“Michael, have you heard of Lefty’s,” asked Kelly Dirks, my Legal Assistant. It rang a bell, but I couldn’t quite place it…which is quite bizarre, actually, considering it is directly across the street from Special Delivery where I cook on a weekly basis. I can’t walk out of there without seeing this:
Kelly’s interest, though, had nothing to do with Special Delivery. It had to do with the fact that she is a homesick Chicagoan. I know that about her and it strikes fear in my heart. I do not know what I would do without her. So if there was anything that I could do to slake that particular thirst of hers, I was all over it. When I suggested we go there she asked “when?” My answer was swift: “now.”
Just look at Kelly smiling as she eats. I’m thinking she’s going to be negotiating for some Lefty’s fringe benefits. So what’s so great about Lefty’s and why didn’t I know it when Kelly asked? The reason, perhaps, is a variation on Chicago’s Second City Syndrome. There’s a sense out there that Chicago Pizza isn’t real pizza.
So what IS Chicago Pizza? Classically, Chicago-style pizza has a buttery crust up to three inches tall at the edge, slightly higher than the ingredients, which include large amounts of cheese, chunky tomato sauce and other ingredients, with the crust acting as a large bowl. While Chicago pizzerias often serve thin-crust and stuffed pizzas (as does Lefty’s), the term “Chicago-style pizza” is generally used to describe the deep-dish style of pizza.
The menu at Lefty’s offers a Greatest Hits of Chicago street food. In addition to the classic Chicago-style pizzas they offer all sorts of other Chicago classics such as Italian Beef Sandwiches. Brilliant! But it is the Pizza, of course, that brought me there.
Chicago-style pizza may or may not be pizza in the strictest sense of the term, but it is clearly more pizza than the stuff I subsisted on in College. But if a Neapolitan – those from the birthplace of pizza – were faced with a Chicago-style version of their pie they would not likely recognize it. Sure there’s a crust. Sure there’s cheese and tomato involved. But Chicago-style pizza bears more in common with a casserole than with a crispy, thin-crusted classic Neapolitan Pizza Margherita.
Perhaps, though, it ought not be understood as a pizza but, rather, as its own thing. That’s how I’ve seen it since I first tasted Chicago-style Pizza in Madison, Wisconsin and then later at one of its temples, the original Lou Malnati’s. In truth, Lefty’s Deep Dish pizza was not quite up to its Chicago models, but it is – by far – the best Chicago-style deep dish pizza in San Diego. Second place is not close. It is not as deep as the original…but it is clearly as flavorful. It might also be more tempting to a populace that may not be terribly comfortable with that which excites the deepest bowels of Chicagoland.
But it was not deep dish pizza that called Kelly’s attention to Lefty’s. It was this:
A pizza puff is, essentially, a pizza turnover. All of the elements of the pizza – cheese sausage and sauce — are on the inside of a deep fried filo-like pastry exterior. What could go wrong? If all you’re thinking about are your taste buds, not much. If you’re concerned about your cholesterol, however, it is a major WTF moment. Lefty’s is, supposedly, the only place in Southern California offering the delicacy and it is not even on the menu. But it is there to be had. And when you order Pizza Puffs at Lefty’s there is a palpable sense of excitement that goes through the place. This bit of Chicago plunked down in Mission Hills sees bringing Chicago to San Diego as its mission.
It is worth giving Lefty’s a chance to work its magic on you.