough to support the weight of the cheese, sausage, and sauce without bending.
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“The original Chicago [deep-dish] pie looks like this one. It’s thin, you can hold it with your hands, it doesn’t flop,” Steve says.
The pizza itself is surprisingly light in texture with a noticeable flakiness to the crust. The toppings, an equal distribution of gooey mozzarella cheese, fragrant sausage, and herbaceous sauce, are balanced, with none of them fighting for attention over the others. Steve says, “With a great piece of pizza, you want to get equal bites crust, cheese, sauce, topping, which is why it’s pleasant and a good experience.”
Steve explains that one of the defining features of deep-dish pizza is its interior wall of crust. “Essentially the dough is pressed up along the walls [of the pan], and then the pie sits a little lower in the middle.” Rich adds, “It’s deep because of that edge crust.”
The two elaborate further on another subcategory of pizza that is often confused with deep dish that Steve refers to as “deep-pan” pizza. This pizza lacks the noticeable high interior crust and, instead, the cheese and sauce often spill over the edge of the dough in the pan and form a brittle burnt cheese edge on the crust, similar to what you might find with Detroit pizza.
These deep-pan pizzas, often but not always, tend to have a thicker, more doughy crust than deep dish and present as the fork-and-knife casserole-like pizzas that Chicago has become most widely known for. A slice of deep-pan pizza typically would not be able to support its own weight if held by the crust, as Rich demonstrates with his deep dish.
Chicago Deep-Dish PizzaWhere history and crust run deep.
Rich’s father, Larry Aronson, opened the original My Pi Pizza in 1971. At the time, he was enamored with deep-dish pizza but felt that many of the versions he tried lacked balance. Being a baker and “tinkerer in the kitchen,” he set out to develop his own recipe, hence the name “My Pi.”
Eventually, Larry went on to open more than 20 My Pi Pizza restaurants in nine states and claims to be the first to sell deep-dish pizza outside of Illinois. But after a legal dispute with franchisees in the ’90s, he decided to close all the restaurants.
Rich, who grew up working in the My Pi pizzerias and subsequently spent 10 years cooking in fine-dining restaurants, opened the current location on North Damen Avenue with his father in 2000. It is now the last remaining outpost of that pizzeria empire.
The construction of Chicago deep-dish pizza is essentially upside down from that of traditional pizzas. Sliced mozzarella covers the dough, followed by the toppings, the sauce, and finally a light sprinkling of grated Parmesan cheese and oregano. Sliced mozzarella, as opposed to shredded, is used to form a protective barrier between the dough and the sauce, which gives the crust the opportunity to crisp during baking.
Sausage is king in Chicago and used much more widely on pizzas than pepperoni. However, in Chicago the sausage is put on the pizza raw. “So when it cooks, all those wonderful oils and herbs and spices render out into the pizza.
And that’s one of the great things about Chicago pizza,” Rich says. “Almost anywhere outside of the Midwest they’re going to put on a precooked sausage. The sausage still tastes great, but remember those wonderful oils and herbs and spices? Yeah, they’re in the garbage can back at the restaurant. They’re not on the pizza.”
Rich credits My Pi’s crisp-tender crust to his father’s approach to the dough. The dough should be “moist but not sticky,” he says. As he watches a batch of dough knead in the mixer, he smiles and shares, “My dad calls it ‘slosh.’ You’re looking for the dough to slosh around [the mixing bowl].”
The sauce at My Pi is subtly sweet and fortified with herbs and a touch of oil for richness. And surprisingly, some of it remains a mystery to even Rich himself.
As pizza scholar Steve tells the story, Larry realized early on that if someone didn’t order a sausage pizza, they would be missing out on the flavorful fennel and fat that is rendered from that sausage and collects on the pizza as it cooks. So he created a sauce with a very particular blend of herbs and spices that mimics some of those found in sausage and then some. “And it’s no joke, [Rich] has to go to his dad’s house to pick up the spice packet that his dad makes,” Steve says.
Rich chimes in, “Yeah. I don’t know what’s in it. He still hasn’t told me.” He shrugs and says, “Supposedly it’s in the will.”