Chicago Tavern-style: The Best Damn Pizza in the Neighborhood
We live in an era of glittering pizza exceptionalism, spoiled on the stained-glass-art pizzas of Rome, artisanal dome-oven Neapolitan pies, and Detroit majesties crowned with cheese on their blue-steel thrones. But my favorite pizza came into existence so folks would keep drinking. Tavern-style pizza (or as we called it growing up…uh…pizza) is utilitarian, shamelessly different, fought about at the block-to-block level, and misunderstood by bemused outsiders. In short, it’s a little square of Chicago’s soul unassumingly resting on a bar napkin.
Style-wise, we’re talking about a cracker-thin (but not cracker-dry) dough rolled out (not tossed) and docked before baking in a moderately heated (500 °F to 550 °F) deck oven. The sauce is cooked and suffused with umami, herbs, and/or sweetness, depending on your neighborhood spot. Most importantly, it’s cut into squares.
This way of cutting pizza confuses and terrifies most folks who didn’t spend winters under our slate-gray Lake Michigan skies. But the form factor, fitting of a place home to Frank Lloyd Wright, is undeniably precise. One bite to deliver all the flavors of an entire pizza each and every time. They make cable TV shows about this sort of thing.
Most of all, tavern style is about the exquisite balance of crisp, well-cooked crust, boldly-flavored sauce, just the right amount of mozzarella and Parmesan and toppings all brought to the extreme edge of “too much.” Heat it to the twenty seconds between perfect and oblivion and you have a stellar tavern-style pizza.
As for its origin story, tavern-style pizza is played as a cute communal thing to our modern eyes – bar owners putting out some free bites for thirsty clientele – but that ignores our city’s blue-collar roots. In reality, the hardworking men of the heady post-WWII boom, whether making machine parts, toiling in a warehouse, or making animals into grocery-ready cuts, would often “get a little loaded” on the docket between “go to work” and “dinner at home.” A couple (or three) squares of pizza (with one hand free for a beer) and taverns sold more drinks in a way that adds up week over week.
Customers aren’t ruining their dinner, but they’ve got a bit of extra stamina for a last-last drink, one or two after the first last drink. Tavern owners aren’t spending a lot on a pizza that goes a long way, but they’re keeping customers happy (and drinking) for longer – a truly symbiotic relationship between two rock-ribbed pillars of the community. This is the transactional origin of a style beloved by a city where that transaction doesn’t really exist like it used to anymore. But a deep appreciation in the intervening years made it become part of our DNA as surely as municipal corruption and those honking vowels you can recognize worldwide.
This is not to hate on the more well-known deep dish style. We’ll grab a deep dish when friends come to visit. And yes, we’ve seen the Jon Stewart video. How clever of you to think of it first when the words “Chicago” and “pizza” clanged together in your mind like a clearance-priced set of Newton’s Cradle balls.
Hearty eaters though we are, deep dish just isn’t the vibe of Chicago. It insists upon itself – the bake time, the sheer quantities, the time spent shoulder-to-shoulder with visitors from Omaha, Little Rock, and Tulsa.
But tavern pizza? Tavern pizza is your chill, self-assured friend who is up for anything. It can be the main event or merely the color to a perfect evening. Bring it to a bar or taproom that doesn’t have food. Get five delivered to watch the Bears faceplant in style. Or make the pilgrimage to a place you know does it right. Whatever your tastes, it’s a pizza meant for the communal experience but proportioned at a favorable ratio for those who just had a shit-ass day and need some edible self-care.
A Note: Ask any Chicagoan over a certain age about “tavern pizza” and you’ll get some grumpy reactions. And that’s just because they don’t realize that pizza has become a vivid universe of options over the past few decades. Don’t take it personally!
I can’t stress enough how much we didn’t really think of this as a “style” until fairly recently. The Grumpy Bastard generation still insists Tavern-style is not the name, just as they think video games and phones will be our ruin. But more classification means a wider world of pizza, and I don’t know how one can be against the ideal in good conscience.
My own recipe is based on a forgotten number of family dinners, school dances, pool days, end-of-year team dinners, and nights at the bowling alley. This pizza is the lifeblood of Chicagoland in a way that a listicle or star rating can never capture. We take it for granted, and that’s our privilege as citizens of the greatest city in the world.
The recipe adjustments I made from my initial pies were based on sense memories, personal preference, and the ephemeral “it” that you don’t get without the kind of mindless overconsumption you do before you grow up, go elsewhere and realize how much you miss home. And, let’s be honest, the best parts of my pizzas are me correcting the things that annoyed me about the pizzas of my youth. Love is an overrated ingredient – next time, try spite!
If none of this can convince you to think of Chicago as a tavern-style town, then that’s fine. I run my yap a lot. But take a shot at the perfectly cooked corner-adjacent square and I don’t think you’ll doubt much longer. You’ll get every single flavor of the whole pizza in a few square inches. We don’t dawdle, and we don’t waste your time. This is, after all, the real pizza of Chicago.