You learn a lot about pizza growing up in Chicago, and not just about the thick stuff. Most people think that’s all the Windy City has to offer pizza-philes, though in fact you can find just about any kind of pizza under the sun there, from the cracker-thin and crispy to the deep, deep dish. It might surprise you to learn that the majority of Chicagoans don’t eat deep-dish pizza all that often, and that the pizzerias who most consistently win the best-pizza-in-town contests are makers of thinner-crust pies (the Uno’s they usually leave to the tourists).
That said I thought it might be helpful, before diving into a full-blown discussion of pizza in general, to define a few terms. Here are what I believe to be the major families of pizza in America, accompanied by their general characteristics. From thinnest to thickest, they are:
Neapolitan-Style Pizza. This type of pizza, the “real deal” as it were, is less common in America since it requires a high-heat brick oven to make. Neapolitan pizzas are rather small (about 10 inches across), thin and light on toppings since they’re designed to bake up in about one minute. Hard core Neapolitan pizzerias adhere to the Italian D.O.C. strictures, which stipulate everything from they ingredients the crust can contain to the temperature the pie is baked at.
New York-Style Pizza is essentially a less-authentic version of Neapolitan-style, classically baked in a coal-burning oven, which doesn’t provide the heat intensity of a wood-burning oven. The pizzas bake up more slowly as a result, but because of that can be made larger. Some of them are indeed very, very large.
California Style. Thin like New York with a lighter and crispier crust, though to my mind it’s the toppings that really distinguish California-style pizza. They can be anything, with or without cheese or sauce.
Chicago-Style Pizza. There’s a lot of disagreement about what this actually is. It’s thicker than New York pizza, that’s for sure, but after that all bets are pretty much off. Most folks will argue that Chicago Pizza’s claim to fame is simply a thick wheat crust. However to me Chicago’s great contribution to pizza crust is not merely thickness (for the bests crust are not all that thick) but corn meal and in many cases, potato starch. To me these will always be the defining characteristics of a true “Chicago” pizza. The sauce can either be on the top or the bottom.
Deep Dish Pizza. Deep dish pizza is what most people normally think of as “Chicago style”, and is typically quite large. It is my least favorite type of pizza as it is typically dominated by a very thick, very fluffy and bready crust. Some versions can be up to an inch and a half thick.
Stuffed Pizza. The ne plus ultra of stick-to-the-ribs pizza, stuffed pizza (linked to in the first paragraph) actually has two crusts, a thicker one on the bottom and a paper-thin one on the top on which the sauce is spread. All the other good stuff is laid in between the two, along with liberal amounts of cheese.
That’s my best stab at a pizza “style taxonomy”. Any pizza lovers out there with additions and/or corrections, please write in.