Any way you slice it, this pizza rules

A Chicago expatriate revisits his favorite pizza haunts and names the best

It is no mistake that the word "Chicago" is food-related. Translated from the Pottowatomie, it means "wild onion."

Food, mostly very heavy and meaty, seems to be everywhere in Chicago. On a recent drive through a West Side neighborhood, I saw more gyro and hot-dog joints than stoplights.

But the city's top food is definitely pizza. Chicagoans rely on it to get them through surreal highway gridlock, extreme weather, and underachieving sports teams.

After a softball game in Grant Park, or a White Sox game on the South Side, everyone goes out for pizza. When there is a movie to rent, or a rainy night to sit through (or just a night to sit through), there is a pizza to be ordered as surely as life is to be lived.

Growing up in one of the city's northern suburbs, my family ordered pizza about 1.5 times per week. Looking back I now realize that we lived in the center of a golden pizza triangle, the three points of which each represented a wonderful pizza place. (Note: Chicagoans do not call them pizza parlors. Do so, and they will look at you as if you were Princess Grace.)

The pizza from each place had a distinct character, which brings me to an important overall point about Chicago pizza. It is ambitious: a risky blend of cheese and crust and sauce that often sweeps and soars like an elaborate Italian opera, but sometimes blows its top and tumbles to the plate like Mt. Vesuvius.

Chicago pizzamakers, almost all of them first- or second-generation Italian immigrants, build pizza like Chicago architects build their city - with gusto.

This approach to pizza would be unfamiliar to many New Yorkers, who are accustomed to a slice of dough and sauce so thin and tepid that it is all they can do not to confuse it with the soggy paper plate it came with.

I credit my family's location within the golden pizza triangle for my childhood chubbiness that, truth be told, extended well into high school. But I have no regrets. For my brother, sister, and me to have lived in such a place and not enjoyed the pizza would have been like the von Trapp children never having bounded through the Alps learning the pleasures of "Do Re Mi."

I was understandably overjoyed when my 2-year-old nephew, Ethan, recently helped my brother, Jon, and me consume a large deep-dish pan pizza. Ethan was able to eat an entire slice of pepperoni pizza by himself. I nearly wept, I was so proud.

That meal was part of a general survey of Chicago pizza I had been wanting to perform for the Monitor for several years. Something in me wanted to categorize and classify the best pizza Chicago has to offer. Here's what I found.

During the 1960s and '70s, a spate of pizzerias opened in Chicago, each offering what had recently come to be known as the city's signature pizza style: deep-dish from a pan. Several are still operating today, and have expanded to dozens of sites across the city.

My list of Chicago's best, from fourth to first:

4. Giordano's is most often cited, I believe, as the purest example of Chicago pizza. "When I think Chicago pizza, I think Giordano's," says Seamus Ryan, who joined me and a few other friends at a Giordano's on Chicago's yuppie North Side.

We ordered a large deep-dish pizza stuffed with pepperoni - Giordano's specialty.

The pizza's chief characteristics: gobs of thick mozzarella cheese that spill out the sides of the slice like love handles, a soft flaky crust, a generous layer of pepperoni that sits under the top layer of cheese, and a thin but sweet spread of tomato sauce.

This is a magnificent all-around pizza. It's representative of the Chicago school , with the crust is pulled high against the walls of the pan. The pizza is also stuffed, a key Chicago trait that fattens the slice and makes it more of a knife-and-fork meal than a snack that diners fold in two and shove into their mouths while riding on the subway.

3. Lou Malnatti's was opened by an Italian immigrant in a Jewish neighborhood on an Irish holiday. The year, 1971 - about 30 years after Mr. Malnatti first worked at his father's Chicago pizzeria.

I first ate at Lou's during middle school at the bidding of my then-best friend Jason Falzer. His injunction then is equally true today. "You've got to try this pizza, man, it's the best in Wilmette."

Lou's pepperoni pizza is still one of my favorite meals. Stick a fork in the top of a hot slice, lift it to your mouth, and the cheese splits into dozens of taut strings that flare out like a fan.

You end up having to curl the cheese around your fork like a ball of yarn. Lou's pepperoni tastes meatier to me, and the sauce chunkier than some other pizzas. The crust is admirable, if only because it is able to hold together a pie that teems with toppings.

2. Two years ago, Edwardo's All Natural Pizza would not have even made my list of top five pizza places. All natural? That doesn't sound like my kind of Chicago pizza - more like something Los Angelenos eat before they leave the Dodger game in the third inning.

So what changed my mind? Well, the ingredients are simply fantastic. I have never tasted a fresher pizza in my life that is still a real pizza and not a rice cracker with someone's garden sprinkled on top. This is the kind of pizza I picture a 14th-century Florentine eating in the rolling Tuscan hills.

Not a surprise: Edwardo's has its vegetables custom-grown on a farm in California. My brother and I ate a small pizza stuffed with spinach; it still managed to maintain the vigor of a true Chicago deep dish. It was a little odd to appreciate something so New-Agey as "freshness," but Edwardo's pizza compelled me to eat and eat.

1. Gino's East. If not for Chinese sweet and sour chicken, this pizza would no doubt be my favorite meal. Gino's East got its name from its first location, one block east of Michigan Avenue, the heart of Chicago's loop.

Gino's pizza has the butteriest crust I know. It is made with cornmeal, which gives it a yellowish hue. Once devoured, it leaves on the pan traces of gold flakes that look like a miner's treasure.

The sausage, which any good Chicago pizza place should do well, is zesty and spicy, just as I like it. Gino's makes its sausage in separate balls or as a solid plate of meat on top of the crust. I adore the latter, even though the sausage often breaks into large shards and slips off the crust.

To me, this is what pizza should be: a grand architecture of crust, cheese, and toppings that aims to be as full an experience as viewing George Seurat's masterpiece "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" at the Chicago Art Institute, or gazing at the neck-craning sky-scrapers along Lake Shore Drive.

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