A Brief History of Chicago Pizza. Special Guest Blogger – the Maestro’s Papà

In the movie Casablanca I think it was Louis that said “Everybody Goes to Rick’s” he could have meant Riccardo’s Restaurant on Rush street in Chicago in the 1950’s and 60’s. Located on lower Wacker drive around the corner from the Billy Goat Tavern and between the Chicago Sun-Times/ Daily News and Chicago Tribune/ American (yep 4 daily papers). Rick’s ever-popular bar was a magnet for local newsmen the most famous being legendary columnists Mike Royko, Irv Kupcinet, Rick Kogan and noted author and professional Chicagoan Studs Terkel. The menu consisted of Piedmont cuisine and included dishes such as Saltimbocca, Lobster Fra Diavolo, Cannelloni and Maitra de Roberto ‘s “Bobby’s special salad” which turned out to be my first taste of Caesar salad but what did I know at 18? Most important for this story I recall an appetizer of an oddball thick square pizza slices (more to follow).

So at age 18 or so, armed with easily obtained phony id’s this former copy boy, messenger and dispatcher from the Sun Times saved his pennies to impress his new girl an exotic red head half Italian, half Lithuanian beauty from the “suburbs.” For a committed greaser and wannabe rat packer, a date at Riccardo’s was the height of cool even if we came in my Dad’s Chevy. Sitting in a booth in the bar area took a few bucks in the handshake, but it was the place to be when the singing started. I recall strolling guitarist, accordionist, singing waiters and at any moment a star from Chicago’s Lyric Opera might rise and belt out a fabulous aria. Memory fades, but I like to think we saw Pavarotti there. Behind the bar were murals worth a small fortune depicting the Seven Lively Arts.

The above mentioned greaser and exotic red head

The above mentioned greaser and exotic red head

Rick Jr. took over from his Dad by the time we learned of the place, and like many with inherited wealth he lived fast and loose. Over time we watched the murals begin to vanish after Rick’s trips to Vegas and Hollywood where he tried to break into show biz. Eventually he vanished too, later found to have choked to death at a restaurant in Arizona (or so the story goes).

So, homemade Pizza in Chicago for the Barrese, Caputo, Angerame, Lavorato families and other cugini likely descended from Grandma Caputo’s recipe. It was served with cheese only, every Friday. In those days the church decreed meat on Sunday would result in eternal damnation. The Pizza was thin, cut in triangles, nice homemade crust, lots of oregano and plenty of cheese. As we got older, we discovered Chicago Avenue Pizza which broke down into the Vito’s faction (triangle cut) and Midwest Pizzeria (square cut). I was always a Midwest guy while my brother Al was a Vito’s guy. It gave us something else to argue about. Nobody ever heard or conceived of a thick Pizza.

Enter Ike Sewell and Rick Riccardo Sr.

Ike

Ike

errr, different Rick Riccardo Sr.

errr, different Rick Riccardo Sr.

The founders of deep dish Pizza are the stuff of Chicago legend, with claims from the Malnati clan and an alliance between Riccardo and his friend Ike Sewell, a Chicago liquor distributor and native of Dallas, TX.

The story goes that Sewell suggested to Riccardo that they open a Mexican restaurant together, but a botched test meal made Riccardo violently ill and he swore off Mexican food. Eventually Sewell opened Su Casa a long famous Chicago Mexican restaurant. Riccardo’s counterproposal was pizza. Sewell proposed super-sizing the popular appetizer offered at Rick’s Rush street spot. Their restaurant opened as Pizzeria Riccardo and later renamed Pizzeria Uno. Later the partners opened Pizzeria Due, kitty corner from the original. Sewell eventually sold the name and concept to a Boston holding company.

So the concept was from an Italian who had no idea what to do with it. It took a Texas Jew to create “Chicago Style Pizza”. In-the-know Chicago Italian-Americans resent the whole idea of thick Pizza. As John Stewart famously demonstrated, it is Pizza soup and should be sold in Iowa or places like that.

That’s my story and I am sticking to it.

The Maestro’s Papà currently resides in Dallas Texas, with the Maestro’s Mamma, and the Maestro’s Sorella, Cognato, and Nipotino.

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