If you’ve ever called Windy City home, you no doubt have strong feelings about which pizzas deserve (and don’t) to be anointed in good faith Chicago style. I’m not here to offer hot takes; I just want to state that the Chicago-born pie I cherish the most is tavern-style — aka party cut, aka the circular pizza with a thin crust that’s inexplicably cut into little squares.
When done well, it perfectly balances the crunchy crunch; stretchy, charcoal-flecked mozzarella; and tangy-sweet red sauce. I can count on one hand how many times I’ve do not have burned the roof of my mouth on a tavern pizza; I’m still eager to dig.
Tavern Pizza was the centerpiece of birthday parties throughout my childhood in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. But I came to really love it like many Chicagoans – when I lived in the city in my twenties, perpetually broke and out far too late. Within walking distance of every Chicago apartment I’ve lived in is a shabby joint called John’s Pizzeria Ristorante & Lounge on Western Ave., which stays open until 1 a.m. on Saturdays.
I came to really love it like many Chicagoans – when I lived in the city in my twenties, perpetually broke and out far too late.
I walked around this old white wooden plank structure, nodded at the inevitable table full of cops or firefighters sitting out front, then grabbed a stand along the wall – never remembering which two of them. between them bowed before slipping away. In addition to over a decade of dining there, my order has rarely changed: a garden salad with canned black olives and Italian dressing followed by a large single-topped pizza (crucial for square integrity ), either with sausage nuggets or half-pepperoni, half-giardiniera.
I love that the tavern pizza is thin enough to almost feel like a snack. I like it when it’s badly cut, making at least one corner triangular with nothing more than a smear of oven-dried sauce. I love that sometimes the middle pieces ooze cheese and sauce so relentlessly that they crumble into a stretchy heap you have to shovel up, head thrown back, in one hedonistic swoop.
“I just don’t get it,” interrupts my good friend John Manion, chef/owner of El Che Steakhouse & Bar in Chicago’s West Loop and Chicago-area resident since 1995. This is probably the third time we’ve let’s trade barbs if tavern pizza deserves the coveted “Chicago-style” label.
“It’s basically mediocre bar food,” Manion continues. “Objectively, yes, it’s fine in the sense that it’s melted cheese on bread, but let’s not pretend it’s something it’s not.”
As the name suggests, tavern-style pizza indeed originated in the city’s neighborhood bars as a hot, tasty bite to eat for hungry blue-collar workers coming off long days – cheap (sometimes free with a beer) and salty enough to make them drink. The square cut made it easy to hold with a beer in the other hand, and shareable so a few customers could share one and go home still hungry for dinner.
Detroit native Manion’s first encounter with the tavern style was similar to my original love story – as a hungover, broke chef in his late 20s or early 30s, commanding the delivery.
“Not being from here, what I was hoping to get on my doorstep was a real hangover pizza – sliced, mind you – and piping hot in a cardboard box,” recalls -he. “What I received instead was this cardboard, not a box, but a round cardboard pizza, inexplicably cut into squares. On the edge there was nothing, maybe a bit of burnt sauce. Then the middle: I mean, do I take a spoon and seal it? I found that to be a really unacceptable substitute for what I wanted.”
Manion admits there are some solid examples of the style, like the iconic, cracker-thin pies at South Side institution Vito & Nick’s. Until recently, he was content to call bulls**t among his relatives, such as when El Che staff occasionally ordered tavern pizzas for comida before the shift. It’s only been in the past two years — since this humble pie entered the national pizza discourse and became (to him, wrongly) deified — that Manion’s disdain has become visceral.
Digging a little deeper, we actually identify that exact moment as July 22, 2019, when enjoy your food published author and editor Jason Diamond’s love letter to pizza tavern. In it, Diamond advertised the tavern style as Chicago’s true signature pie, as beloved by locals as it is underappreciated by tourists and the national media.
And then came the listicles.
“All of a sudden, tavern-style has become the ‘real’ Chicago pizza, and you’re starting to see, like, ’32 best tavern-style pizzas’ anywhere,” Manion says. “And at that I was like, no sir. This is junk food. If you go to a tavern after you’ve worked your shift breaking rocks or at the auto factory, and you catch this cold, the first brew and someone says to you, ‘Hey like a triangle of cheap, pizza-like stuff? You go, ‘Hey, sure. Sounds good.’ But it’s an indictment of us as a society where we have to objectify and write tomes about things that are going well.”
Whether it’s Popeye’s Chicken Sandwiches or Choco-Tacos, our culture of clickbaity and trend-hunting loves hot takes on what’s considered lowbrow food – which we then ravage under any circumstances. possible angles until all that’s left is the carcass and some grease-stained napkins
Whether it’s Popeye’s Chicken Sandwiches or Choco-Tacos, our culture of clickbaity and trend-seeking loves hot takes on what is considered lowbrow food – which we then ravage under all possible angles until all that’s left is the carcass and some grease-stained napkins. But what drives us crazy about tasty things that many wouldn’t call “awesome” in the first place?
Nostalgia, replies Manion. “If tavern-style pizza is what you had when you were a kid – on a summer evening coming home from the pool – this is the best, this is what you want,” says -he. He admits to having a similar blind spot when it comes to Detroit’s Coney dogs — a frankfurter on a bun covered in beanless chili, mustard, onions and shredded cheese.
“I think I married bullshit about it for many years, before I even agreed to eat a good Chicago-style hot dog,” he says of the beef frankfurter, born in Chicago, on a poppyseed bun with yellow mustard, neon-relish of sweet green pickles, chopped onion, sliced tomatoes, dill pickle spear, pickled peppers, and celery salt. “Then I did it, and it was just this majestic balance of textures and flavors. I’m like, OK, when it’s done right, I get that. This is what you should be writing about. f**king poems.”
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Perhaps you are among those who believe that tavern-style pizza is capable of the same excellence as a Chicago-style hot dog; maybe not. Either way, there’s something deeply satisfying about seeing the things we hold dear validated by the elites of our realms – no matter how niche or mediocre that thing is.
There’s my beloved Tavern Pizza, all dressed up and styled in the right lighting for Bon Appetit! Or there’s my darling dog from Chicago, who gets a nice feature blown in the New York Times Restoration Section!
Because we knew and loved him long before his big breakup made him distant and full of himself, we can claim some credit for that. Then when someone comes to visit us, we take them proudly our hot dog stand or our tavern pizzeria, for our authentic Chicago taste.
Towards the end of the conversation, the evangelist in me can’t help but say that Manion should come with me to John’s house for a while and try it out for himself. His answer surprises me.
“Fuck yeah I’m going!” he says. “I’m not a freak. It’s still pizza. And that’s the thing. If you like it, go for it. There’s a lot of things that aren’t great that are great.”
For my part, I will try to keep the poetry to a minimum.
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