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The Midwest Turns On Itself in the Pizza Wars

Chicago and St. Louis shouldn’t be squaring off when the real enemy is New York

A Chicago-style thin-crust pizza
A proper Chicago tavern pizza.
Chris Peters/Eater Chicago
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.

As Chicago prepared for Lollapalooza and St. Louis prepared for — checks notes — we’re not sure exactly what, locals from both cities may have missed a little pizza kerfuffle.

A piece in the Riverfront Times, an alt-weekly in St. Louis, claims its city created the square- and triangle-cut pizza Chicagoans and others in the Midwest called tavern-style and party cut. In the process, St. Louisan Sarah Fenske, the executive editor of Euclid Media Group, the paper’s parent company, called Chicago “fools.” Well, maybe one of her editors did, as the epithet appears in the subhead.

Fenske wants Imo’s, a St. Louis iconic chain established in 1964 — now with more than 100 locations, including some in Downstate Illinois — to be acknowledged. Imo’s uses the slogan “the square beyond compare.” Its pizza is also cut into squares and triangles. The crust is actually thinner than typical Chicago pizza and the unleavened dough also lacks yeast. Of course, the biggest difference is the use of processed Provel cheese instead of mozzarella. Despite those differences, the St. Louis paper calls Chicago “thieves” in taking credit for the pizza trend sweeping the nation.

A Chicago tavern-style pizza with a few pieces missing.
Pat’s Pizza was founded in 1950, 14 years before Imo’s.
Garrett Sweet/Eater Chicago

The piece was prompted by former Eater LA editor Kat Odell’s piece in Bloomberg News; it followed in the footsteps of the New York Times and Esquire, which recently published glowing features about Chicago’s thin-crust pizza scene. Writer J. Kenji López-Alt took great pains in reproducing Chicago’s other style of pizza. Again, these are the opinions compiled by a group of folks who don’t live in Chicago.

“There’s no literally no reason we shouldn’t get credit for the trend now sweeping the coasts,” Fenske writes. She continues: “If you’re thinking the much-derided St. Louis-style pizza is finally getting the respect it deserves, guess again. Bloomberg is instead praising Chicago. Yes, really.”

John Carruthers, who operates charity-minded Crust Fund Pizza, showed the snark that made him a fan favorite on Chopped: “Wild what happens when you use mozzarella and not rendered Barbie dolls.”

Anthony Scardino, known as Professor Pizza, was interviewed for the Bloomberg piece that was published in late last month. He tells Eater: “We’ve been the Second City long enough. I’m excited to see our pizza have its day in the sun. With that said, you’ve gotta respect a city with a government-certified cheese. St. Louis truly put Provel on the map!”

Apparently, the St. Louis jealousy has been fermenting since March when the New York Times published its piece. A sub-Reddit discussed the apparent snub and López-Alt himself tried to explain that the two pies are clearly different. And, apparently, Chicagoans didn’t notice. It’s truly a Mad Men moment with the roles reversed as St. Louis native Jon Hamm plays the role of Chicago.

Others attempted to diffuse any pizza animosity: “People tend to want to create rivalries and drama where it doesn’t have to exist,” says Kendall Bruns who helped curate the U.S. Pizza Museum. Bruns points out that other Midwestern cities from Wisconsin through Indiana, including Milwaukee, could claim thin-cut, square-cut pizza as their own.

Chicago certainly knows about condescending pizza takes. Hi, New York has entered the chat — they’re the real archenemy here.

That being said, fact-checking the Imo’s claim is easy to do. Joe’s on Higgins, a thin-crust pizzeria, was established in 1952. Breaking out the abacus, that appears to be before Imo’s 1964 debut. Joe’s isn’t widely known outside of Chicago, and it’s not even the city’s oldest thin-crust pizzeria. The legend is that pizza was introduced to Chicago bars during the Great Depression as an incentive to keep customers a little longer. Vito & Nick’s was founded as a tavern in 1920 in Lawndale and though they’ve moved a few times, they’ve been around for a century. That’s just a sample. Pizza City USA author and NBC Chicago’s Food Guy Steve Dolinsky also points to Home Run Inn, which was founded in 1947. Meanwhile, Pat’s Pizza in Lakeview was founded in 1950. John’s Pizza, which just closed, opened in 1952 in Bucktown.

The Esquire story from March also housed a comment from another St. Louis pizza backer who craved justice in complaining about the lack of love shown for their cherished pies. Folks are allowed to like more than one thing! And now this latest story gets published four months later. Perhaps that persistence is contagious. After all, St. Louis Cardinals fans are hailed as “the best fans in baseball.” In the end, arguing about pizza is like a Cardinal fan waddling along Clark Street to Wrigley Field wearing a vintage baby blue Jim Edmonds jersey — you just look and sound like a square.

U.S. Pizza Museum

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Home Run Inn

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