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Chefs Weigh In: Is Chicago Deep Dish Pizza Really Pizza?

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Welcome to a special Pizza Week edition of Hot Topics, in which food industry people chime in on a major issue in food.

Last Fall, in a pizza rant heard around the world, the Daily Show's Jon Stewart went after Chicago deep dish pizza. "This is not pizza," he said. "This is tomato soup in a bread bowl. This is an above ground marinara swimming pool for rats." Naturally, that set off another round of debate in the great New York-Chicago rivalry, with Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel sending Stewart a "dead fish" deep dish pizza. Chefs across the nation were taking sides on Twitter. And, just this week, Eater Chicago asked some famous Chicago residents to talk about what they perceive as New York's "dismissive" attitude toward Chicago pizza. Although Stewart later invited the owner of Chicago's famed Lou Malnati's in to declare a truce, his main point remains a question among the chef community: Is Chicago deep dish pizza actually pizza?

Here now, chefs and restaurateurs Graham Elliot (Graham Elliot Bistro, Chicago), David Posey (Blackbird, Chicago), Mathieu Palombino (Motorino, New York City), and Andrew Zimmern (AZ Canteen, Minneapolis) weigh in on the issue.

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Graham Elliot

Graham Elliot Bistro, Chicago

Is Chicago pizza actually pizza?
I think that Jon Stewart pretty much nailed it when he had his blow-up on the Daily Show. I've lived in Chicago now for 15 years, so I kind of feel like it's my adopted town because I was raised in the Navy, I've been to all 50 states and didn't really have a home. But I can easily say, as much pride and love I have for Chicago, the deep dish pizza here is absolutely an abomination.

Why is that?

I feel like it's a lasagna with a crust.

I've never been a fan. I feel like it's a lasagna with a crust. The best pizza in the country is New York. Being able to grab a slice, hold it and be on your way is delicious, it's awesome, it's a great balance. And then here, the crust it's too heavy. The cheese is just a big thick goopy mess. I'm just not a fan at all of deep dish pizza. The only pizza in Chicago that I really am a fan of is Pequod's, which I don't know if you would even technically call it deep dish, but they leave it in the oven so it gets a black burnt topping of the cheese, and I think that's pretty cool, pretty tasty.

That does sound good. What is your definition of pizza?
The idea with pizza for me is less is more. Being able to take a great dough, topping it with whatever is available at its peak — and I know it sounds generic, I'm not talking farm-to-table and all that, but literally going back to Italy and just, okay, here's some tomato and some basil, a little bit of cheese, we're going to throw it in a billion-degree oven for a minute and then take it out and you're good to go. That's great. Mozza in LA, we hit that up like once a week when we're out there filming Masterchef. It's just perfectly done. It's kind of what I rate other things against.

And, finally, what do you make of the whole debate? Should we stop calling Chicago pizza pizza?
I don't know if they've got to rework the terminology. I think that Chicago is proud of its deep dish heritage because it's one thing that we can claim as ours. But, again, just from my point of view, it's like its own weird creation. Maybe it's because of the weather and you need something bigger and heartier or it was something just to be different, but yeah, I'm not a fan of deep dish.

But even worse than deep dish is pizza places that make the pizza on a sheet pan so that it's a square so that you don't get any crust per piece. There's a lot of that here, too. So you get this cracker with a topping and then if you get it in the middle, you get the hot molten fuckin' lava of cheese and sauce on your hand. You've got to have a handle. You've got to have that crust to hold. So I'm not a fan of that either. So I think a lot of times if you order pizza in Chicago and you get it delivered, there's a 50/50 chance and you've got your fingers crossed hoping and praying that you're going to get this round delicious one and then you open and it's a square and you're like, "God dammit, they got me again."

Like I said, Chicago's got great hot dogs, Italian beef, a lot of the food, it's not great for you and it's not refined, but it's a big part of the food scene here. But pizza, yeah, I don't have a lot of love for.

[Photo: Graham Elliot]


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David Posey

Blackbird, Chicago

Is Chicago pizza actually pizza?
I do not think it's pizza, no.

Why not?
I don't really know why. I just more consider it a casserole. It has all the makings of a pizza, but it just doesn't feel like thin-crust Neapolitan or Roman-style pizza.

Well, what to you is the definition of a pizza?
To me, it has to be thing, have a small amount of toppings, so like sauces and cheese. And I consider it hand-held, even though I know there are styles of pizza from Italy that are not hand-held.

What do you make of the whole debate about it?
I think it's kind of dumb. Kind of a waste of time.

Why is that?

Both are good. One is pizza; one is not.

Both are good. One is pizza; one is not.

Did people in Chicago care when Jon Stewart went on that rant?
I didn't hear anything about it. I mean, I guess they only care in terms of like making a big joke out of it.

Some people were saying that really the debate just shows the New York people care more about it. Do you agree?
I would agree with that, yeah.

[Photo: Colleen Hayes/Blackbird]


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Mathieu Palombino

Motorino, New York City

Is Chicago pizza actually pizza to you?
To me, it looks more like a cake than a pizza. I don't think I ever had one slice of it. I'm sure it sells real good. I'm sure it's good, but I like the Neapolitan-style pizza. I like the thin pizza, just popping out of the oven. I don't think there is much improvement to be made to this. I guess deep dish, it's an evolution of pizza. I haven't really tasted it. I'm not criticizing it. I might like it very much actually, who knows?

Do you think it should be called pizza or something else?

It's not for me to say it shouldn't be called pizza.

Yeah. I mean, it's not for me to say it shouldn't be called pizza. Some people call it Chicago-style pizza. It is what it is. Yeah, sure. If I go to Chicago, I'll be trying that for sure. Yes, it is a pizza. I wouldn't dare say no, this is not a pizza. Because there are people who like it and like doing it. I really have to try it.

What, to you, is the definition of a pizza?
To me, a pizza is a piece of dough topped with some tomato, some fragrant olive oil and some strong pecorino and just laying on the floor of a ragingly hot pizza oven for a few seconds. It comes out. It goes from the raw stage of everything to the cooked stage within less than a minute. It's like that. That's my definition of what a pizza is.

It's something extremely simple. It's a beautiful thing in its own, the pizza. The fact that it goes from being not born and uncooked and just a minute after being this thing that's alive. It's amazing. It really is amazing. I can watch them passing by all day long. From one second to another, see what happens with the dough and those tomatoes. It's a beautiful dish. It's a beautiful dish.

[Photo: Daniel Krieger]


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Andrew Zimmern

AZ Canteen, Minneapolis

Is Chicago pizza actually pizza?
No. It's fantastic food. It's unbelievably delicious. I don't think it's pizza; however, I think that they should call it pizza, much in the same way that patty melts are also considered hamburgers.

Hmm. Why?
I'm not sure there's a lot of logic here. I'm just bringing 52 years of hard-core thinking about this issue. I'm a born-and-bred New Yorker. There's the pizzeria napoletana that comes in a small format cut into little triangles; there's a larger format, the conventional New York City street slice, as we like to call it. To me, that's pizza, much in the same way that something that is a pizza that's rolled over into a half moon and baked is not pizza; it's a calzone, despite it having the same ingredients.

My problem with Chicago-style pizza is that the deep dish thing is a pie.

My problem with Chicago-style pizza is that the deep dish thing is a pie. It is a savory pie of tomato and cheese. I'm not a fan of the deep dish experience or the crust. I think it's delicious on its own. To me, pizza is what I get when I'm in New York or several other restaurants that honor that tradition. My personal feeling is it's just not pizza.

When someone says to me, "Well, should they call it that?" I say, "Yes, they can call it that," because I don't have a problem if somebody made a patty melt and said it's a hamburger. At a certain point, anything with bread on the outside and a burger on the inside is conventionally today, in 2014 America, called a burger. So is anything that has a crust, tomato sauce, and cheese called pizza. I think, sadly, that horse left the barn decades ago.

So there's no point in fighting it?
I don't think there's any point in fighting the labeling Nazis. I could care less. From a personal standpoint, pizza is what I get on the streets of New York or at my local pizzeria here in Minneapolis. When I say "pizza" to you, I know what you're thinking of in your mind. That's what I'm thinking of in my mind. It's like the Supreme Court definition of pornography. I know it when I see it.

Right. Do you think that the people of Chicago, or at least those who are purveyors of deep dish, care about this debate?
No. I hope they don't care. I think they love the fun of the argument as well. I'm just always confused when people tell me how drop-dead fantastic it is. I've had some deep dish Chicago pies that I've liked better than others. The conventional one, I don't like the crust. It's like buttery shortbread, or it's too oily. Because of the way it bakes and takes such a long time, it changes the nature of the cheese.

I like wood-fired pizzeria pizza. Secondarily, I'll take them made in a deck oven. I like that thin crust. I prefer the true pizza experience rather than the Chicago pizza pie experience ... as an eater, as a diner.

Why do you think that this debate keeps coming up?
Because everyone in Chicago and New York loves to bust each other's balls. Seriously. I was skewered by my friends in New York, and I'm in the hot dog business. I actually sell hot dogs for a living. Chicago is a better hot dog city than New York. People think that's sacrilege to say. There's more hot dog restaurants — I'm not talking about carts; I'm just talking about places to eat hot dogs in Chicago — per capita than any other city in the world, or something like that data. Certainly in America.

The Chicago-style dog doesn't upset me, because they're not changing anything there. That's just a toppings issue. I'm a sauerkraut and brown mustard guy on my hot dog. That's my way to eat them. But when I'm in Chicago, I love eating a Chicago dog. It's just a different set of toppings.

The Chicago pie versus a conventional New York pizza is a much different product entirely, which is why my personal viewpoint is that it's not pizza. If they want to call it that, they've got the ingredients there. They can call it that, much in the same way that patty melts are burgers.

[Photo: AndrewZimmern.com]


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