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The Best Pizza in Chicago

Burt's Place Deep Dish

Growing up on the East Coast, good pizza was practically a birthright – there’s a great slice shop on nearly every corner. We take our pizza seriously in New York and New Jersey, so when we get to a new city and we’re told that the pizza here is excellent, to say we’re skeptical is an understatement.

However, there is at least one other city besides New York that is consistently capable of putting out great pizza: Chicago. From its signature deep dish and “tavern cut” pies, to the more refined woodfired and Neapolitan, Chicago has it all. But, like all great things, you need to know where to look in order to find the best.

So get your oregano and red pepper flakes ready, because we’re going to go on a little tour of the best pizza in Chicago, from a New Yorker’s point of view. Oh, and leave behind those forks and knives – we’re not allowing any of that.

 

Best of the Chains
Lou Malnati’s – All Over Chicago

We’re not typically fans of chain restaurants here at The Flyover. Sure, some have their merits, but there’s always a locally owned, Mom & Pop style shop down the street that does it better.

But, we do know that when you’re visiting a city for the first time, it can be daunting trying to navigate the dozens of options in town; sometimes you just want to go for the easiest option.

You may have heard of Giordano’s, and that’s great if you like flavorless crust and soggy dough. You may have even heard of Gino’s East, which is certainly a step up, but lacks in overall quality and freshness of ingredients. If you’ve got to go to a chain, there’s really only one option: Lou Malnati’s. 

Lou Malnati started making deep dish pizzas as far back as the 1940s, opening Pizzeria Uno with his father in the 1950s. In 1971, he opened the first Lou Malnati’s in Lincolnwood, just a few miles north of the city. Since then, the family has opened 55 more locations in the Chicagoland area.

What sets Lou’s apart is simple: the Buttercrust. It’s really as simple as it sounds, butter added into the dough. But, the result is unique, delicious enough to eat by itself. 

A Lou’s deep dish pie features real Wisconsin cheese and a sweeter-than-most tomato sauce. It’s certainly tasty, but watch out: it’s heavy. Like, really heavy. Like, eat more than two slices and you’re going to be in a food coma heavy.

Unlike most chains, Lou’s doesn’t try to make each location look exactly the same. Instead, they try to build their dining rooms with the surrounding neighborhood in mind, providing a far better atmosphere than any other chain restaurant out there. If you do end up craving some Lou Malnati’s, be sure to check out some of their more intriguing locations: Old Town and Lincoln Square.

 

Best of the “Is That Even Pizza?”
Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder – Lincoln Park

Where do I even begin with this creation?

I could start with the waits, your first clue you’re about to be in for something special. Fans of Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder typically wait 90-120 minutes just to get a table inside the small, Lincoln Park dining room.

I could start with that all-important, age-old question: wait, is this even pizza? In truth, I still haven’t made up my mind. But, who cares – it’s delicious!

Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder has been a Chicago staple since the 1970s, housed inside a building that is believed to have been a lookout for henchmen of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in 1929. What they create inside those four walls now is perhaps just as legendary: the Pizza Pot Pie.

The Pizza Pot Pie is unlike anything you’ve ever had or even dreamed of: dough in the shape of a bowl, filled with only the best blend of cheeses and a hearty, homemade tomato sauce. 

It’s delicious. It’s unique. It’s the one time we’ll allow you to use a fork and a knife! 

But is it pizza?

 

Best of the Neighborhood Joints
Bartoli’s Pizza – Roscoe Village

Your favorite neighborhood joint, like your local coffee shop or barber, is subjective in a way that almost defies logic. You might get along well with the owner. They might have the best deal in the area. You may have had a great experience there. But, when your neighborhood joint has all of those things, makes delicious pizza, and is consistently recognized for it, you’ve struck gold.

When we first got to Chicago, there were literally two questions we asked our landlord upon moving in: where do you go for good pizza; and where are the good bagels. The answer to the latter, we’d later learn, was nowhere. They don’t exist. But, the answer to the former question was a spot just seven blocks east of our then-home.

Bartoli’s is everything a neighborhood joint should be, one of the very few places in Chicago that not only sells pies, but also sells individual slices. The decor inside is perfectly “local pizza joint,” with images of famous Chicago sports and movie stars adorning the walls, and artifacts like original, wooden seats from Wrigley Field adjacent to the counter. 

But, it’s the pizza that really shines. Yes, Bartoli’s thin crust is serviceable, particularly if you’re lucky enough to stop in before they close while walking back from Wrigley. But, that’s not why you’ll find me there.

A friend of mine once called Bartoli’s deep dish “the most well-constructed pie” he’s had, and I immediately knew what he meant. Their deep dish crust is the absolute best of any of the “traditional” deep dish pies in Chicago. It’s the kind of crust that’s so well-seasoned, crunchy (yet doughy) and enticing, you’ll usually start your slice by eating the crust. The tomato sauce is tangy and flavorful, you can tell it’s homemade. And the cheese is noticeably high quality – there’s no skimping on freshness here.

For under $20, you can get yourself one of the best deep dish pizzas in the entire city at Bartoli’s. 

 

Best of the Best
5) Pizzeria Bebu – Lincoln Park

In 2017, owner Zach Smith, formerly with the excellent restaurant RPM Italian, decided to open a quasi-upscale pizzeria that focused on excellent flavors over a crispy, thin crust. The result was Pizzeria Bebu, one of the best spots for pizza in Chicago.

The first time I dined at Pizzeria Bebu, I spoke with Rachel Smith, the co-owner. We got to talking about our shared love of pizza, and my roots in New Jersey. Inevitably, the conversation went to our favorite pizza places in New York. The answer, if you’re asking, is the white pie (with a little added salt) at Lombardi’s, where it all began in 1905. We both agreed on another incredible spot in the city, just a few blocks away: Rubirosa. It turns out, Rubirosa serves as somewhat of an inspiration for the folks at Bebu.

And when you first bite into one of their incredible pies, you can see why.

The marker of any great pizza, beyond fresh ingredients, is the crust. Like the second button of a dress shirt, it can literally make or break the pizza. Pizzeria Bebu’s crust, cooked in a gas-fired grill, is like freshly baked bread. 

Bebu imports all of its cheeses from Italy, resulting in some of the most delicious pizza you’ll ever eat. This isn’t traditional Neapolitan, but what their offerings, ranging from the classics (Margherita and white) to the boundary pushing (Taleggio, Ode to Rubirosa), are fantastic. And if you can’t decide, don’t worry, you can order half-and-half: two incredible styles on either half of a freshly baked pie. 

Go with a friend or a date and get a half-and-half-and-a-half-and-half! 

You won’t be disappointed!

 

4) Spacca Napoli – Ravenswood

One style of pizza that Chicago has in great abundance is the Neapolitan pie. From places like Forno Rosso and Coalfire to La Crosta and Knead, there’s plenty of great spots to enjoy this classic style. But, one spot rises above the rest. In fact, it says it right in the name: Spacca Napoli.

Besides having the most fun-to-say name in pizza (try it: spah-cah nah-poe-lee), Spacca Napoli also serves up quite possibly the best Neapolitan pie west of Italy. The dough is perfect: an impossibly chewy, doughy, bubbly crust cooked in a scalding, oak-fired oven. I could make a meal out of just the crust – it’s that good!

This makes sense: owner Jon Goldsmith is a certified pizzaiuolo who spent years mastering his craft by making trips to Italy. He sources only the best ingredients, many of which are only available at his restaurant. He truly has perfected the art, creating some of the most consistently gorgeous and delicious pies I’ve ever had.

The restaurant itself gives off an authentic Italian vibe without being stuffy, offering excellent wine pairings with your choice of pie. And there are plenty of choices, from the more traditional Parmigiana, to the inventive Pistachio and Diavola.

Spacca Napoli is great “date pizza.” It’s classy, not the greasy, messy, oil down your arm spot you used to go to at 2am. It’s delicate and masterfully crafted, as deserving of your time and worthy of savoring as the best filet or wine.

For the best Neapolitan pizza you’ll find, look no further than Spacca Napoli.

 

3) Pequod’s – Lincoln Park

The whale with a bikini bottom on its head might not make it obvious, but ask any local and they’ll tell you: Pequod’s is about as good as it gets.

Pequod’s is basically a dive bar, a dark and a somewhat dingy spot on the corner of Clybourn and Webster. But, what dive bar has an hour-long wait and pizza like this?

What sets Pequod’s apart is its legendary caramelized crust, created from burnt edges of crispy cheese around the pie, which is cooked in a skillet. Legend has it that, like all great innovation, this was an accident, the result of sloppy pizza-making from original owner Burt Katz (more on him later). Accident or not, it’s a revelation, providing the perfect flavor, crunch, and chewiness on top of an already delicious pie.

The dough is thick, but airy, strong enough to support your toppings without needing a fork and a knife, but light enough that you’re not full after the first slice. The sauce itself is good as well, a tangier flavor that adds depth to each bite.

In fact, the sauce is rather unique, not necessarily for its taste, but in how it is served on the pizza. Pequod’s deep dish is typically served with the sauce on top of the pie, with toppings and cheese underneath. In New York, this is called…well, sacrilege. In New Jersey, they call this a Trenton (or Tomato) pie, though few places even make it. 

At Pequod’s, you can simply call it delicious.

 

2) Jimmy’s Pizza Cafe – Lincoln Square

If there’s one thing Chicagoans can’t make, it’s bagels. The only place that even comes close is a spot called New York Bagel and Bialy, and they’re technically not even in Chicago. 

Right behind the severe lack of bagel-making skill is the absolute inability to produce a true, New York style pizza. Sure, places like Pizzeria Serio in Roscoe Village and Piece in Wicker Park create adequate representations, but most places that advertise as having “New York Slices” really make flat, hard, frozen Ellio’s Pizza-esque crusts with cheap cheese and ketchup-masquerading-as-sauce on top. 

[cue “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives” music] 

So when I heard that Jimmy’s Pizza Cafe in Lincoln Square was making authentic, New York-style pies and slices in their small, North Side restaurant, you know I had to check it out. This is Jimmy’s Pizza Cafe!

Now that the ‘68 Camaro is safely parked out back, let’s talk about this Chicago pizza joint that rivals some of the best slice shops back home in New Jersey. 

Jimmy’s slices are big and foldable, closer to the type of pizza you’d find on the boardwalk of the Jersey shore. It’s exactly what you’re hoping for, a perfect crust that cracks when you fold it, that olive oil oozing onto the paper plate it’s served on. This ain’t “date pizza,” but it isn’t supposed to be.

While the regular cheese pie is true New York style pizza, the white pie might be even better. No sauce on this one, just that perfect crust topped with cheese, olive oil, basil, a hint of garlic, and a dollop of ricotta.  Get your napkins ready!

If you have never been to the East Coast, or never tried authentic New York style pizza, then get to Jimmy’s. It’s the next best thing.

 

1) Burt’s Place – Morton Grove

“Burt’s was the only deep dish pizza I ever loved” – Anthony Bourdain

That, in itself, should be enough of a review, a fellow New Jersey-born food snob who also fell in love with this city and this slice of cheesy perfection.

Bourdain actually first sampled Burt’s when it was still run by Burt Katz. Yes, that Burt Katz. After leaving Pequod’s in 1986, he couldn’t stay away from his true love for long, opening Burt’s Place in 1989 and running it until his death in 2016. Prior to his death, however, Burt hand-picked current owner Jerry Petrow to carry on the legacy of his “best and final spot.” And he Jerry hasn’t disappointed.

Burt’s remains a revelation. While similar to Pequod’s with its signature caramelized crust, the final product is elevated here: the ingredients taste fresher, and are definitely of a higher quality. In fact, that was something Burt insisted upon. 

The sauce is also spectacular, a bit more mild than Pequod’s, but no less flavorful. And while the crust is also light and airy, it’s not quite as thick: this is probably the only pan pie in the world where you could eat three or four slices and not need to take a nap.

One of my favorite pies from Burt’s is the spinach pie (pictured at the top of this article). It’s prepared fresh, and uncut, layered in fresh spinach, perfectly balanced tomato sauce, and gooey cheese.

While Burt’s isn’t technically in Chicago, it’s close enough to make the absolute best pizza in the city.

So, what else can we do but eat! While we’re waiting for one of our favorite pies, the cheese bubbling in the oven, we’ll leave you with another immortal quote from the late Anthony Bourdain:

“I think everybody’s pizza box or plate ends up looking pretty similar, all the sauce and cheese eaten out of the center, and who gets left behind? The crust. Like Jeremy Piven at a strip club.”

 

What’s your favorite Chicago pie? Tell us: theflyoverkyle@gmail.com

2 thoughts on “The Best Pizza in Chicago

  1. Reply
    Kyle Sakowicz
    June 17, 2020 at 4:04 am

    Definitely feel like I need to try Burt’s after the Bourdain recommendation.

    1. Reply
      kyle
      June 17, 2020 at 9:23 pm

      Burt’s was the last of the North Side spots I hit, but one of the first ones I wanted to, simply because I’m never really up in that area when they open. One of the few silver linings to shelter-in-place is that they started delivering to the city!

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