The Thinnest Pizza I’ve Ever Had

“Decision making can sometimes seem like inner civil war.”-Jim Rohn

Who would have imagined the thinnest pizza I’ve ever had would be in Chicago? 

When most people think of Chicago -style pizza, they picture a pie, an inch thick that’s covered with chunky sauce.  My initial thoughts of “Chicago-style” reflect renown Chicago chef Grant Achatz’s first impressions as he recalls moving to the windy-city area “deep-dish is not pizza, it is a casserole”.  I hold no pizza prejudices, just as Achatz doesn’t, but when you come to Chicago the limelight is undoubtedly fixed on deep-dish.

So, many are surprised to find that the true pizza for Chicago natives, is their thin-crust tavern-style. Tavern-style is known for its cracker-thin crust and square or “party-cut” that’s perfect for sharing.  It’s greasy, cheesy and crispy and the small square pieces provide easy maneuvering, it’s just about everything you could ask for out of a pizza.

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For once in my life, I’m siding with the folks of Chicago on something. 

The next time I’m aggressively and haphazardly cut-off on the interstate, I won’t disapprovingly mutter ******* fib *******instead, I’ll put aside the reckless driving, enormous egos, epic sports rivalries and picture the glory of their thin tavern-style pizza.

There are hundreds of pizza joints in Chicago, so as my trip approached I had a level of anxiety about which places to hit in my narrow travel window. Since I was accompanied by my wife who didn’t want to eat pizza every meal, I knew I had some careful decisions to make.

Soon an overabundance of top ten lists propelled by Google, Trip Advisor and Yelp flooded my mind and proved to make finding a spot even more difficult and complicated than I imagined.

Pizzeria Via Stato.

I was staying in the heart of downtown, right off Michigan Avenue, surrounded by all the notorious deep-dish places like Lou Malnati’s, Giordano’s, Gino’s East and Uno’s, so deep-dish would have been a no-brainer, but I wanted the real-deal tavern-style.  My fear was that the majority of the infamous tavern-style joints I was in search of would be sprinkled throughout the suburbs and a trek from our planned activities.

Through my research, I stumbled upon Pizza Via Stato right near our hotel that at first-glance looked thin, cheesy and promising.  Approaching Pizza Via Strato on State street I was taken aback when I realized it was attached to a hotel.

Hotel pizza! Tess teased.

Here I was in Chicago the mecca for thin-crust tavern-style pizza and I was going to get hotel pizza.  I envisioned my pizza cred going down the drain.  But, for some reason, it felt right.

To my delight, it was no ordinary hotel pizza and to clarify it’s a pizza-bar off a pretty nice Italian sit-down spot called Osteria via Stato.  It was undoubtedly the thinnest pizza I’ve ever had.  It was so thin I would have had no problem putting down multiple pizzas.  The crust was true to the cracker-crust depiction; the outer crust had baked air pockets almost like a pita chip that shattered when you took a bite.

The cheese to crust ratio was a cheese-loving midwesterners dream come true.  The pepperonis were as crisp as the outer crust and the sauce minimal, which made for a very crunchy contrast to the gently bubbled cheese.

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I’ve only experienced the corner piece of the square cut pie.

With only a couple of days to explore the hundreds of available pizza options in America’s third largest city, I found what I was looking for, but holy moly there’s a lot left to explore.  I barely even saw the tip of that iceberg, but next time I’ll be much more prepared—while in Chicago I found a guide.

A major score on my Chicago trip was finding my new favorite book Pizza City, USA: 101 Reasons Why Chicago Is America’s Greatest Pizza Town by Steve Dolinsky.   Pizza City, USA is a guide-book that explores the plethora of diverse pizza options throughout the windy city.  The book explores the 101 best pizza joints ranging from tavern-style to deep-dish, Neopolitan to Roman style—they are reviewed and ranked (Thanks for the recommendation Bret!).

The book follows the argument that Chicago’s wide-ranging pizza offerings make it the best pizza city in America. As you thumb through the book which is rich with food-porn worthy imagery it becomes hard to disagree with Dolinsky.  I was pleasantly surprised that Pizza Via Stato made the 101 best pizza places list (I actually hit three off the list while there, but I’ll get to those later).

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Decisions, decisions.

Venturing to a notorious pizza city with an abundance of top-notch spots can be a little intimidating and decision making for the pizza enthusiast can become quite difficult.  The more choices we have the further away we get from a clear decision, as we get lost in a deluge of options.

After I overwhelmed myself with loads and loads of pizza ideas online I didn’t know what to choose. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, he says “We live in a world saturated with information.  We have virtually unlimited amounts of data at our fingertips.””But what I have sensed is an enormous frustration with the unexpected costs of knowing too much, of being inundated with information.  We have come to confuse information with understanding.”

Malcolm Gladwell’s thoughts deal with information overload, and how often it may be more beneficial to not overanalyze decisions and instead go with our unconscious choice-making, in other words, go with our gut.  Often our initial thought is the best one before it gets muddled with complexities.

What pizza taught me:

An overabundance of options can make decision making difficult.  Often the best course of action is to follow our initial gut reaction, in doing so I found the thinnest pizza I’ve ever had.  Chicago is one heck of a pizza town—if it’s the best, I’m not sure yet—but I’m excited to try and find out.

What I’m eating: Pizza Via Stato- tavern-style pepperoni

What I’m reading: Steve Dolinsky Pizza City, USA: 101 Reasons Why Chicago Is America’s Greatest Pizza Town

 

Practice Makes Perfect Pizza

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times” -Bruce Lee

I’ve visited several old-school pizzeria’s around the midwest that put their pizzas in paper bags for carry-out.  No sturdy box to protect the precious cargo, just a flimsy paper bag and a cardboard base.  Though this seems odd and impractical, I imagine if a place has been practicing this for decades they’re putting a pretty darn good pie in that bag.

An established pizzeria like that can pack a big ol’ punch of nostalgia into their pizzas, and recently that’s exactly what I have been looking for.  “Hole-in-the-wall” pizzerias have always intrigued me.  I admire their pizza and ambiance, but I also can’t help but wonder how they got to where they are?  How does the “hole in the wall” earn their “hole” and keep customers coming back?

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A cult classic.

So, Tess and I strayed off the beaten path to find some good old fashioned hometown pizza and arrived in Neenah, Wisconsin.  I took the advice of a co-worker and tried Cranky Pat’s Pizzeria.  After my colleague described this place as having a “cult-like following” I had to look it up.

After perusing Yelp and TripAdvisor reviews I’ve come to learn that Cranky Pat’s Pizzeria has been a Fox Valley staple since 1955.   If you scroll the online reviews you can see that people take this place very seriously.  Loyal locals throughout Oshkosh, Appleton and Green Bay sing the gospel of their greasy thin-crust hometown hero. I figured Cranky Pat’s was a great place to observe the characteristics that lead to small-town pizzeria success.

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A taste of Titletown.

The pizza is ultra thin. It may have been the thinnest pizza I’ve ever had. It’s cut in squares and covered with a glistening layer of greasy melty cheese.  It’s definitely a nice portrayal of my favorite midwestern style tavern-cut.  They make their own sausage in house too; it’s served in medium-sized hand pinched chunks.

On the side we tried the “Cranky Sticks” which were basically a small thin pizza, without sauce and basted with garlic butter.  The “Cranky Sticks” are cut in strips and served with sauces for dipping.

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It was fitting we enjoyed our dinner at Cranky Pat’s during a preseason Green Bay Packer game on a Thursday night.  Even for a preseason game the bar was packed and a live DJ read raffle tickets and played pump-up songs during commercials.  Though the level of devotion these folks share for Cranky Pat’s might pale in comparison to that of the almighty Green and Gold, they do seem pretty committed to their cracker thin-crust pizza.

Cranky Pat’s gave me the same nostalgic sensation as my favorite Gus’ Pizza back in Whitewater, Wisconsin.  In both of these pizzerias you get the sense that they have been around the block and they know what they are doing.  While so many new restaurants fail, these places stand the test of time.  It’s said that only 10% of new businesses survive three years. So, what makes our old-school favorites stick?

The 10,000 hour rule.

The 10,000 hour rule says that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” is needed to become the master of a craft.  I figure I’ve been alive for around 11,000 days and I’ve eaten pizza probably somewhere around 2,000 times.  According to the 10,000 hour rule I’ve got a long way to go before I become a true pizza eating pro.

Cranky Pat’s has been around since 1955 that means they have hand-crafted homemade sausage, cut pizza into squares and put it all in a bag for 62 years.  The owner and employees have spent thousands of hours honing their craft. Places like Cranky Pat’s and Gus’s Pizza (est. 1962) have put in well over 10,000 hours of making pizza and you can tell in their product.

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10,000 pizzas devoted.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s New York Times best seller Outliers he says “ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.” He gives the example of The Beatles hitting their 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” by playing 8-hour sets, seven days a week in Hamburg, Germany years before their mass success in America.  He also discusses how Bill Gates hit his 10,000 early on with unique exposure to computers and coding as a teenager.  That experience allowed him years of extra practice and a huge advantage in the emerging computer business in the 1970’s.

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The takeaway from these success stories is that you’ve got to put in the time to be great at something.  Practice and dedication are what enable people and businesses to achieve the highest level of accomplishment. Years of commitment to honing a craft is a big piece of what allows establishments like Cranky Pat’s and Gus’s Pizza to create lasting legacies.

What pizza taught me:

By devoting our time and committing ourselves to a skill, we can master it. A quality pizza consistently served over 62 years is bound to become a “hole in the wall” cult classic, even if it’s served in a bag.

What I’m eating: Cranky Pat’s Pizzeria; cheese pizza, sausage and pepperoni pizza, “Cranky Sticks” with ranch and marinara.

What I’m reading: Outliers -Malcolm Gladwell