The Salt
1:35 am
Fri December 20, 2013

Deep Dish Or Thin Crust? Even Chicagoans Can't Agree

Originally published on Fri December 20, 2013 9:13 am

The Daily Show's Jon Stewart recently ranted against Chicago-style deep-dish pizza.

"Let me explain something. Deep-dish pizza is not only not better than New York pizza — it's not pizza," said Stewart, calling it "tomato soup in a bread bowl. ... I don't know whether to eat it, or throw a coin in it and make a wish."

Some upset Chicagoans made their own wishes — which can't be repeated here.

It's as if the whole city rose up to defend its pizza. But it may not really be Chicago's pizza after all.

Pizano's in the Loop is a pizzeria in the heart of Chicago, and it sells both deep dish and thin crust. During a recent lunch hour, most of the locals were eating ... thin crust.

Allie Mack of GrubHub, the online food ordering company based in Chicago, isn't surprised. She says food ordering data from GrubHub indicate that Chicago residents prefer thin crust.

"Nearly 9 percent of orders are deep-dish or stuffed pizza. So anything that's not a deep-dish pizza is 10 times more popular in the city of Chicago," says Mack. "Think about it: If you were to order pizza every day for 10 days, how could you possibly eat deep-dish pizza more than once? Good luck."

But Darren Tristano, a food industry researcher at Chicago-based Technomics, questions the data, noting that GrubHub's users tend to be younger with less money to spend. And yes, deep dish is more expensive.

And there's this: Not even half of the pizzerias for which GrubHub has data in Chicago offer deep dish on the menu.

GrubHub also doesn't include local deep-dish chains like Giordano's and Lou Malnati's. Those two chains have a combined 20 restaurants in Chicago — and sell three times as much deep dish as thin crust.

But a look at the city's history raises some questions about Chicago's true pizza legacy.

Jon Porter, who runs Chicago Pizza Tours, says Chicago's tavern-style thin-crust pizza was invented long before deep dish.

Porter says tavern-style pizza, the type cut into squares, was developed on the South Side of Chicago to keep working men in taverns. Free pizzas would go out on the bar, and the workmen would snack on it and stay there for an extra hour or two. It made all the difference in how much beer they drank.

"And that's one of the styles that we grew up with. I didn't even really have deep dish until I was almost in high school," Porter says. "So I truly do feel that the thin-crust tavern-style is the true Chicago style."

Marc Malnati, the fourth-generation owner of deep-dish chain Lou Malnati's, doesn't agree. He brokered an on-air truce with Stewart over one of his deep-dish pizzas.

"I think that the deep-dish pizza has been and always will be Chicago's pizza," Malnati says.

Copyright 2013 Chicago Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wbez.org.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And now the latest salvo from the pizza wars.

You might remember "Daily Show" host Jon Stewart's recent rant against Chicago-style deep dish pizza.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

JON STEWART: I don't know whether to eat it, or throw a coin in it and make a wish.

GREENE: Ouch. Ouch. Chicagoans were not happy. It is as if the whole city rose up to defend their pizza.

But as Derek John of member station WBEZ reports, it now appears Chicago's love of deep dish isn't all that deep.

DEREK JOHN, BYLINE: Allie Mack still remembers the day after Jon Stewart's pizza smackdown. She works for GrubHub, the online food ordering company based in Chicago.

ALLIE MACK: Actually, Mike Evans, GrubHub's co-founder, sent around an email to the data scientists and was, like, guys, did you see this? Let's see what's going on with deep dish pizza in Chicago.

JOHN: Yes, data scientists. GrubHub employs a team of them to analyze reams of real-time, food-ordering data. When they crunched the numbers for the past year, what they found came as a shock.

MACK: Nearly 9 percent of orders are deep dish or stuffed pizza. So anything that's not a deep dish pizza is 10 times more popular in the city of Chicago.

JOHN: Wait a minute, thin crust is more popular than deep dish? In Chicago?

Of course, GrubHub doesn't have data for all pizzerias, but you wonder: Is the city of big shoulders still the city of big pizza?

DARREN TRISTANO: Here in Chicago, we believe crust is merely a vessel to bring more cheese and toppings traveling from our hand to our mouth.

JOHN: Darren Tristano is a food industry researcher at Chicago-based Technomics. He says before we jump to conclusions, there's a few things to consider.

TRISTANO: Well, I think when you're looking at GrubHub, generally, technology-enhanced customer facing ordering devices skew towards younger millennial consumers, who also happen to be, in some cases, lower income.

JOHN: So GrubHub's users tend to be younger, with less money to spend. But other food industry researchers know that of the roughly 600 pizzerias in town, fewer than half even offer deep dish on the menu.

Then again, local pizza chains like Giordano's and Lou Malnati's do. GrubHub doesn't include them in its data. But they sell three times more deep dish than thin crust.

So this pizza puzzle is far from solved. There might be a clue at Pizano's Pizza and Pasta in the Loop, one of the pizzerias in GrubHub's data set. It sells both deep dish and thin crust.

Waiter Terry Morrison has a clear favorite.

TERRY MORRISON: I grew up in Chicago, so I don't ever really jones for, like, deep dish pizza, I'd rather just have a thin crust.

JOHN: Maybe thin crust is more popular for the people who actually live here.

JON PORTER: I mean, I truly do feel that the thin crust tavern style is the true Chicago style.

JOHN: Jon Porter runs Chicago Pizza Tours, and Pizano's is one of his regular stops. Porter says long before deep dish, Chicago invented the tavern-style thin crust pizza, the one cut into squares.

PORTER: It was developed on the South Side of Chicago to keep the working man at the taverns. And just, you know, free pizzas would go out on the bar, and they'd just snack on them and they'd stay there an extra hour or two. It made all the difference in how much beer they drank.

JOHN: So, maybe we're just witnessing a Chicago thin crust comeback?

Not so fast, says Marc Malnati.

MARC MALNATI: I think that the deep dish pizza has been and always will be Chicago's pizza.

JOHN: Malnati is the 4th generation owner of Lou Malnati's, and the guy who delivered a deep dish pizza to Jon Stewart a few days after the infamous rant.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

STEWART: It's very, very tasty, and I apologize, you know? Truce.

MALNATI: All right.

STEWART: A truce: Chicago and New York.

JOHN: At his suburban headquarters this week, Malnati joined workers in packing up boxes and boxes of frozen pizzas.

That is a lot of pizza, sir.

MALNATI: It's a lot of pizzas, probably about 1,700 per truckload.

JOHN: More than 10,000 pizzas that day alone, arriving just before Christmas.

MALNATI: This will be our biggest shipping day of all time.

JOHN: But guess what? All those deep-dish pizzas are headed out of town.

For NPR News, I'm Derek John, in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.