How to Make a Great Chicago Style Stuffed Pizza
Chicago style stuffed pizza is a pizza pie based on an Italian Easter pie. It is more kin to a casserole than a typical flat, thin crust pizza. The dough can either be flaky or more like a bread dough and is filled with lots of cheese, meats and vegetables, partially baked and then topped with tomato sauce. It was apparently developed in Chicago in the 1970’s by Rocco Palese, founder of Nancy’s Pizzeria, although its true origins are lost in the mists of time. Many Chicago pizzerias specialize in stuffed pizza including Nancy’s, Pizzeria Uno’s and Giordano’s.
The development of this recipe began in 2001, when I left the Chicago area and moved to the Western Slope of Colorado. My family and I live in a beautiful valley that has everything we need, except a decent pizzeria. My husband, Scott, hails from upstate New York and until he met me, had never tasted anything remotely resembling a stuffed pizza. During several trips to the Windy City to visit my dad and stepmother, he and I ate our way through stuffed pizzas from Lou Malnati’s, Uno’s, Gino’s East, Nancy’s and Giordano’s. As befits a man of good taste, Scott naturally became an instant convert to the delights of Chicago style pizza, despite a deprived upbringing eating only that thin, bendable stuff that passes for pizza in New York. Fortunately for our marriage, he agreed with me that Giordano’s has the best stuffed pizza around.
Upon our return to our lovely, pizza challenged valley we embarked on a mission to develop a recipe for a pizza that mimicked Giordano’s stuffed pizza as closely as possible. I absolutely love their crust, its flakiness is amazing and I have tried for years to duplicate that style. After nine years, thanks to much delicious trial and error and some great advice from Buzz, a moderator from pizzamaking.com, I present to you what I believe to be the best stuffed pizza recipe west of Chicagoland. Another note, don’t be intimidated by the length or scope of this recipe. It is worth every second of time you will spend making it. Just pick a snowy / rainy day and have fun in the kitchen.
Chicago Style Stuffed Pizza
Makes two large stuffed pizzas
6 cups all purpose unbleached flour (King Arthur preferred)
1 heaping TBSP yeast
1 TBSP sea salt
2 TBSP sugar
½ cup olive oil
1 ½ cups warm water (you might need more)
Proof the yeast with an additional teaspoon of sugar in your nice 100 – 110 degree water (I use filtered water, I swear it makes a difference). Mix the flour, salt and sugar. Add yeast mixture. Use your hands to start to form the dough into a rough ball, then add the oil a little a time until it comes together into cohesive ball (it will still be a bit scrappy). Add more water if necessary.
Knead only two minutes, no kidding! This is the key to the flakiness of Giordano style pizza crust. The more you knead, the more bread like it becomes. So a short knead is the real secret!
Let the dough rise-because of the short kneading time, it will not rise very much. I let it rise for anywhere from 2 – 8 hours. The longer the better! You can also put it in the fridge overnight if you’d like, and use it the next day. Be sure that the dough is at room temperature before attempting to roll it out. Make your sauce and fillings now, so they are ready but not to hot when your crust is ready.
Once it has risen, divide the dough into 4 equal pieces, and repeat the following process for each crust. Roll each one thin with a rolling pin. If it wants to bounce back, let it rest 10 minutes or so. Then fold the dough in quarters, let it rest a little and roll it out flat and thin again (it should be at least 12″ in diameter). You can repeat the rolling a third time, I encourage you to try it. Think puff pastry! This creates that flakiness I love in Giordano’s crust.
Once it’s rolled flat and thin for the final time, immediately put one crust in a greased 12″ deep dish pan (I use olive oil). (I have several preferred pans; my current favorites are a Le Creuset paella pan and a dark metal, heavy duty, deep dish pizza pan. We’ve also used a great old cast iron skillet) The size of the dough should be larger than the pan, so drape it over, press it down, and cut off the edges. Now get right to work stuff your pizza. Don’t let the dough rise in the pan.
Fill your crust with your fillings in the following order:
Cheese (grated or sliced) about 8 – 12 oz for the bottom
Spinach or Sausage filling (see following recipes)
Cheese again (grated or sliced) another 8 – 12 oz. here
Now drape another crust over your filling, seal the edges well and fold over for a pretty edge. (See picture.)
With a sharp knife, cut several air vents in the top of your creation.
Put in a HOT oven. I recommend 450 degrees, but experiment with any temp from 425 – 500, depending on your pan.
Check after 10 – 15 minutes. When it’s starting to brown slightly, pull your pizza out and put your tomato sauce on top. I prefer a thin layer of sauce. (My favorite sauce recipe follows, but you can use any good tomato sauce.) Then top your pizza with fresh grated Parmesan cheese and put back in the oven for another 10 – 20 minutes. Watch the bottom crust, especially in a dark pan. It will burn quickly. When the sauce / Parmesan combo is bubbly and the bottom is not burned, your pizza is ready. Pull it out of the oven and let sit for a few minutes (now is the time to take pictures of your creation). Enjoy.
Tomato Sauce Recipe:
2 large cans whole Italian Plum tomatoes, well drained (I like Muir Glen)
4-5 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper ( I also like to add 1 tsp of crushed red chili flakes)
2 – 3 tsp. oregano
1 teaspoon salt
1 tbsp sugar
2 bay leaves
1 cup chopped onions
Heat large skillet over medium heat until nice and warm. Coat the bottom of the hot pan with a small puddle of olive oil. Add onions and sauté until translucent, adding garlic about halfway through cooking so it doesn’t burn. Add drained tomatoes. Stir. Add in salt, sugar, pepper, bay leaves, chili flakes and oregano. Cook for about five to ten minutes on medium heat. I break up the tomatoes slightly with a potato masher or an immersion blender (don’t forget to take out the bay leaves). The sauce should still be a little chunky. Taste and add salt, pepper, oregano or more sugar as needed. Let sauce sit until you’re ready.
2 pounds fresh spinach (or 3 packages frozen spinach, thawed and drained)
1 yellow onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
a little olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
½ tsp red chili pepper flakes
a little nutmeg (freshly ground, about ¼ tsp or so)
Lots of fresh basil leaves (about ½ cup) (if you’re in pinch, use about 1 tsp of dried basil and add it to your spinach mixture)
1 – 1 ½ pounds mozzarella (grated or thinly sliced) – I use 1 ½ pounds evenly divided between the top and the bottom of your filling, like a cheese sandwich.
fresh Parmesan cheese for the top of pizza
Sauté onions and garlic in olive oil with chili flakes until mostly cooked, add fresh (or frozen) spinach, cover and cook over lowish heat until wilted. The idea here is that the filling be very dry. If it’s not, drain any water out as best you can. Add salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Next, tear up a bunch of basil leaves into small pieces and add to filling once it’s off the heat. I’ve heard that cutting basil with a knife changes the taste, so I don’t take any chances, I tear it by hand. You can also try laying the basil leaves over your spinach filling before you put on the final layer of cheese. That’s how Edwardo’s on Howard St. used to do it. Set your filling aside to cool before stuffing your crust.
Sausage and Pepper Filling:
2 pounds bulk Italian sausage (hot is good!)
2 red, green or yellow peppers, thinly sliced
2 large yellow onions, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, chopped
Salt & pepper to taste
1 – 1 ½ pounds mozzarella cheese, grated or thinly sliced – I use 1 ½ pounds evenly divided between the top and the bottom of your filling, like a cheese sandwich.
Fresh parmesan cheese for top of pizza
Brown Italian sausage in a little olive oil, if needed, over medium heat. Add onions, peppers and garlic. Cook over medium heat until all the ingredients are tender. Drain any excess fat. Season to taste (how much seasoning you need depends on how your sausage is seasoned), don’t be afraid to add salt, pepper, oregano, basil or chili flakes. Cool filling before stuffing your pizza crust.