What's Unique About Chicago's Tavern-Style Pizza?

If you're visiting Chicago from out of town, you may be enticed to order a deep dish pizza for an authentic culinary experience. The thick, pan-baked pie is no doubt an emblem of the Midwestern city, but no one likes to be pigeonholed. Ask a native Chicagoan what their pizza-of-choice really is, and you are likely to get a response that is not quite the same as deep dish (no, it is not stuffed pizza either). Chicago's true go-to is tavern-style pizza. With its super thin crust, tavern-style pizza is a type of pie that requires a much shallower dish.

Tavern-style pizza has many unique features, but the qualities that perhaps makes it stand out most are the texture of the crust and the way it is served. Though there are plenty of other thin-crust pizzas, like Brooklyn style pizza, tavern-style crusts are uniquely crispy and crunchy, almost like a dense cracker. Additionally, instead of dividing the pie into six or eight equal slices, tavern-style pizza gets cut into little squares. 

The tavern-based conception of a Chicago classic

Triangle-slice traditionalists may be taken aback by the way Tavern-style pizza gets cooked and divvied up, but the origins of this Chicago staple provide the perfect explanation. As the name suggests, tavern-style pizza was designed by taverns, for taverns. It is hard to pinpoint exactly where and when the pizza style emerged, but Chicago pizza expert and historian Steve Dolinsky believes it came around in the 1940s, right after World War II.

Bartenders and tavern owners used to serve the pizza to patrons for free as a way to encourage them to stay and order drinks. Originating in the bar scene, a piece of tavern-style pizza is meant to be a bar bite rather than a full meal, like nuts or soft pretzel bites. Its cracker-like crust and small square cuts make it easy to hold without flopping over in one hand while you hold your drink in the other. What's more, cutting up the pie into many small pieces means ensuring enough pieces for every bar patron to enjoy.

What makes tavern-style pizza Chicago's top choice?

There are many reasons tavern-style pizza has become so beloved in the Windy City. For starters, its share-ability is unmatched. Some locals call it "party cut" pizza because of its popularity at birthday parties. With small, kid-friendly pieces and the ease with which it can be distributed, it makes sense that tavern-style pizza would be commonplace at family-friendly functions.

Additionally, with its thinly-spread crust, tavern-style pizza can be prepared quickly, making it the perfect choice for quick and casual dine-in or take-out meal. Deep-dish pizza, on the other hand, can take about 45 minutes to cook, meaning it is not the best choice for fast delivery.

Finally, the ubiquity of tavern-style pizza in the last few generations of Chicago's food scene gives it a familiar, nostalgic appeal to locals. Deep-dish is definitely among the most iconic Midwestern foods you need to try, but a crunchy square of tavern-style pizza is evidently unbeatable in the hearts of Chicagoans.