If I were teaching a basic American Food 101 class to an extraterrestrial from Mars, I’m pretty sure they’d give me a double-take when I tried to explain that New York and Chicago-style pizza are considered the same basic food: “Yeah, this flat, crispy-yet-chewy bread with thin sauce and cheese is the same as this sturdy two-inch-deep pastry-dough pie filled with layer upon layer of sauce, toppings, and cheese.”
Loyalists who have developed powerful bonds with one style have been fighting over which is best for a long time: which pizza is really pizza, which is more unique, which tastes better (or worse), and which truly represents the place where it was developed. I can see the point of a location-based pizza preference: if you associate mouthfuls of deep dish with your first job or a budding romance, or if you folded a perfect slice in a small pizzeria in Manhattan during a great vacation or your first outing alone in the city during college, it’s easy to see how you could develop a bit of a loyalty. There are some powerful lights that go on in our minds when crust and cheese, tomatoes and toppings come together.
Though it’s also true that many people who aren’t from either place are happy to do what I do: see them as fundamentally different foods and enjoy them both immensely. Can’t we all get along?
Two restaurateurs decided to take advantage of the powerful bond people have with their pizza and pit them against each other on the same table, an attempt that, according to their research, had never actually been done before. Perhaps not coincidentally, they are from Ohio, roughly halfway between New York and Chicago.
Sean Spurlock and Zach Greves grew up together in Mason, Ohio, a small city outside Cincinnati, where they worked at pizzerias in their teens. During their young adult years, they traveled to New York and Chicago and enjoyed the pizzas in both cities. They knew they wanted to go into business together after graduating college, but they weren’t sure what kind... until one fateful day.
“We took a trip to Chicago together over a break and we were eating deep dish pizza and just loving it. We got into a little scuffle about which was superior [New York or Chicago pizza] and which was actually pizza,” says Spurlock. “We kind of just dreamt of going to a pizza place that had both styles and trying to settle the debate. We pulled out our phones and Googled ‘New York and Chicago style pizza place’ and nothing came up!”
Thus was born the concept of Two Cities Pizza: to put both kinds of pizza center-stage, allowing guests to make their own comparisons. The concept is now a reality in Mason.
“The cities both have pride in their pizza and such different cultures surrounding them that it’s significantly more about coming together and enjoying both than it is about the feud between the two,” says Greves.
From the beginning, the two owners were ready to try as many New York-style and Chicago-style pizzas as it took in order to figure out the essence of each one.
“During our testing in Chicago, we were able to synthesize the things we loved about deep dish,” Greves explains. “We loved the caramelized cheese on the crust at Pequod’s, which is very specific to them. After a lot of slices of deep dish, we decided, this is an element we want to incorporate to a degree in our own pizza.”
The inspiration for the New York pizza was more diverse: Spurlock and Greves tasted slices and whole pies from all five boroughs. “Our goal was to capture the essence of the dough and sauce to make the perfect New York-style pizza,” Greves tells me.
The recipe development for Two Cities required that every component of the pizza be a little distinct, including distinct sauces for each style as well as different approaches to the dough.
“New York pizzas have a high-gluten flour in the dough,” says Spurlock. “It bonds together and is a little chewier, with a live yeast product in it. The New York crust smells like fresh bread and has a rise to it. The Chicago pie crust is more of a pastry dough.”
The customers totally bought into the concept: there’s a 50-50 split in orders between New York and Chicago.
Early on in the restaurant’s life, reviews on Yelp noted the faithful renderings: Reviewer XL S. commented, “Got the NY style and the crust had the snap and chew you want from a hand tossed,” while Eric L. noted, “I liked the thinner take on Chicago style pizza....saved on baking time AND calories but captured all of the taste!”
Over time, the team continues to tweak the menu in order to keep the concept alive.
“We didn’t want 80% of the pizza we sold to be New York style and match the national trend,” says Greves. “That wouldn’t serve our mission well. What we really wanted was as equal as we could get. It was a little uphill with Chicago, but now that we’re four years in, people are organically excited to try both.”
Fundamentally, Spurlock believes, people are looking for different things when they come to these two different kinds of pizza. He sees the New York style as a blank canvas: consequently, Two Cities offers a greater variety of toppings for the New York pies. Chicago deep dish is focused on a few rich flavors, like whole-milk mozzarella and the bold fresh tomato sauce, so when it comes to adding toppings, less is more.
Even after four years, public interest in tasting these two pizza styles side by side hasn’t diminished. It seems that even people who have a firm favorite are happy to extend the white flag of truce for a night and try the other, or to enjoy both styles side by side. Perhaps there will be pizza peace at last.