Chicago-Style Pizza Is More Than Just Deep Dish

Although there are heated debates about which is the best foodie city in America, Chicago, with over 70 neighborhoods offering a diverse array of culinary delights, has secured its status as one of the nation's culinary capitals. It is most prominently known for creating what Anthony Bourdain considered the definitive best hot dog style and the original deep-dish pizza, which stands apart from Detroit style with its sturdier crust designed to hold more sauce, cheese, and toppings. However, for the city's natives, deep dish is usually a rare treat — not the style they consider their true hometown hero.

So, what kind of pizza did most Chicagoans grow up eating? Tavern-style, also known as "party cut" pizza. With its thin, crispy crust and square-cut slices, this more approachable pizza is what you'll typically find in the city's pubs and diners. And although the pie is vastly different from deep-dish, both styles are integral to the city's culinary history.

What sets tavern-style apart from the rest

While tavern-style pizza is a clear departure from Chicago's more well-known pie, there are many other thin-crust varieties in the world. Neapolitan-style crust is very malleable, thin in the center with a thicker rim, and topped with sauce made from San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and minimal garnishes before being cooked in a wood-fired oven. New York-style pizza has a firmer crust with crispier edges, and is topped with a wider variety of ingredients. So, what are the unique characteristics of tavern-style pizza?

First, the crust is so thin and crispy that it's more similar to a cracker than to your average thin-crust pizza. The sauce is slightly sweet, full of dried herbs, and spread all the way to the crust's edge. Toppings like Italian sausage, pepperoni, and mushrooms are typically added before the cheese, better securing them to each slice. Once the pizza comes out of the oven, it's cut into squares rather than triangles, making each piece smaller and generally more manageable to eat.

The history of tavern-style pizza

After World War II, low production costs and versatility made pizza a popular menu item at bars and restaurants in America. Vito & Nick's on Chicago's south side, which started serving this style of pie in 1946, is often credited as the first place in the city to do so — and the pizzeria still serves it today, more than 70 years later. The father-and-son duo for whom the tavern is named used a recipe passed down from Sicilian family members to produce their signature pie, which was cut into squares rather than triangles for ease of enjoyment.

The style took off, spreading to Chicago establishments like Home Run Inn, Italian Fiesta Pizzeria, and other taverns where blue-collar workers often stopped for a beer after work. Since the pizza was inexpensive to produce, owners would offer a few complimentary squares to customers with their drinks to tide them over until they made it home for dinner. With a sturdy crust, and toppings well-secured under a blanket of melted cheese, the pizza was easy to eat one-handed at the bar while nursing a beer in the other. At its core, tavern-style is about serving something that is equally delicious and functional.