January 1, 2018 |

Pizza Styles: Think Thick

By Scott Wiener

chicago style pizza, deep dish, giordano's

What’s the skinny on thick-crust pizza?

izza classification used to be so simple; a pie was either thin or thick. A pizzeria was emulating either New York or Chicago, with all other regional varieties attributed to one of the two. Now styles that were once trapped in their respective regions have gone public. But judging a pizza by its thickness is never a good way to accurately gauge what’s going on beyond the crust. The most common thick pizza styles exhibit stark differences that delineate them from the others. Let’s examine a few of the most popular.

Sicilian pizza. With a historical root in a Sicilian bread called sfincione, literally translated as sponge, Sicilian pizza emerged on the streets of New York City in the 20th century. The pizza is rectangular, with a thickness of 1 to 1½ inches and an exposed border crust framing tomato sauce and low moisture mozzarella. New Yorkers refer to Sicilian pizzas as “squares” and usually sell them by the slice at the same price or slightly more expensive than their triangular counterparts.

In terms of thickness, the majority of a Sicilian pizza’s height is comprised of its bready base. A standard New York style pizza dough (flour, salt, water at about 60-percent hydration, yeast and oil) is pushed into an oiled rectangular pan, where it rises until cresting the vessel’s one-inch height. The dough can be topped and baked to order or par-baked, stored, then topped to order. Par baking allows for swifter service and produces a crunchier base. One popular variation called “upside-down” places the cheese before the sauce, giving emphasis to the tomato and preventing undercooked crust by separating it from the base.

Grandma pizza (aka Grandma’s Pizza or Pizza di Nonna). A modification of the Sicilian pizza, Grandma pizza was the label given to pizzas made by the matriarchs of Italian households across the northeastern U.S. throughout the 20th century. Before pizza stones became a common household item, homemade pizzas were baked in cookie sheets. Much like the Sicilian pizza, Grandma pizza dough is pushed into the corners of a shallow baking pan. Instead of allowing the dough to rise until puffy, it’s only allowed minimal rest before being topped and baked. The result is a short, dense, less bready version of Sicilian pizza.

While the only true differentiation between Sicilian and Grandma pizzas is their relative thicknesses, Grandma pizza is usually topped sparsely with simple ingredients like fresh mozzarella, garlic, and crushed tomato. The crushed tomato component is the last to be applied, adding to the pizza’s rustic homemade feel.

Detroit pan pizza (a.k.a. Detroit red top or Detroit deep-dish). The legend of this distinct pan pizza begins in 1946 at a Detroit bar called Buddy’s Rendezvous. Owner Gus Guerra baked a version of his mother-in-law’s Sicilian pizza in a type of pan that was used by the automotive industry for small hardware storage and cleaning. The 2½-inch thick rectangular steel pans with angled sides transformed a familiar Sicilian pizza into a unique pizza style that would eventually burst into the mainstream nearly 70 years after it first appeared.

Detroit pan pizza dough has a higher hydration than its Sicilian cousin, at about 70 percent or greater. The dough is pushed to a level layer in the deep pan and allowed to rise as high as half the pan’s depth. Only then is it topped, with cheese applied before tomato sauce, and baked until the cheesy edges are gently burnt. Unlike Sicilian pizza, this variation has no exposed crust border and is sold whole rather than by the slice. It’s the fastest growing thick pizza variation and risks becoming even more popular outside of its hometown than it is within. Dozens of pizzerias have opened in the past few years with Detroit deep-dish pizza as their focus, and even more have added it to their existing menus.

slice, chicago style pizza, deep dishChicago deep-dish. Many pizza consumers label all thick pizzas with the deep-dish moniker, but the Chicago variety is distinctive. While its thickness can rival or surpass that of Sicilian, its composure is more reliant on cheese and toppings than it is on bread.

The base is biscuit-like in texture and creeps up the sides of the pan, creating an enclosure that resembles a piecrust. Toppings, often referred to as fillings, are applied in the following order from base to surface: cheese, toppings and sauce.

Thanks to its thickness and density, a Chicago deep-dish pizza requires at least 25 minutes at 425 to 500 F. Its thickness and high ratio of toppings make cutlery the preferred cutting method.

What separates Chicago deep-dish pizza most from other thick pizza styles is its base. Instead of using flour in the 12- to 14-percent protein range, deep dish dough features a lower protein content of 10½ to 11½ percent and gets only a short mix. This means the dough will form a light gluten network, trapping less gas from fermentation than other styles and thus rising less. Chicago deep dish also has a higher percentage of fat than the other thick pizzas, hovering around the eight- to 10-percent range as opposed to Sicilian’s two- to three-percent (bakers’ percentage). While other thick pizzas use olive oil or soybean oil, Chicago deep-dish uses peanut oil. The resulting dough is putty-like and easily spread across the base and up the sides of a 2½-inch-deep, round pan. 

Jon Porter of Chicago Pizza Tours says Chicago-stuffed pizza is an entirely different beast than the typical deep-dish pizza found in the Windy City. Its dough has more yeast, higher protein and a longer rise time. After the cheese and toppings, a second sheet of dough is applied and covered with tomato sauce. The pan and oven are the same, but stuffed pizza is clearly unique in the landscape of Chicago pizza variations.

Due to their similar mass, these styles are all baked in gas-fueled deck ovens at around 400 F to 500 F. Exact dough ratios, pan oils, sauce preparations and cheese selections are up for interpretation.

These descriptions should help you stay accurate when identifying your product, but think of them more as starting points than limitations. The beauty of these thick styles is their ability to provide a canvas for creative topping combinations, limited only by your imagination. 

Scott Wiener is the founder of Scott’s Pizza Tours in New York City and SliceOutHunger.org.