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District of Pi: Real Chicago Deep Dish Comes to DC

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Although not a true world class city -- we have no really big corporate headquarters, a second-tier theater scene, and no top-tier research universities -- Washington, DC has a decent claim to a place in the nation's pantheon of great food cities. The metro area has the best and most diverse collection of Ethiopian restaurants in the country, excellent Peruvian chicken all over the place, the best Korean food east of the Mississippi, a bevy of pretty good chef-centric fine dining spots with interesting French, Italian, and New American menus. While visitors from Seoul, Lima, and Addis Ababa could find plenty of home-country comfort food in metro DC, however, a key specialty from a mere 700 miles away -- Chicago-style sauce-on-top deep-dish pizza -- just wasn't sold anywhere in the area... at least until a few weeks ago, when a place called District of Pi opened.

Some background first. Chicago-style deep dish, if you haven't experienced it, stretches the definition of what people think of as pizza. A deep dish Chicago pie has tomato sauce (usually coarsely chopped tomatoes with fresh herbs mixed in) on its top, a generous layer of toppings below that (stacks of four and five pepperoni slices are common), and thick layers of cheese below that. Crust, which often includes cornmeal as well as flour, is chewy without being bready. The entire concoction -- which has as much in common with lasagna as Italian Denominazione di Origine Controllata pizza -- is so thick, messy and calorie laden that it's often eaten with a knife and fork. And, perhaps by virtue of being so bad for you, it is absolutely delicious and popular with just about everyone who tries it. (A quick aside: there are actually two different Chicago style pizzas both of which are sometimes called deep dish: a butter-crust, thick-crusted product sold locally at Armand's Chicago Pizzeria and Uno's Chicago Grill and the true deep-dish sauce-on-top product I'm talking about here.)

Anyway, the true Chicago-style product is not consistently available outside of the Windy City and its suburbs. Numerous efforts to franchise and expand the city's key local pizza chains (Edwardo's, Lou Malnati's, Mi Pi, and Giordano's) have all failed to catch on nationally. Except in South and Central Florida -- where Giordano's operates a bunch of locations and local purveyors turn out an acceptable version of deep-dish pizza -- restaurants serving the pie simply haven't succeeded. But the pies remain popular. In fact, Lou Malnati's and Giordano's both do a brisk business shipping frozen or half-backed pies to homesick Chicagoans.

Now, however, things have changed in DC. A spot called District of Pi (a branch of a five-location St. Louis mini-chain) has opened its doors in the Penn quarter. On a visit this past Sunday, they served us an acceptable true-Chicago style Deep Dish pie: thick zesty-tomato sauce, lots of course toppings and a cornmeal/flour crust. By 6:00 p.m., most of the tables were full and, best as I observed, most had a pizza on them. The demand was clearly there. In fact, I first learned about District of Pi from mass e-mails fellow Chicago transplants who e-mailed me unsolicited.

So what took so long? Why has such a regionally popular product failed to spread particularly when there's clearly an unmet need?

The problem appears to be with the economics of the selling deep-dish pizza rather than the pies themselves. Because they are much thicker than ordinary pizzas, they take much longer to cook. Even with a fully professional-grade oven, start-to-finish cook times for a large pie can top a half hour. This, combined with the messiness of the product, makes it a lot harder to sell for delivery and takeout. Nobody wants to wait an hour or more for food delivery. This cuts out a piece -- the delivery/takeout business that's the mainstay of other pizza places. (In fact, Pizza Hut sold a version of a Chicago-style product for a few years but killed it when it began to emphasize delivery.) In fact, most Chicago-style pizza places in Chicago emphasize a dine-in experience. If you can bring in a lot of people night after night, this can work but, unless your product is super-popular, long prep time means that people occupy tables for much longer even though many will spend less than $10 a piece on the pizza "entrée." In Chicago and South Florida, most places deal with this this by catering to families who aren't going to spend a lot anyway: kiddie menus and crayons are common. But this, of course, scares away the young professionals and seniors who tend to have the most disposable income. In many markets with heavy competition, a low-spending, low-table-turnover, market for a quirky, unhealthy product just isn't enough to keep a pizza place alive.

District of Pi, appears to have hit on a different formula. It offers a huge beer list -- 24 selections on draught -- small one-person appetizers that add up quickly, and very tempting mixologist-written cocktail list. In short, while it's not unfriendly to families -- they have high-chairs and it's noisy enough that my loud four-year-old didn't bother anyone -- the target seems to be the younger professional. Will this succeed where others failed? Hard to know. But keeping it in business will certainly keep me happy -- and, sure, expand my waistline a bit.