Saturday, September 13, 2008

Chicago Dogs, Italian Beef, and the Dreaded Deep-Dish Pizza

Chicago is proud of its junk food. Like Philadelphia with its cheese steaks and pretzels, Chicago's nosh specialties tend to come from Italian-American and Germanic backgrounds. Perhaps the mostly widely disseminated is the Chicago-style deep-dish pizza. The Chicago hot dog, with its particular and copious mix of toppings, is becoming something of a fad in other cities. The "Italian beef" sandwich, as far as I know, has not traveled very far.

A Chicago hot dog is as much about the toppings as the dog itself. Indeed, the toppings nearly wag the dog. The only way to eat a Chicago dog, as far as I'm concerned, is with everything. In this case everything is mustard, chopped onions, relish, pickle spears, sport peppers, tomato slices or wedges and, the icing on the cake, a dash of celery salt, all crammed into a poppy seed bun. The majority of hot dog stands and restaurants in town get their franks from the same supplier, Vienna Beef, so any real differences have to do with the quality and ratio of the toppings. They're most commonly served boiled or steamed, but I much prefer the grilled version, chardogs. For my money a Chicago chardog with everything leaves New York hot dogs in the the dust. Looking back on the mustard and sauerkraut of my youth, it was a childhood of relative hot dog poverty.

When I recently visited Chicago for the Jazz Festival my first order of business upon deplaning was to head to the Gold Coast Dogs outlet in the airport terminal for a jumbo chardog with everything. A couple of days later I hooked up with some friends at Portillo's, in the city center, for a chardog and an Italian beef sandwich (about which more in a moment). I hit Gold Coast again right before my flight home. Between the two, I'd say I prefer Gold Coast. I'm not sure what exactly the difference was, but the toppings at Gold Coast seemed to marry better.

Vienna Beef has been serving frankfurters to Chicagoans since the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Their logo is ubiquitous in Chicago. They make a great hot dog, certainly in the same league as either Nathan's or Hebrew National. The Chicago dog as it's served today was reputedly developed in 1929 by Abe & Fluky Drexler at their stand at the Maxwell Street market. At first they called it the "depression sandwich." It survived the depression.

At Portillo's I also had an Italian beef sandwich. According to one Chicago restaurant website, "an Italian beef sandwich is, essentially, a French dip sandwich whose thinly sliced, oven-roasted beef has been impregnated with garlic, oregano and other Italian seasonings, served pre-dipped in flavorful natural juices and topped with either sauteed sweet peppers or a spicy pickled-pepper mixture called giardiniera (though the counter clerk will just ask, 'Sweet or hot')." I had mine hot. It was good, but I wouldn't kvell about it like, say, a Philadelphia pork and greens sandwich.

I'm more than willing to concede the hot dog crown to Chicago, but when it comes to pizza Chicago has nothing on New York. In fact, I find Chicago pizza an abomination. The core of a classic Chicago deep-dish pizza is a dense but crumbly, thick cornmeal dough. Copious amounts of mozzarella cheese are layered on top, with Parmesan sometimes added. Standard additional toppings are generally available. The result is a heavy mess of mediocrity.

Chicago pizza just don't make no sense to me. I wouldn't have had any deep-dish pizza during my last visit if I hadn't been invited to join some friends, who had also come for the Jazz Festival, at Pizzeria Uno. I think I'd only eaten Chicago-style pizza twice before. The first time was during my first visit to the city, in 1985. I can't remember which place I was taken to. The other time was at a Pizzeria Uno franchise in New York. I thought the pizza at Uno in New York was dreadful, but I'd also heard that the Chicago Uno was different than the franchises. Apparently the owners of the original Uno lease out the name for other cities, but run the one in Chicago themselves. Supposedly the Chicago Uno and its sister restaurant Due are much better than the franchises. Though it's been a while since my New York Uno experience, I don't think my leaden, bland pizza at Chicago's Uno was much better at all.

I wondered whether Uno in Chicago was just a tourist trap, and if there were places that made better deep-dish pizza, but when I asked around the consensus seemed to be that there weren't significant differences among the best known pizzerias in town.

Chicago-style deep-dish pizza was invented at Uno in 1943. Over the next twenty or so years this style established itself as a Chicago institution at a number of pizzerias, eventually spreading beyond the windy city. My friend Claudio, originally from Puglia and now of Milan, told me in a horrified tone of voice about how, when he was driving in Norway, headed for the Arctic Circle, he passed by a restaurant that proudly proclaimed, "We Serve Real Chicago Pizza."

"What is this Chicago pizza?" he asked.

I told him.

He cringed.

Pizzeria Uno on UrbanspoonPortillo's Hot Dogs on Urbanspoon


Anonymous Jimmy Cantiello said...

It's my opinion that Chicago style deep dish pizza should not be compared to Apizza Napolitana. They're two entirely different animals. Apples and oranges, as it were. Having said that, I like 'em both for what they are.

7:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Peter your a fag! Chicago pizza is not a pizza it's the As for the Italian beef, don't dare compair it to your bitch ass Philly sandwich... And the only way to eat a hot dog is the Chicago way, by the by gold coast is over rated and chat broiled isn't a true chitown dawg... As in superdawg. Maybe you should stick to your east coast sandwich shops and stay away from our meal instead of your snack shop pizzas

5:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pizzeria Uno is where we let the tourists go. There are a dozen better places to go in the city. Judging Chicago-style pizza by Uno would be like judging NY-style pizza by the Sbarro in the train station.

1:58 PM  
Blogger Mickel Geroge said...

I like your post and I would suggest you some more Chicago restaurants Blackbird, Naha, Le Colonial. Try these restaurants if you are in Chicago.

4:54 AM  
Anonymous Jimmy Cantiello said...

That should be Napoletana.

3:32 PM  

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