Pie in the Sky

Ever since America’s first pizzeria opened in New York’s Little Italy in 1905, most Italian restaurants have offered some variation of the popular dish.

My father, the son of Sicilian immigrants, considered pizza to be a totally American innovation, like turkey tetrazzini and Caesar salad (the latter invented in Tijuana, Mexico, of all places). And no less a food authority than Italian-American John F. Mariani, author of America Eats Out, backed up that argument: “This humble item, unfamiliar to most Italians until World War II, would become identified with Italians in America as french fries were with the French.”

Pizza remained a thin crust topped with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese until Chicago restaurateur Ike Sewell and his partner, Ric Riccardo, introduced the deep-dish kind at Pizzeria Uno in 1943.

And it was chef Wolfgang Puck, making a name for himself at the first Los Angeles Spago, who transformed the working-class dish into a gourmet item by removing the tomato sauce and topping the crust with ingredients like goat cheese, roasted duck, smoked salmon, and sun-dried tomatoes. These creations caught on, and by the mid-1980s, even Kansas City bistros were selling spicy little Thai chicken pizzas made with peanut sauce and chili paste.

But as soon as Puck started marketing frozen grocery-store versions of his pies, they lost some luster. In The Pleasure of Your Company; How to Give a Dinner Party Without Losing Your Mind, Molly O’Neill wrote about how a snobbish New York caterer realized that the quiche fad had ended: “The day he saw frozen quiche at the A&P he knew the rich would lose their taste for it.” The same thing happened with gourmet pizza. A pie is just a pie when it goes commercial.

The pendulum has swung back just in time for the heavy-duty, double-crusted pizza at Liberty’s The Dish Famous Stuffed Pizza. Glamour pizza is out; peasant pizza is in.

At The Dish, there’s a big photograph of the first Pizzeria Uno hanging on the wall near the bar, along with vintage photographs of other Chicago pizza landmarks like Gino’s East and Giordano’s. Those places have been famous a lot longer than The Dish, which has celebrated only its third anniversary. But owner Jason Ransom, a Chicago native, isn’t being too hyperbolic: If the pizza served at The Dish isn’t famous yet, it’s on its way.

Located in an unassuming buff-brick building on the edge of a plebian shopping strip, The Dish, at first glance anyway, doesn’t seem to promise much in the way of stylish cuisine. The interior is spacious but dark (despite the butter-yellow walls), and the tabletops are draped with black-checkered vinyl cloths (the booth tables are left uncloaked). While she’s escorting diners to their tables, the hostess carries the necessary flatware rolled in paper napkins. Fancy it ain’t.

But there’s a scrappy charm to the place. The servers are young and giggly — yet more attentive and polite than many of their older, big-city contemporaries. And the “specialty” menu standing on the tabletop lists a vast array of sophisticated cocktails and beverages, from well-shaken martinis to a potent “Purple Haze” (a Long Island Iced Tea made with grape juice) to a mug of Guinness Stout. It’s one of the few local pizzerias that serves water (with a wedge of lemon, no less) and iced tea in real glasses instead of plastic tumblers. For a laid-back pizza joint, the place has some class.

If the greasy pizzas rolled out by the millions at successful chain operations have little historical connection to the Old Country, the deep-dish pie at The Dish does: a Sicilian peasant dish called scaccia, made with two crusts, tomato sauce and rarely any cheese.

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There is mozzarella and parmesan on the crusty, thick stuffed pizza at The Dish, but it’s not a gooey mess. Instead, the flavors that dominate are a remarkably fresh-tasting tomato sauce and the other ingredients diners can choose — such as fresh spinach, Italian sausage, garlic, and olives, or less traditional options like gyro meat, Canadian bacon, jalapenos, or pineapple.

On my first visit, after some debate I wearily let my friend Bob select the ingredients. He has definite opinions on what he likes on a pizza crust (sausage and artichoke hearts) while I’ll try anything except, please, pineapple. I was more intrigued by the rest of the menu: a handful of salads, nine kinds of sandwiches, and as many pasta dishes, including a giant plate of spaghetti with meatballs that could pass as boccie balls.

I watched a server carry an antipasto platter — decked with Genoa salami, pepperoni, provolone, peppers, artichoke hearts, olives, and crusty bread — to a nearby table and was tempted to start our meal with one because the stuffed pizza takes about 25 minutes to bake. Instead I rashly ordered a Caesar salad (it turned out to be unmemorable) and a bowl of the Mediterranean Black Pepper Pasta. It arrived lukewarm in a slightly congealed tomato cream sauce but generously adorned with lusciously oily Kalamata olives, red peppers, onions, and crumbles of pungent feta cheese. The combination of the peppery pasta and the salty cheese had me gulping water, but I nearly polished off the bowl.

Bob quickly downed a salad of his own (the house concoction of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, a sprinkling of cheddar, and “garlic croutons” that had the barest essence of flavor). His chicken focaccina sandwich then arrived hot and juicy on a cute little faux-focaccia bun, smothered in melted provolone, onion and crispy bacon with a side of the biggest, crispiest french fries (you know, from France) I’d ever seen. He gobbled it up in five bites and sat back, ready to tackle a pizza.

The server brought over a little metal throne and some plates and then hurried off to bring out the main event: a visually impressive circle of golden baked crust surrounding a fragrant interior of bubbly cheese, sausage, chopped artichokes, and that superb, flavorful sauce. With near-reverence, the server placed the pizza on the throne, grated some parmesan on top, lifted a wedge onto a plate, and practically bowed as he left.

Even for me, not the biggest pizza fan in the world, it was amore at first sight. A single hunk of this dense and delicious pie was a minimeal in itself. It wasn’t a casual pizza we could eat with a single hand, like finger food. No, it was a knife-and-fork pie, and we ate it with the same dignity as a good steak or a rack of lamb.

On a second visit we decided to give the restaurant’s thin-crust pizza a chance. We skipped the list of ingredients and settled for one of the restaurant’s three “specialty” pizza offerings, which are available in both deep-dish and thin-crust incarnations. The thin-crust version of the Windy City Spinach Special was attractively presented and tasty enough, but compared to the hearty, robust stuffed version, it looked anemic.

Not everything at The Dish can match the glory of its namesake pizza, but all of it is better than the dishes at those pizza chains along the drive to Liberty.

Categories: Food & Drink, Restaurant Reviews