It was Tuesday evening on my epic May 2023 pizza trip and I was making my way up a Chicago alley whose location I won’t disclose here.
I was heading to John Carruthers’ house to pick up a special Crust Fund Pizza order.
If you’re not familiar, Carruthers has been running Crust Fund Pizza as a fundraiser since August 2020, having perfected his recipe for “tavern style” thin crust earlier in the year as part of a family pizza night during the early days of the pandemic.
Once a month, Carruthers drops a link on his Instagram (@nachosandlager) for people to sign up for slots in his Monday night “pop in.” Anyone lucky enough to snag a slot puts in their order, pays $25 to that month’s benefitting non-profit, and upon proof of payment gets the address for the alley pickup. It’s a different non-profit each month, each one a community organization working to serve Chicagoans.
I was visiting on an off week for Crust Fund, but I’d been in touch with John via DM and he’d offered to make me a pie outside his usual schedule. I usually try not to take advantage of whatever pizza clout I have, but I didn’t know when I’d be back so I made an exception here.
Note: At no time does Carruthers directly take payment for his pizza. You donate directly to the non-profit, send your receipt to John, and he then makes a pizza for you. As he noted, “This is friends making pizza for friends.” IOW, he’s not operating a business out of his home.
John is an adherent of the “cured crust” style of Chicago thin-crust. That’s where the dough is rolled out and left exposed to dry out a bit, either at room temperature or in the fridge or some combination of both. Moisture in the dough evaporates, leaving the resulting “skin” leathery. This leads to a firmer, crisper crust than would otherwise be possible with such a thin dough. (J. Kenji Lopez-Alt has a great overview of this on at the New York Times.)
Confession: I wasn’t getting the full Crust Fund experience. Instead of picking up in the garage in the alley, John said I could just come and knock quietly at the door so as not to wake the baby. Still, I figured I’d try the alley thing. As I made my way in the lane behind the houses, I arrived at what I figured was John’s place. I could see a head bobbing in the lighted window of a kitchen, with all the apparent motions of prepping or cooking a pizza—or so I imagined.
I texted, and John invited me in. I had no idea what was to come. I’d assumed he would have the pizza ready and waiting and might chat a little bit before sending me on my way. But as I went to open the pizza box sitting on his kitchen island, it felt way too light.
That’s because there was nothing in it—he’d been waiting for me to show up so he could make the pizza to order. Hence, you get the impromptu Make & Bake in the video up top 👆
I was hoping I’d get to see him in action, but the visit and private pizza session was more than I could have asked for. Over a beer, we chatted about his method, his work at Revolution Brewing, pizza styles, and various fine points of Chicago-thin crust pizza.
For instance, I’d never considered the number of cuts on a tavern-cut (aka “party cut”) pizza. John does a 4×4 cut (resulting a 5×5 grid), but pointed out that a pizzeria’s particular pattern is often based on how far they want to “stretch” a pizza back in the days when they operated as bars and offered pizza as a freebie to keep patrons drinking. (Later on in the trip, the folks at Kim’s Uncle Pizza would mention doing a 3×4—the odd number being crucial if you’re making pies that have half-orders on toppings.)
The pizza I’d “ordered” weeks before rolling up was a sausage and (light) giardiniera. I requested a light hand on the pickled vegetables because last time I was in Chicago, I didn’t love the topping when I had it on a Pequod’s deep dish. But John and others would point out that that’s often because some spots don’t drain off the brine that well, resulting in an overly salty and/or too-piquant pie.
This pizza was perfectly balanced in terms of toppings. And it was crisp and as thin as the Zaffiro’s and Wells Brothers pies I’d had. John says he goes a little lighter on cheese than some tavern-style places because, after the crust, he thinks sauce is the most important flavor factor on a pizza. As someone who prefers a saucier pizza, I approve of this approach and will go further and say I think this pie would be even better with EXTRA SAUCE. I hope I’m able to visit again and try that.
In the meantime, I’ll make do with Pizza for Everyone, a Chicago pizza cookbook and meditation on pizza by Carruthers and the Crust Fund Collective. John was kind enough to include it with my order, and you can bet I’ll be cooking from it at some point. Pick up a copy—proceeds also benefit various Chicago non-profits.
Crust Fund’s school cafeteria pizza
Last, I’m going to leave this PS here, and it’s that John has recently been making another style of pizza I’d love to try—school lunch pizza, made from the original USDA recipes school cafeterias used (still use?).
I’ve long been curious about this style after having seen it on a blog—I can’t remember whose, but it was a food writer I follow on Instagram, and she and I had a long DM convo about it, and now I can’t find it. If that’s you, please DM me on IG!
Anyway, John and Chicago food writer Dennis Lee started developing their recipe weeks ago and he debuted it a couple weeks after I left Chicago. Here are the old-school USDA recipes to peruse. If you’re in Chicago, you should follow John and try to get this style if/when he makes it—or of course go for his tavern pies.