What Is Deep Dish Pizza? (The Ultimate Guide)

deep dish pizza example!

The ultimate and inarguably most iconic Chicago food staple is the deep dish pizza. Deep-dish pizza is the magical result of the marriage between Italian food-festivities and old-fashioned American innovation and craftsmanship. Deep-dish’s popularity has grown immensely in the seven decades since its inception and the Malnati name has been a deep dish icon since the first Lou Malnati’s restaurant opened in Lincolnwood, Illinois in 1971.

What Is Deep Dish Pizza?

Deep dish pizza, also known as Chicago-style pizza, is a specific type of pizza that originates in the city of Chicago. The unique preparation and pan in which it is baked gives the pizza high edges allowing for large amounts of cheese and sauce.

Who Invented Deep Dish Pizza?

Deep dish pizza is a relatively new development in pizza engineering. It’s hard to say with certainty when pizza was first invented, as the building blocks for pizza as we know it have been reinvented and redesigned across hundreds, and by some accounts thousands of years.

Pizza has its origins linked with ancient Napoleonian cuisine (“pizza” is literally “pie” translated in Italian) and possibly through an ancient recipe for Chinese scallion pancakes as discovered by famous explorer Marco Polo.

Deep dish however was invented somewhere between the 1940s and 1950s, in a modest Chicago restaurant aptly called “The Pizzeria,” founded in 1943 and then later renamed “Pizzeria Uno” in 1955. An investigation by prominent Chicago historian Tim Samuelson uncovered “enough documentation to prove” that deep dish pizza was first served at this specific restaurant.

Many sources point naturally to the restaurant’s founders Ike Sewell and Rick Riccardo as the inventors, giving both men somewhat equal attribution for creating and popularizing the iconic pie. However, Samuelson also discovered evidence that one of Pizzeria Uno’s most prominent employees, Rudy Malnati Sr. (father of the Lou Malnati), may have played a significant part in developing the original recipe for the deep dish pizza. He cites a news clipping from a Chicago Daily News article in 1956 which also confirms that Malnati was an acting manager at the time, as well first-hand interviews with the Malnati family that suggest certain essential elements of the first type of deep-dish served at the restaurant were developed from Rudy Malnati’s grandmother’s old recipes.

Nevertheless, the founding of Pizzeria Uno proved to be a seminal moment in pizza history and Rudy Malnati Sr. later passed down his wisdom to pave the way for the founding of Lou Malnati’s first restaurant thirty years later.

What Is the Difference Between Pan, Stuffed, and Deep Dish Pizza?

While deep dish pizza is perhaps the most ubiquitous, there are actually several types of pizza that embody the Chicago style.

Pan Style

A pan-style pizza for example, while not being as uniquely Chicagoan by nature compared to some of the other styles, is a delicious and more traditional option compared to stuffed and deep dish pizza, as the cheese is surfaced more conventionally. Nonetheless, it’s sure satiate one’s pizza cravings.

A Chicago pan pizza is very similar to a Detroit-style or Sicilian pizza, and unlike with deep dish or stuffed pizza, the cheese is layered on top of the pizza and the crust is notably breadier and slightly softer. Additionally, a pan pizza sauce is much smoother and will likely contain more ingredients than the tomato only sauce Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria uses. Unsurprisingly, pan pizza is traditionally cooked in a pan, as is also true with deep dish pizza, but due to the cheese being on top of the pie, as opposed to assembled underneath a protective layer of sauce, the pizza cannot cook as long or else the cheese will burn.

This tidbit is, in fact, one of the main reasons a deep dish and stuffed pizza is designed the way it is – it’s just practical! These pizzas take quite a while to cook and most people would prefer not to bite into a slice surfaced with blackened cheese.

Stuffed Pizza

Stuffed pizza is an interesting variant on the Chicago deep dish, and is often easily confused for traditional deep dish pizza by tourists and native Chicagoans alike.

A stuffed pizza, while not quite as wide, towers significantly over a deep dish pizza, featuring two separate layers of crust (one on the bottom and one just under the top layer of sauce), and loaded with a borderline irresponsible amount of cheese.

But this by no means a criticism! In fact, it is an essential element of the beauty of deep dish and stuffed pizzas – the lavishness; the free-wheeling excessiveness that’s borne from an unrestrained appetite. The design for the stuffed pizza was based on a traditional Italian Easter pie called scarciedda, and it is thought that this cuisine had also helped shape the development of the deep-dish pizza as well.

Like with traditional deep dish, stuffed pizzas are most commonly loaded with Italian sausage, but there are countless other ingredients to experiment with as well. The sauce typically used in stuffed pizzas is slightly chunkier than the sauce used pan pizzas, but nowhere near as chunky as what is used in traditional deep dish pizzas. Stuffed pizzas will also tend to have a less developed browning on their bottom layer of crust compared to a deep dish pizza and a puffier, more crumbly crust along the edges of the pie. The crust is usually breadier, drier, and slightly sweeter.

Deep Dish

The quintessential food staple of the Windy City. A bit like Chicago itself, the deep dish pizza is anything but modest. It can be intimidating to stare one down at first and is best enjoyed while very hungry, but if you have the courage and tenacity to tackle one of these legendary pies, you’ll be rewarded with a pricelessly rich and hearty experience.

The crust is the unsung of hero of the pie. It is significantly crispier and more capable of supporting the immense amount of ingredients inside compared to a stuffed pizza.

In addition, the crust is uniquely flavored as it absorbs immense amounts of fats and oils while it is baking, including the oil and butter spread on the cast iron before the dough’s tucked in, and what’s being released by the copious amounts of cheese, as well as the pork fat slowly dripping off the Italian sausage as it cooks. The result is a crust so perfectly thick, crispy, and flavorful that it is downright blasphemous.

And above that, the works: enough toppings to satisfy any appetite and all preferences. While italian sausage is the most traditional choice, and by far the most popular, one could also pick from a selection of bell peppers, mushrooms, pepperoni, onion, and fresh garlic (and more). Giving the immense size of a deep dish pizza, there’s plenty of room to explore with tons of ingredients!

But the most eye catching element of a deep dish pizza is the cheese underneath the rich tomato sauce. It comes as no surprise that mozarella is the cheese of choice, but provolone is not uncommonly blended in along with pecorino romano and parmesan. The real trick is that the cheese is often layered sliced on the pie instead of exclusively shredded, allowing for a more efficient cheese pull. The cheese is protected as it melts in the oven by the topmost layer of decedent crushed tomatoes, which also takes on an incredible sweet and savory quality as it bubbles during the baking process

Reasons People Love Deep Dish Pizza

Deep dish pizza is a controversial icon in foodie culture, and has its fair share of prominent critics.

The late esteemed travel writer and culinary expert Anthony Bourdain, who once derided Chicago deep dish as “an abomination,” as well as comedian Jon Stewart, who famously devoted an entire segment of The Daily Show to lambasting deep dish pizza (which can be viewed here). He even goes as far as to label it a “marinara swimming pool for rats.”

But when we consider the history of deep dish, couched within the greater history of pizza itself – a history marked chiefly by working class citizenry improvising dishes using the ingredients they had at their disposal and reinventing previous dishes using different cultural techniques – we can quickly see that this criticism of deep dish pizza is at best misguided and at worst, elitist.

Below are a few notable reasons why deep dish pizza why is so revered inside and out of Chicago

1. It’s Delicious

I would consider this be the most obvious and self-evident reason why deep dish pizza is so beloved if I were not already painfully aware of all the deep dish detractors. It is worth mentioning that Anthony Bourdain changed his tune when he was presented with quality deep dish pizza. In addition, Stewart completely turned around on his low opinion of deep dish after  having pizza presented to him on his show personally by Marc Malnati himself and calling it “very tasty.” Perhaps it’s just the concept of deep dish that puts some people off, because no rational person on this earth could possibly label (quality) deep dish pizza as anything less than delicious.

2. It’s Instagram Friendly

This may not seem as important to some as it would to others, but nonetheless it is a factor for deep-dish pizza’s increasing popularity on social media. Sure, you could fold a thin New York style slice in two and mug next to it for a few paltry likes (as though nobody’s seen a slice of pizza before), or you can rest a piping hot deep-dish pie on the table, snap a photo, and let the work of art speak for itself. There’s just nothing like the beautiful cheese pulls you can only get from deep dish pizza or the sight of a slice of deep dish on a plate with the cheese looking ooey-gooey. This is assuming you have the sense to take a picture before devouring what’s in front of you like an animal, which is a distinct possibility.

3. It’s Meant To Be Shared

Pizza is the perfect party food, but if we are being honest with ourselves,  we have on probably more than one occasion been able to down an entire pizza solo. It’s assured that many have completed this quintessential food challenge at some point in their lives. But no one could even begin to imagine attempting to eat an entire deep dish pizza. Deep dish is the sort of food that brings people from all walks of life together, almost out of obligation and necessity. If anyone were to come across a stranger asking for help downing a deep dish pie, they wouldn’t think twice about grabbing a piece, regardless of how full they are, because they know the pains of making sure no fresh slice goes to waste.

Wrapping Up

Everyone has their own tastes and preferences when it comes to pizza, there are even enough people out there who enjoy pineapple on their pizza to make it a staple ingredient across U.S restaurant and fast-food chains. It’s important to recognize and appreciate the bold choices past pizza makers made to bring us where we are today, because without them we would not be able to experience the decadence of deep dish.

There are other types of pizza representative of the Chicago-style, like the crispy, thin crust pizza (cut tavern-style of course) served all throughout the Windy City. But no other type of pizza is likely to fill the hole in your heart or your stomach like the deep dish pizza.