The Midwest Makes Pizza Its Own

For this one day I’m going to put aside my New Jersey pizza snobbery that has probably been all too apparent throughout this series of the history of pizza in America. In this post I’ll look at some of the regional variations of pizza here, Italian-American pizza if you will. In particular I’ll be looking at some of the new styles of pizza that came out of the American Midwest.

The earliest history of American pizza focuses on the Northeast. Pizza landed on these shores with southern Italian immigrants and those folks at first settled in the cities on the eastern seaboard: New York, Boston, Philadelphia, New Haven and Trenton. In the 20th century, as industry and the jobs it provided moved west, so did first and second generation Italian-American families. With them came not only a taste for pizza, but the knowledge of how to make it. Pizza did not really become popular in the larger American market until after World War II. So in the first half of the century, what you needed for a pizza restaurant was an Italian-American customer base to sell to.

Chicago

Of the different variations of pizza that were born in the Midwest, perhaps the best known is Chicago deep dish pizza. That’s in large part because of Pizzeria Uno (now they call it Uno Pizzeria & Grill). The chain has some 75 locations in the U.S. plus franchises in Saudi Arabia and India. While they now sell all sorts of oddities (their Web site is pushing a bacon blue burger) their signature dish is pizza, Chicago pizza, cooked in a deeper dish or pan with a thicker crust and layers of sauce, meat and cheese. (One BBC writer described it as a savory layer cake.)

Pizzeria Uno

While most iconic pizzerias were founded by Italians or Italian-Americans, Uno was started by a Texan. Ike Sewell was a football player of some note at the University of Texas in the late 1920’s. The 1930’s were the missing years as far as available information about Sewell., but in 1943 he opened the original Pizzaeria Uno restaurant. It still exists on East Ohio Street in Chicago’s north side. His partner was Ric Riccardo (no not Lucille Ball’s husband). This Ric Riccardo was an Italian-American artist who moved to Chicago in the 1920’s Some claim he was the inspiration behind the creation of the Chicago pie.

But, like so much of pizza history, there is more than one claimant to the title of founder of Chicago deep dish pizza. Adolpho “Rudy” Malnati, also an Italian immigrant, was a bartender and manager at Pizzeria Uno and his descendents claim that the deep dish recipe was his genius. The Malnati’s suggest that neither Sewell nor Riccardo could find their way around the kitchen. Rudy’s son Lou was also a Pizzeria Uno employee until 1971 when he left to start Lou Malnati’s Pizza in Lincolnwood. Malnati’s is still in business and is run by Lou’s descendents. (Fans of the TV series The Bear may be interested in knowing that Malnati’s serves Italian beef.)

But wait, that’s not all. Alice Mae Redmond was a cook at Pizzeria Uno for 17 years. While she did not originate the Uno pizza, she apparently changed the dough, enhancing it with her “secret dough conditioner.” Redmond later left and was hired by Gino’s East, another iconic deep dish pizza restaurant in Chicago, where she worked as kitchen manager until her retirement in 1989.

Detroit

Of the different styles of pizza that have come out of the Midwest, my favorite is Detroit style. I had my first taste of Detroit pizza while watching a baseball game at Citi Field. It was made by Emmy Squared of Brooklyn. I’ve been a fan ever since. Detroit style pizza seems to be increasingly popular and I have found more and more outlets for it in the New York metropolitan area.

Detroit pizza is a derivative of Sicilian pizza. It is square, not round, and is cooked in blue steel pans. The crust of a Detroit pizza is thicker than Chicago style. It is similar to focaccia. It traditionally uses Wisconsin brick cheese and the cheese is melted over the edges of the crust. (If you are trying a Detroit pie for the first time, go for a corner piece.)

Detroit style pizza

Detroit style pizza got its start at a Motor City bar called Buddy’s Rendevous. The Pure Michigan web site offers this brief account of Buddy’s history: “Detroit-style pizza, a descendent of Sicilian-style pizza, traces its roots to one man – Gus Guerra. In 1946, Gus owned what was then a neighborhood bar, Buddy’s Rendezvous, when he decided he needed something new for the menu. He enlisted the help of his wife, Anna, who borrowed a dough recipe from her Sicilian mother. The Sicilian dough, topped with cheese and tomato sauce, would become the model for pizza in Detroit.”

Of course there is never just one story when it comes to pizza history. In this case, the alternative narrative is that Anna’s grandmother had nothing to do with it and that the recipe was created by a Sicilian woman named Connie Piccinato, an employee of Buddy’s.

The Guerras sold Buddy’s in 1953 and opened the Cloverleaf Bar and Restaurant in Eastpointe, Mich. It’s still going strong and still owned by the Guerra family.

St. Louis

I had never heard of St. Louis style pizza until I started doing the research for this series of blog posts. What makes the St. Louis pie distinct is its cracker thin crust and the blend of white cheddar and Swiss cheese that adorns the pizza. Typically it is cut into squares. What also separates it from the others is that it was founded by a musician.

Amadeo Fiore was the son of Italian immigrants who first settled in Chicago. He moved to St. Louis in the late 1930’s. A tenor, Fiore’s musical career included directing the Italian Radio Theater and singing with the New York Metropolitan Opera when it came to town. In St. Louis he worked as both a used car salesman and a handyman before buying a restaurant space and opening the Melrose Cafe with his wife Elizabeth. The web site LostTables.com tells this story, “The restaurant was frequented by a diverse clientele, including guests from the Chase Hotel, sent there by Hack Ulrich, manager of the Chase Club. Legend has it that when hotel guests complained to Ulrich there was nowhere to go in St. Louis for pizza, he convinced Fiore to add it to his menu. Fiore ordered an oven and developed a special recipe; St. Louis style pizza was born.”

1946 ad in St. Louis Post Dispatch
1946 ad in St. Louis Post Dispatch

Fiore bought and sold several pizza places for a number of years. The Fiores eventually moved to California. Their son Amadeo Fiore Jr. opened a Melrose Pizzeria in Florissant, advertising ‘the original St. Louis pizza.” It closed in 1977.

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The History of Pizza in America:

Pizza Comes to America

Who is the Godfather of Pizza in America?

Pizza the Way It Used to Be

America’s Pizza Innovators

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11 Responses to The Midwest Makes Pizza Its Own

  1. You are a true pizza officianado! I’ve never been to any of these cities but would love to try Chicago pizza in Chicago 🍕

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We make our own from Wegman’s prepared pizza dough. Delicious

    Liked by 1 person

  3. retrosimba says:

    I enjoyed learning how these different styles came to be and the cheeses used to make them distinct from the East Coast versions.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Donna Janke says:

    Interesting information about different styles of pizza. I don’t think I have had any of these styles. I’d be really interested in trying the St. Louis style pizza. I too had never heard of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Adam Zucker says:

    Loved reading this post, Ken! I just got back from a trip to Ohio and Pittsburgh and was pleasantly surprised how good the pizza was there. They too have a unique style, the crust is much puffier than our NY/NJ/New Haven pies, and I’ve never seen that much cheese on a pie, which I’m assuming is why the crust is so puffy!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. We ate at Malnatti’s when in Chicago. Delicious!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pam Lazos says:

    Deep dish can’t hold a candle to NJ thin crust. Mac and Manko or bust!😂😘

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Yeah, I’m an NJ pizza snob too, but most pizzas have at least some redeeming qualities!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Jina Bazzar says:

    Yum, these posts never fail to make me hungry.

    Like

  10. What, no Cleveland pizza? I actually don’t know that it’s defined as its own style in the same way as Chicago or Detroit, but you’ll find the same kind of pizza all over Cleveland – sweet sauce, provolone cheese, and a bready crust that’s crunchy and buttery at the edges. I absolutely hated it when I lived in Cleveland (way too much sauce and the cheese was always kind of rubbery and came off in one bite) except for the crusts, which are delicious, but I’ve come round to making my own version of it as an adult, albeit with much less sauce, mozzarella instead of provolone, and a crispier bottom crust. I agree that NY/NJ style is best though – wish more places had it in London. The few places that do sell it tend to not put enough cheese on top nor do they have the shakers of toppings available.

    Like

  11. Americaoncoffee says:

    Interesting… Midwest I presume to be a chili pizza.😀

    Liked by 1 person

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