Pizzeria Uno and the Mysterious Origins of Deep-Dish Pizza

The only photo of Riccardo and deep-dish pizza known to exist (March, 1945)

Presented by Peter Regas

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Who invented deep-dish pizza? Is there a more controversial question in Chicago food history? There’s little doubt the pizzeria at 29 East Ohio Street in Chicago- originally named “The Pizzeria” later renamed “Pizzeria Uno”- served the original deep-dish pizza. But despite decades of debate and speculation, no one has definitively identified who created the pizza style that now has a market niche worth hundreds of millions of dollars and that -rightly or wrongly- branded Chicago, as a deep-dish pizza town.

Based on twelve years of archival research, this presentation will compare previously published claims with newly discovered archival primary sources to determine what’s true, false, and arguable.

A brief overview of some of the archival sources used in the research:

  • Sources proving a pizzeria named “The Pelican” existed at 29 E. Ohio before “The Pizzeria” opened in December 1943.
  • A November 1943 Chicago liquor license application stating who originally owned “The Pizzeria” at 29 E. Ohio St.
  • A December 1943 Chicago Sun article describing “The Pizzeria” days after it opened.
  • The original 1944 partnership agreement for “The Pizzeria” at 29 East Ohio Street.
  • An unpublished 1997 interview with the original owner’s ex-wife explaining why the partnership was necessary.
  • All Chicago liquor license applications for the tavern/restaurant at 29 E. Ohio St. for the period 1939-1954.
  • Deep-dish pizza photos from the 1940s and 1950s showing a significantly thinner pizza than today’s deep-dish pizza.
  • A 1945 recipe which may have been the original deep-dish pizza recipe used at “The Pizzeria”.
  • A 1949 magazine that tells us the name of the long-forgotten manager of the pizzeria in the late 1940s.
  • An interview with Alice Mae Redmond’s daughter regarding her late mother’s career at Uno’s as their head pizza cook.

Conclusions on previous claims:

Some, including the current corporate owners of Pizzeria Uno, say Ike Sewell created deep-dish pizza. Sewell was a Texas-born college football star who came to Chicago in 1934 to work as a sales manager for a liquor company and was the owner of Pizzeria Uno when he died in 1990. But Sewell very likely had no direct or indirect ownership stake in the “The Pizzeria” at 29 East Ohio Street when it opened in December 1943. Sewell indirectly became a part-owner only after “The Pizzeria” opened (Sewell’s wife Florence signed the 1944 partnership agreement). Therefore, Sewell likely had no involvement with the initial creation of deep-dish pizza.

Still, others insist it was Rudy Malnati Sr. the longtime manager of Pizzeria Uno and father of future pizzeria owners Lou Malnati and Rudy Malnati Jr., who created deep-dish pizza. But multiple primary sources show Rudy Malnati Sr. was the pizzeria’s third manager, not the first. Other than later statements made by Sewell and Malnati, there is no primary source evidence Rudy Malnati Sr. had any official involvement with the pizzeria in the 1940s. Interestingly, his son Lou Malnati was a bartender at Pizzeria Uno before Rudy Malnati Sr. was Pizzeria Uno’s manager.

Finally, others say Ric Riccardo created deep-dish pizza. Riccardo, an Italian-American artist who came to Chicago in the late 1920s, eventually opened a popular restaurant on Rush Street, later opened “The Pizzeria” as the sole owner, and then partnered with Ike Sewell’s wife Florence until he died in 1954. Primary sources show Ric Riccardo lived with his family at an apartment at 29 E. Ohio St. from late 1942 until 1944. By November 1942, the previous owners of the basement tavern at 29 E. Ohio St. called “The Pelican” had closed their business. It’s likely that in the late summer/early fall of 1943, Riccardo got the idea to open up “The Pizzeria” and also, during that period, developed the initial deep-dish recipe. Is Riccardo’s original recipe the same deep-dish pizza we eat today? Probably not. It’s certainly possible the original dough recipe was later modified by Uno’s pizza cook Alice Mae Redmond when she was hired sometime in the mid to late 1940s.  Additionally, for reasons not entirely clear, deep-dish pizza almost certainly got thicker sometime in the late 1950s to early 1960s period.

Thursday, May 13, 2021 at 7:00 PM Central Time

Please e-mail Culinary.Historians@gmail.com for the zoom link.