My Chicago pizza tour—with a side quest to Wisconsin!

In May 2023 I fulfilled one of my longtime dreams—doing an epic pizza tour of Chicago. Below are all the places I visited in order.

Back story: My daughter, Margot, got into MathCON, a national math competition. We are super proud of her and her geeky math ways and were stoked to bring her to Chicago for the event. While we were planning the trip, my wife suggested I extend my stay so I could do some solo pizza-ing around the Windy City after they traveled on home.

Back story to the back story: My sister-in-law lives in Chicago, and her (and my wife’s) parents are there helping out with SIL’s new baby. When we visited for Labor Day weekend 2022 to first meet our nephew(!), my wife knew I was a little disappointed we didn’t hit as many pizzerias as I’d wanted (BTW, that’s a gaping hole that cannot be filled, but I digress…). Shortly after we returned to NYC post–Labor Day, she suggested I try to take some time this spring to go to Chicago on my own. So Margot getting in to MathCON and us going was fortuitous timing.

ANYWAY. We flew in as a family on Friday, May 12, rented a car, did MathCON and Mother’s Day dim sum, hot pot, etc., and I dropped off wife and daughter on Monday morning before formally beginning the pizza tour. Here’s the rundown:

The Rundown (pizzerias visited)

Kim's Uncle Pizza exterior
Adam Kuban and Brian Erst in front of Kim’s Uncle Pizza.
  • Friday, May 12
    • Pizano’s Pizza & Pasta (South Loop, Chicago)
  • Monday, May 15
  • Tuesday, May 16
  • Wednesday, May 17
  • Thursday, May 18
    • Vito & Nick’s (Ashburn, Chicago)
    • Professor Pizza (West Loop, Chicago)
    • Milly’s Pizza in the Pan (Uptown, Chicago)
  • Friday, May 19
    • Paulie Gee’s Wicker Park
    • Chicago Pizza Tours’ Downtown Walking Tour
      • Robert’s Pizza & Dough Company (Streeterville, Chicago)
      • Labriola (Streeterville, Chicago)
      • Pistore’s Pizza & Pastry (River North, Chicago)
      • Bar Cargo (River North, Chicago)
    • Paulie Gee’s Logan Square

The Rundown (non-pizzerias)

Bari Subs & Italian Foods’ Italian beef sandwich, wet, sweet, with mozzarella.
  • Hidilao Hot Pot (Saturday, May 13)
  • Strings Ramen Shop (Sunday, May 14)
  • Mars Cheese Castle (Tuesday, May 16)
  • Bari Subs & Italian Foods (Saturday, May 20)

As I post videos and recaps of each spot, I’ll come back and link to them above. For now, I’m just writing this post so I have a sort of table of contents to link to and something to give people context as to this trip.

Spotlight on thin-crust

A thin crust pizza with sausage and giardineria sits on a pizza tray.
A sausage-and-giardiniera pizza from Kim’s Uncle Pizza in Westmont, Illinois.

This trip was very much about Chicago/Midwest thin-crust pizza. It’s a style that’s near and dear to me. I might go out on a limb and say it’s my favorite style of pizza—even over the bar-style pizza I was making during the Margot’s Pizza pop-up days.

Longtime readers of mine know that I was born in the Milwaukee area and raised holding that area’s thin-crust “tavern-style” pies as the pizza ideal. Being 90 miles apart (145km) Milwaukee and Chicago’s notion of thin-crust pizza share a lot of characteristics. Both cities prize crispness and generous amounts of cheese and toppings. Both lean toward what I think of as a “pizza parlor” flavors—toppings like sausage,* onion, mushroom, green peppers, black olives in some combination or all at once. Both cut their pizzas into grids known as “party cut” or “tavern cut” rather than the triangular wedges of NY-style or the national chains.

For a great primer on Chicago thin-crust or “tavern style” pizza, see this excellent post by Brian Erst on Chicago food writer Dennis Lee’s Substack, The Party Cut

I’ve blabbed many times at various places online and in social media about how I became so enamored of this style, and it’s that old cliché: childhood memories. When we moved away from Milwaukee and would drive back to visit relatives during the summer or the holidays, we’d always stop by Maria’s Pizza first thing to pick up a couple large pies before rolling up to my grandmother’s house. So this style is very much associated with vacation travel, family, and special occasions. It’s hard to compete with that. (Cue the Pizza Cognition Theory here.)

Labriola’s deep dish pizza was recommended by more than a few pizza sources I trusted. I ate a slice of this excellent pie—their burrata & basil pizza—on Chicago Pizza Tour’s Downtown Walking Tour.

So that kind of explains why my list above might skew a little more toward thin-crust. I asked my trusted Chicago pizza nerd friends for some deep dish recs so I’d get at least one example in, but I figured I’d leave a true deep dish audit for (hopefully!) another trip.

An assortment of NY-style slices at Zazas Pizza in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. They get raves in Chicago, and if they had a shop in NYC, they would also get raves.

One more thing w/r/t pizza styles: I got a lot of great recs for non–Chicago style places, but I initially avoided adding them to my itinerary matrix—with the exception of Derrick Tung’s Paulie Gee’s mini empire, where I figured either the New York–style shop (Wicker Park) or the Detroit-style pizza at the Logan Square location would be fine. I was more interested in seeing Derrick and catching up with him, after having watched his pizza journey from his Za Pi days to now. But after some DMs where @loubron chided me for not placing a priority on Derrick’s DSP, I ended up visiting both locations. Glad I did! I’m also glad pizza fixer Brian Erst convinced me to try Zazas Pizza in Lincoln Park for their take on NY-style, which was excellent.

* While pepperoni is the most popular topping in the USA as a whole, sausage is very much the meat topping of choice in Chicago and Milwaukee, and it tends to go on the pizza raw and in bulk form—not sliced from links as they do in New York City.

Highlights and surprises

Toward the very end of the trip, Paulie Gee’s Logan Square/Paulie Gee’s Wicker Park owner-proprietor Derrick Tung asked me, “Is there anything that’s surprised you?”

The “US Pizza Cup Winner”: sharp white cheddar, mozzarella, Ezzo pepperoni, housemade bacon jam, red sauce, ricotta, basil, and Mike’s Hot Honey. This is the best Detroit-style pizza I’ve ever eaten. 

He asked that late Friday morning, as I visited him at Paulie Gee’s Wicker Park, 24 hours before I was set to fly out. I told him, No, because I felt I’d studied up on where I wanted to visit and had a reasonable expectation of what I’d run into. Later that evening, as I visited Paulie Gee’s Logan Square for Derrick’s pièce de résistance—his Detroit-style pizza—I revised that notion and posted a quick in-the-moment rave to my Instagram about how revelatory his “US Pizza Cup Winner” pizza was. That pizza truly was a surprise.

But as I thought more about the trip I realized that another thing that surprised me was that I didn’t love the “cured crust” style of Chicago thin crust as much as I’d thought I would. Don’t get me wrong, the two examples I had (Crust Fund Pizza and Kim’s Uncle Pizza) were some of the best pizzas on the trip and I loved meeting and talking to the pizzamakers there—but I found myself gravitating more toward the ultra-thin crusts of Zaffiro’s in Milwaukee (blind baked for 13 seconds[!]) and Vito & Nick’s on Chicago’s South Side (sheeted and straight baked). Both had the kind of flaky, layered crust that I grew up holding up as an ideal. Sometimes you can’t overwrite those early pizza experiences.

Granted, those kinds of crusts wilt very quickly, growing soggy if left to sit on the serving tray or in the delivery box too long, whereas cured crust pies tend to retain the crispness much longer. In Instagram DMs with someone, I likened the eat-it-fast-for-best-quality nature of these old-school thin crust spots to the way Neapolitan pizza is best right out of the oven.

So, yeah, that was another thing that surprised me—that I didn’t necessarily have an eye-opening “THIS IS IT!” moment after trying “cured crust” thin-crust pizza.

Special thanks

Big big props go to the following people:

  • My wife, Claire, for suggesting this trip and helping make room in the budget for it. We’ll have to make sure you get a solo trip of your own soon!
  • Margot, for having gotten into the math competition that spurred all this, and just for being a great kid in general! We loves ya, Margs!
  • Aunt Mary, for hanging out and letting me stay at her place on Monday night
  • Uncle Jim, for picking up my part of the tab at Balistreri’s. I didn’t expect that—after all, I can write this off as a business expense(!), but I appreciate it
  • Cousins Aimee, Patti, David, Corey, for their company at Balistreri’s and Wells Brothers
  • John Carruthers, for making me a Crust Fund Pizza outside his typical schedule and welcoming me into his home kitchen. I usually don’t try to take advantage of my special pizza access, but he offered, and I wasn’t going to say no! (Also, for asking Robert Maleski at Milly’s to set aside a dough for me for later in the week)
  • Brian Erst, for acting as a “pizza fixer” (a term I picked up from Carruthers) and arranging visits ahead of time at Zazas and Uncle Kims—and making introductions to the wonderful staff at Villa Nova
  • Brett Nemec and staff at Zazas Pizza, for the unexpected array of slices and for taking the time to chat!
  • Subbu Arumugam, for tons of advice and tips via IG DMs and “pizza fixer” services w/r/t Kim’s Uncle—and for his company at Kim’s and Villa Nova
  • Billy Federighi, Cecily Federighi, and Brad Shorten of Kim’s Uncle, for letting me invade their kitchen for a couple hours and bug you on camera
  • Lisa Hodges and Victor Escamilla, longtime co-managers at Villa Nova Stickney, for being so open to filming with little notice!
  • Jonathan Solomon & Meg Gustafson (and Judah & Aryeh), for hosting me for a couple nights in Chicago and for the Green Mill suggestion. I’d always wanted to go!
  • Robert Maleski of Milly’s Pizza in the Pan, for setting aside a dough portion for my visit there and being so accommodating of my video-ing
  • Derrick Tung and Tony Dezutter of Paulie Gee’s Wicker Park and Paulie Gee’s Logan Square, for welcoming me in and chatting about pizza and the pizzerias you run

Links and such

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