Pizza is a worldwide favorite with a rich history, tradition, and culture attached to it. Neapolitan immigrants brought it to America, quickly catapulted it into a Chicago icon. The pizza now embraced American culinary consciousness, from wood-fired pizzas of San Francisco to the thin crust of New York.
Besides these two popular recipes, the version from Chicago is well-known for its thick crust with inverted layers of cheese, meat, and tomatoes, all crawling up the edge of an oiled steel pan. Today, the deep-dish pizza is so synonymous with Chicago you’d think pizza was invented here. However, the evolution of the dish traces its roots far from America.
The Tale of Pizza: An Immigrant’s Journey
The deep-dish pizza first originated from the Greeks, Phoenicians, and Romans. The word pizza comes from “pinsere,” which means to pound or stamp in Latin. The flatbread, considered a forefather of modern pizza, was first mentioned in a Latin manuscript in 997 AD in southern Italy near Lazio.
Since southern Italy was composed of congested homes, most activities were outdoors. Coupled with a demand for easy-to-prepare and inexpensive food, the paper-thin pizza came about, baked in a hot oven, and sold on the street. It immediately became a popular Neapolitan dish among the general public.
As new ingredients like tomatoes were brought back from explorations in the New World, more ingredients were added on top of the pizza dough, along with locally-produced garlic, cheese, and anchovies.
Pizza’s popularity grew in the following decades. Pizza transcended beyond food for the masses as a favorite among people of different backgrounds, rich or poor, young and old. Chicago’s thin pizzas became a symbol of their culture and culinary traditions.
The Makings of Pizzeria Uno
Ike Sewell and Ric Riccardo, two entrepreneurs, sought to create an Italian-American pizza. In 1943, they opened Pizzeria Uno on Chicago’s Near North Side, serving a novel form of pizza with a deeper dish, crunchier dough, and inverted layers.
Sewell and Riccardo attained their unique pizza aim by making it more like a savory layer cake. The deep-dish pizza became a Chicago icon, instead of following immigrant-recipe tradition.
Pizzeria Uno, now known as Uno Chicago Grill, has 200 franchise locations from Massachusetts to Pakistan. However, the original Pizzeria Uno in downtown Chicago offers a unique vibe. It’s not the finest pizza in Chicago, but many come for the history and experience, not the best slice.
The Claim of the Malnati Clan
There is a claim, though, contesting the origins of the Chicago pizza by Sewell and Riccardo. The Malnatis, a well-known Chicago pizza family, claim that the recipe was created by Adolpho “Rudy” Malnati, Sr., a former employee of Pizzeria Uno.
They say that Malnati and Riccardo concocted the pizza, with Sewell coming later. After Riccardo died, Rudy and his son Lou co-managed Pizzeria Uno. Lou attempted to fit in after learning he worked there. Frustrated, he left the ship in 1971 to launch Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria in Lincolnwood.
The Pizano-Lou Showdown
Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria rapidly became a Chicago suburb favorite. It’s thinner, with less cheese and more sour smashed tomatoes.
The pizza is filled just beyond the crust’s top border, giving more room for the company’s proprietary Buttercrust. Quality tomatoes and lean sausage combine in perfect deep-dish harmony in this thick crust, making The Malnati Chicago Classic their signature pie (also trademarked).
The story doesn’t end there. Rudy Jr., Lou Malnati’s half-brother, opened Pizano’s in 1991. According to a Pizano’s server, Rudy Jr’s mother, Donna Marie, gave him Rudy Sr’s original recipe. In the meantime, Donna Marie was busy rolling out Pizano’s secret dough recipe. It’s unclear who still uses the original recipe.
No matter the history of the pizza and who is responsible for what it is best known today. It’s still a culinary breakthrough that has circumnavigated the world and has taken on unique variations adapting to the country and the people it serves.
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