Lou Malnati’s, Chicago
There are some foods that are so iconic that you don’t even need to attach a city to them, because they’re just so well-known in one area that everywhere else is considered to have copied your idea. Examples include hot chicken in Nashville, the Tampa version of the Cuban sandwich, Kansas City barbecue, Minneapolis’ Juicy Lucy or the pasty of Butte, Mont.
Chicago, of course, being the huge city it is, has three of these iconic staples. The first, of course, is the Chicago dog, which Amy enjoyed despite her distaste for anything that is beef. The second is the Italian beef sandwich, and the third and possibly most famous is the deep-dish pizza. Much like the Chicago dog, there are a lot of places who compete for the top spot in the Windy City at serving the upside-down pie, and it seems like nobody can agree on what the best actually is among legendary places like Lou Malnati’s, Gino’s East, Giordano’s and the nationwide chain of Pizzeria Uno.
Of those, I’m going to start with the one I consider the best (of the four, Pizzeria Uno will not be reviewed, as it’s across the country now) and the only one that Amy has experienced with me, and that’s Lou Malnati’s. The story of Lou Malnati’s is basically the story of a spin-off from the original. When deep-dish Chicago pizza was created, it was at Pizzeria Uno in the 1940’s by a chef named Rudy Malnati.
As you might guess, Rudy Malnati was the father of Lou Malnati, and the two men operated an Uno franchise until opening their own pizza place, Lou Malnati’s. The Malnati family still runs Lou Malnati’s today, so despite not being the first one to open, it’s technically the home of the original deep-dish pizza. For those who have never had it, deep-dish pizza is different from traditional pizza because of the order the ingredients are pieced together. I called it an upside-down pie earlier because the cheese is placed on the crust, then topped with meat and/or vegetables and finished off with sauce.
What this usually leads to is a royal mess, but at Lou Malnati’s, the mess isn’t quite as bad as at some of the other places, and I think it’s because Lou Malnati’s sauce seems a little chunkier than the others, as if the tomatoes aren’t crushed quite as fine. There’s still plenty of sauce, though, and it provides a great complement to one of Lou’s many pies. However, while you can get the standard pizza toppings here, there are two pies that are Lou’s originals.
The first is the Chicago Classic, which goes on the legendary Malnati Buttercrust, which is sworn on by Malnati fans. As the name implies, it’s a buttery flavored version of the deep-dish crust, which already provides a lot of dough. The Classic offers sausage with extra cheese and plenty of sauce, and they call it pure Chicago.
But even though neither of us are vegetarians, Amy and I lean toward vegetables on our pizzas (which sure did make our pizza puff experience a simple one back in January), and we are both particularly fond of mushrooms and spinach. So is Malnati’s, which called their second famous pizza, “The Lou”, throwing a basil-spinach blend with mushrooms and three cheeses and topping it with sliced Roma tomatoes.
This was heavenly. There wasn’t a sauce overload, there wasn’t the feeling of it being too hot for my mouth, there wasn’t too much of any one thing. This was an excellent pizza that was exactly what the deep-dish should be. Perfect amount of crust, perfect amount of sauce, lots of cheese, quality vegetables, filling meal. You can’t really ask for anything more. Both of us loved it, and we quickly decided that we had found our Chicago pizza place, so if anyone ever comes to visit us, that’s probably where we’re heading if we go to the Windy City.
The original isn’t always the greatest, because there are always people trying to top what’s been out there and improve on it. But in this case, the original has stood the test of time. There’s a reason this place has gone from having just two restaurants in the Chicagoland suburbs to 35 locations, several of which are in downtown Chicago. For great deep-dish, you really can’t go wrong with Lou Malnati’s.
Time to go: Lunch or dinner, and don’t come starving. Deep-dish pizza, because of the way it’s made, takes about 45 minutes, give or take a few, to cook. No matter how busy it is, you’ll be waiting.
Wait during my visit: Actually not bad, because funny enough, this is the one place where you WANT to come when it’s busy. One cool thing about Lou Malnati’s is that because it takes so long to cook the pizza, they allow you to place your order when you get in the restaurant, whether or not you have a table. What this means is that you can get your drinks and have your pizza cooking while you wait for a table to come free, and the result is that when you sit down, your wait on your pizza is likely down to about 15 minutes. Much more manageable. There are other options besides deep-dish if you really are starving, and they won’t take nearly as long to cook.
Location: Lou Malnati’s is at 35 and growing. Ours was on the Gold Coast at 1120 N. State Street in downtown Chicago.
Parking: Dream on. You can do it at the suburbs, but if you’re in the city, your best bet is to look up where the CTA trains go and get off at the closest stop to a Lou Malnati’s. We were a street away from our stop.
Cost: Beware the in-city tax. Chicago, being Chicago, is noticeably more expensive than its suburbs, and this is displayed by restaurants that have locations in both the city and the suburbs. City prices are likely to be a dollar higher than in the “land” portion of Chicagoland, which isn’t as bad as some other places, but plan accordingly.
Seating arrangements: Booths and chairs are both available.
Website: Lou Malnati’s
Specialty items: Deep-dish pizza