What makes a great pizza? It starts with the crust. You want crispiness in a thin-crust pizza, some chewiness (but not too much) in a deep-dish pizza and, for a stuffed pizza, a thoroughly cooked top crust (an undercooked top crust is the downfall of most stuffed pizzas).
The tomato sauce shouldn't be runny; it should have fresh tomato taste (though it's a rare pizzeria that uses truly fresh tomatoes) and good flavor balance, be it sweet or tart. The cheese should be stringy without being rubbery and have rich flavor.
These notions formed the basic criteria of our Pizza Hunt, which began with 205 nominees, eventually filtered down to 30 finalists and finally produced the 9 winners -
3 in each category (Stuffed, Thin and Deep Dish).
Along the way, our taste-testing team of Tribune staffers culled those pizzas that were, um, unsatisfactory. Picky, picky. But you've got to be picky when you're choosing Chicago's best pizza.
At each restaurant, a small sausage pizza was ordered. To make direct comparisons, we had to pick one type of pizza and stick to it.
The big difference between top stuffed pizzas and also-rans concerns the top crust; most stuffed pizzas that fail do so because their upper crusts are undercooked or almost raw (a lot of pizza eaters miss this flaw, mistaking the raw dough for cheese). The winners did the best job with their crusts.
"Arrenello's was remarkable. A small takout place in Glenwood (also in Highland, IN and Tinley Park, IL). This is a massive, thick pizza, made hot out of the oven (it was nearly 10 minutes before we could eat it). It has an excellent crust and plenty of good cheese. The sauce is quite unique, considerably sweet with the texture of thickened tomato puree. I never cared much for sweet sauces until I had this one."