April 23, 2021

Garin Pirnia

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Talking Midwestern Pizza with Dennis Lee

"I tried to re-create a meme of a pizza covered in candy corn. It was terrible."

We all eat pizza, but only some of us can call ourselves pizza experts. The Chicago-based writer Dennis Lee got an education in crust, sauce, and cheese after he lost his marketing job in 2016. “I needed something to pull in income,” he says. A friend offered him a job making pizza at a Paulie Gee’s franchise in Logan Square. “I said, ‘What the hell, might as well stay busy till I find an office job.’ I stayed for four and a half years, full-time. I still moonlight when they need me.” The rest of the time, he shares his pizza opinions (and much more) as a staff writer at The Takeout.

In February, The Takeout published Lee’s “big honkin’ guide” to regional pizza styles, which includes some of the Midwest’s most famous creations, from the “very unique” (to say the least) hot-and-cold pizzas of the eastern Ohio River Valley to the scissor-cut, malt-sweetened pies on menus in Iowa and Illinois’s Quad Cities. It was one more important addition to the pizza canon from a writer and cook who once sought to answer the question, “Can you have too much pepperoni on a pizza?” and also once made a baby food pizza with a name that we’re not even going to share here. We caught up with Lee to talk through Midwestern pizza preferences, the best pies in Chicago, and one-off creations inspired by Detroit coneys and White Castle.

Talking Midwestern Pizza with Dennis Lee - Quote

There are a lot of guides on the internet, and none of them really seemed to encompass hyper-regional styles like Dayton-style pizza, pizza strips from Rhode Island, Colorado mountain–style…

What do you love most about pizza?

Pizza is so versatile. You can do almost anything with it and still recognize it as pizza. There are so many different styles and varieties that, when you switch types, it’s almost like you’re eating a whole different cuisine. And that’s what makes pizza so hard to get tired of.

What compelled you to write a regional pizza guide?

There are a lot of guides on the internet, and none of them really seemed to encompass hyper-regional styles like Dayton-style pizza, pizza strips from Rhode Island, Colorado mountain–style…

There’s an absurd amount that people take for granted and the rest of the country has no idea about. So I wanted to gather all of it and put it in one place. Of course, people emailed me, huffy, mad I hadn’t covered this or that, so the guide will be updated. That’s one of the best things about writing on the internet, because unlike with a book, you can go back and fix and add things. It’s not a complete compendium, but it covers so much that I think you get a good feel about regional preferences, and that’s super interesting to me.

What are the common attributes of Midwestern pizza? Is there a through-line?

Generally, the Midwest likes crisper, thin-crust pizza—often cut into squares. That seems to be the main takeaway. Also, we Midwesterners generally love to be heavy-handed with the toppings, which works on that style of crust. A triangle-cut pizza would immediately flop over. You’d lose everything on top to gravity. Deep dish is an outlier, but that’s very specific to Chicago.

How do you feel about Chicago-style pizza?

I love both deep dish and thin crust. I eat less deep dish because it’s heavy, but whenever I have it, I think, Why don’t I eat this more often? I generally prefer tavern-style, but there are so many choices in Chicago now that I hop around: Sicilian, New York-style slices. More recently it’s been New York-style slices that I like best. Please don’t get mad at me, Chicago!

What are some of your favorite pizza places in Chicago? 

For deep dish, I really like My Pi in the Bucktown neighborhood. It’s so, so, good. For cracker thin, Pat’s is truly amazing. I get New York slices at Paulie Gee’s. The place I haven’t visited yet that I’m dying to is Pizza Fried Chicken Ice Cream in Bridgeport. If you want to know the truth, though, I don’t eat a lot of pizza these days. People would get mad at me if they knew.

Of all the pizzas you’ve made, what’s your crowning achievement and why?

I don’t want to play favorites with my pizza children. Any successful pizza is the best. But I do think the grilled cheese Detroit-style pizza that I made just before the pandemic started in the U.S. in March 2020 was one of the more creative things I’ve done. I took a par-baked pizza crust, split it in half, filled it with American cheese, and topped it with Muenster, tomato slices, basil oil, and cheddar crisps. That way, when you picked it up and looked at it, you could see that it was really like a homey grilled cheese sandwich, but with special stuff on top.

What’s the weirdest pizza with the weirdest toppings that you’ve made and also the weirdest pizza someone else made that you ate? And when I say weird, maybe it’s weird to the average pizza eater.

I tried to re-create a meme of a pizza covered in candy corn. It was terrible. I realize that whoever made it did it as a stunt to post on the internet. Now that I think about it, though, I’m not sure anyone really tried to outdo me at work, so my own creations were the worst I’ve ever had. I topped a pizza entirely with baby food and I felt sick after one bite.

What’s the weirdest pizza you’ve made and sold at Paulie Gee’s? 

I’m going to preface this by saying that weird pizzas don’t make for hot sellers. Pizza that doesn’t sell doesn’t make for good business, so generally I avoid pitching absurd pizzas for specials. One of the more adventurous pizzas we did was a Coney Island hot dog pizza, with all the toppings of a Detroit Coney Island hot dog—including the hot dogs from Michigan. We also topped it with a Mike’s Hot Honey mustard vinaigrette. That was awesome. On 4/20, we sell a White Castle pizza that is literally made from sliders, and it’s maddeningly good. It doesn’t make sense how good it is.


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