Tony Vallone's Regional Italian Cuisine Dinner Series

Sicilian homestyle cooking at Ciao Bello.

Deciding where to get deep-dish on this most recent trip (and, yes, there would, for better or worse, be only one place because there are far too many other foodstuffs I needed to sample) was at first a daunting task. My blurred memories of my own experiences weren't particularly helpful, and interweb opinions regarding the "best" or "most authentic" deep-dish pizza in Chicago were strongly divided. In the end, I was swayed by you, dear readers, particularly by your comments on Eating...Our Words detailing a love for Lou Malnati's so strong it compelled you to order their pizzas flown frozen to your homes here in Houston.

Also, two of their locations were extremely close to my sister's apartment! #mylaziness­knowsnobounds.

I am happy to report that in this case, proximity also happened to correlate with high quality. After my visit, and after learning a bit more about the restaurant's history, I know I made a good choice.

The mystery of the pretzel bacon cheeseburger: dry beef, but greasy at the same time.
Christina Uticone
The mystery of the pretzel bacon cheeseburger: dry beef, but greasy at the same time.

Deep-dish pizza at Lou Malnati's, or any of the more popular pizza joints in Chicago, can easily (and pleasurably) be a three-hour affair. Malnati's does not take reservations, and wait times even on weekdays average 45 minutes to an hour (more during major events, like the city's recent celebrations for the Blackhawks' victory). Deep-dish pizza requires around 35 minutes of oven time, and since every pie is made to order, that period starts only after you make your pizza selections. (Malnati's does fortunately offer a system whereby you can place your order while standing in line to expedite your dining ­experience.)

Once you're seated, it's tempting and certainly reasonable to focus immediately on the main event (pizza), but if you have some time to spare (as we did), I heartily suggest first prepping with drinks and light appetizers of the botanical variety so as to properly hydrate yourself for the ensuing cheese-meat-butter bomb that is Chicago-style deep-dish. We began with a round of beer, pinot grigio, cherry Cokes (note: regular Coke infused with real cherry syrup) plus two monstrous salads. The simple house salad was fresh and crisp but nothing to write home about; the Malnati Salad, however, almost distracted me from the pizza. The small mountain of romaine lettuce, crumbled blue cheese, olives and diced tomatoes dressed with a sweet, peppery vinaigrette was the perfect symphony of summer textures and farmhouse flavors. A salad, as they say, that eats like a meal.

Good thing, however, it's nearly humanly impossible to stuff yourself on vegetables. Even after consuming two plates full of salad, I was still hungry, perhaps even more so, for some deep-dish. In the spirit of moderate portions and maximum variety, we ordered an individual cheese, an indi­vidual sausage and a small "Lou's" (spinach, mushrooms and three types of cheese). Three different pies but with one very important thing in common: a butter crust. This, my friends, is what makes or breaks true Chicago-style deep-dish.

In our sideshow of Malnati's pizza, you'll observe that the depth of their pizzas is less than you might expect. You might even protest, "That pizza looks a lot like what they serve at [insert Houston pizza establishment here]." But a picture is worth a thousand words, or rather it sometimes requires at least a hundred words to describe its subject accurately. It's true that there is deeper-dish pizza in Chicago than that offered at Lou Malnati's, pizzas, as I once stated on Eating...Our Words, into which you can easily bury your whole thumb. That particular trait, however, does not define deep-dish and is therefore also why even if, for example, Star Pizza doubled the thickness of its thickest pizza crust, it would still not produce an authentic Chicago-style pie.

Along with dense layers of cheese, toppings and chopped tomatoes (usually in that order), a butter crust is the key to true Windy City deep-dish. And I don't just mean that the pan is greased with butter instead of oil in order to render that delicious brown savory sheen on the bottom and sides of the pizza. Rather, the crust itself is made with butter, a lot of butter, small bits of which work their way into every nook and cranny of the dough in such a way that what emerges resembles a flaky pastry more than a crumbly bread. A bite of the crust is like a bite of a dense croissant, and when this taste experience merges with the garden sweetness of the tomatoes and the salty cream of the cheese, you have a pizza that demonstrates that Italian-Americans, as well as the Japanese, also have a handle on that elusive concept known as umami.

And such a fresh, fragrant mixture of protein, dairy and vegetables means that even after three slices, I was satiated but not ghastly full. At Lou Malnati's, I had no intention of leaving room for dessert, which I envisioned would be my penultimate large piece of pizza (the final small piece my digestif). My revelation as the empty pans were cleared away that I could eat more not only later justified my consumption of half a "cookie pizza" (a warm pan-baked chocolate chip cookie overwhelmed with large scoops of vanilla ice cream) but also, and more important, made me leave the restaurant joyful yet still a bit mournful.

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