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Sunday, November 19

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Penny Pollack and Jeff Ruby write about the city's restaurant and foodie scene in Chicago magazine's weekly online column, Dish. The duo recently brought their considerable talents to bear in a fun, witty and informative new book about what could easily be called our national dish, the aptly titled Everybody Loves Pizza: The Deep Dish on America's Favorite Food.

Everybody Loves Pizza is an overview of all that is pizza, "a delicious all-inclusive guide" as Mario Batali blurbs on the cover. The book leads off with a history lesson, taking the reader back to the pie's roots as a simple street food in Naples, Italy; to its early days in the US, when Italian immigrants began making and selling their versions of the old world dish; to its explosive expansion into mainstream American culture — and from there, the world.

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Pollack and Ruby delve further into the legend and lore of the four primary styles of American pizza: New York, New Haven, Chicago and California. Each has its own colorful history — and its controversies — which the authors detail in info-packed pages. Did you know, for instance, that Gino's east and Lou Malnati's were founded by a former pizza chef and bartender, respectively, from Pizzeria Uno?

The rise of the chains and the history of frozen pizza get covered, too, with the same jaunty approach and choice details. It was interesting to read about so many passionate pizza lovers embittered by their experience with the corporate pizza-making machine, be it the pizzaiolo behind California Pizza Kitchen's barbecue chicken pizza or the creator of Tombstone frozen pizza. Even more interesting was the realization that each got right back in the game — you can find out what Tombstone tasted like before Kraft got hold of it by tracking down Pep's in Wisconsin grocery store freezers.

Throughout the book, sidebars entertain with such factoids as favorite toppings around the world (pepperoni in the US, red herring in Russia, peas in Brazil) or a childrens' books starring pizza. Brief interviews with everyone from Wolfgang Puck to six-time world pizza throwing champion Tony Gemignani make for fun tangents from the narrative.

Pollack and Ruby rise to the unenviable task of naming their top 10 pizzerias in America, and unfortunately only one hails from Chicago: Pizano's, at 864 N. State St., ranks number four. Interestingly enough, Pizano's is owned by Rudy Malnati, Jr., son of that bartender from Uno's. The restaurant's pizza dough recipe is such a secret that Rudy Sr.'s widow makes it alone in the basement and brings it up to the kitchen so that no one sees the exact ingredients. Beyond the top 10, the book contains a directory of great pizzerias in each state, including what style of pie they make and a little about their character.

Of course, the best pizza is the one you make at home, so Everybody Loves Pizza also includes a tutorial on how to make a basic pizza crust, and provides recipes for everything from a classic Chicago-style deep dish to New Haven white pizza to one with prosciutto and pears. My pizza stone will be getting a workout this winter.

I got a chance recently to interview Pollack and Ruby about the book and their thoughts regarding the book and Chicago pizza.

So, how did you come to write a book about pizza?

Jeff Ruby: I wish we could take credit for the idea. I could tell you that pizza is the perfect food and all that stuff — it is — but the truth is, Emmis Books was familiar with our writing from Chicago magazine, and pitched the idea to us. We ran with it. Our idea was to make it as accessible as possible and put our personal stamp on it. That meant throwing in every goofy pizza-related fact that interested us, like great pizza moments in movies, interviewing the oldest delivery boy in the country (it's a 76-year-old guy in Oregon), and finding the cleverest promotions nationwide. Instead of a critical look at pizza, this book is a celebration of it.

What sort of research went into the project?

JR: The whole thing took about a year. We read every pizza book we could get our hands on, scoured the internet, and interviewed tons of food writers and pizza big shots like Frank Carney and Wolfgang Puck. And we asked everyone we knew what their favorite pizzas were. Started a lot of arguments.

How many pizzas did you consume as part of that "research?"

JR: I kept track for awhile, but lost count in the spring. Let's just say that Penny and I have probably eaten more pizza than any two people in America in the past year. Everywhere either of us traveled, we ate pizza, and we both criss-crossed the country looking for the best. (I gained ten pounds. Penny, somehow, didn't gain an ounce.) I was writing the section about New Haven pizza while I was in Puerto Rico last December, and I got so hungry I had to have a pizza. Puerto Rico is a great place, but its pizza-not so much.

What's your personal preference — deep dish or thin crust?

Penny Pollack: If I really have to take a stand, I'll cast my vote for thin crust. A wedge of deep dish is exactly what Ike Sewell wanted and the pizza that put Chicago on the map — a knife-and-fork meal in itself. But thin crust pizza adheres to a different standard of crispy chewy tenderness and enables you to eat more slices (or squares) without weighing you down for the rest of the day.

How does Chicago Style pizza stack up against other versions?

JR: When you talk to pizza aficionados around the country, deep-dish really takes a beating. They think it's an aberration, a casserole, or worse. I understand that most everyone has geographic preferences for one or the other-and that's perfectly natural. But I'm always baffled when people think someone is an idiot because he prefers one over the other. The joy of pizza is that it is simple enough to be all things to all people-it can mean something heavy to Chicagoans, and something droopy to New Yorkers, something crispy to Italians. Good bread, cheese, and tomato in almost any guise is good. That said, we rated the Top 10 pizzas in the country, and we couldn't justify putting any deep-dish place in there. Pizano's tastes like deep dish with that buttery crust, but it's so much more balanced. I love Chicago-style as much as any other style out there, but there was no one place that really knocked both of us out. Penny is into Pizzeria Due; I'm a Bacino's man.

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Who has the best New York-style pizza in Chicago, and is there anywhere local we can try New Haven-style?

PP: I'm into Santullo's when I want the NY-pizza experience. The pizzamaker there even twirls the dough before placing the skin on the pizza peel for assembly. And right next door, Bill Jacobs at Piece has the monopoly on New Haven 'za in Chicago. That could be the best pizza block in Chicago.

You list some world-wide popular toppings, but you don't go into detail with US regional tastes. Is there a topping combination that's more popular in Chicago than elsewhere?

PP: Chicagoans, unlike the rest of the country, prefer sausage to pepperoni. And the standard veggie topping here never saw a sun-dried tomato. More like a combo of mushrooms, onions and green peppers.

You list Pizano's as the best pizza in Chicago — what makes theirs stand out?

PP: The crust. It's magic. It recalls the proud history of Chicago pizza — with discernible depth and pastrylike snap — but without the heft, delicate and hearty at once. No surprise that the owner is part of the Malnati family tree (he is the son of Rudy Malnati, Pizzeria Uno's original bartender). The cheesy blanket and sweet tomato sauce provide the perfect harmonious flavors and textures for the Chicago crust I dream about.

What are some of the other top pizzerias in the city?

PP: Follia and Pizza D.O.C. bake up great Neapolitan-style pies; Home Run Inn and Pat's have been around for decades and they've got the Midwest version of thin crust, stretchy cheese, and juicy sausage down "pat." Pizzeria Due wears the crown for the deep-dish genre although kudos go to Pequod's for caramelizing theirs.

And which one(s) do you frequent/get delivery from most often?

JR: Man, I'm lazy. I get whatever's closest. Which means Calo or Tedino's. But when I lived near Pequod's years ago, that was my go-to place. Lucky Penny: she lives within Pizano's delivery range.

Everybody Loves Pizza: The Deep Dish on America's Favorite Food is available in bookstores and on Amazon.com.

 

About the Author(s)

Andrew Huff is editor of Gapers Block. He still misses the original Gino's East on Superior.

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