Chicago is famous for many things, not the least of which is its pizza. As Mo Gannon discovers, the Windy City has a pizza tour that proudly dishes on the city's hot spots, history and famous fans
I'm standing alone on a sidewalk on East Madison Street, just as grey and as cold as the day, when a guy in a hoodie and a baseball cap pops his head out of Pizano's restaurant. "I'm the crazy guy who's going to kidnap you and feed you pizza all day," is how Jon Porter, the affable owner and guide of Chicago Pizza Tours, introduces himself after he invites me inside.
I'm a willing captive. I've got two days by myself in Chicago, and after wandering around for one of them, I'm numb from the cold and tired of my internal dialogue. Chicago is a food town, and I want to eat my way around it.
Jon's tour makes it easy, taking small groups on his "Dough Force One" bus to four restaurants in three hours, combining a mix of the well-known pizza joints downtown with lesser-known neighbourhood pizzerias.
There is much for foodies to relish in Chicago, from its lowly hot dog carts to its Michelin-starred restaurants, but nothing seems to inspire more passion in its people than pizza. Look no further than the two most powerful Americans, Obama and Oprah. Obama's declared favourite is thin crust from Italian Fiesta Pizzeria in his Hyde Park neighbourhood, whose owners were flown to DC to make it for his inauguration. Oprah's favourite thin crust is from Pizano's, pronounced Pie-zano's, which is a fitting place for us to begin.
"Thanks for coming out, guys," Jon addresses our group, as we sit at tables covered with red-and-white checkered tablecloths. "I'm assuming you all love pizza? People who are truly pizza fanatics, they're the ones who seek me out online. This is going to be less of a pizza tour and more of a pizza support group."
He introduces me to the other 14 people, mostly couples and families from around the United States, and although I've told him I'm a Canadian living in Abu Dhabi, he tells the group I'm from Abu Dhabi. "I just think Abu Dhabi sounds cooler," he explains.
Jon asks if we have any dietary needs before ordering two styles of pizza for us to share: the deep dish that originated in Chicago, with a tall, thick cornmeal crust and heavy amounts of cheese, toppings and sauce, and tavern-style, a round pizza with a thin crust cut into squares. "We're the deep dish capital of the world," Jon concurs, although he tells us Chicagoans might take their visitors for deep dish but favour the tavern-style pizza, which outsells deep dish by three to one.
While we wait for our pizzas, Jon starts with a little history. Pizza originated in Naples as a snack, but started taking on a shape of its own in the United States after the Second World War, aided by a wave of Italian immigrants and returning soldiers who developed a taste for it overseas.
Pizano's owner, Rudy Malnati Jnr, comes from Chicago's deep dish family. His father worked at Chicago's first pizza restaurant, Pizzeria Uno, and is often credited with the deep dish invention. Two of Rudy Snr's sons worked with him at Uno. Lou opened Lou Malnati's Pizzeria in 1971; Rudy Malnati Jnr opened Pizano's in 1991, and his mum still helps make the dough.
Our pizzas arrive and Jon invites us to try a piece of each. The thin-crust cheese pizza is perfect in its simplicity: the crust is crisp and caramelised at the edges, and the cheese is chewy with golden brown bubbles stretching right to the ends of the crust and floating on a simple, fresh tomato sauce. The deep dish crust is also crisp and almost hard to cut through, smothered in cheese, sauce and chunks of sausage. As we eat, we hear about how they're made. Our waiter, Robert, shows us a high-edged black pan made of light aluminium that's been "seasoned" - coated and cooked with oil - for two or three days. The pizza is baked in a stone-bottomed oven at 650°F (343°C), allowing the crust to caramelise instead of burn; the deep dish is cooked in corn oil, and the sauce is layered on top of the cheese, instead of the other way round, to help keep it moist.
We wrap up quickly at Pizano's - we don't need to worry about paying - and Jon herds us onto Dough Force One, picking up a microphone to give us a basic city tour. The bus loops around the sites near Pizano's: the Chicago Board of Trade, the 48-storey art deco skyscraper that was once the city's tallest building; La Salle Street, where they flipped an 18-wheel semi-trailer truck for the Batman film The Dark Knight; City Hall and the Picasso sculpture in Daley Square.
We pass Millennium Park, the project that was completed four years late - "Chicago Constant Time", Jon calls it - and for three times the budget, with its "Cloud Gate" Anish Kapoor sculpture otherwise known as "the Bean". Moving along to Lake Shore Drive, he points out the official start of Route 66, linking Chicago to Los Angeles; Grant Park, where Obama gave his "Yes We Can" acceptance speech; and the Navy Pier, stretching 3,000 feet into Lake Michigan - "it's a good workout after the pizza tour".
In the North Side neighbourhood of Lincoln Park, we stop at redFLAME Pizzeria, a new restaurant that makes grilled pizza, which Jon says makes it unique. He divides us into small groups to bring us into the kitchen so we can watch Alan Calder, the head chef, make what they call "flame-cooked dough". He rolls it out with semolina flour, drops it right on the grill, flips it with a large pizza paddle then brings it to the counter to dress it with toppings before sticking it under a broiler. Back at the table, I sample the Quatro, my first grilled pizza: the crust tastes, well, grilled, so it's not as greasy as other pizzas, and it has a flavourful blend of cheeses: a mozzarella/provolone blend, goat cheese and Pecorino Romano, topped with arugula and Parmesan cheese.
Back on the bus, Jon passes around a binder of laminated articles about pizza, including Chicago magazine's 25 best pizza places. Three of the four we're visiting today are on the list (redFLAME wasn't yet open); the next place we're visiting was on the cover.
Coalfire was started in 2007 by two guys from Massachusetts, Jay Spillane and Bill Carroll, who wanted to introduce Chicago to a different kind of pizza: one that is cooked in a coal oven.
The giant oven, glowing with burning coal that reaches up to 800°F (426°C), is the centrepiece of the open-concept kitchen at the back of the brick-walled restaurant. We watch as they cook us up a Margherita pizza in under two minutes, much quicker than the 30 minutes a deep dish takes to bake.
They serve us our pizzas in their hot platters balanced on top of empty bulk cans of Alta Cucina plum tomatoes. Compared with Pizano's thin crust, this one tastes smokier and the cheese is sparser, dotted with big fresh basil leaves.
Back on the bus, I'm feeling well fed and more like a Chicago Pizza Nap, but Jon keeps us awake by asking us for a show of hands on our favourite so far: the winner is Pizano's thin-crust pizza, the runner-up is Coalfire, then redFLAME's grilled pizza ahead of Pizano's deep dish.
He tells us about our last stop, Gino's East of Chicago, which was started by two taxi drivers in 1966. Neither of them was named Gino nor had a recipe of their own, but they convinced Pizzeria Uno's chef, Alice Mae Redmond, to jump ship, bringing with her the deep dish recipe. No longer in its original location, Gino's East moved to North Wells Street in 1999. There's no doubt this is the most touristy stop on our trip: the building is decorated with giant pizza slices, and the walls in the cavernous space are covered in diners' graffiti (you're encouraged to leave your mark).
We're served our final slices of Chicago deep dish, and given a choice of sausage or spinach. My slice is deeper than Pizano's and heavy on chunky tomato sauce; as much as I try to savour it my stomach doesn't have the room. Pizano's thin crust remains the top of my list, and not because Oprah says so.
Our group parts ways on the sidewalk outside, and I'm sorry to say goodbye to Jon, the perfect pizza diplomat whose enthusiasm demonstrates "a deep-rooted passion for pizza that goes back to my youth".
He started Chicago Pizza Tours in 2010 with a simple mission: "I just felt that Chicago is an unbelievable city to visit, and that nothing is more synonymous with Chicago than pizza."
There are more than 2,000 pizzerias in the Chicagoland area, he tells us, "but here's the kicker - not all of them are good".
Let him kidnap you for a few hours, though, and he'll give you a good taste.
The flight Return flights to Chicago from Abu Dhabi with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) cost from Dh5,620, including taxes
The tour Chicago Pizza Tours (www.chicagopizzatours.com) take place Friday to Sunday, 11am-2pm. Buy tickets for US$60 (Dh220) per person online at www.zerve.com. (Book ahead because tours often sell out.)
The hotel The Waldorf Astoria Chicago, formerly known as the Elysian, in the Gold Coast neighbourhood has king-bed deluxe rooms starting from $460 (Dh 1,689) a night, including taxes (waldorfastoria3.hilton.com; 001 312 646 1300). It also serves wood-oven cooked pizza in its restaurant Balsan