|Click on any image for full size resolution|
I confess though, as years rolled by, I became an east-coast pizza snob and particularly scornful of Chicago deep-dish. That was likely due to the generally insipid rendering of deep-dish pie by Pizzeria Uno, which had grown into a national chain. And in hindsight, that would be like sampling Pizza Hut and declaring that NY pizza is second-rate. The big chains cannot fairly represent any one style of pizza, even as the current version of Uno deep-dish is really not bad (see THIS review).
I loved Jon Stewart's rant about Chicago deep-dish, in which he tabbed it "tomato soup in a bread bowl." I did get a chance to sample a slice of Giordano's pizza that a family member brought back from Chicago, and it was wretched. My anti-deep-dish bias was confirmed.
|A slice at Louisa's|
With an occasional need to travel to central Illinois, I've found myself coming in to Midway and renting a car to drive south. In Bloomington, I had good thin-crust pie from Monical's and decent stuff from Rosati's (both local chains). I had spectacular party-cut bar pie at Lucca Grill, too. Closer to Midway, I had best-of-class bar pie at Vito & Nick's. On my latest pass through the South end of Chicago, I felt it was time to once again try deep-dish.
I've always trusted the writers at Seriouseats.com, and I found Daniel Zeman's review of Louisa's Pizza & Pasta in Crestwood, 10 miles south of Midway Airport. His endorsement was reason enough to make that slight detour en route from Normal to Midway.
|Small deep-dish from Louisa's|
Due to time restraints, I called ahead to get a small deep-dish with sausage for takeout. I was advised that it would take 40 minutes, so this was not a pre-made deep-dish; a good sign. Loiusa's is housed in an unremarkable modern building along the unremarkable commercial strip of Route 50 in Crestwood. You know you are close to Chicago, because half of the restaurants are hot dog joints. Wish I had time and belly space to have tried one of those, too!
|Inside Louisa's Pizza and Pasta, Crestwood IL|
Inside, Louisa's looked cozy and comfortable - the kind of place you'd love to have in your neighborhood. The staff was especially friendly, and made sure that my take-out pizza was cut when I asked for a plastic knife and fork. I was planning to eat this small pie ($15.15) at the airport, but out of hunger and a desire to sample the pie fresh from the oven, I tackled one slice right there in the front seat of my rental car.
The vibrant red sauce was the most immediate sensation. In its simplicity and freshness and brilliant color, this crushed tomato sauce was one the best I've experienced on any pizza, thin or thick. Zemans described it as "neither tangy nor sweet... simply chunks of juicy tomatoes seasoned with herbs that are grown in back of the restaurant." I think I detected an onion flavor to the sauce too. Scrumptious.
The crust was buttery, dense throughout but almost flaky on the cornicione. It was crisp on the bottom but not crunchy, with no soggy spots. Lots of grease soaked out of this crust into the cardboard container.
On a thin pizza, you can sometimes compare the crust to Italian bread, or breadsticks, or even crackers. This crust had an almost biscuit-like quality. Beyond its texture, it had its own distinct flavor. Zemans noted that he'd eat this crust without any toppings. Me too.
|Some biscuit-like qualities to the crust|
The cheese? There was a generous layer under the sauce which added gravitas and a nice chewiness, but its flavor got lost. In my ideal pizza world, you'd find a way to get the cheese on top for some oven browning on a deep-dish pie.
Zemans felt that there was not enough cheese or sauce on this pie, but I found all the ingredients to be in about ideal proportion. This was a huge belly bomb, but somehow it felt balanced.
The sausage was excellent, but not quite the garlic and fennel magic you'd get on a Trenton tomato pie. Like the cheese, I'd have liked it better with some oven browning, but it added great texture and flavor even as it was buried under the sauce.
About 90 minutes after I picked up this pizza, I had returned the rental car, taken the shuttle bus to Midway, passed through security, and found a few moments near my gate to address the three remaining slices, which were room temperature by this time.
|Philly-style square slice at L&B Spumoni Gardens in Brooklyn|
Much like a Philadelphia tomato pie - a distant thick-crust cousin - this stuff was terrific at room temperature. The crust was still crisp and there was no sogginess in any section. Perhaps that buried layer of cheese prevents the sauce from seeping into the crust?
That slice was so good that I quickly finished the final two. I don't want to think about the calories, but this pizza was a delightful experience. I'm done arguing over NY vs. Chicago pizza; they are just different animals. This thick pie had little in common with even a Detroit-style pie. No matter how you label it, it's authentically delicious. This is superb deep dish at Louisa's, and easily one of my top 2015 pizza experiences.
Here's some excellent detail from Chicago's Steve Dolinsky regarding Louisa's: "a sturdy, slightly rich, buttery crust, the result of Ceresota unbleached flour, and a resting period of at least a day. Along the bottom, Wisconsin part-skim mozzarella, extra large hunks of cooked Anichini sausage they’ve been getting for 34 years, and a bright-and-chunky tomato sauce on the top, the product of California vine-ripened tomatoes (Saporito brand)."
UPDATE, MAY 2017: After a visit to downtown Chicago, I was able to sample three other highly regarded deep-dish pizzas. While the pan pizza at Pequods (review here) was disappointing, I loved the traditional deep-dish at Pizano's (review here) and the hybrid version at Exchequer (review here), where a huge mass of molten cheese sits atop the pie. But Louisa's is the clear winner. For all the deep dish I've eaten, Louisa's is the benchmark pie.