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A Chicago tavern-style pizza with a few pieces missing.
Pat’s Pizza serves tavern-style pizza, a Chicago classic.
Garrett Sweet/Eater Chicago

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Chicago’s Tavern-Style Pizza Reigns Supreme

Born out of the city’s bars, this thin-crust pizza is a way of life

Ashok Selvam is the editor of Eater Chicago and a native Chicagoan armed with more than two decades of award-winning journalism. Now covering the world of restaurants and food, his nut graphs are super nutty.

Chicagoans love their bars almost as much as they love their pizza. And luckily, the city boasts a variety of destinations to suit different drinking or dining moods. Some days may call for a kettle sour from a local brewery, or a canned beer and a shot from a dive. It’s the same philosophy for pizza, as the city continues to battle the nationally spread misnomer that deep-dish pizza is the only pie in town. The truth is tavern-style pizza, the city’s thin and square-cut pizza, is consumed more regularly by locals compared to deep dish which is a delicious dish aimed at tourists.

Designed as a simple bite-sized snack to sate bar customers — basically, a way to keep patrons at the bar — tavern-style pizza features toppings from edge to edge. Most crusts are crispy (with a few exceptions), and some refer to the style as “party cut,” an option for children’s birthdays. A slice won’t sag after it’s picked up. This allows the pizza to be easily enjoyed in one hand, freeing up the other for a beer or even to hold a young child.

Pizza cut into squares.
Known for its thin crust that’s cut into squares and triangle, tavern-style pizza is beloved by Chicagoans, even if deep dish is more famous across the country.
Garrett Sweet/Eater Chicago

Now that other places like LA have discovered the style, perhaps Chicagoans can hope outsiders understand that the city has more to offer than deep dish. It’s more likely that those cliched elite coastal types will just engage in further misguided Chicago pizza slander. If out-of-town critics did target Chicago’s thin crusts, don’t expect a press release. Tavern style’s origins are traced to the quieter South Side, even though plenty of pizza makers settled on the city’s Northwest Side. Thin crust is the perfect vehicle to enjoy one of the custom sausage blends that top pizzerias are known for, one with a touch of heat and heavy fennel or sage flavors.

A metal rack of pizza dough balls.
It’s a six-day process to make the dough made of flour, sugar, salt, water, yeast, and shortening. Putting the dough in the fridge kills bacteria and prevents the balls from rising. That results in thinner dough.
A pizza crust on a rack with butcher’s paper.
The dough is rolled out and put under butcher’s paper which absorbs the moisture. That leads to crispier results.

An easy road to an argument would be to ask Chicagoans about their favorite pizzeria for tavern or deep dish. Pat’s Pizza in Lakeview remains a fixture on most lists. Now settled in Lakeview, south of Lincoln and Diversey, Gina Pianetto continues a story started by her grandfather and carried on by her parents. Pianetto’s late father, Nick Jr., tweaked the recipes that founder Nick Sr. created when he opened the pizzeria in 1950 near Sheffield and Belmont. The dough, sauce, and sausage blend (they go through about 150 pounds of pork a week) are guarded. Pianetto says she hasn’t done anything to change them: “My dad would kick my ass if I did,” she says.

Pat’s remains connected to bars as customers at Rose’s Lounge, located across the street, continue to order from the pizzeria. Rose’s keeps a Pat’s menu at the bar counter, which satisfies the city’s since-rescinded pandemic requirement that required bars to offer food or to offer access to carryout and delivery to serve customers indoors.

The return of sports is also having an impact on sales, particularly football’s comeback. Many Chicago Bears fans enjoy picking up pizzas after the game on their way home from a friend’s house or sports bar where they watched the game. Business usually increases after Bears losses as fans need to eat their feelings, Pianetto says. Business, in recent years, has been good, which is wonderful for Pat’s and not so good for the Monsters of the Midway.

An arm holding a metal ladle to apply red sauce to a pizza crust.
The sauce is make from tomatoes from Stanislaus, a California company known for emulating Italian products.
Topping pizza with ground pork sausage.
The sausage is made at the restaurant and they go through 150 pounds of pork per week. That surges to 200 pounds per week in the winter.
Garrett Sweet/Eater Chicago
Topping pizza with cheese and green peppers.
There’s nothing fancy with the cheese: It’s low-moisture mozzarella.

Pat’s has a 70-year history and Pianetto says she feel fortunate to remain operating, especially during the pandemic; they haven’t had to layoff any workers. She’s grateful to her employees, saying that a restaurant needs to have trust in its stuff to succeed.

Pianetto has no plans to open another pizzeria in Chicago, but she’s hopeful that they can add another oven to the kitchen to keep up with demand. Last year, she ran a pop-up at Revival Food Hall, part of ABC Chicago’s Hungry Hound Steve Dolinsky’s Pizza City USA. There is a second Pat’s location, run by her brother in the South Loop. They’re not directly connected, though they’ll try to help each other when possible. Pianetto’s brother and mother live now live in Florida. They plan to open a thin-crust pizzeria in the Clearwater, Florida area.

Rivalries bore her — whether it’s North versus South sides or deep dish versus tavern-style. Pianetto says she wants to visit more pizza parlors. She’s yet to try Vito & Nick’s Pizzeria, a South Side institution that just celebrated 100 years.

“Chicago is just a pizza town, there’s so many styles to order from,” Pianetto says. “I don’t know. I grew up on Domino’s living out in Des Plaines.” She immediately paused as she thought about the pizza passions the run through the city. “Maybe I shouldn’t have said that,” she says with a laugh.

A masked person puts a pizza into an oven.
Pat’s has one oven, but that could change in November as the pizzeria keeps up with demand.
Chicago-style pizza with thin crust.
Golden and crispy: this is tavern-style pizza.
Garrett Sweet/Eater Chicago
A person cutting a pizza.
The segments are meant to be easy to snack on.
Garrett Sweet/Eater Chicago


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