I'm no stranger to Chicago's pizza scene.
In fact, if you've been a reader here long enough, you might remember that on my first trip to Chicago back in 2011 I made it my mission to try to determine which of Chicago's most popular pizza joints made the best deep dish, resulting in my Chicago Pizza Smackdown.
But, contrary to popular belief, Chicago isn't ALL about deep dish pizza.
Chicago Pizza Tour
When I heard about before my most recent trip to the Windy City, I definitely was intrigued. This tour company promises to delight your tastebuds while at the same time introducing you to the variety of styles of Chicago pizza. The focus is on local, family-run operations, too, instead of the big names and chains that most people think of when they think of Chicago pizza — right up my alley.
The tour has you riding a bus around several different Chicago neighborhoods (making it perfect for wet or cold days), with visits to 4 different pizza joints out of a list of 10.
The places you might visit on this tour include: Pizano's Pizza & Pasta, Flo & Santo's, Pequod's, Coalfire, Piece Pizza, Lou Malnati's, Macello, Bacino's, Spacca Napoli, and Exchequer.
My pizza tour looked like this:
Pizano's Pizza & Pasta
The tour kicked off in Chicago's Loop neighborhood at Pizano's Pizza and Pasta. Here we met our tour guide Jonathan and got a brief introduction to Chicago-style pizza. Deep dish was “invented” by Rudy Malnati Sr. in the 1940s at a pizzeria that would eventually become Pizzeria Uno. This new style of pizza — with thick crust and overflowing cheese — swiftly became a Chicago symbol.
Pizano's is owned and operated by none other than Rudy Malnati Jr., and the pizza genes definitely seem to run in the family. Here, only 3 people know the recipe for the dough used in Pizano's pizzas — one of them being Donna Maria Malnati, mother of Rudy Jr. and widow of Rudy Sr. — and they literally have padlocks on their dumpsters so nobody can steal their secrets, even from the garbage.
Here we had 4 different options to choose from — deep dish with sausage, a “Mark's Special” (a deep dish named for the kitchen manager's son) with garlic and tomatoes and spices, thin crust cheese (Oprah's favorite!), and thin crust with black olives. The pizza here comes sans sauce (the “sauce” is nothing more than crushed plum tomatoes) and is cooked in pans that are never fully scrubbed clean so that the flavor comes from bottom to top.
Next up, we headed to Chicago's only pizzeria with a coal-fired oven. Inventively named “Coalfire,” this place is a newcomer on the block, only having been open for roughly 5 years. Coalfire serves up “an American spin on the traditional Neapolitan style pizza.” Instead of a wood-burning oven, Coalfire uses coal; instead of fresh ingredients from Italy, Coalfire sources everything from America.
Before we got our gorgeous margherita pizza delivered to our table, Jonathan took us back into Coalfire's kitchen to give us a closer look at its oven. Burning at more than 800 degrees, this oven cooks Coalfire's light and thin pizzas in roughly 2 minutes, giving them a nice char on the bottom.
The next stop on our tour was Pequod's, a pizza spot with a sports bar feel and a nod to literature (the Pequod was the name of Captain Ahab's ship in Moby Dick). Here we had some traditional Chicago deep dish, with a choice between either spinach or sausage.
I went for the gooey, messy Italian sausage to try out the meat, which Pequod's (like many of Chicago's pizza places) sources from the famous Anichini Brothers. The crust here was thick, with Pequod's signature caramelized cheese on the outside.
Flo & Santo's
The last stop on our gluttonous tour of Chicago was Flo & Santo's, a really unique family-run restaurant in Chicago's South Loop. The pizza here is served up “tavern style” — thin and crispy. But there's a twist, too. Flo & Santo's mixes traditional Italian pizzas with a Polish flair. So, yes, you can get both pizza and pierogis here — or even a Polish-style pizza!
We tried out 3 different varieties of pizza here — Marco's Italian Beef (shaved beef, giardiniera, caramelized onion, fire roasted tomato), Na'Ma's Veggie (spinach, tomatoes, onions, green peppers, black olives, mushrooms), and Flo's Polish (Polish Kielbasa, sauerkraut, applewood smoked bacon). These were certainly the most inventive pizzas we had all day.
So which pizza was my favorite?
It's a tough decision since there was so much variety on this tour. But, in the end, I think the Mark's Special at Pizano's takes the cake (or the pizza pan?). It was a deep dish pizza that wasn't overwhelming, and the mix of veggies and spices was absolutely perfect.
Book a pizza tour in Chicago
Want to go on a Chicago Pizza Tour yourself? I highly recommend doing so. Here's what you need to know:
Price: $60 per person (this includes transport, a tour guide, and pizza at each pizzeria you visit; so come hungry!)
Duration: 3-3.5 hours
Time: Tours are usually daily at 11 a.m., but on some days multiple tours are offered.
Pizza: The 4 locations I visited on my tour are only a fraction of the possibilities. Chicago Pizza Tours has 10 places on their list, and the tour can be different from day to day.
How the tour works: You are driven to each pizzeria in a small bus. Your guide will not only give you background on each pizza place, but also on the city of Chicago itself. Each pizzeria is alerted ahead of time that the group is coming, so your pizza is usually ready when you arrive. If you're a vegetarian, have no fear — the guide will make sure to have veggie pizza on hand for you!
So, would I recommend this tour? Yes. Absolutely yes. If you like pizza and want to learn more about its history in Chicago, then this is a perfect tour for you to take.
Have you ever taken a themed food tour like this on your travels?
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*Note: I did receive a complimentary tour from Chicago Pizza Tours. As always, though, opinions (and choice of pizza toppings) are entirely my own.