I’m an occasional Quora community member, and I sometimes find myself drawn to debates of the comparative worth of New York and Chicago. Usually debates like that are dead ends. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 15 years as an ex-patriate native New Yorker living in Chicago, it’s that unless a New Yorker has ever been to Chicago or a Chicagoan has ever been to New York, they will never be able to truly understand the other city. New Yorkers always expect Chicago to be a little New York. Chicagoans always expect New York to be a big Chicago. And they both end up disoriented on their first visit to each other’s town when their assumptions don’t match the reality at all.
Except when it comes to Chicago Pizza. New Yorkers never really get to experience the reality of Chicago pizza. In fact, they really don’t get Chicago pizza at all. They think they do, but they’re always wrong. I’ve always wondered why. This recent, Quora thread asking (yet again) which city has the “best” pizza finally pushed me to try and figure it out, after wading through the usual slew of expected over-confident answers from un-initiated fellow New Yorkers.
After a decade and a half living in the Windy City, there is no doubt in my mind that Chicago pizza is better. It is far more diverse than New York pizza, and our pizza culture here is far more formal, as well. Casual visitors from New York never understand either of those things because, as with all things my fellow New Yorkers tend to engage in, they look at Chicago with NYC eyes and NYC assumptions, as if the whole world works like New York does. (Before I moved to Chicago, I was like that, too.)
Specifically, New Yorkers assume since Chicago doesn’t have an informal, by-the-slice pizza culture with storefront pizzerias on every corner, that it doesn’t have a pizza culture beyond deep dish–the only local pizza style to become famous beyond the Midwest–even though in reality people here don’t eat very much of it.
In my NYC hometown, pizza is overwhelmingly two things: thin, floppy, Neapolitan pies, cut in pie-like triangular slices; and thick, bready Sicilian pies cut in squares. You order both by the slice with various toppings from ubiquitous, corner-dive pizzerias where you can just drop in and order/eat quickly like it’s fast food. You can also order whole pies to go or for delivery, but that’s less common unless it’s for a work function or a family dinner.
Back home, those little storefront pizzerias are also everywhere and independent. They aren’t chains, they serve pretty much exactly the same pizza and everything else, and there’s no competition to be the best/most unique/most different pizza because they really don’t need to compete–there will always be too many New Yorkers are not enough pizzerias to go around.
There is a third, minor type of pizza back home, as well: crunchy, thin-crust pies that you order at the fewer sit down-style pizzeria restaurants that NYC has. (You can also order the more-traditional, floppy pies there as well.) When you hear about the battles for best New York pizza, it’s always among a small number of these pizzerias. Those battles are baloney, too, since most people only eat at these restaurant-style pizzerias for work lunches or weekend nights out–otherwise the overwhelming amount of pizza New Yorkers eat comes from a neighborhood, storefront pizzeria.
And other than national chains which exist in both places and which both New Yorkers and Chicagoans usually disdain–and which also don’t really count since they’re not native pizza styles (Domino’s, Papa John’s, Pizza Hut, etc.), that’s that.
Meanwhile, Chicago has several native pizza styles, some of which are nearly identical to New York pizza. Most Chicagoans eat thin, floppy pizzas very similar to the pizzas most New Yorkers eat, but in Chicago the slices are “party cut” into small squares very much like NYC Sicilian pizza squares, unless you specifically ask for “pie cut.” We also eat crispy thin-crust pizzas very similar to what you’d find in NYC, and this style is served far more widely here, as well.
Deep dish is popular but in reality is usually only is a special-occasion pizza here–definitely not an everyday thing. That said, there is a surprisingly large diversity among deep-dish pizzas (including a famous local “butter crust”), and it is among these pizzerias where Chicago’s battles for “best pizza” take place. It’s also worth noting that deep dish from a chain outpost far from the Midwest (coughUNOcough) tastes nothing like true, fresh deep dish found in Chicagoland, itself.
Other common local pizzas here include pan pizza (like a thinner deep dish), stuffed pizza (exactly what it sounds like), and a sort of upside-down casserole pizza served at a single, old, very popular special-occasion pizzeria with a longtime host with an alarmingly photographic memory.
But unlike back home in NYC, most of that pizza is served and eaten at–or ordered for delivery from–formal, restaurant-style, sit-down pizzerias, which are far more common in Chicago and are the norm for pizzerias here. And most of those are not independent, but are part of a few extraordinarily popular chains that are almost universally local (Chicago and Chicagoland only) and even hyper-local (especially South Side-only or South Suburbs-only) chains, some of which may only be two or three stores in size. Chicago does have storefront pizzerias, but they are much fewer and farther between, and in quality are generally akin to the sketchy low-end of New York storefront pizza. (As in, I wouldn’t eat in them back home in New York unless I was desperate, and I wouldn’t eat in them here in Chicago, either.)
Because the overwhelming majority of every type of pizza that you buy and eat in Chicago is made to order at sit-down restaurants, it is also almost always fresher than the majority of pizza eaten in New York, which is usually cold slices selected from premade pizzas sitting in a display case and tossed in an oven to be re-warmed. And that counts for A LOT. How much? So much that when I go home to visit family in NYC, I really don’t like eating hometown pizza anymore because it’s so hit and miss, and almost never fresh.
The bottom line is that pizza in Chicago is much more diverse than NYC pizza, but because it’s served and eaten in more formal ways here than in NYC, casual visitors from New York comparing pizza in the two cities often miss that fact.
It’s very easy for a visitor to learn about local pizza culture in a city like my NYC hometown where pizza is usually a casual thing found everywhere, in nearly the same forms, as a grab-and-go food option. But it’s much harder for a causal visitor to learn about pizza culture in a city like my adopted Chicago home where pizza is almost always a formal thing found in different styles at different restaurants that you have to specifically seek out and deliberately plan to visit.
And THAT, my friends, is why my fellow native New Yorkers, who always eat the same pizza everyday, everywhere, erroneously think that deep dish pizza is somehow the definition of Chicago pizza–and miss out on so, so much other Chicago pizza goodness.
On the other hand, if that Quora thread had asked which city makes the best meatball- or eggplant-parm hero, Chicago wouldn’t have stood a chance.