Welcome to: Chicago Thin Crust Pizza – Yes, it’s a thing.
Here’s a refresher, courtesy of Dr. Screeny McShots-a-lot:
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.
“OK, cool… but where is the thin crust pizza recipe?” – Eagerly McImpatientpants
Dang! So Pushy! Okay fine – You can DOWNLOAD THE RECIPE FROM THIS LINK!
I sure hope you’ll read the stuff below too. It will help a LOT.
** Also, Scroll Down To See The Note Further Down About Milk in the Recipe (which I took out of the latest version)
You should also have good results using the RDD Quick Dough Recipe!
Who invented Chicago Thin Crust?
While pizza has been in Chicago at least as early as 1909, it’s not entirely clear who invented the style we know as Chicago Tavern Style Thin Crust. Vito & Nick’s (a TAVERN! – 1946) appears to be the most likely originator, with Home Run Inn (also a TAVERN! – 1947), Italian Fiesta (1947) and a handful of other restaurants and taverns following close behind. The general and most plausible origin provided by taverns is a version of “we started serving pizza in little squares as a bar snack and then it got popular, so then we started selling pizza that way.”
* I’ll keep updating this article if/when I manage to locate any additional info on that subject.
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 in the USA the “party-cut/tavern-cut” originated (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.
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 “this looks kinda like New York style, but you just rolled it instead of tossing, and then cut it into squares”. Well, yes, but there’s some differences. Chicago style thin crust is baked a bit longer and the crust is baked crispier than a typical New York slice. Also, because of the rolling/sheeting, there’s not typically a big handle of crust on the outer edge to facilitate the folding that East Coasters often do with their slice. No folding will be happening here.
We know that pepperoni is popular nationwide, and it’s popular in Chicago too, but Italian Sausage is the topping of choice 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 often pre-cook it, and cut it into discs, 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, although some dough handling methods will vary from restaurant to restaurant.
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 using 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 1/4 to an 1/8 of an inch thin.
2) You have to build your pizza so that:
before it bakes, it doesn’t stick to the peel,
after it bakes, it doesn’t stick to the pizza pan/screen/stone.
Step number 1 is the easy part. The place where you have options (and potential disasters) is Step 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 countertop or your tabletop.
You’ll also need all purpose flour and/or semolina (and yes, some people use cornmeal here – I won’t be happy about it, but I’ll allow it), and some oil or non-stick cooking spray if you’re using a pan or screen (if you have enough flour on your dough, you might not need the oil/spray). The method you use will determine how much of a mess you will likely create from the ingredients I just mentioned.
Oh, you may want one more thing to help you out – have I mentioned how great it is to use food safe gloves when working with dough or adding sausage to your pizzas? I highly recommend food gloves not just for safety, but for speed, for any style of home pizza baking.
Disposable Powder-Free Foodservice Nitrile Gloves – Large – $6.95Powder-Free Nitrile Examination Gloves Fits either hand 4.5 mil thick Single use only Non-sterile Although appropriate for food-service use, these gloves are also suited for lab or industrial work. Hygienic Latex free Textured fingers Beaded cuff
via Kerekes / BakeDeco
Disposable Powder-Free Foodservice Nitrile Gloves – Medium – $6.95Powder-Free Nitrile Examination Gloves Fits either hand 4.5 mil thick Single use only Non-sterile Although appropriate for food-service use, these gloves are also suited for lab or industrial work. Hygienic Latex free Textured fingers Beaded cuff
via Kerekes / BakeDeco
As I stated earlier, Chicago Style Thin Crust Pizza is more complicated than making deep dish. When you make deep dish, you don’t need a rolling pin or any of the edible ball bearings listed above, to aid you in your Deep Dish pizza making. Everything is contained in the pan. At most, a small amount of oil on the bottom of a deep dish pan is the most you’re going to need to keep things from sticking.
Thin crust dough, has no such protection, and needs your help to keep from sticking to your peel while you build your pizza. You help it by providing an edible barrier in the form of flour, semolina/cornmeal. These ingredients can contribute to the difficulty of making this style at home, as you will read below.
While the goal is to get your pizza “cracker thin” and crispy, the amount of crispiness will vary depending on a lot of variables – often baking time and oven temperature play a big role. That said, don’t expect the middle pieces to get (or stay) as crispy as the outer pieces. That’s just the nature of thin crust and pizza in general. If you’re trying to get the bottom crispy, a hot pizza stone or baking steel could help.
(i.e. – Pat’s Pizza rolls out their dough super thin and keeps the pre-rolled bases in a cooler/freezer to dry out until ready to use. They have one of the thinnest thin crust pizza in the city.)
The General Methods of Making Chicago Thin Crust Pizza
Not every thin crust pizza restaurant does it the same, so I’ll narrow down the ways that I have experienced thin crust pizza in Chicago, into what I would consider the general methods.
Use the method that works for you, and which you are 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 the pizza with a few dozen quarter-sized chunks of freshly made raw fennel-laced Italian sausage. Cover generously with shredded mozzarella (or a mozz/provolone blend – some also add cheddar, scamorza, parmesan, romano). Add rest of toppings (and more cheese, if necessary) and bake until the sausage is golden and the cheese starts to get spots of brown. Cut into squares.
A note about the pizza building order:
As you can see in the video link below, sometimes the sausage goes down right on top of the sauce:
[Benno’s video of a sausage pizza getting made at Home Run Inn],
You can put down some cheese first if you like. I’ve seen it done both ways – use the method that you like best. I personally put half the cheese down first, then lay down the sausage, and then add the rest of the cheese so the sausage doesn’t roll off your finished slice. Also, each restaurant makes a decision about which toppings are allowed to be above the cheese as a default. Do your veggies live under the cheese, or get some oven char?
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).
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 cheese thing that we all love.“They burn!” Rose exclaimed proudly in the DDD video that keeps getting yanked from 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-Ins 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 used to 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?). You would go up to the order counter and place your pizza order, the grill and beverage areas had separate ordering stations, and you’d pick them up when they called your number, “PIZZA ORDER NUMBER 371, YOUR PIZZA IS READY!”
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 what I think were semolina flour (it’s not entirely clear, but I think some of the franchises substituted cornmeal or used a combination).
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.
How Can I Make Tavern Style Pizza At Home?
If you’re not up to attempting a copy of the styles listed above, here’s a couple ways I usually make thin crust at home.
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 perforated pizza pan or pizza screen. Build your pizza, bake in a preheated oven, preferably one with a pizza stone (or baking steel if you have the means).
TIME AND TEMP?
You’ll need to practice with time and temperature because all ovens are different, but start with your oven nice and hot at least 500 F during your preheating, then lower your baking temp to about 450 F when you put in your first pizza. Estimate a 12 to 20 minute baking time. I can’t be more specific because it really depends on the amount and type of ingredients in your pizza, the size of your pizza, and how crispy or charred you want your pizza to be. You may like a higher temp/shorter baking time, or the opposite – just make sure your ingredients are cooked properly, especially when you add raw ingredients like sausage to your pizzas.
PRACTICE. PRACTICE PRACTICE. Even the not-so-great pizzas will still be pretty good, and really good when you reheat them the next day.
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. Wood peels are better for building your pizza because they wick away moisture – metal peels are better for retrieving your pizza from the oven. 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 (or a floured-up hand) 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 directly on the stone, without a perforated pan or screen, 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 RDD 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!
You will also have good results using the RDD Quick Dough Recipe!
Looking for a sauce recipe? Here’s one from page two of the Chicago Thin Crust Recipe PDF:
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.
** IMPORTANT NOTE ABOUT MILK IN THE DOUGH
*2021 UPDATE* I have removed milk from the latest update to this recipe due to continued confusion and enough comments regarding it’s overall effect to the characteristics of the crust.
I hope you’ll have better results working with the water-only version, and if you want to experiment with milk in your dough, the notes below may help you with that:
If you liked the previous version of the recipe which contained milk, you can download it here:
Not all thin crust joints use milk in their pizza dough.
It was only in the earlier versions of the recipe because they allegedly use it at Vito & Nick’s (there is video evidence – Vito & Nick’s from DDD).
You don’t have to use milk – in fact, if this is your first time using the recipe, do yourself a favor and substitute with water. Milk can help with browning, but it can also potentially soften your crust, so if you are having problems using milk in your dough, USE THE WATER SUBSTITUTION until you get more practice in on this pizza style, and you may decide you prefer to leave the milk out.
Back to the milk: It’s a good idea to heat your milk to lukewarm if you’re combining it with the water and yeast, or you can add it in cold after the yeast has had a chance to get going. This is more of an issue with active-dry yeast than it would be with instant yeast.
I’ve talked about this in other places on the site, but it’s also relevant to the conversation:
If you use Lactose-Free Milk (i.e. Lactaid), be aware that the milk sugars (lactose) that were previously UNAVAILABLE to the yeast, have been converted to glucose and galactose (thanks, lactase!). The yeast can gobble up the glucose with no problem (the galactose? – not so much), so that means MORE YEAST ACTIVITY! WOOOOO!
(yes, I just celebrated yeast activity)
The reason I mention this is that if your yeast tends to be a little sluggish, lactose-free milk could help the yeast out.