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Pizza Hut Goes Deep
Chicago-style pizza is finally available nationwide. But is it authentic?

by Mark D. Johnson
October 1, 2002

Pizza Hut Goes Deep_Mark D. Johnson-Chicago-style pizza is finally available nationwide. But is it authentic? It's a well-known fact that Chicago-style deep dish pizza is the best in the world. Who could make any serious claim to the contrary? Alright, I'm really not looking to start a fight with anyone, but it is without a doubt my own personal favorite in the pizza spectrum, the only problem being that, for reasons beyond all comprehension, it was virtually unattainable outside the Windy City. This was one of the primary arguments against moving the Partial Observer headquarters from Chicago to Virginia. It has baffled me over the years: how could such a fine product not be available in every pizzeria nationwide? Yet before any conspiracy theory could be proven, Pizza Hut® unveiled plans last week to introduce its own "authentic" version in its restaurants. You can imagine my excitement!

I had my first taste of Pizza Hut's "Chicago Dish" over the weekend, but before I give my impression, I should explain to the less fortunate (i.e., those who have never sampled the Real Thing) just what Chicago-style pizza is. Obviously, it's baked in a deep pan, which means that the outer crust is one to two inches tall, depending on the restaurant. The bottom crust is perhaps only a quarter-inch thick and lies under an absurd amount of cheese, mixed with your choice of toppings, which is topped by more cheese. On the very top, in a break from the traditional style, you have the marinara tomato sauce. In a variation known as "Stuffed" deep dish pizza, another thin layer of crust lies on top of the cheese, again with the sauce on top. At the very apex of all pizzas, in my opinion, is the stuffed pizza from Giordano's Restaurants in the Chicago area. Pizza Hut's creation is more akin to the deep dish style of Lou Malnatti's or Pizzeria Uno, both famous Windy City institutions, the latter being the birthplace of the Chicago style.

The difficulty in a national roll-out of a pie this deep, as Pizza Hut saw it, was that it typically takes about forty minutes to cook, which is just not a viable option for their national chain. This is why Pizza Hut says they spent the last ten years perfecting a process which enables them to cook it in ten minutes while maintaining its authenticity as "Chicago-style." Though Chicago pizza chefs remain skeptical of this claim, what Pizza Hut is dishing out does, in most respects, resemble the genuine article more-so than any other chains I've seen advertising Chicago-style deep dish, including Old Chicago and Green Mill restaurants.

So how does it taste? Well, it's okay, but not as good as most of the deep dish pizza you can get in Chicago. There are two main things that do not meet my personal standards: the sauce and the crust. The sauce is chunky, with small tomato wedges here and there, as you would find at Gino's East pizza in Chicago. I would have preferred Pizza Hut's regular, sweeter sauce. The crust, while not as tall as that of Giordano's, has a good consistency, but its very noticeable buttery flavor failed to win me over.

Is it authentic? I don't really feel qualified to judge that, but I would say "yes and no." Yes, in that it appears to follow the Chicago formula, but without the extended time in the oven. No, in that it simply doesn't quite taste like a real Chicago deep dish pizza, and Pizza Hut does a curious thing upon serving that I've never seen anywhere in Chicago: the server places the pizza on a low stand and pours the sauce on top from a bowl, right there at the table. You can then have the server ground some parmesan cheese over the sauce to your liking. It came across as a tad gimmicky and unnecessary. Maybe not baking the sauce with the pizza has something to do with their revolutionary speedy cooking method.

Though it's not likely to be a hit in Chicago, it will be interesting to see if the Chicago Dish delights the national market. Deep dish pizza is as synonymous with Chicago as the Sears Tower, Wrigley Field, and The Loop. If the nation at large rejects Pizza Hut's version, it could foil any future plans to bring the great Chicago style to a larger audience. Although it didn't quite live up to my expectations, that is not to say the Chicago Dish is a bad-tasting product. Maybe they'll let me substitute the regular sauce for the chunky next time. But then, on my next visit to Pizza Hut, I might be more inclined to opt for the Big New Yorker, which would be a shame because pizza is definitely one area where the "second city" should come first.

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