Sanctuary at the Bottom of a Deep Dish

(Photo: In Chicago, emergency aid can be found in the most unexpected of places.)

So Pizzeria Due saved my sanity when I first decamped Atlantic shores for Lake Michigan ones in the early 2000s. That’s why my recent trips to the less-touristed, cheaper Lou Malnati’s have left me riddled with guilt.

Times were tough when I first arrived in Chicago. An evaporated potential job prospect and a lack of advance strategy forced this formerly Manhattan-employed urban planning professional straight into a string of minimum-wage retail jobs in far-flung Second City neighborhoods to make ends meet.

Frequently, that didn’t come anywhere close to happening. It was one thing to find it hard to afford my $1,000 studio in upwardly mobile brownstone Brooklyn. It was quite another to realize I couldn’t pay for my $495 dump in the armpit of Logan Square, no matter how many high-end TVs I sold, hardware supplies I hawked, or Mexican newcomers whom I taught English.  During my initial 18 months here, even three dead-end jobs didn’t always afford me the luxury of keeping both cell phone and Internet turned on at the same time.

Much as I had high hopes for Chicago, I still cried myself to sleep at night missing both New York City and my middle-class, middle-management life in it. All in all, my fall from yuppiedom to “can I show you something in a toggle bolt?” had me feeling like a failure.

It didn’t help that I was also missing the density of perilously packed NYC. After 15 years of college, graduate school, and planning gigs in Midtown and Lower Manhattan, taking a Pace bus out to the The Great Indoors in Schaumburg six days a week to try and convince members of the economic class to which I used to belong to purchase flat-panel televisions that I could never hope to afford was humbling.

On my single days off, and sometimes late at night after working one of my various job, I would take the ‘L’ downtown. I’d transfer to the Brown Line and ride around the Loop, hoping that my momentary presence there would be enough to help me miss the heart of my native city a little bit less.

Then one day, my friend, florist-extraordinaire Flower Power Brian–the man who drove me with a cat on my lap and all my stuff in one unbroken 18-hour trek from the east coast to Illinois–took me to Pizzeria Due in downtown’s River North neighborhood. Their brand of deep-dish wasn’t unknown to me. I spent my teen years hanging with friends at a Pizzeria Uno in Greenwich Village. I already knew the original Uno and it’s equally old sister joint, Due, were a block apart and together laid claim to inventing the Chicago deep-dish pizza style.

Silly me, though, I thought the dry, mediocre pie I ate so much of on Avenue of the Americas would be the same pie served up on Wabash Avenue. My first bite into a real Due pizza was revelatory. The mixture of soupy sauce and fresh ingredients, brought to a table in one of the ramshackle, decades-old rooms that every chain Uno’s in America tries to copy but can never get quite right, made me an instant convert to this culinary piece of the Chicago Way.

I’m not the only New Yorker I know to have undergone this happy conversion, either. When my Gotham friend, the Portuguese José, visited town last year, he too remarked on the difference between the original Uno/Due pie and that inferior chain version served up elsewhere.

But the food wasn’t all that was revelatory. This familiar icon of my former New York life lay smack in the type of dense downtown neighborhood I missed from back home, serving up a product that was a good lesson about the great things to be had here in my newly adopted city.

I was also well aware from that first visit, Due stood halfway between the life I left behind and the life I craved to carve out ahead of me.  It was a sanctuary of sorts, where I could feel at home however I chose to define the term–in a historical sense, or in the here and now. Best of all, I now had a reason to get off the ‘L’ on my lonely trips downtown and stick around in the neighborhood for awhile. And whenever I could scrounge enough money together, for the next two years that’s just what I did.

As bad as things had gotten, I didn’t think it would ever be possible for me to live in downtown Chicago, but a return to the yuppiedom of office life in 2005 made it happen. I’ll never forget the morning I moved. As soon as everything was squared away, there was little question what my first order of business was going to be.

I walked the four blocks over to Due and celebrated finally becoming a part of the glorious neighborhood I had coveted for so long. Funny thing, somewhere along the way during all my visits to the historic pizzeria, I stopped missing New York City and I started becoming very enamored of the heart of this one. At my favorite tiny table in a dingy corner of Due, little by little, I became a Chicagoan.

Today, I’m more engaged in my local community and involved in the life my adopted hometown than I ever was in my native one. But that card-carrying Chicagoan perspective was nurtured right there at the corner of Ontario and Wabash.

So why, lately, do I find myself gravitating toward Lou Malnati’s? The nearest location–four blocks away on Wells Street in the shadow of both the Merchandise Mart and the Ravenswood ‘L’–couldn’t scream “Chitown” any louder if it tried. Yet it took me four years as a neighborhood local before I clued into how close the place sat from my Marina City high-rise home.

It’s not like I prefer the pie at Lou Malnati’s over Due. Sure, Malnati’s is always a consistent offering while the pizza at Due can occasionally be a crapshoot between top drawer and sock drawer. But when it’s good, the soupy sauced excellence of a Due pie kicks a dry, fusty, under-buttery “buttercrust” Malnati’s pizza to the curb.

(It also still puts to shame its chain counterparts.  About a year I dropped into an Uno’s Grill–a new name whose relevance to pizza I just don’t get–during a business trip to Boston. I made the mistake of telling my server I was from Chicago. When he brought the check, I answered his inevitable question with a lie, “Yes, the pizza was wonderful.”)

Yet Malnati’s is equally close, sparse of all those guidebook tourists that always invade Uno and Due around dinner time, and charges about a third less for its deep-dish than my beloved Due. And, of course, it also claims to be the inventor of the type. But the guilt. Oh, the guilt.

This week I resorted to asking my followers on Twitter who they thought has better deep dish, Malnati’s or Uno/Due. (Sorry, Gino’s East fans, but it was only an either/or question). As much as it pains me to say, I secretly hoped a majority would say Malnati’s. At least then I could console myself in the fact that I was running with the hip crowd, thus relieving some of the emotional burden of betraying my old favorite. But much as I love my Twitter buds, they were of little help. Deep-dish loyalties are apparently pretty evenly distributed in this town; my followers refused to come down decisively on either side of the pizza pan.

In the end, neither will I. Anyone familiar with my waistline can tell you there’s room enough in my heart (among other places) for more than one steady pizza joint.  So Malnati’s can continue to be my standby pie for when I want to retreat away from the craziness of my Chicago life into the promise of a wallet-friendly, tourist-light, stress-free dinner. (The Benyamin Bissell incident notwithstanding).

But Pizzeria Due will always be where I head to celebrate my Chicago life–and the fact that I came, stayed, made it through, and fell madly in love with this city in the process. We’ve been through a lot together these past few years, Due and me. The deepest dish at Lou Malnati’s can never hope to equal the depth of my affection for the pizza joint that helped this ex-New Yorker navigate his way to becoming a Chicagoan. How do you repay a debt like that?

Thanks, Due. I owe you one.

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