This week, the national media has shined its attention on Chicago-style pizza. And when that happens, it’s time for us to hold our collective breaths.
On Friday in New York, the owners of Milly’s Pizza In The Pan will represent Chicago in Good Morning America’s United States of Pizza, a competition that will pit Milly’s against pizzerias from Atlanta, Minneapolis, New York, and Philadelphia. The live segment airs Friday, February 17 on ABC. Milly’s is closed through the end of the week as Robert Maleski prepares for battle. Friday’s winner gets $10,000.
To reach New York, Milly’s defeated George’s Deep Dish in an early morning competition on Valentine’s Day at Time Out Market Chicago in Fulton Market. A trio of judges sent Milly’s to the next round. The tribunal consisted of Chicago chef Rick Bayless (he voted for Milly’s), Legendary drummer Sheila E., (she voted for George’s), and Deepti Vempati. She appeared on season 2 of reality TV show Love is Blind (she voted for Milly’s).
Bayless, who is known for his Mexican restaurants, immediately shared his judging criteria. Beyond “No. 1: delicious,” Bayless wanted a crispy crust and a proper crust-to-topping ratio.
There wasn’t any application process to compete, says George Bumbaris, proprietors of George’s Deep Dish in Edgewater. Bumbaris say show producers reached out to him for suggestions on which pizzerias should appear on the segment. Bumbaris says he suggested popular deep-dish options like Pequod’s, Milly’s, Burt’s Pizza, and Uncle Jerry’s Pizza Company in Cary. They also asked for recommendations for judges: “Everything was scripted,” Bumbaris says.
It was a bit of adjustment cooking at Time Out’s kitchen where there’s a normal oven — not one with decks like he has at his restaurant. Each of George’s pizzas is named after a famous George. GMA told him to make the Halas, named after the founder of the Chicago Bears. But Bumbaris had a secret weapon that he was never able to use: The Stephanopoulos, named after the ABC newsman-turned-morning correspondent. The pizza, made with banana peppers, feta, Kalamata olives, grape tomatoes, and baby spinach, is a play on a Greek salad.
Milly’s and George’s both take a nouveau approach to deep-dish pizza, with a pasty chef’s obsession to how their distinct crusts develop. But deep dish isn’t the only game in town — should Good Morning America have had a tavern-style rep in their competition? Bumbaris says you can’t expect producers to be knowledgeable.
“Take another city, I don’t know, Denver: Do we really know what makes a Denver pizza?” he says. “I don’t know. Everyone is still going to think deep dish is that piece of Giordano’s that Jon Stewart threw up on TV, that it’s a casserole with sauce on top.”
Bumbaris refers to the infamous segment on The Daily Show from 2013 when then-host Stewart got a little frisky in his deep-dish disdain. It’s part of the manufactured disgust that Chicago most recently saw with Emily in Paris. However, some locals are buying into the hate and there’s now plenty of internal disdain directed at deep dish from folks who think it’s only for tourists.
While ABC celebrates Chicago for its deep-dish offerings, other media outlets across the country are finally getting the point that there’s another pizza style that might be more popular in town. Cookbook author and New York Times food correspondent J. Kenji López-Alt visited Chicago last month for a tavern-style pizza crawl. López-Alt has been testing out thin-crust recipes and flooding his Instagram page with Chicago content. In a post from earlier in the week, he goes hard on tavern-style: “I’ve been saying tavern pizza is gonna blow up everywhere.” He then tags former Alinea chef Greg Baxtrom who is ready to unveil his own version of tavern-style pizza at his spot in Brooklyn, New York, Patti Ann’s Restaurant & Bakery (one of Eater NY’s most anticipated openings of the year).
Chicago has already been successful in exporting its street food to places like LA, Dallas, and New York. Will 2023 be the year of the tavern crust? Bumbaris isn’t sure. He is rooting for a Milly’s win on Friday. It’s still Chicago, after all.