Chicago Thin Crust Pizza – Yes, it’s a thing.
In Deep Dish 101 Lesson 3, I told you about 3 styles of Chicago pizza.
Thin crust is one of them.
Here’s a refresher, courtesy of Dr. Screeny McShots-a-lot, DDS (doctor of digital screenshots):
So you’re probably asking, “how can I make this glorious style of pizza at home?“
Well, I’m glad that you probably asked!
I’ve been working on both dough and sauce recipes (and italian sausage too!) for a home version of the typical style of thin crust pizza that you’re likely to find in Chicago and its surrounding suburbs.
Before I get to the recipe, I want to talk a little more about this style of pizza.
Many people from other cities will say something like:
“this looks just like the thin crust pizza from my home town of [INSERT TOWN NAME HERE],“ and to that my response is, “yeah, it probably does,“ because this style of pizza (or a variation of it) has been made in the midwest about as long (or longer) than Deep Dish Pizza has been around (deep dish was invented in 1943), and because of it’s thin and crispy crust, sweet and sometimes zesty sauce, similar versions of this square-cut pizza enigma are now sold nationwide by major pizza chains that sometimes rhyme with “Bleetzza Butt” and “Schlominoes”.
So… what’s the deal with the squares?
Well, “pizza al taglio” or “pizza by the slice” is not a new thing. It’s origins are Roman.
We’re not exactly sure where the “party-cut/tavern-cut” originated in the USA (besides a party or tavern),
but it’s most likely that square-cut slices originated with rectangular pizzas, like East Coast Sicilian (i.e. – L&B Spumoni Gardens) and “Grandma” style bakery pizzas.
Square Sicilian Slices from L&B Spumoni Gardens in Bensenhurst, Brooklyn NY – photo by Adam Kuban
Aside from the party-cut’s Roman and East Coast origins, it’s just an easy way to cut pizza into more pieces, so you can potentially serve a dozen people with one pizza instead of just getting 6 or 8 wedges.
Now, you might say “but this looks kinda like New York style, but you just rolled it instead of tossing, and then cut it into squares”. Well, yeah, but there’s other differences. Chicago style thin crust is baked a bit longer and the crust is typically baked much crispier than a New York slice. No folding will be happening here.
We know that pepperoni is popular nationwide, but Italian Sausage is a popular topping in Chicago – not so much in NY - and we put our Italian sausage on RAW. On the East Coast, if they even offer sausage, they pre-cook it, and the flavor is different when you do that.
OKAY, let’s talk about making Chicago Style Thin Crust Pizza at home:
Chicago Style Thin Crust Pizza is a little more complicated than making deep dish.
First off, there’s the pizza dough. It’s pretty much your typical pizza dough.
My recipe has been adjusted slightly to make it easy to roll out your dough.
You may need to adjust for your local humidity levels by using less water.
If you don’t want to make your own dough, you can get away with store-made pizza dough.
(I know, you’re saying to yourself, “that’s not very complicated!”; just hang in there, because here it comes…)
Here’s my 2 main rules for preparing thin crust dough:
1) You have to roll it out thin. Like an 1/8th of an inch thin.
2) You have to prepare it so it doesn’t stick to the pizza pan/pizza screen/pizza stone.
Number 1 is the easy part. The place where you have options (and potential disasters) is number 2,
and it all depends on how you plan on baking your pizza,
and how much of a mess you want to clean up afterward.
The restaurants use a dough sheeter to do most of the hard work.
You’ll need a rolling pin, a large pastry mat or clean, dry, smooth surface, like a marble counter-top or your tabletop.
You’ll also need all purpose flour and/or semolina, and some non-stick cooking spray if you’re using a pan or screen. The method you use will determine how much of a mess you will likely create from the ingredients I just mentioned.
Not every thin crust pizza restaurant does it the same, so I’ll try to explain a few of the ways that I have encountered thin crust pizza that I would consider the general methods.
Feel free to do whatever works for you that you’re comfortable doing in your own kitchen.
After all, YOU’RE the one trying to bake delicious pizza while avoiding having to call the fire department.
1) The “Every Local Pizza Joint” Chicago Thin Crust style:
A number of pizzerias in Chicago-land prescribe to this method:
1) Flour up your dough ball, roll your dough thin [dough sheeter], slather on a canned sweet tomato puree or watered down paste (often doctored up with herbs and spices), cover generously with shredded mozzarella (or a mozz/provolone blend – some also add cheddar, parmesan, romano or other cheeses), dot the pizza with a few dozen quarter-sized chunks of freshly made raw fennel-laced Italian sausage. Add rest of toppings (if necessary) and bake until the sausage is golden and the cheese starts to get spots of brown. Cut into squares.
2) Vito & Nick’s style :
I grew up in the burbs, so the only time I ever went to the south side was the rare occasion when my family would take me and my brothers to White Sox games at Comiskey Park, so I never had the opportunity to try Vito & Nick’s until my adult years when a co-worker brought some in for an office party.
Great stuff. Lots of similarity to the pizzas of my youth. I love how they intentionally run the cheese and sauce to the edge to get that crispy burnt “Pequody” cheese thing that we all love.“They burn!” Rose exclaimed proudly in the DDD video that I can no longer locate on youtube.
Also, Italian beef with giardiniera on a pizza is one of the best things on this planet.
Nick & Vito’s dusts the dough ball with flour (they use a lot of flour), runs it through a sheeter (possibly more than once) – YOU’LL HAVE TO JUST ROLL YOURS BY HAND WITH A ROLLING PIN – , and then they trim the outer crust with a pizza wheel/cutter.
Then they spoon on the tomato sauce – they like to go all the way to the edge, then throw on the cheese and toppings, and bake them to well done. It’s a really delicious pizza and in my top 3 for the style.
If you want to see them in action making this style, you can watch the clip from Chicago’s Best or search the interwebs for the Diners Drive-Inns and Dives episode which also features them.
3) Barnaby’s Family Inn style:
Originally from the Chicago suburbs, I grew up with Barnaby’s pizza. They have a lot of locations (some in other states). The one I frequented the most was the now-closed Schaumburg location. It was an old-school family style pizza parlor with wood booths and a little TV mounted in the corner near the ceiling that would occasionally show White Sox games and other sports with it’s “ONTV” descrambler box (anyone remember those?). Barnaby’s had a big window where you could watch them make the pizzas (a common feature of this chain of restaurants). There were big trays of dough balls, dough sheeters and giant benches of semolina flour (we thought it was cornmeal, but now we know better).
I seem to remember them doing the initial stretch by hand in the bench of semolina and then running it through the dough sheeter . There was a great crispy sandy bottom crust on this pizza.
I’ve been trying to reproduce it by putting a small mound of semolina under my ball of dough while I roll it out. It’s still a bit of a work in progress. Barnaby’s also runs their sauce pretty close to the edge, but they do leave you some “bones” to grab onto. Not all of the Barnaby’s locations were the same. Some of them, like the Northbrook location (it still exists, and makes the best pizzas of all the Barnaby’s still standing) crimp the outside of the dough by hand, which not only keeps the sauce from going over the edge, but also gives the pizza a great look and nice crispiness.
Variations of those 3 methods exist, but I think you have the idea.
PEPPERONI: Above or below the cheese?
I’ve seen it both ways in Chicago. I personally prefer pepperoni on top because I like a little char on my pepperoni (or both above and below if you don’t have a heart condition).
Making Thin Crust Pizza, LEAST MESSY:
Lightly dust your dough ball with flour and then roll it out to size. Dock it with a fork, then transfer to a lightly greased perforated pizza pan or pizza screen. Build your pizza, bake in a preheated oven, preferably one with a pizza stone.
Making Thin Crust Pizza, SLIGHTLY MORE MESSY:
Lightly dust your dough ball with flour and then roll it out to size. Dock it with a fork, then gently transfer to a flour/semolina-dusted pizza peel. Build your pizza as quickly as possible with the least amount of force, so the dough doesn’t stick to the peel. Before you bring your pizza and peel over to the oven give your peel a gentle test-shake to make sure the pizza is going to slide off of the peel and onto your preheated pizza stone. If your dough is stuck to the peel, your ingredients will fly off into the oven and create lots of smoke. If you’re stuck during the test-shake, try using a spatula to unstick it and then toss a little more semolina (or flour) between the dough and peel to keep it loose.
Troubleshooting the baking process:
If you’re baking without a perforated pan or screen and directly on the stone, the crust won’t be your major problem for sticking. The cheese and sauce will, especially if you’re running cheese and sauce all the way to the edge; not only are you likely to get a little more smoke coming from your oven (ventilate your kitchen well), but also, you may need to do some strategic “unsticking” of the edges of your pizza from the stone, using a metal spatula or something similar, before attempting to remove the pizza with your peel.
You might be able to avoid all of this by building your pizza on top of a sheet of baking parchment placed on your peel, then sliding the pizza and parchment directly onto the stone. Your crust may not get as crispy as baking directly on the stone, but the parchment should make it easier to remove your pizza with the peel.
Keep in mind that although parchment is meant for baking,
IT IS NOT COMPLETELY FIREPROOF,
so have a fire extinguisher handy when you bake pizzas. It’s a good idea to have one anyway.
OK, hopefully, I haven’t completely scared you away from thin crust pizza, but I just want you to be prepared and get the methods down before jumping into what I would call an intermediate level pizza baking experience. So, good luck to those of you willing to try it, and feel free to post comments and questions here and on the facebook page.
I’m certain that this is not the last discussion I’ll have on Chicago Thin crust, and there’s likely to be a recipe revision or two, but I think you’ll do OK with the recipe I’ve developed, so without further ado…
Hey Look! A Chicago Style Thin Crust Pizza Recipe!
DOWNLOAD THE RECIPE FROM THIS LINK!
This dough can take on different characteristics, depending on how long you knead it, how long you let it rise, and whether you decide to give it a rest overnight in the fridge (or not), and what temperature the dough is when you roll it out and bake it (not to mention: what temp you bake at and for how long). These variables are entirely up to you. If you follow the recipe, you’ll get close to the basic Chicago thin crust style, but any of these choices can make your crust take on different characteristics: puffiness, crispiness, chewiness, etc. I hope you’ll experiment and figure out what works, and please feel free to let us know how it worked for you.