According to the legend printed on the menu at the original Pizzeria Uno in Chicago, deep dish pizza was invented right there at the corner of Ohio and Wabash Streets sometime in the autumn of 1943 by the restaurant’s owner, Ike Sewell.
Well, okay, Sewell had some help from his chef, Richard Riccardo Sr. Sewell, a liquor salesman from Texas, had originally dreamed of opening a Mexican restaurant in the basement tavern space at 29 East Ohio, but, according to the expanded version of the legend, which Sewell would tell for the rest of his life, Riccardo became violently ill after tasting Mexican food for the first time and fled back to his native Italy for a few months. When he returned, he announced to Sewell that they would be serving pizza instead. Sewell had no idea what pizza was. In 1943, there was only one other restaurant in Chicago that made pizza, in the Little Italy neighborhood on Taylor Street, and the cook there told Riccardo and Sewell he only made it for parties. So Riccardo retreated to the kitchen, inspired by Sewell’s dictum to “make it a meal.” And so he did.
Most people in Chicago and the wider pizza world accepted this story. But Tim Samuelson, Chicago’s official cultural historian (and, really, can you think of anyone with a better job?), was not convinced. For years, he tried to find the truth. Peter Regas, an amateur historian and pizza obsessive, met with Samuelson and agreed to help him on his quest. Now, 12 years later, he has published his findings in The Chicago Foodcultura Clarion, a zine distributed by the Chicago Reader. (Other contributors to the Clarion include Phillip Foss, who has also written for The Takeout.)
Regas immediately found one big hole in Sewell’s story: there was a big war going on in Europe in 1943, so nobody would be jaunting off to Italy just to eat pizza. Regas’ biggest trump, though, came in his perusal of city liquor licenses:
I found all the Chicago liquor license applications for 29 East Ohio Street for the period 1939- 1955. The critical application was the first one signed by Richard Riccardo on November 15, 1943. Riccardo explicitly states on that application he has no partners. This directly contradicts Sewell’s story that they bought the tavern business and leased the space by June 17, 1943. I was also able to find the original partnership agreement between Riccardo and Sewell (actually, Sewell’s wife signed for him). The most interesting thing about the agreement is it was signed on February 15, 1944, almost eight months after Sewell said they bought the tavern business and their lease started. Why would you wait eight months to sign a partnership agreement after—according to Sewell—committing capital to the partnership?
That damned paperwork! It’ll ruin a good story every time.
Regas also found that from around 1940 to 1941, there was actually another pizza place called The Pelican at 29 East Ohio. Riccardo may have decided to open up a pizza place of his own because the oven and pans were still there. There were also changes in the pizza crust over the years, visible in photos, and Regas believes that the current, fat-filled recipe was devised by a cook named Alice Mae Redmond, a claim substantiated by interviews with her daughter.
It’s a fascinating story, and also a fascinating glimpse into how historians really work. Take a look at the rest of the Clarion, too (it’s all in one PDF, and the pizza story is on page 10): it’s a good read.