Laud & Cheer: Chicago Deep Dish During Quarantine

Lou Malnati's Chicago Deep Dish Pizza Baked at Home
Something we took for granted during our 11 years in Chicago was deep dish anytime we wanted it. During our Coronavirus quarantine, we made the most of Lou Malnati’s shipped frozen pizzas and enjoyed them at home.

In Praise of Chicago Pizza Shipped to My Door

During the throes of this pandemic, as we brace daily for whatever might be coming next, and try to tamp down our dread enough to enjoy the day, in spite of all that’s changed, I think it’s only appropriate that I keep bringing up in this space all that a Dad like me holds dear.

Namely, recurringly: adventures in far-off places, trinkets (dadtritus) that I cling to for reasons valid and nonsense (the very conundrum of “dadsense”), and food, food, food, FOOD.

So, we’re back onto food again. But with a timely angle: in these unprecedented times, don’t deprive yourself of all your favorites, your pleasures. There are some you can send away for. And if ordering pickup, or delivery, helps keep your favorite restaurant afloat, why wouldn’t you want to do it?

Besides: it’s almost assuredly safe.

As quoted in Forbes:

There is no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can be transmitted by eating food. I imagine that if this is possible, the risk is extremely low,” said Angela L. Rasmussen, PhD, a virologist in the faculty of the Center for Infection and Immunity at the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, adding that she is not aware of any human coronaviruses that can be transmitted through food.

 

Ahem. So. With the facts in hand, let’s focus on some joy, shall we?

Namely, plates and plates full of Chicago deep dish pizza, shipped via UPS and through the magic of dry ice right to my door in South Dakota.

Frozen Deep Dish Pizzas Ready for the Oven

Have Oven, Will Salivate

I haven’t spent any time in this space sharing my thoughts on pizza, a topic I take very, very seriously.

OK, so brace yourselves, I guess?

I’ll try to keep it as light as a flaky thin crust.

I grew up in Dover, Ohio, a town where our collective German and Italian ancestry was evident in the dishes that dominated our tables and the restaurants throughout Tuscarawas and neighboring counties. When it came to pizza, there were ample, original, family recipes to choose from in my town of 10,000 souls and change.

Dinolfo’s on Friday nights after the football game. Unless it was Penso’s — my all-time favorite, right down the block from where my dad grew up. Once I got to college, I put them on speed dial whenever I drew within range of the local radio station, WJER.

There was Mary Zifer’s and Grandma Zifer’s. Pangrazio’s. Donato’s and Granato’s. And yeah, I’m probably forgetting a few in neighboring New Phila and Strasburg, but they had some of the same family joints, too: run by rival brothers and uncles and cousins and… even dear old grandma. They all had different family recipes for sauce, different cuts of pepperoni and toppings. Things they wouldn’t do: like pineapple, or delivery.

There’s a cottage industry, some 25 years removed from my high school graduation, of lifelong and transplanted Dover-ites who claim to have gotten the secret recipe of Dinolfo’s pizza and equally legendary salad, complete with bragging photos and posts on Facebook. (Confirmed: my amateur chef dad is among them.)

I just assumed most people grew up this way.

During my college years at Carnegie Mellon, I wasn’t exactly cured of this notion. Pittsburgh had plenty of authentic family Italian restaurants, particularly lining Liberty Avenue in Bloomfield. My favorite of favorite pizza joints there was Larry and Carol’s, crammed into an unassuming side street in Oakland, and serving up “double-layer” pies (their version of deep dish) as well as big honking “wedgie” sandwiches — folded over pizza crusts with various toppings stuffed inside. Delish!

My first job after school, as a newspaper reporter two hours up the road from home, in Sandusky, Ohio, also served up a selection of local takes on what I thought was a near-universal dish, and I frequented places like Cameo, just down the block from my apartment, and featuring long, skinny, rectangle-cut slices smothered in cheese; the endless buffet at Chet and Matt’s, and a place lost to memory that used to offer $2 “Cheapizza” on a certain day of the week (also lost to memory) for which colleague Beth Naser used to poll the grizzled ranks of newshounds, taking lunch orders, “Cheapizza? Cheapizza? Cheapizza?”

And then my wife and I, after meeting at that first job in Sandusky, headed west to pizza paradise, Chicago.

Deep Dish pizza good to the last bite
Good to the last Mmmmmm. Even at home, Chicago deep dish is tasty on the reheat.

Pizza Paradise in a Midwestern Culinary Wasteland

All due props to New York pi–…. Nah. You know what? New York doesn’t hold a pepperoni to what Chicago offers up, pizza-wise.

There, I said it.

And that’s all the more remarkable, considering that Chicago, in my experience, is the last beacon of pizza heaven in a Midwestern wilderness full of the unworthy.

More on that in a hot minute.

Katie and I fulfilled a life goal of moving to the city of big shoulders, the windy city, Pizza Mecca, Chicago, where we worked as reporters in the suburbs. But no worries of missing out, wherever you managed to start and end your urban commute: the “greater Chicagoland metro area” is filled with landmarks on the great pizza trail, and you’re never far from fulfilling your urge. We quickly racked up our favorites in two main categories, like different grates in the oven: deep dish and thin crust.

For deep dish, we developed an affinity for Lou Malnati’s, for a time right down the block from our “little brown house” apartment in Naperville; but also dug the offerings at Giordano’s. Until a memorably bad experience at Carmen’s in Evanston, that place was probably the first at which I’d ever tried authentic Chicago deep dish. (Years later, Katie and I and some Chicago friends had spent the afternoon on the little spit of land in the lake off the Northwestern campus, lying on our backs and watching the clouds before emerging, hungry, at Carmen’s. We waited hours for our eventual dinner, during which time one of the servers, after bringing out our appetizer cheesy bread, asked, “Now, the sauce is cold; would you like it heated up?” thus etching himself into legend.)

These days, newcomers like Pequod’s have become all the delectable rage in deep dish. But our all-time favorite was Gino’s East, of the sausage patty deep dish with one, thin, round sausage patty covering the entire circumference of the pie. We ended up favoring cheeseburger deep dish the most, and brought our babies there, where first they dozed in strollers, then eventually dug in themselves. Back then, there were always, always leftovers.

But deep dish isn’t Chicago’s only claim on the pizza crown. Thin-crust joints were the ones we first tried as we settled into our 11-year run as locals. Rosati’s was an early go-to. Angelo’s. Traverso’s. But I came to prefer the Italian beef sandwiches at Rosati’s, the sausage pasta with cream sauce at Traverso’s. In an environment of so many sumptuous options, you go with your old reliables. Soon, Aurelio’s was my top choice for thin-crust pizza in the ‘burbs, preferably with everything on it, and whenever I trekked to the city, first for grad school and later, working right in the loop, I’d walk down Wabash, under the tracks, and duck into The Exchequer Pub, pizza preference of one Roger Ebert, among many others. During my last visit to town — wow! three years ago — I treated a colleague from Colorado, Semih Altinay, to this treasured treat.

Now, about the Midwest beyond Chicago’s checkered tablecloth: the pizza offerings are as bland as their mostly Scandinavian heritage. Now, I’ve come to appreciate that heritage, and savor some of their characteristic cuisine, from klub, to lefse, and sweetsoup, and lutefisk. OK. That last one was pushing it. But pizza? It ain’t their thing.

And from Kansas City, with its succulent selection of barbecue, best in the world, to Iowa, to Sioux Falls, where you can’t buy a bad cut of steak at the market, that’s really OK. But there’s a reason, I’ve noticed, why Little Caesar’s was pizza of choice, somehow, at my wife’s when we visited. Or that you’re more likely to see residents vote as “local best” chains like Marco’s, and Pizza Hut, or Pizzeria Uno, and (shudder) Domino’s. I’ve traveled to only one place with worse pizza than Kansas City. That was Hong Kong. In Wan Chai. There were people lined up for it. Elbow to elbow. And it was a thin little plate-sized pancake with what seemed like ketchup and ham on top. Kansas City, you’re a notch above that.

Chicago Deep Dish Shipped to Your Front Door
Get the door, it’s Chicago deep dish packed on dry ice.

Friday Night Deep Dish, Delivered

So, maybe it’s best to take a breath, step back. Modulate my critique before I bring on any tears. But I hope I’ve proven my pizza-loving bona fides, from Ohio to Pittsburgh, to Ohio again, and on to heavenly Chicago.

Now, I’ve sampled amazing pasta in Beijing. Fiery tacos in Singapore. Hearty steak in Seoul. And quality Eggs Benedict the world over. But there are two things I am loathe to order outside of the places that dish it up best — barbecue anytime I’m far from KC, or Texas, or North Carolina, or Tennessee; and pizza anywhere up and down I-29 or along I-90 once I get past Chicago.

But I’ve established some local go-to’s here in Sioux Falls. The fam and I took down a Boss’s pizza just last week, and that was the first place we really went all-in for after moving here in 2012, just a block or so east of our starter apartment at Augustana College. And we like ordering our own wood-fired personal pizzas at Red Rossa. I’m a lunchtime regular, favoring spicy sausage or barbecue chicken pizza at Fiero’s. And left to my own devices, I order up a dripping, garbage (loaded with toppings) pie from Tomacelli’s. But ask my kids what they think of for pizza here, when it’s time to order? To a kid they’ll opt for ubiquitous chain Marco’s.

Draw what conclusions you will.

This week marked my second in home quarantine since returning from Europe. No symptoms — KNOCK ON WOODEN PIZZA PLATE — and so I thought we’d celebrate on a healthy day 14 with something a little out of the ordinary.

I called up Tastes of Chicago, and put in an order for four deep dish Lou Malnati’s pizzas for my fam, and two each for my team members at work. They ship pizza, as well as other Chicago delicacies including ribs, and Italian beef, and hot dogs, and Eli’s cheesecake, worldwide. I ratcheted the delivery to two days, and when the box landed by our front door, the entire house’s stomachs began growling in anticipation.

When 5 o’clock rolled around, I pulled the pans from the freezer, unwrapped them each in turn. Removed each pizza from the pan, wiped away the condensation (from the pan, not my eager chin), sprayed in a little PAM, fired up the oven to 430 F, and set my watch’s timing bezel.

Twenty minutes in, the delightful aroma of baking dough and bubbling cheese and sauce was filling the kitchen. Forty minutes, and we were all dancing in anticipation. Fifty, and the pizzas were cut, hot and ready to eat.

I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. Let me just summarize by saying: there were few leftovers for lunch Saturday. They’re all gone now. And we’re already planning on ordering again — from the exalted Gino’s East this time. (In keeping Chicago pizza rivalry alive, a lot of the best ship nationwide.)

It’s just one more way of bringing a little paradise to our forced exile at home.

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