One of the first times I visited my little brother in Chicago, we stood in the kitchen of his first apartment eating deep dish pizza. You would think that the sweltering heat of that summer would have deterred us from pursuing a molten pie of cheese and tomato, but I was in Chicago, and when you visit Chicago, you eat deep dish pizza. We sweated our way down the street to a divey pizza place where we handed damp dollar bills over the counter in exchange for two slices. We took them back to the old walk-up where he lived in a cozy first floor apartment with a roommate and a cat named Clark Gable. I remember standing in the kitchen and eating pizza and talking with him. I don’t remember what we talked about. There was nothing remarkable about our conversation, or the pizza, which had cooled quickly and formed what was essentially a solid triangular block of cheese with a thin bready crust. I do remember that I kept leaning against the kitchen island, and suddenly lurching backwards, continually forgetting that it was on wheels. More importantly, I remember feeling happy. I remember standing there, noticing this, and deciding that I was going to remember that moment, where we were and who we were, together.
Two years later I ended up moving to Chicago myself with nothing but two large suitcases, ready for a new beginning. For dinner my first night, I ordered a small personal Lou Malnati’s pizza to-go and ate it in my empty apartment, marveling over the small sliver of lake between the buildings and trees in the view from my living room window. I frequented that Lou Malnati’s a few more times in the first few months. Cheese-lover that I am, deep dish was comforting for me, and being a new resident in a big city, I often required comforting. I knew that other Chicago residents hardly ever sought out Lou Malnati’s without tourists in tow, so it made sense that as time passed, as I felt like less of a tourist in my own city, deep dish became reserved for occasions when I had out-of-town guests.
I think one of the indications that you are at home in a new place is when you find your favorites, your gems—unsuspecting places that you confidently declare to be among the best. Deep into my second year in Chicago, during the winter that invented the term “Polar Vortex,” I found what I personally consider to be the best deep dish pizza in the city: the spinach and cheese from Bartoli’s Pizzeria. It started with a Grubhub order for me and visiting friend and ended with a delightful food coma. Their deep dish pizza has a light and crispy crust that somehow resists getting soggy, though the light touch of fresh tomato sauce (compared to other deep dish) and generous mozzarella and spinach probably help. Each bite is the perfect mix of crunchy and creamy, with the occasional hint of garlic. This pizza was so good that I had it delivered several more times in the coming months, long after I had played host.
Bartoli’s and I were likely fated. When I moved during my third year in Chicago, I realized that I had unknowingly rented an apartment just a block away. This past year brought new changes in my career and my personal life, and though I never mentioned it on this blog explicitly, I accepted an offer of admission to graduate school in Nashville and decided to move once my lease ended in May.
My last week in Chicago, I ordered the spinach and cheese deep dish from Bartoli’s and picked it up to take back home. As I walked back, I couldn’t help but notice that it weighed more than my brother’s newly adopted puppy. It was probably two puppies worth of pizza, and thinking about the pizza in units of puppies was highly effective in preventing my usual over-indulgence.
Chicago was the first place I lived as an adult that felt most like home, and I loved it. (Love, in the present tense, I should say.) Nashville has lots of options for the food lover, but but it will never compare to Chicago, where the options are more vast and almost innumerable. Hell, I used to brag about being able to get amazing empanadas delivered to my door.
Perhaps I should have written about all the wonderful food in Chicago for my farewell instead of its cliche trademark, but I didn’t know how. Like the thought of saying goodbye, it felt too overwhelming. Even after moving, I don’t think I have said goodbye, but the reality is that I don’t really have to. I can go back and visit. I could even move back if I wanted to, once I’m done with grad school. While I will miss Chicago, I’m excited to explore Nashville as an adult (rather than the undergraduate and pretty much completely different person I was 5 years ago.) I’m prepared to tone down obnoxious public comparisons between the two cities (“Hmph, well in Chicago blah blah blah…”) which I’m sure friends will appreciate. But the truth is, I did need a new start and new opportunity somewhere else so that I could get out of a rut and grow. For as much as I love pizza, I can’t have it everyday.