At Chicago's beloved Lou Malnati's Pizzeria, recipes have gone unchanged for decades as the company has grown from a single storefront to over 30 locations. Pizza impresario Marc Malnati has remained fiercely committed to the deep dish principles that his father (the restaurant's founder and namesake) brought to the shop which he opened in 1971 after working at the legendary Pizzeria Uno. "Too many times people change things arounds, fix things that aren't broken," says Malnati. "This is an iconic product, and we are very protective."
It's not an understatement. The Malnati Chicago Classic pie is one of the city's most iconic dishes and on a busy night, a single location may sell as many as 300. The deep dish pie made with a buttery crust, extra mozzarella cheese, the pizzeria's own sausage, and painstakingly selected tomatoes is a prime example of Chicago-style pizza. "We're okay if we have to raise the price," says Malnati, "but we'll never change the components." Malnati doesn't just obsess about his ingredients, however. He also pays close attention to the look of each pizza, making sure each pie has the same visual cues the pizza has become known for: dark pans, stretchy cheese, and vibrant red tomato sauce.
Eater Chicago editor Daniel Gerzina explains just how this pie fits into the competitive landscape of Chicago pizzas:
"Chicagoans have fierce loyalties towards their favorite deep dish spots, and fans of Lou Malnati's may be the most loyal. The monstrous pie is a time-tested construction of guarded ingredients baked over an achingly-long period of time that raises anticipation and stomach rumbling to a fever pitch. A Malnati's pie is a Chicago original that's symbolic of the city itself — big, bold, and something everyone should experience."
Below, the elements of the Malnati Chicago Classic pizza:
1. The Crust
One of the most recognizable features of a Lou Malnati's Chicago-style pie is its deep dish crust and, in the case of the Malnati Chicago Classic, the pizzeria's famous "Buttercrust." As the name implies, the dough contains butter, which has been added to the pizzeria's 42 year-old standard dough recipe. It's a yeast dough that goes through a 48-hour fermentation, which adds flavor to the finished crust. Malnati describes the crust as "light, flaky, and buttery."
2. The Cheese
As with the other toppings on the pie, Malnati is extremely particular about the mozzarella cheese he uses. He says mozzarella has a "complementary flavor" that enhances the other components of the pie: "It's not overpowering, it's buttery, but it's still strong enough to get the pull we're looking for when someone takes a slice." That pull is one of those visual cues that Malnati says are essential to his pies.
To make sure the cheese is up to his standards, Malnati works with same Wisconsin dairy his family has worked with "forever." He explains that the artisan cheesemakers are willing to make their cheese to Malnati's specs and needs, namely: "We're looking for a very specific tasting and feeling cheese, and we count on them to make it consistent and perfect every time. I want a great melt, but not overmelt. I want creamy and rich, but not falling apart or greased out." The dairy, Malnati says, is constantly tweaking their operations to ensure a consistent product season to season.
3. The Sausage
The signature Malnati's Italian sausage is made from lean pork. While the recipe is a closely held secret, Malnati does reveal that the pork is seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, and "other little things." One thing Malnati is adamant about is not using fennel, which he says would overpower the flavors of the sausage. As with the cheese, the sausage is made by purveyor working to Malnati's specifications. He explains that Lou Malnati's orders about one million pounds of sausage a year, so to maintain the equipment and handle the distribution to the pizzerias would just not be economical. After all, Malnati says, "we're not in the distribution business."
4. The Tomatoes
One of the greatest points of pride for Malnati is the California tomatoes he uses on his pies. Malnati sends a team out to California every year to assess the harvest, looking for the "reddest and plumpest" tomatoes. The team tests the tomatoes' viscosity, evaluates the coloring (all the green should be gone), and waits to harvest until the tomatoes reach the desired sweetness level. Malnati notes that because he uses big chunks of the tomatoes on each pizza, it is also important that the tomatoes are firm. Once the team approves the harvest, the tomatoes are picked and then canned.
5. The Assembly
Lou Malnati's deep dish creations wouldn't be possible without their aluminum deep dish pizza pans. The pans are so integral to the operation that before Malnati opens a new location, he has the pans in rotation and seasoned at his other shops first. The pans, Malnati explains, must be "extremely well-seasoned" in order to be used. It's not just that there's a certain flavor that comes from the carbonization of the pan (though that shouldn't be underestimated). There is also an important visual element, Malnati says, in the company's blackened pans: "It has that eye appeal. It looks like you're eating a slice of history, with a heritage and a tradition. It's not the new kid on the block."
The pizza-makers add the dough to an oiled pan, using their fingers to "pat it out" across the width of the pan and up the sides to form the crust. Malnati's deep dish actually has a fairly thin bottom and high crusts. It's extremely important that the dough is never punctured at any point in the assembly process. "When you put a hole in the dough you lose the whole pizza," says Malnati.
Next comes the layer of mozzarella cheese. The cheese is sliced (not grated), which allows it to entirely cover the dough. One of the most recognizable steps in deep dish in deep dish pizza-making, applying the cheese directly to the dough adds much-needed structure. The dough is soft, Malnati explains, so adding the sliced cheese creates a sturdy base that can support copious amounts of sausage. The Malnati Chicago Classic gets extra cheese. With the cheese in place to act as a sturdy base, the uncooked sausage is added evenly across the pizza.
Before adding them to the pizza, the cooks squeeze the extra water from the canned tomatoes and season them. The goal, Malnati says, is to use the pulp of the tomatoes. There's no need to cook them down prior to assembling the pie because he's already gotten rid of the excess water and the tomatoes cook with the pizza in the oven. The tomatoes are spread across the pizza by hand. The pizza is finished with grated Parmesan.
Next the pizza is put into the oven. Unlike a Neapolitan pizza, the deep dish pizzas are cooked for an extended period of time; depending on the size, from 30 to 38 minutes. Malnati explains that managing the ovens is one of the most important jobs at the restaurant, so only veterans with at least five years of experience run the ovens (often with more than 15 years of experience under their belt). "They're like pizza savants," Malnati says, "they could be blind and they'd know it was done. They feel it."