How (and Why) John Carruthers Makes Tavern-Style Pizza
A comprehensive guide
Tavern-style pizza is unpretentious. The square-cut pie is the pickled egg of pizza styles, invented as a bar snack in post-WWII Chicago. It’s an appropriate foundation for John Carruthers’s humble monthly pop-up, Crust Fund Pizza.
Since last summer, Carruthers has been trading tavern-style pizzas for donations to Chicago-area nonprofits of his choice—organizations like Chicago House, Block Club Chicago, and The TRiiBE. He’s raised thousands of dollars from eager customers. “I wish I could make the pizzas last longer,” he says, “but they’re gone in five or six minutes.” Now, he’s taking Crust Fund’s playful sense of community beyond his home pizza kitchen with “Pizza for Everyone,” a retro, spiral-bound collection of recipes and essays from an all-star line-up of Chicago pizza lovers, including friends of Midwesterner Kate Bernot, Chandra Ram, and Dennis Lee. So far, the book has been almost as popular as his pizza. He’s sold most of the first printing, and the second edition is currently at 438% of its fundraising goal on Kickstarter.
Carruthers agreed to give us the Crust Fund pizza recipe, which is the first recipe in “Pizza for Everyone.”
But before I started cooking, I wanted to spend a few minutes talking tavern-style fundamentals with an expert.
Tell me about your progression as a pizzaiolo. How did you get to tavern-style? How did you come up with your recipe?
When the pandemic hit, I had no outlet for all of my manic energy. We started making pizzas each Friday so we could mark time and have a regular pizza and movie night with the kids, which is something we’d talked about but weren’t able to do until 2020.
I’m a fairly obsessive guy by nature, so when I do something, I want to do it as well as I can. I think I have a decent New York dough, but I wanted to know as much as I could about tavern, in part because that’s what I grew up eating in McHenry County. We didn’t call it tavern-style pizza. We just called it pizza. That was the Village Squire, Nick’s Pizza, the late, lamented Stuc’s Pizza… If you want to be good at making any kind of pizza, or barbecue, or whatever you make, it helps to have that sense memory.
That’s not to say that it’s all the same. Every version is a little different. Some have a sweet sauce. I like a sweet sauce—but not that sweet. Some load on the cheese. I started by chasing the favorite pizzas I had in high school, as a kid. You make anything weekly for more than a year, and you’re going to see the architecture and be able to manipulate it.
What are the rules of tavern-style pizza?
It should have a thin crust that’s relatively crispy. It doesn’t have to be a cracker crust, but a lot of them do have that texture, especially around the edges. The sauce should be herbaceous. Again, a lot of these places have a fairly sweet sauce. It should be a cooked sauce, not just crushed tomatoes. Cooking the sauce brings out more umami. And the cheese should be full-fat, low-moisture mozzarella. You’re basically talking string cheese.
The bake can vary, because some places are using brand-new equipment, while others are using the same oven their grandparents bought with a bar license right after World War II. That’s part of the fun. I wanted to approach tavern-style pizza as something you can make at home as easily as going out for it. It’s a style of convenience. It’s about value and convenience. It’s a working person’s food, and it isn’t about getting an oven to 800 degrees or getting tomatoes from the shady side of a certain mountain outside Naples.
What’s the advantage of a square-cut pie, anyway?
This comes back to tavern-style’s origin as bar pizza. You can hold it on napkins, with a beer in your other hand, and finish it in a bite or two. Some places cut their slightly longer. I like to make my slices two-biters, but you’ll see three-four biters.
It’s almost like a street food scenario, but inside. People are standing up, getting a snack on their way home. The pizza is not the event. It’s the thing that colors the event, that adds depth to your experience. Any baker can dial in hydration levels and fermentation times. This pizza is and has been part of everyday life for so many people, and that’s why it’s endlessly compelling.
What do you consider Chicago’s essential tavern-style pizza spots?
I’m going to give you a smart-ass answer and then some actual answers.
Chicago’s essential tavern-style pizza is the one you grew up eating. I don’t think I’ve ever known a style that, even when you become a snob about it, you can go home again.
The heavy hitters that everyone’s going to name are Vito and Nick’s on the South Side and Aurelio’s in Homewood. Aurelio’s is a chain now, but it’s still fantastic. Rosangela’s is pretty close to Vito and Nick’s, and for my money, almost as good, and then on the north side, you’ve got Pat’s. There’s a place in uptown, on a very quiet street, called Michael’s. It’s mostly a sports bar, but they make a very nice tavern-cut pizza. People say “That place? That’s where the out-of-towners go to watch NFL!” But when they try the pizza, they admit it’s very good. Really, though, it’s not about finding the best available. It’s about finding the best in your neighborhood.
How do you feel about other Midwestern square-cut pizza styles—St. Louis-style, Quad Cities-style, Ohio River Valley-style, Dayton-style…?
I relate to pizza makers everywhere. Everyone grew up with pizza, but you see these awesome style deviations as you go west. It’s like we were all playing a game of telephone that ends with “purple monkey dishwasher.” It’s people adapting the form to meet their circumstances.
Speaking of adapting to meet circumstances, what’s next for Crust Fund?
I’m open to growing or doing pop-ups—but only stuff that’s organic. I don’t want to open a pizza restaurant, because I still want to love pizza. I don’t want to hate it. I want to keep contributing to these amazing organizations in Chicago. They’re the ones doing the real work, and we just want to be a tiny little part of giving them a tailwind. And I’ve been thinking about the family reunion cookbooks that inspired “Pizza for Everyone.” What if this becomes an annual thing, just like Aunt Judy’s Jello Salad?
John Carruthers's Tavern-Style Pizza
Makes 1 pizza
This is the pizza that I started making for my wife and kids, obsessed over weekly after the first cook, and eventually started slinging to Chicagoans who aren’t afraid of meeting a stranger in an alley for pizza. Herein is, scaling issues aside, exactly what I make for every Crust Fund Pizza drop. I include some brand names (which I usually hate doing) so you can replicate it as exactly as possible.
If you wanted to try and embarrass me by making a better version, selling more of them, and raising even more money for Chicago nonprofits, then man would I have egg on my face. (Do it, coward. Make some good.)
1 dough ball
5.5 oz. sauce (Just get a 3-oz ladle and eyeball stuff)
6 oz. low-moisture, full-fat Wisconsin mozzarella
2 oz. hand-grated Parmesan (not the pre-grated, definitely not the can)
Your choice of toppings*
Fine cornmeal, for dusting the peel
Three hours before you want to start rolling out the dough, remove the dough from the fridge and let rise on an aluminum pan on the counter or stovetop.
At least one hour before you want to bake the pizza, place a 3/8-inch baking steel (or stone, but the steel does much better) on the middle rack of your oven. Preheat to 550 degrees (or 500°, if that’s as high as it goes).
On a generously floured surface, pat out your dough into a flat disc. Switch to a rolling pin and roll it out—flipping and dusting with flour often—until it reaches just over 14″ in diameter. This takes some practice, but you’ll get great at it. The flour helps a lot. Place the rolled-out dough onto a cornmeal-dusted pizza peel and dock with a dough docker or fork. (This is the key step!)
Lay your 14″ pizza pan over the dough and trim off any excess, leaving the dough just overlapping the pan by a half inch. Ladle your sauce on the pizza, spreading with the back of the ladle, all the way to the edges. Sprinkle half the shredded Parmesan over the sauce, then all of the mozzarella (again, to the edges).
Reduce the oven temperature to 500 (or leave it there if it’s maxed out). Top your pizza, then sprinkle the remaining Parmesan on top. Slide into the oven and bake for 10-11 minutes (60-90 seconds longer for bigger toppings).
Remove the pizza from the oven, lay out on a sheet of parchment or a cardboard circle, and let cool for 2 minutes. Slice into squares (4–5 cuts each way) and enjoy.
*Crust Fund Classics
Cowabunga! Thin-sliced pepperoni and dill pickles
More Like SCARE Cut Sliced charred Fresno (or sweet) peppers, pickled red onion, goat cheese, and mushrooms
Crooked Pinkie Pork and fennel sausage and hot (or sweet) giardiniera
Crust the Process Philly roast pork, broccoli rabe, garlic
Authentic D.O.P. Margarita Achiote pork, pickled red onion, roasted garlic, charred jalapeño, cotija, chicharrones, avocado crema, lime, and Tajín
The Gobbler Thanksgiving leftovers. ALL OF THEM. Don’t skimp on the cranberry sauce
Tavern-Style Pizza Dough
Makes enough for 4 pizzas
725 grams Ardent Mills Kyrol flour (14% protein)
25 grams Quaker yellow cornmeal
7 grams raw sugar
7 grams kosher salt
4 grams SAF Instant Yeast (red label)
370 grams ice water
60 grams extra virgin olive oil
First step: I disclose that for best results, you should start like a week ahead. You mutter something at this book, about me, under your breath. I get it. I do the same thing. But if you have 7 days to let dough cold ferment in four 32-ounce deli containers, you’re gonna be happy. Fear not, though: An overnight rest will also provide perfectly excellent dough.
Place the dry dough ingredients in a food processor fitted with a dough blade. Pulse until combined. Add the ice water and oil, and pulse until a dough ball starts to ride above the blade. When this happens, let it run for 40 seconds.
Let the dough rest for 20-30 minutes while you have a beer, play some video games, forget about the dough, and wonder for the first couple seconds why your phone alarm is going off. Return, free the dough from the blade, and run the processor another 30 seconds.
Remove the dough, divide into four 295(ish)-gram balls, coat lightly in oil, and pop into sturdy quart- sized deli containers. Let ‘em go in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours. But honestly, I’ve baked 24-hour dough next to seven-day dough and, man, that extra time shows up in force.
Tavern-Style Pizza Sauce
Makes about a quart, more than enough for 4 pizzas
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
6 cloves garlic, peeled
6 oz. tomato paste
1 tbsp. red pepper flakes (optional)
3 tbsp. Italian seasoning, or 1 each of dried basil, marjoram, and oregano
2 tbsp. fish sauce
1 28-oz can. whole peeled tomatoes
1 tbsp. malt vinegar
Sherry vinegar, to taste
1 tbsp. kosher salt, or to taste
1 tbsp. raw sugar, or to taste
Melt the butter and oil in a pan over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and fry, tossing frequently, until well browned. If you burn them, throw everything in the woods, get a clean pan, and try again. There’s no salvaging sauce with burnt garlic.
Add the tomato paste and stir 1-2 minutes, until it darkens. Add the red pepper and herbs and cook another minute. Add the fish sauce and tomatoes, stir, and bring to a simmer for 25 minutes. Stir to break down the tomatoes. Sometimes you’ll let it go 45 minutes because hey, no rush. This is also good.
Remove from heat, add the malt vinegar and a dash of sherry vinegar, and immersion blend to a smooth consistency.
This last part is different every time. Taste the sauce and decide if you need the additional bit of salt and sugar. Sometimes you do, and don’t let people make you feel bad about that. Trust yourself! If you’ve added them and it’s still looking for a little something, try another splash of the sherry vinegar. Give it a stir or a couple more blender squeezes and place it in a container until you’re ready for pizza. This sauce is good to make a day or two ahead, but I feel like I’m pushing a lot of waiting on you here.
Recipes excerpted from “Pizza for Everyone.” Recipes and photos courtesy of John Carruthers and Zach Sherwood.