Kenji Lopez Alt’s Chicago Pizza Recipe
Some family members might call it obsessive behaviour. I call it an intellectual and culinary pursuit.
For the past five months, I’ve been on a mission to call in a home-cook-friendly recipe for thin-crust pizza popular in the Midwest, Chicago in particular. He’s taken me through many iterations, hidden late-night pizza texts with other nerds across the country, dozens of dining excursions (including a two-day tour, and 12 stops in Chicago and Milwaukee), bags of flour, And pounds of hot dogs and several gallons of ketchup.
Before we begin, it’s worth considering the definition of “Chicago pizza.” If you’re not from Chicago, you probably think of a cheesy, sauce-covered, pool-sized deep dish. But if you’re from Chicago, it’s probably thin crust.
I’m talking thinner than salt, with a smashingly crunchy crackle and just enough structure to hold its weight against a heavily spiced sauce and a caramelized layer of mozzarella. Perhaps topped with hand-torn pieces of sausage, perhaps with a sprinkling of hot giardiniera. Forget the puffy, joystick-like crust of a New York pie: The thin crust has the sauce and cheese all the way to the edge—a rim that comes out crisper with an almost black cheese crease.
Most notably, the pizza is round but comes cut into small squares, no more than one or two bites.
Whether you call it party cut, bar-style, pub-style, Midwestern thin crust, Chicago thin, or, if you’re from the Midwest, just plain “pizza,” with its little squares, it’s an equally easy dish. To share with a large group, or improve on your own. (It’s so easy to spot “I’ll have one more piece” when each piece is a bite.)
This square shareability is no accident, said Steve Dolinsky, journalist and author of “Pizza City, USA: 101 Reasons Why Chicago Is America’s Greatest Pizza Town.”
With its roots in the 1940s in working-class bars like Vito & Nick’s on Chicago’s South Side, the cheaply produced, thirst-quenching technique was invented to encourage customers to linger long enough to order another beer.
“This is my dad and my uncle, the first day they started serving pizza,” said Rose Baracco George, owner of Vito & Nick for the third generation from the ’80s, pointing to one of the old family photos that line the dining room. Near the pizza ovens, many of her grandchildren—the fifth generation working in the kitchen—bust, rolling out dough based on her grandmother Marie’s original recipe, pinching raw sausages and slicing thin burnt pies served on aluminum trays. In the dining room, regulars clutched squares of pizza under a herringbone-patterned ceiling; Old beer posters decorate the walls. The pizza at Vito & Nick’s is excellent, but the atmosphere tinged with history is great.
“Factory or Union Stock Yards workers would stop at the tavern on the way home,” Dolinsky said.
The proximity to these stockyards meant that the cheap and plentiful sausages became almost an integral part of the style, while the small square cuts made it easy to share among all customers: no plates required – only a napkin would do. And best of all? “In the early days, pub pizza was always free,” Dolinsky said.
Eventually, free pizza became so popular that bars began selling out quickly. From Chicago, it spread, becoming one of the dominant pizza styles throughout the Midwest.
What makes this crust so thin
Back home in Seattle, I got down to business with a 2018 recipe, loosely inspired by Vito & Nick’s, and posted by my old colleague, Bryan Roof, at Cook’s Country. His recipe starts with flour, sugar, salt, yeast, water, and oil together in a food processor, which works well for two batches of pizza—whichever is bigger and I use a mixer or knead by hand instead. Then he rests for a few hours. rolled with a wide rolling pin (professional thin crust pizzerias use industrial slices); Topped with sauce, grated cheese and sausage. Then bake in a 500-degree oven on a pizza stone for 10 to 14 minutes. It was a great starting point, especially considering his recipe could be made in one afternoon.
My friend Dave Lichterman, a Chicago native who runs two pizzerias in Seattle, set out to work on his own recipe for a Windy City pie. In one of his many restaurant tasting sessions, he turned me on how dry, thin-crusted dough is. Mr. Ruff’s recipe calls for about 56 percent hydration—that is, for every 100g of flour in a batch of dough, you add 56g of water. This is already at the bottom line for pizza dough: Typically, Neapolitan-style dough swirls north or south are about 60 percent water. But Mr. Lichterman was making his dough drier, about 50% hydration, with 10% to 15% oil added.
This made a huge difference in the texture of my crust, which, even then, came out crisp but was very pliable and tough. This had to do with the way the water and oil interact with the protein in the flour. When the water is kneaded with the flour, the proteins in the flour loosen and untangle, forming a stretchy web of gluten. In general, wet dough will form more gluten and result in a chewy, chewy crumb, the kind you’d find inside a bowl of sourdough. Fat, on the other hand, coats the flour proteins and prevents them from tangling, resulting in a softer dough, like a soft brioche bun. Less water and oil resulted in a lighter, crispier crust.
I tried using less water but found that the dough became very difficult to cut.
What makes this crust so crunchy?
My next trigger came when I accidentally over-leaved a batch of pizza dough by leaving it on the counter for too long. Over-fermentation severely weakens the gluten structure, which can result in the dough refusing to rise when baking. This is bad for baking but great for thin crust. I intentionally started by incorporating a three-to-five-day fermentation period in the fridge, which resulted in the thinnest, crispiest muffins yet.
John Carruthers likes to overdo his dough, too. As the owner of Crust Fund Pizza, he doesn’t own a restaurant, but he’s made a name for himself serving up pub-style pizza in Chicago’s back alleys in exchange for donations to local organizations. From his house, he would bake pizzas with crackling crusts made from dough that had been in his refrigerator for five days for me and Mr. Lichterman. (Mr. Carruthers’ signature recipe can be found in my friend Andrew Gangigian’s newsletter.)
Mr. Carruthers also uses a method called “curing” dough, a technique I’ve heard popular but had to see in person to fully understand. The idea is simple: roll out the dough as if it were on top, but set it aside in the fridge for a day—fully uncovered—to dry.
Billy, Cecily Federighi, and their partner, Brad Shorten, tackled the dough at Kim’s Uncle, a thin-crust pizzeria that opened last year in the Chicago, Illinois, suburb of Westmont. Federighi revealed an overlapping pile of pizza skins—what pizza makers call dough that’s stretched but not yet covered—that was dry to the touch, with the texture of cured skin. You lift the dough with one hand, it keeps its shape, and it crunches a bit like Acme’s portable hole from the Looney Tunes cartoon. The pizza at Kim’s Uncle, baked in an antique Faulds oven with four decks that spin like cars in a Ferris wheel, is incredible: smashing, impossibly crisp and delicious.
Neither Mr. Carruthers nor Kim’s Uncle team invented the curing technology. Mr. Dolinsky attributes it to Nick Pianito Jr., who was a second-generation Pat owner when he first started using it in the 1970s at his father’s Lincoln Park pizzeria. To this day, Batz’s pizza arrives with a crispy, blistered edge, which indicates that the dough was leathery before baking.
At home, I roll out 14 inches of pizza dough and leave it uncovered overnight in my refrigerator on parchment-lined cutting boards. I was shocked at how much of a difference the treatment made to the crispness of the final pizza, although, in retrospect, it makes sense. The dough becomes crispy as it dries in the oven, and this dryness begins to be cured. By weighing the dough before and after curing, I calculated that the crust ends up with an effective hydration level of just 25 percent to 33 percent before baking.
The treatment also has some wonderful side effects. The leathery dough disks slide easily in and out of the crust, making getting them into the oven a breeze. Processed dough does not sag as easily as fresh, allowing the pizza to “float” on the surface of the stone as it bakes, making moisture loss easier and crisping more efficient. It can bake to a crispy dark brown without burning.
The only difficulty was finding space in the fridge to treat several 14-inch rounds of dough. I wondered: Does room temperature therapy work, too? Fortunately, it is.
Delicate and creamy finish
With the crust on, I turned my attention to the sauce. In Chicago, pizza sauce tends to have an intense flavor profile that comes from cooking canned tomatoes heavily seasoned with dried herbs, like marjoram, oregano, and garlic (I like to use a combination of fresh chives and the sweeter granulated garlic). Some sauces are very sweet. Others are lean more vinegar. You can modify these elements to your own taste. These days, I don’t even bother simmering the sauce first: I find that it develops a lot of that cooked-on flavor over the pizza’s 10-minute baking time, especially with the addition of tomato paste.
The last ingredients eaten were cheese, giardiniera and sausage. The cheese is simple: shredded, low-moisture mozzarella (grated fresh and whole if you can control it, skim and partially opened works well if you can’t) and a sprinkle of Parmesan or Romano.
Giardinera is a chopped mixture of pickled vegetables that is commonly served on Chicago’s Italian beef sandwiches that have become popular pizzas. It pairs perfectly with sausage, and it’s easy to find online. Look for Chicago-style brands, such as the excellent Marconi or JP Graziano, which pack giardiniera in oil instead of vinegar or brine.
Milder than the typical supermarket Italian sausage, Italian sausage is a true regional specialty, but it’s easy to make at home. I spoke with Rob Levitt, master butcher at Publican Quality Meats in Chicago, about what makes Chicago-style sausage unique.
“The only real common line is black pepper and fennel,” he said. This became true after tasting and asking for tips from other Chicago pizza makers.
The sausage uses whole fennel seeds that I roast in a skillet, then break down with a mortar and pestle—a spice grinder, food processor, blender, or the bottom of a heavy skillet will work—before mixing them with fatty ground pork and seasoning with salt, black pepper, fresh and granulated garlic, and a pinch of dried herbs. A dash of red pepper flakes. The key is kneading the batter (by hand or in a batter fitted with a paddle) until the proteins begin to break down and cross-link, giving them a gooey texture that turns moist and juicy as the sausage cooks, releasing its delicious fat. To mix with sauce and cheese as you bake pizza.
Proofing and processing dough takes a little planning, but your commitment to active time is minimal. If you start today, just a week from now, you’ll be waiting for the longest 10 minutes of your life as oregano and cheese caramelize from your oven. Your treat will crackle as it comes out and crack as you cut it into squares, whether you plan to share it or not.
I grew up eating folded triangular fillets in New York City, but these days in my house the hip is square and skinny. Of course, if you’re from the Midwest, skinny has always been in. Just catch up.