Cliché or otherwise, the foundations of Chicago are undeniably built on pizza pride. It’s serious business. Downtown, uptown and all around the cosmopolitan grid the unescapable scent of dough, cheese and tomato oozes from the grates. So what better place to slice into the soul of Chicago than on a pizza tour?
Curated by the king of the city’s pizza scene, Steve Dolinksy, a 13-time award-winning food reporter, the Pizza City USA tour starts in the uber hip neighbourhood of Wicker Park and Bucktown.
Steve, who has been a food reporter on ABC for nearly 20 years, was tired of dubious listicles claiming to rate “the hottest pizza places” so made it his mission to try and document as many as he could to curate a true representation of what the city had to offer.
The fruits of his year-long labour are a well-informed and relaxed tour taking in the types, tastes and timbre of Chicago’s pizza history. It is also a great way to daunder through the streets of a now-gentrified area riddled with cocktail bars, concert venues, coffee shops and boutiques.
I tried four distinct pizza styles – “slice” at Dimo’s, “artisan” at Craft Pizza Chicago, “deep” at My Pi and “Roman” at Bonci.
If you don’t fancy a tour, there are two must-tries while you are in town – My Pi and Bonci.
Although the true origins of the deep dish style are still up for debate, its association with the city is not. The uniquely buttery crust is thick and… deep, almost quiche-like in its crumbliness. It’s packed with a dense layer of mozzarella, a thin layer of tomato and traditionally some Italian sausage but vegetarian options are always available.
Now an icon of the city, it is a pizza like no other. Initially a cheap, filling meal for hungry immigrants, the deep dish is wholesome and when it’s done right, like at My Pi, tasty and grease free.
Now where to start with Bonci? Lauded by America’s late food sweetheart Anthony Bourdain and created by Gabriele Bonci – the world’s best pizza maker – it is almost worth the trip to Chicago (or Rome) alone.
Served by the slice, Bonci’s Pizza Al Taglio bakes his pizza dough, made with heirloom wheat flour and cold fermented in rectangular cast-iron pans, finishing them with a taste-bud boggling choice of run-of-the-mill and off-the-wall toppings. It is without a doubt the best pizza I have ever tasted. Think the best soft, light Italian bread base – which is cooked first, then added and heated after are the perfect balance of familiar and unfamiliar flavour combinations – but no more than three. Favourites at the North Damen Avenue pizzeria include sliced potato and mozzarella; ribbons of prosciutto, sesame seed on top of mozzarella or fresh sheep’s milk ricotta with courgette slices, black pepper and lemon zest. Simple perfection.
Although an ideal starting point, there is a lot more to Chicago’s food scene than pizza. Across the downtown area and spread throughout the suburbs lies the dissemination of a hugely successful and inspiring food revolution. From a base at the Kimpton Gray Hotel in the heart of the central business district, I didn’t have far to go to start my exploration of the diverse culinary landscape. Hitting the heights of the hotel’s 15th floor, rooftop bar Boleo embraces the chilled vibe of the city with outstanding Peruvian inspired street food. Think seriously pimped ceviche, prawns with garlic chips, coriander and lime aioli or char siu pork belly with mustard seeds, all set to the intoxicatingly cool backdrop of Chicago’s skyline. And if you’re lucky, live jazz adds another note of authenticity.
Shame the same can’t be said for the street level eatery that serves as the hotel’s breakfast offering – better to hold off, jump in a cab and head towards the Lower West Side for brunch. In Pilsen, Vietnamese powerhouse HaiSous, a location in Richard Gere’s 1996 film Primal Fear, serves up an array of dishes that will have you booking flights to Hanoi before the bill arrives. I recommend ordering a mix, with personal favourites including Bo Nuong Trung Op La (grilled ribeye, fried egg, steamed rice) or Canh Ga Chien, the best fried chicken wings with crispy garlic and steamed rice you’ll ever eat. While you’re in the area stop off at Moody Tongue brewery for beers created with a chef’s mindset, and layers of flavours. Join a guided tour and try the 12-layer signature chocolate cake created by pastry chef Shannon Morrison.
It seems pertinent to point out that Chicago may ride the moniker of the Windy City but a gentle spring breeze and occasional smattering of spring rain makes a busy city bearable – just one of the things that makes Chicago so alluring and easy to fall head over heels for.
Where New York throbs with pace and animated claustrophobia, Chicago vibes. It has the impressive architecture and never-ending traffic, there are boulevards lined with high-end stores and a steady flow of pedestrian masses, but it feels substantially less “on”. There is room to breathe and strolling up West Madison Street with the unmistakable chill coming off Lake Michigan, Millennium Park crests the busy criss cross grids and flattens out the high rise squeeze.
The Riverwalk, running 1.25 miles down the south bank of the Chicago River, gives a European al fresco twist to downtown. Transforming the space alongside the main stretch of the river, the project, nearly two decades in the making, adds a beautiful juxtaposition of escape from the frenzy of street level. Each cove or “room” has its own nickname, identity and activities, from bars, to public art to floating gardens.
You can jump on a kayak, cast a line or just sit and absorb Chicago before hopping on one of the ever-popular river boat tours. The architectural tour down the river should not be missed, with deeply knowledgeable guides exuding civic pride and enthusiasm for the fascinating architectural development of the modern skyline. The buildings tell the history of one of America’s most prominent cities and what better way to learn it than being gently rocked down the river? And yes, it is the one they dye green for St Patrick’s Day.
With daily direct flights from Edinburgh to Chicago International, I recommend ditching the Big Apple mayhem and instead soaking up the chilled out Windy City vibes.
Flights from Edinburgh to Chicago O’Hare International leave daily and start from £550pp return. Stay at the Kimpton Gray Hotel, 122 W. Monroe Street, Chicago, IL 60602 from £175 per night, room only. www.grayhotelchicago.com, 001 877 771 7031