According to New York Times writer Sam Sifton’s oft-quoted Pizza Cognition Theory, “The first slice of pizza a child sees and tastes (and somehow appreciates on something more than a childlike, mmmgoood, thanks-mom level), becomes, for him, pizza. He relegates all subsequent slices, if they are different in some manner from that first triangle of dough and cheese and tomato and oil and herbs and spices, to a status that we can characterise as not pizza.”
In other words: Your first slice of pizza will always be the One True Pizza to you. As a child of the Chicago suburbs, my own happens to be Chicago-style stuffed pizza. The only problem: I’ve never, ever had good stuffed pizza outside of Chicago. And I moved away when I was nine.
For the uninitiated, stuffed pizza is like deep-dish – only deeper. It’s constructed like a pie and also upside-down: Into a buttery dough shell, “toppings” are placed on the very bottom, followed by mountains of cheese; a thin, second layer of dough; and, finally, ladles and ladles of chunky tomato sauce. It bakes for half an hour before emerging burnished and tantalising, and yielding four-foot-long cheese pulls when sliced. This pizza pie bears no resemblance to New York or Neapolitan pizza (to the chagrin of some), but it doesn’t need to. It is its own delicious entity and it occupies a not-insignificant portion of my heart, probably literally. That’s amore!
Recently, in a fit of pandemic-induced nostalgia, I was overtaken with a need, down to my bones, to eat it again. I’d never thought of Chicago-style stuffed pizza as something that could be made at home, but after watching scores of YouTube bakers – and discovering this recent pizza hack recipe – I decided to give it a try. Honestly, I can’t believe how well it turned out.
There are some things to know about making this pizza for the first time, particularly if your only familiarity with Chicago-style pizza is Chicago Town (nope, doesn’t count). For starters, you need to make this dough the day before you plan to use it, and don’t expect it to behave like “normal” pizza dough – you are making an enriched, buttery, almost-flaky pie-style dough, so don’t be alarmed if it doesn’t have any stretch or bounce. Secondly, though spinach is a traditional topping option in the classic joints, you’re welcome to sub in your preferred toppings – pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms – or none at all.
And I must implore you: Do not buy pre-grated mozzarella, which is coated in starch and will not melt fully. Equally, do not buy bougie mozzarella in those little bags of brine, which is way too watery and will make your pizza a sloppy mess. Do buy the most basic, low-grade, vacuum-packed block of mozzarella you can find and grate it yourself. (The original pies use Wisconsin-made “mozzarella” – that’s the level you’re aiming for here.)
And finally, no Chicago pizza experience is truly great without the right beer to go alongside – and for me, that’s a well-made lager. As I’ve written previously, I’m deep into a multi-year love affair with lagers of all stripes and hues, and over the last year, Devon’s Utopian Brewing has emerged as one of my favourite British lager breweries. While competition is steep, I don’t know if I’ve had a better beer from them than the new Now We Are Two Export Kellerbier, brewed in honour of the brewery’s second birthday.
This deep, golden lager is a gorgeous homage to Franconian brewing – it is double-decocted, which lends it a biscuity, toasty, caramelised character – but it’s also a showcase for East Kent Golding hops, which, as fellow fan Mark Dredge notes, add a subtle lemony and spicy note. That it can be both citrusy and uplifting as well as richly toffee-like makes this beer a well-rounded showstopper – just like the pizza in question.
Chicago-Style Stuffed Spinach Pizza
Adapted from The Food Hacker
For the dough:
175ml (¾ US cup) lukewarm water
½ teaspoon active dry yeast
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
450g (3 US cups) white bread flour
¾ teaspoon fine sea salt
80ml (⅓ US cup) vegetable oil, plus additional for greasing the bowl
85g (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened, plus additional for greasing the pan
Cornmeal or polenta, for rolling out the dough
For the sauce:
1 800g (28oz) tin whole peeled San Marzano or plum tomatoes
120g (½ US cup) tinned finely chopped tomatoes
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 ½ teaspoons fine sea salt
1 ½ teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon chilli flakes
½ teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
2 tablespoons sugar
1-2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil
1-2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
For the filling and topping:
680g (1 ½ lbs) mozzarella (see intro for guidance)
240g (8 ½ oz) baby spinach
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons pre-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1-2 teaspoons dried oregano
1. Roughly 24 hours before you plan to make your pizza, prepare the dough. Begin by blooming your yeast: Add to the lukewarm (warm but not scalding) water with the sugar; stir to mix and set aside. Within 5-10 minutes, the mixture should be starting to foam and bubble and smell yeasty. If it is not, you may need to restart with fresher yeast.
2. Meanwhile, add the flour and salt to a large bowl and mix. Once the yeast mixture has bloomed, add to the flour, alongside the oil and butter. Mix with a wooden spoon or your hands until the dough has formed a ball. Knead for 1-2 minutes, or until the fats are just incorporated into the dough. (If the mixture is looking dry and crumbly, add 1 tablespoon more water; if it is slightly sticky, knead with a bit of flour.) The dough will feel ever so slightly buttery and flaky to the touch, and may look a bit dappled – it’s fine if the fats aren’t mixed totally uniformly.
3. When the dough is ready, grease a nonreactive bowl with a little oil and add the dough; roll it around until lightly coated. Cover and chill in the fridge overnight.
4. The next day, take the dough out of the fridge 2-3 hours before you plan to bake the pizza; it will be hard to the touch and not significantly risen, so leave it to warm to room temperature. Meanwhile, make the sauce. Place a saucepan over medium heat and add the tinned San Marzano (or plum) tomatoes and their juices. Cook for a few minutes until starting to simmer; using a wooden spoon, gently mash and crush the whole tomatoes against the sides of the pan.
5. Add all of the remaining sauce ingredients except for the fresh herbs and turn the heat to low. Simmer for 10-12 minutes, stirring regularly, or until slightly reduced and thickened. Next, add the chopped basil and parsley and stir through; simmer for 5 minutes more. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed. Transfer to a bowl and leave to cool to room temperature.
6. Meanwhile, prepare your fillings. Grate the mozzarella into a large bowl and set aside. To wilt the spinach, place a large frying pan over medium heat and add 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Add the spinach and, using tongs, toss for a minute or two until it is just wilted. Transfer to a colander and allow any excess moisture to drain off.
7. Once the dough is at room temperature, preheat your oven to 220° Celsius (425° Fahrenheit). Generously butter an 11-inch springform pan (with 2-inch-high sides). Dust your worktop and rolling pin with polenta or cornmeal. Slice off a ⅓ portion of the dough and set aside. Roll out the remaining dough until it is ¼-inch thick, or a roughly 16-inch circle. Roll onto the rolling pin and transfer to your buttered pan. Gently press the dough in so it is completely flush with the sides and bottom of the pan before trimming off any excess from the top.
8. Scatter the wilted spinach in an even layer over the bottom of the dough. Next, scatter the mozzarella over the spinach. Dust your worktop with more cornmeal/polenta and roll out the reserved dough portion to a roughly 12-inch circle; it should be even thinner than the first round of dough. Roll onto your rolling pin and gently transfer to the prepared pizza base. Tuck the dough snugly around the cheese and trim off any excess. Wet your fingers and press the two layers of dough together to seal. With a sharp knife, cut a number of small vents into this top dough layer so it doesn’t puff up as it bakes.
9. Ladle the tomato sauce evenly on top of the dough layer. Sprinkle over the pre-grated Parmigiano Reggiano and the dried oregano, before drizzling over the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Transfer to the oven and bake for 30-35 minutes, pausing to rotate halfway through. If the sauce or crust start to brown prematurely, tent with foil. Remove and leave to cool for five minutes.
10. To serve, gently remove the springform sides of the pan. Using the largest chef’s knife you have (not a pizza roller), gently cut the pizza in half, quarters and then eighths. Transfer the slices to plates, being careful of any errant sauce splatters or cheese pulls, using a spatula. Serve immediately. And don’t try to eat more than two slices in a sitting – trust me on that one.
Claire M. Bullen is a professional food and travel writer, a beerhound and all-around lover of tasty things. When she's not cracking open a cold one, she's probably cooking up roasted lamb with hummus. Or chicken laksa. Or pumpkin bread. You can follow her at @clairembullen.