'The perfect lover is one who turns into a pizza at 4am,' said actor Charles Pierce, summing up America's love of the delectable cheese pie that 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?
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 - 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 Mum's packed lunch any day. Lombardi's closed in 1984, but it reopened ten 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 - no more dropping cents for a slice.
Legend has it that in the late 1800s a Chicago street pedlar, 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, as New York local Derek Miller puts it, 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 the 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 backwards 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:
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.
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
2848 Broadway (at 110th St), Upper West Side, Manhattan
Phone: 212 222 1566
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.
Famous for delivering till the wee hours, Chicago's Pizza has no pretensions to greatness (they refer to the pizza's sausage as 'innards' on their website), but they'll serve you the dense deep dish just the way you like it at dawn.
Krunch Pizza Bar
Square slices with barely any handle to get a grip on, but the crunch at Krunch hints at some kind of cornmeal base (they were too coy to tell us their secret recipe). Who can go past the perfect melt of ricotta, mascarpone and truffle oil on their house special?
You have to have big (mozzarella) balls to serve a thin crust pizza in Chicago that rivals New York, but Brick does it almost too well and with a sense of humor - their aptly titled 'Painful' pizza is a spicy blend of pepperoni, red onion, fresh jalapenos, mozzarella, tomato sauce and garlic.