Why Deep Dish Can't Be Considered Pizza in a Court of Law

The debate of “Which is better, Chicago-style or New York-style pizza?” will probably never properly be settled, at least not before mankind's mutually assured destruction. There is a huge group of people -- mostly from New York -- that claim that deep dish is objectively bad, and that the East Coast thin crust pizza style is inherently superior. And one of their favorite arguments to trot out every time this debate comes up, is the same claim that “deep dish isn’t pizza.” The talking point is rampant, echoed by thin-crust lovers everywhere, including Jon Stewart. They call it casserole, or pie, or as Stewart famously put it, a tauntaun carcass. Us Chicagoans -- in our Sisyphean duty to explain why deep dish deserves to exist -- are quick to brush these claims off as simply untrue, exaggerations of the unenlightened masses that simply do not understand. But are they, really?

Everyone's entitled to their opinion, but only one opinion ultimately matters and that belongs to Lady Liberty. Regardless of how good Chicago deep dish is, does it have enough in common with the platonic ideal of “pizza” to be classified under that umbrella? To find out, we’re putting it on trial, with the help of local lawyer Nicolette Ward. While she doesn’t specialize in pizza law, she did graduate magna cum laude from Chicago-Kent College of Law, will be joining the law offices of Romanucci & Blandin very soon, and perhaps most importantly, she agreed to give her legal counsel to us pro bono.

So, yes, deep dish is great. But can it be considered pizza in a legal sense? Court is now in session.

Chicago Deep Dish Pizza
Sean Cooley/Thrillist

The first point to make in favor of the prosecution in Skeptics v. Deep Dish is that, unfortunately, there is a bit of legal precedent for claiming that deep dish is, in fact, not pizza. Since law is necessarily beholden to authority, deep dish has an uphill battle in court, since we will first need to challenge this precedent if we are to even bring this case before a jury. Ward states:

"We can't talk about pizza law without addressing the elephant in the room: there is only one prior ruling on the topic, and it doesn't look good for Chicago. Justice Antonin Scalia rocked pizza jurisprudence to its core in January 2011, when he told California Lawyer magazine: 'I think [New York style pizza] is... infinitely better than Chicago pizza. You know these deep-dish pizzas-it's not pizza. It's very good, but ... call it tomato pie or something. ... I'm a traditionalist, what can I tell you?'"

According to Ward, anybody familiar with Scalia’s previous Supreme Court opinions should not be surprised to hear this. Scalia was known for being a Constitutional Originalist, a man who viewed the meaning of the constitution as immutable and fixed in time at the moment it was written, even as the world changed around it. His legal opinions, therefore, came from a very narrowly and clearly defined interpretation of Constitutional law. The question then becomes, what did Scalia view as the Constitutional ideal of pizza? What is its platonic ideal, against which everything claiming to be pizza can be judged?

This is the final nail in the coffin for the prosecution. For Scalia, pizza began and ended at Neapolitan-style pizza. Since deep dish pizza isn’t Neapolitan, it’s not real pizza. Case closed.

Luckily enough, Scalia made an appearance at Chicago-Kent College of Law in October of 2011 to expound upon his originalist pizza views.

“I do indeed like so-called ‘deep dish pizza’... It’s very tasty,” remarked Scalia. “But it should not be called ‘pizza.’ It should be called ‘a tomato pie.’ Real pizza is Neapolitan. It is thin. It is chewy and crispy, OK?”

Ward notes that this interpretation of pizza, again, makes sense given Scalia’s tradition-rooted views. In Scalia’s mind, pizza is immutable, and any American bastardization of its true form (which, again, for Scalia, is Neapolitan), is inherently not pizza.

This is the final nail in the coffin for the prosecution. For Scalia, pizza began and ended at Neapolitan-style pizza. Since deep dish pizza isn’t Neapolitan, it’s not real pizza. Case closed. Deep dish is guilty, and it is, legally, not pizza.

But the story doesn’t end there. Ward notes that back in 2010, the European Union gave Neapolitan pizza a “Traditional Specialty Guaranteed” legal status. This is pretty much a trademark for the food and drink industry, and sets standards for how certain traditional foods and drinks can be made -- like a more intense version of the restrictions that bar wineries from calling a sparkling wine Champagne if the wine wasn’t made from grapes from the Champagne region.

This means that there are intense restrictions for what can and cannot be considered Neapolitan pizza. The pizza must be made with San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cheese made with buffalo milk, and the depth of the pizza must be 2-3cm at the edge and .4cm at the center. It also must be “tender, elastic, and easily foldable into four.” As if that weren’t enough, Ward located a non-profit called the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana that aims to protect the integrity of “true Neapolitan pizza” that published an 11-page manuscript full of regulations a pizza must fulfill in order to earn their “true Neapolitan pizza” badge of honor. And, in Ward’s words, they’re real tight-asses about it, from defining acceptable dough pH ranges to requiring that your pizza spatula is made from steel, with a wood handle made of either beech or acacia wood. Oak or maple spatula handles simply will not do.

By now you’ve likely come to the same conclusion that Ward and I have. If we take this definition of pizza as Scalia’s view of “true pizza”, and we then use that to provide a legal precedent for what is and is not pizza, well, most of us have probably never eaten pizza in our lives. That delivery pie you ate during the football game? Not pizza. Jon Stewart’s favorite greasy, gigantic-slice New York-style pizza place? They don’t serve pizza. That disc of frozen dough and cheese you took home from 7-11 at 3:30am last Saturday in your infinite shame? Definitely not pizza.

Ward notes that, legally, “The minimum threshold of ‘pizza’ is ‘crust, tomato, salt, and oil,’ and the maximum is ‘that, but with one kind of cheese and some garlic.’ No oven-cooked pizza. No meat pizza. No cow's cheese. Cheese wasn't even an ingredient in pizza until 1889, around 20 years before the first American pizzeria cropped up. You can't even use a damn rolling pin or press. Forget any pizza produced without two distinct periods of dough-rising, under strict time and temperature controls.”

PIzzeria Uno

So, yes. Deep dish isn’t legally pizza as it represents pretty much everything Neapolitan pizza isn’t. It’s fluid, changeable, luxurious, and fattening, the product of experimentation with stretching the definitions of what pizza can be. Ward concluded her argument thus: “Law, in theory, is a faithful animal. All courts are bound by precedent set by statute and by decisions of superior courts (the principle of stare decisis). Obviously, all courts must abide by Supreme Court decisions. That said, because Scalia's decisions on the matter were made off the bench and outside the judicial context, they may be taken as dicta: that is, statements of legal principle that do not technically bind inferior courts in their decision-making, but may nonetheless be instructive and hold strong persuasive authority, depending on the source. In the absence of case law directly on point, and given the high legal profile granted a Justice of the Supreme Court, I regret to inform you that legally, deep dish may not be "pizza" until re-examination by the circuit or Supreme courts. As my esteemed friend Joshua Jones (San Diego-based federal defender and two-time champion of the Texas Young Lawyers' Association's prestigious National Trial Competition) put it, singing the song in every Chicago heart: "Pizza is a social construction, intended to divide us.’” (Ward wants me to note, however, that Chicago-Kent, her alma mater, does not endorse or condone Justice Scalia's frankly irresponsible opinion on deep-dish pizza.)

Given the fact that pizza, by its nature, has changed so much over the years -- remember, it didn’t even come with cheese until relatively recently -- perhaps deep dish's innovation and creativity is a necessary element to the definition of pizza today.

This leaves us at a standstill. Currently, not only is deep dish not pizza, but the overwhelming majority of pizza produced worldwide is also not pizza. Legally, we’ve all been unknowingly eating open-faced grilled cheese sandwiches our whole lives, under the false impression that we were enjoying a melty slice of pizza. The question then becomes whether or not this legal definition is at all helpful. If nothing is pizza, isn’t everything pizza? This is where linguistics might help.

Julia Davidson, a local teacher with a masters in both literature and education, tackles the debate from a more utilitarian perspective. "I think that 'deep dish' accurately modifies the noun 'pizza' to describe deep dish as a type of pizza," says Davidson. "I think part of the decision has to be composition -- what is the difference between deep dish dough and flat pizza? For me, ingredients would determine it."

In short, she views the category of “pizza” as a large set, with many different subsets inside it. It implies that there is no one true pizza -- that all pizza types need to be modified with descriptors in order to have any real meaning. And this holds up in common usage. Cracker-crust pizza, French bread pizza, taco pizza, hell, even pizza bagels are all ostensibly cousins under the larger pizza umbrella. Davidson goes on, though, to say that much like pizza bagels and French bread pizza, thin-crust and deep-dish pizza each fulfill different culinary and gustatory goals. A craving for deep-dish pizza will not be sated with a thin, head-sized slice of New York-style pizza, and vice versa.

She went on to note that this might disqualify deep dish as pizza, if you’re using a normal, regular crust pizza as a barometer, but if that precedent is set, it brings us back to where Scalia left us once the infinite possibilities of pizza toppings are considered. Anybody who has ordered pizza for a group of four or more knows that pizza cravings are flighty and persnickety beasts that possess the body and occasionally will not be satisfied by anything less than a pineapple-jalapeño-olive-and-salami slice with double cheese and extra garlic dipping sauce on the side.

We are left with the obvious: that pizza, as it exists now, is a blank canvas, ripe for interpretation. And much like anything can be art if an artist calls it art, anything can be pizza if it evokes the form of pizza. It won’t necessarily be good pizza, as anyone who has watched Chopped and seen contestants present “deconstructed” versions of foods will know well, but that doesn’t matter. Pizza, like art, is in the eye of the beholder.

So where does that leave deep dish? As a regionally famous riff on the theme of pizza, it definitely belongs under the larger pizza umbrella. But given the fact that pizza, by its nature, has changed so much over the years -- remember, it didn’t even come with cheese until relatively recently -- perhaps deep dish's innovation and creativity is a necessary element to the definition of pizza today. And by that logic, not only is deep dish pizza unquestionably a member of the pizza family, but it may indeed be the family’s favorite child. The defense rests.

Sign up here for our daily Chicago email and be the first to get all the food/drink/fun in town.

Sam Greszes is a Chicago-based writer who will buy you a shot of Malort whether you want one or not. Follow him @SamGreszeseses for scattered thoughts on cocktails, sports, andSonic Adventure 2.