Pizza's Second City

Digging deep, Chicago-style, in Fremont and Wallingford.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the spirit of God was hovering over the water, just looking around and seeing what was what. Of course, he couldn't see much--what with all the formless, empty darkness and whatnot, so God said "Let there be light," and there was light, because, being God, he can just do stuff like that.That, back in the day, was considered a full day's work, so God went home, invented the television, sitcoms, and syndication rights, watched some old episodes of Seinfeld, invented the couch, and fell asleep on it.On the second day, God created water and sky; on the third, land. That night, he invented China, Chinese people, Chinese food, money, telephones, and cars just so he could order in some Chinese takeout, kick back on the couch (which he knew was a good idea the minute he'd invented it), and have a little nap. When he woke up, he invented beer. Nothing goes better with leftover Chinese takeout than cold beer. God knew that even back then.The fifth day brought fishies and birdies, including sea monsters, ghost pirates, and Mothra, who was awesome even though Japan hadn't been invented yet. That was a busy day. And when it was done, God said, "I'm hungry. Time to invent some dinner."So he invented pizza. He knew he was really onto something, so he got up off the couch, looked down at the rough draft of earth before him, picked out a particularly squiggly, pointy bit of land that he was fond of, and in his best This-Is-God-So-Listen-Up voice, said "Let there be New York!"And there it was: five boroughs and a thousand pizza restaurants so that he'd never be without. It then occurred to him that even he would probably get tired being in a thousand places at once, so he made a note to himself to invent some sort of creature that could make the pizza for him.He thought he would call them "New Yorkers." How much trouble could they be?This is the pizza creation myth—proof positive that New York–style pizza is the only style that really matters. God didn't get around to even thinking about making Chicago-style pie until, like, day eight or nine.Because Chicago was God's Second City, its residents always had something of an inferiority complex. This made them do everything differently than they did it in New York. Where New Yorkers had an ocean, Chicagoans had a lake. Where New Yorkers had big, fat deli sandwiches, Chicagoans had the hot beef sandwich (which even God had to admit was pretty excellent). And where the New Yorkers had pizza—beautiful thin-crust pies topped with sweet sauce, cheese, and (once God had invented pigs) pepperoni—the Chicagoans, out of spite, invented the deep-dish pizza.This pissed off God like you wouldn't believe. The Chicago fire, the '68 Democratic National Convention, and the Cubs? All God's way of getting back at the Windy City for screwing with one of his greatest inventions.But Chicagoans are nothing if not stubborn. They have persisted in their insistence that the deep-dish pie is a valid form of pizza expression, and have even gone so far as to begin exporting the style across the world, in the vain hope that their weird little tomato-and-cheese casseroles will someday be accidentally referred to as actual pizza, thereby validating their eternal struggle against New York.Seattle has several examples of Chicago-style pies. Two of them—Kylie's Chicago Pizza and Wallingford Pizza House—have risen to the level of being talked about as the final answer to the age-old question: "Where can I go in Seattle to get a pizza done wrong?" And over the past week or so, I have found myself sampling both, just trying to see what all the fuss is about.Kylie's was my first stop—the younger of Seattle's two avatars of Chicago-style pie, open in Fremont for just a few months. Two things that Kylie's had going for it right from the start: It was busy—the floor full and takeout orders flying out the door like they were giving them away for free—and the menu is blessedly simple. Occupying only one side of a single page, it offers just pizzas, two kinds of salad (green and Caprese), and a pound of chicken wings. Nothing more. And in an admirable move toward reconciling the age-old pizza debate, Kylie's offers both deep-dish and New York thin, each in several varieties, but makes no bones about its focus on recreating an authentic Chicago-style pie.As a basis for comparison, I have been to the Second City and sampled its delights. I have eaten Lou Malnati's archetypal deep-dish, both at one of the actual shops and during a Taste of Chicago event where Malnati's was the centerpiece attraction. I have eaten at Gino's (which I could barely stomach), and heard the legend of Giordano's Chicago-style pie while eating at a different pizza joint owned by a Giordano's protégé. So when I state that a deep-dish pizza is an inferior version of the Apollonian New York ideal, it is not because I've never walked on the other side of the line.At Kylie's, I went with the strength of tradition, ordering the "Chicago Classic" right off the top of the menu (made deep, with sweet fennel sausage, onions, green peppers, and mushrooms), backing it up with a custom cheese, pepperoni, and ricotta deep-dish, and, for the sake of science, a thin-crust in the time-honored New York configuration: cheese and pepperoni.The odd thing was, the thin-crust bordered on bowling-alley bad (which in the hierarchy of bad pizza is just one step above middle-school-cafeteria bad, the worst kind of bad there is). But the deep-dish was quite edible, having taken massive advantage of the single thing that deep-dish pizza has going for it that a New Yorker does not: a friable crust.The making of a proper deep-dish pie is a two-step process. First, massive quantities of dough are smooshed into a high-walled pan, pulled up and parbaked in order to give the crust a bit of strength. Some would argue that this is done to make it better able to hold all the ingredients heaped on later. I say it's because the people of Chicago don't really want a pizza at all, but rather a fresh-baked, open-face tomato-and-cheese sandwich. But I digress.When an order comes in, the parbaked crust (read: half-done Italian sandwich) is filled and given a second run through the oven to finish. This multistage process allows for some tinkering with the crust, which, since a deep-dish pizza is almost all crust, is important. The best thing any Chicago pizza-maker can do at this point? Having already greased the hell out of the walls of his pizza pan before parbaking, he can now grease the double-hell out of the risen edge of the crust and the lip of it inside the pan, which once the cooking is done should result in fantastically greasy, crisp fried edges—the sole redeeming quality of the Chicago system.Lou Malnati's does this with their pizzas. That's why they're famous and get shipped all over the world to pie lovers who loudly insist that a deep-dish is just as good as a New York thin. Kylie's does this with theirs as well, and without backing off my firm anti-Chicago-style stance one bit, I can happily say that Kylie's crust was delicious—a lovely golden-brown, lacy with a filigree of fried dough, and infused with enough buttery oil that parts of it were almost translucent.The toppings themselves were simply laid on the risen bed of the crust, and, while fresh and generously handled, suffered from the same problem that devils all Chicago pies: balance. A New York pie is better than a Chicago pie for one simple reason: the New York thin has balance and the Chicago pie does not. The best thin-crust pizzas reach an ideal equipoise of crust, sauce, and cheese—the dough being just thick and firm enough to support the wetness of the sauce and the weight of other ingredients without ever overpowering the interplay of flavors or blunting the sharp edge of taste. Making a New York pizza is a Zen exercise in conscious minimalism, always reaching toward a vanishing point where crust, sauce, and cheese become one.The Chicago pie, however, is just a sloppy, fat mess—the pizza-world equivalent of the last drunk left in the bar at the end of the night, drooling Schlitz down the front of his shirt and teetering off into the darkness with one shoe missing and half a pretzel stuck to the side of his face. With the amount of dough involved in the raised-pie construction of the Chicago pizza, there is no way a balance can be struck with savory ingredients. No matter how much chunky sauce, spicy sausage, and mountains of gooey cheese are sacrificed in an attempt to counterbalance the bland deadweight of all that dough, it's not going to be enough.Kylie's makes an admirable attempt, but in the end, the deep-dish pie, though certainly tasty and mounted on an excellent crust, was doomed to suffer the same fate as all Chicago-style pies—coming in a distant second to the proper thin-crust original.Wallingford Pizza House was my next stop, a historic house (hence the name) sandwiched between the Guild 45th's two theaters, using the front rooms as a dining floor and the back as the kitchen.The place has some history, sketched out in the grooves cut across the wooden floors by years of servers passing from the kitchen to the floor to the tables and back again. The decor is homey. The crowds lean toward long-time regulars known by name and families looking to stuff the clan full of dough and sauce. And coming in through the front door, Wallingford Pizza smells better than almost any restaurant I've been in—a heady mix of garlic and sweet tomatoes, the dusty scent of charred flour and the warm, comforting aroma of freshly baked bread.And that right there should've been a tip-off that something was wrong. Pizza dough does not smell like bread dough. When baked, it does not develop that smooth, sweet odor of leavened, browning wheat, but rather smells of hot meal and yeast—an almost sour stink that speaks of dough being bent to man's best devices.As much as I could, I recreated my Kylie's order at Wallingford Pizza, going for a pie of pepperoni, goat cheese (instead of ricotta), and pepperoncini (instead of green pepper) straight off the house list of pies, then for another tomato and basil done as a "dome." The dome is a Wallingford specialty—a deep-dish taken to an additional level of ridiculousness by being baked like some kind of pizza muffin, then upended at the table so you have to eat it like a pot pie as it leaks all over the plate. One step removed from those bread bowls that were so popular as edible containers for everything from soup to salad a decade ago, the dome is the natural extension of the deep-dish pie's focus on crust above all.The problem? Wallingford Pizza House's are modeled less on Lou Malnati's deep-dish than on Giordano's pan pizza—a weird, mutant form of the Chicago pie with a hugely fat base, short sides, and ingredients stacked like archaeological strata beneath a veil of sauce and cheese. The Chicago pan pizza is what Pizza Hut based its entire business strategy around back when it was a half-decent chain of sit-down restaurants. But it used Lou Malnati's crust trick, as Kylie's does, to give the pies a beautiful, savory edge. At Wallingford Pizza, the crust tastes like nothing so much as gnawing the heel of a loaf of dry focaccia; I was done after just one slice, despite the fact that I really liked the mix of goat cheese and pepperoncini, and the sweet, gentle sauce produced by the kitchen.As for the dome: no, thanks. Three bites in, it was like eating a spilled bread bowl of chunky pizza soup—so far gone from what an actual slice of pizza is supposed to be that I might as well have been eating dinner on Mars.Nothing at either pizzeria convinced me of the value of a Chicago deep-dish pie over a good New York thin. Though I will say that, God help me, the next time I'm in the mood for some massive dose of fried dough, sauce, and cheese, I might be willing to give Kylie's another spin.Just don't tell my friends in New York.jsheehan@seattleweekly.comPrice Check

Kylie's Chicago Pizza

  Chicago classic  $17/$23

  New York thin  $18

 

Wallingford Pizza House 

  Peppergoacini, medium deep-dish  $19

  Tomato basil dome  $9.50

 
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