Something clicked when that delectable cheesy concoction frisbeed across the Atlantic from Italy more than a century ago.
Pizza is beer's best friend, it's a warm cardboard box on your lap as you drive home, it's a greasy slice folded in half and shoved into your mouth at 2am, it's mozzarella and tomato sauce arousing a perfect frisson from your taste buds and let's face it: pizza just is.
Having risen from its humble origins, these days pizza is a battleground for piazzolo (pizza chef) patriots who sprinkle everything from truffle oil to salsa chips over the pimple-faced pie. No two cities have fallen deeper in love with the pizza than Chicago and New York – and, as in every fight for the affections of the perfect lover, the competition is cut-throat between New York's sumptuous “slice” and Chicago's “deep dish” delight.
So who makes the best piece of pie?
The founding fathers of pizza in the US
Gennaro Lombardi opened the first official US pizzeria at 53 1/2 Spring St in New York in 1905. Lombardi - part of the wave of Neapolitan immigrants who settled on the East coast – imported Naples-style pizza (a thin, casalinga/homestyle crust topped simply with basic ingredients such as tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella) to the Big Apple.
Italian workers would stop by Lombardi's and buy whatever they could afford, but at five cents a pie, the whole pizza was often too steep. They would receive a proportionately sized slice in a paper bag tied with string: better than mom's packed lunch any day.
Lombardi's closed in 1984, but it reopened 10 years later a block down from its original location and is now a dine-in/delivery style pizzeria with queues that can stretch around the block.
Legend has it that in the late 1800s a Chicago street peddler, balancing a metal tub filled with baked tomato pies on his head, would hock pieces at two cents a portion in Little Italy. The first pizzeria – Pizzeria Uno – was opened in 1943 by Ike Sewell, an American soldier who had been stationed in Italy during WWII.
Sewell ingeniously capitalized on the returning troops' appreciation for the dish they had devoured abroad. Uno's pioneered the deep dish style of pizza. Various ingredients (eg sausages and tomatoes) are piled inside a hearty apple pie-sized base.
Unlike New Yorkers, Chicagoans pig out on the whole pie, which they eat in a restaurant or get home-delivered. Typical of the Windy City's big business brass, Pizzeria Uno has expanded into an empire of restaurants known as Uno Chicago Grill, with franchises across the world.
When a Chicagoan and New Yorker talk pizza, fisticuffs loom when the conversation turns to crusts. New York – true to the elongated narrow shape of Manhattan – is all about a thin, crunchy crust that provides a flat, almost rimless plate of pastry on which to layer the ingredients. A thin crust, coal- or wood-charred to perfection, should be singed slightly on the bottom and have a crunchy texture and smoky flavor.
The only way to eat a slice is to fold the crust in half like a paper plane and let the grease squeeze out the back while you're eating it from the bottom.
Chicago, a city where size matters – after all, it's the home of the first skyscraper – is big on base; the lip of the buttery crust is inches high above the dense mass of mutz (mozzarella). Unlike the slice, which can be manhandled, Chicago pizza often requires a knife and fork to cut through the dense, gooey (but not too gooey, if it's cooked just right) goodness.
“I just think it's more refined. More effort goes into making it,” says Chicago local Michael Rau, waxing lyrical about the joys of the deep dish.
New Yorkers, meanwhile, scoff at such ideas, believing that the mountains of dough and filling are excessive (an emphatic “bleeeugh,” was the response of Davina Cohen, an avid New York pizza eater, to deep-dish doughiness).
In the end – fat or thin, crispy or squidgy, meaty or cheesy – the distinctions are irrelevant. As Rau put it: “It's a tribal thing. It's considered defecting to join another tribe.”
Let's face it: as long as it will love you at 4am, it's amore.
The best of both worlds
It's impossible to step backward in New York without falling into a hole-in-the-wall; likewise, Chicago is pepperonied with pizza joints on every corner. Here are a few to get you started:
Di Fara – New York
These crunchy pies, baptized with fior de latte (fresh cow's milk mozzarella), are crafted by one-man showstopper Domenico DeMarco, who has been spinning the wheel for more than 40 years.
Lou Malnati's – Chicago
One of the most traditional pie places in the city, churning out authentic, bready deep dish numbers - and judging by how many of these frozen pies get shipped as “care packages” nationwide, they must be onto something.
Cheap & greasy
Koronet Pizza – New York
One of the best deals in town: a jumbo, rather goopy piece of pie the length of your forearm – a winner at drunk o'clock.
Chicago's Pizza – Chicago
Famous for delivering till the wee hours, Chicago's Pizza will serve you the dense deep dish just the way you like it at dawn.
Artichoke Basille's Pizza – New York
Who knew artichoke hearts on slice also topped with spinach, cream sauce, mozeralla and pecorino romano cheese could taste this good. Operating since 2008, these relative newcomers have become a big hit in a city filled with pizza snobs.
Pizza Fried Chicken Ice Cream – Chicago
With a bold name like Pizza Fried Chicken Ice Cream, you've got to knock it out of the park with each of your specialties and this Bridgeport pizzeria delivers (literally). Check out their Korean-inspired pizza with the unlikely pairing of Polish sausage and kimchi along with mushrooms, onions, scallion and a drizzle of mustard.
Safety recommendations and restrictions during a pandemic can change rapidly. Lonely Planet recommends that travelers always check with local authorities for up-to-date guidance before traveling during Covid-19.