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The history of pizza

The glorious pie has come a long way to get to its deep-dish home in Chicago.

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889 The word pizza, a variant of the Greek bread then called pitta, is recorded in Southern Italy. It’s the first written record of the dish.

RECOMMENDED: Find more of the best pizza in Chicago

Late 1800s Millions of Southern Italian immigrants pass through Ellis Island, bringing pizza to the U.S.

1889 A Neapolitan pizzaiolo serves Italy’s Queen Margherita a pizza in the colors of the Italian flag. She likes it. Hence, the Margherita: tomato, mozzarella, basil.

1905 Lombardi’s opens the first American pizzeria in a New York grocery store.

1925 Frank Pepe’s is founded in New Haven, Connecticut, the only American city that
challenges New York for true thin-crust supremacy with its coal-fired, clam-topped pies.

1943 Pizzeria Uno opens in Chicago, selling something unique: a layered casserole the restaurant calls “deep-dish pizza.” Which genius mind gets credit for this invention? Well, it’s complicated (see “Deep thoughts,” this page).

1949 On the Far South Side, a place called Vito and Nick’s begins serving pizza. Its crisp cracker crust will become a Chicago classic.

1953 Dean Martin has a hit with “When the moon hits your eye/Like a big-a pizza pie/That’s amore.”

1958 Pizza Hut is founded in Wichita, Kansas, followed elsewhere by Little Caesars (1959) and Domino’s (1960)

1971 Lou Malnati, who had managed Pizzeria Uno with his father, Rudy Malnati, leaves to open the first of his namesake pizzerias in Lincolnwood.

1975 Italian immigrant Rocco Palese unveils his stuffed pizza, which saw the deep-dish pizza and raised it: Palese put a layer of dough on top of his thick-crusted creation. (It’s inspired by the scarciedda, an Italian Easter pie.) It’s sold at the first Nancy’s—named after Palese’s wife—in Harwood Heights.

1980 In Berkeley, California, chefs at Alice Waters’s restaurant Chez Panisse start topping pizza with non-Italian ingredients like goat cheese. A year later at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in Beverly Hills, pizzas are available topped with scallops and pâté.

1984 The Verace Pizza Napoletana Association is founded in Naples to preserve the glory of true Neapolitan pizza. Some of the rules: The pizza must be cooked in an 800-degree wood-burning oven and must be made from the special Italian “00” grade flour.

1989 Patrick Dempsey, later to be McDreamy, stars in Loverboy as a pizza delivery guy who offers his lady clients a little extra pepperoni, if you catch our drift.

1991 Another son of Rudy Malnati, Rudy Malnati Jr., opens Pizano’s in the Gold Coast. In 2006, Oprah anoints it as one of her favorites.

1999 Roots rockers Drive-By Truckers release the album Pizza Deliverance.

2001 MTV’s Real World: Chicago cast gets jobs at Piece, Wicker Park’s New Haven–style pizzeria.

2006 On Valentine’s Day, Spacca Napoli opens in Chicago with an artisan-built, 13,000-pound oven. A wood-burning-pizza renaissance follows with the opening of Sapore di Napoli, Gruppo di Amici, Crust, Coal Fire, La Madia and others.

2007 Local homebrewer Tom Seefurth invents pizza beer—served this summer at Walter Payton’s Roundhouse in Aurora—and plans to regionally distribute the tomato-, garlic-, basil- and oregano-flavored brew by the end of the year. Will it be Chicago’s next great pizza invention?

Deep thoughts

Let’s start with what we know: Deep-dish pizza was invented at Chicago’s Pizzeria Uno on Ohio Street in the early 1940s.

After that, things get a bit hazy. Because deep-dish pizza is “the first true American pizza,” as the history magazine American Heritage has described it, there is, not surprisingly, a dispute over whose big brains were behind the idea. The key players are the owners Ike Sewell, a gregarious former football star, and Ric Riccardo, a Chicago restaurateur. Sewell, a Chicago transplant from Texas, wanted to open a Mexican restaurant; Riccardo agreed—until he had his first taste of Mexican food. After a trip to Italy, Riccardo convinced Sewell to open a pizzeria instead, though initially Sewell feared pizza wasn’t substantial enough for Chicagoans.

This is when the story enters the dark mists of Chicago legend. Before Pizzeria Uno opened, either Sewell or Riccardo—or possibly Rudy Malnati, the pizzeria’s manager, who’s named as the inventor in an account in the Chicago Daily News—came up with the deep-dish concept. But no one knows who. Riccardo died a decade after Uno’s opened and Sewell later took all the credit; Riccardo’s ex-wife has called Sewell a crook who stole the idea, according to an account of the dispute in the book Everybody Loves Pizza (Emmis Books, $19.95). We feel safe concluding two things: Deep dish was invented in Chicago by someone. And, man, we really should’ve ordered a smaller size.

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