Italian beef deep-dish pizza is the Chicago mash-up of our dreams

If you’ve watched “The Bear,” you know that Carmen Berzatto, the youngest son of the family whom everyone calls Carmy, had a complicated relationship with his late brother, Michael, a brash, charismatic cook who took to drugs and ultimately took his own life. Carmy, who stuttered as a child, lived in Mikey’s shadow. He loved his brother. He resented his brother. He rejected his brother until it was too late to make amends.

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Now Carmy’s holds his brother’s legacy in his hands. Mikey bequeathed him the family’s Italian beef shop, a restaurant known casually among locals as The Beef, and Carmy can’t believe what a mess the business has become.

Something about Carmy’s tripwire bond with Mikey reminds me of Chicago’s relationship with deep-dish pizza, the slab of thick and cheesy pie that, like Italian beef, has been permanently branded onto the hide of Second City. Chicagoans seem to spend a lot of time telling everyone — everyone outside the city limits, that is — that they don’t do deep dish.

They will acknowledge the pie’s historical roots in their city. They will, on occasion, drum their fingers for the 40 minutes or so necessary to cook one of those doorstop pies (but only if a relative or friend has wandered into town and demanded one). What they will never do, they’ll insist, is order deep dish with any regularity. Real Chicagoans apparently eat tavern-style pizza, a circular pie that’s cut into squares.

Deep dish, they’ll say, is tourist food. Which may or may not explain why the Italian beef deep dish pie, a new limited-time offering from Portillo’s and Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria, is unavailable in any Chicagoland store (or any store for that matter), despite the fact that both companies trade on their Windy City bona fides. You can only mail-order it from Tastes of Chicago, the pizzeria’s online platform.

Is this a tacit acknowledgment that no real Chicagoan would dare to be seen in public with one of these suckers? Or that they think this partnership between companies that have expanded well beyond Chicago — Portillo’s went public last year — is more like, as one local put it, a collaboration “between CVS and Walgreens”?

As it turns out, this Chicagoans-don’t-eat-deep-dish argument is a hot-button topic for Marc Malnati, who, along with younger brother Rick, is a principal owner of Lou Malnati’s. Malnati says he has made it his mission to snuff out the theory wherever it rears its gnarly head.

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“It just isn’t correct,” Malnati says during a phone interview. “Malnati’s, by far, sells more pizzas than anyone else in Chicagoland. Last year, I think we sold 6.2 million pizzas in Chicago. Four and a half million of those were deep dish. Out-of-towners make up, arguably, five to 10 percent of our clientele. We have a few stores downtown, but most of our stores are suburban, in the northern parts of the city, where it’s not about tourists.”

Then he pauses. “Chicagoans,” he says, emphasizing each word, “eat deep dish.”

Thousands of people have already ordered the Italian beef deep dish since the pie went on sale last week, Malnati says. By the end of the year, when the promotion ends, the owner expects to sell between 40,000 and 50,000 pies. They won’t all be purchased by outsiders naive to the traditions of Chicago’s foodways. They’ll be snapped up by Chicagoans, by transplants and by those looking to buy former Chicagoans a taste of home, Malnati says.

As you might suspect, the collaboration between Malnati’s and Portillo’s came about as “The Bear” was racking up views on Hulu.

“My wife and I binge-watched it this summer and loved it,” Malnati says. “Our team got together and just said, ‘Hey, this is going to capture the nation. This show is good, and people are going to watch it, especially Chicagoans.’ We thought this is the time to do something spectacular.”

Malnati’s had done an Italian beef pie before, using its own slow-roasted meats, but for this one, the pizzeria wanted to partner with a business that specializes in the sandwiches. So for these 9-inch pies — the exact size of a small deep dish on the Malnati’s menu — Portillo’s supplies the beef and the pizza chain does the rest. The pies come with either sweet peppers or hot giardiniera.

You can order the flash-frozen pies in quantities of two, four or six. Prices start at $72.99 for a pair and peak at $129.99 for a half dozen, though that includes shipping. When I opened the container on my two Italian beef deep dishes, with hot giardiniera, I noticed the crust on one had started to crack and crumble, as if it had been knocked around in transport. The other pie showed no signs of abuse.

One similarity between this frozen deep dish and one pulled fresh from the oven in Chicago? You gotta wait. It took a solid 45 minutes to bake my pie — you cook it from frozen — though you can shave off a whole five minutes if you prefer to thaw the pizza first. “Microwave cooking is not recommended,” the directions say.

The difference between this frozen deep dish and one pulled fresh from the oven in Chicago? The crust on my pie had lost all suppleness. Its flaky walls had hardened into something crackerlike. But the filling? My god. This deep dish may dance on the edge of parody — I think they’d need to create a pumpkin spice Italian beef pizza to hit that sweet spot — but something about the flavor combination just clicks. The hot giardiniera will not lie down quietly on that thick carpet of Wisconsin mozzarella; the condiment ignites each bite with acid and heat as if it were putting banana peppers on notice.

This pizza can’t begin to hold its own against a fresh pie, but compared to just about everything else in the frozen food aisle, this collaboration between Chi-town behemoths is a giant step forward.

And by the way, Malnati says, the reason you can’t order the Italian beef deep dish in restaurants has nothing to do with civic shame. It has everything to do with the logistics of trying to distribute ingredients and reconfigure kitchens to produce a pie that will be available for only a few months. But, the owner adds, frozen Italian beef pies will be available at Malnati’s shops starting Nov. 1.

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