In Search of Tavern-Style Pizza
What Exactly Is It? Where Can you Find It? And Is It Exclusively a Midwestern Thing?
Whenever I am back in my home state of Wisconsin and am faced with a whole pizza and armed with a pizza cutter, I reflexively cut the pie into 16 small squares. This is what is known in the Midwest as the “party cut.” I didn’t know the technique was called the party cut when growing up the 1970s. It was just the way you cut up pizza. It was the way everyone cut up pizza.
Certainly, there were no parties going on in our house when my mother served us pizza for dinner. The cut was just a way to make a single pie go further. Four kids could get four pieces each, instead of two. I know, I know: it was the same amount of pizza regardless of how it was cut. But the myriad squares and triangles made it seem like more. And there was greater choice, between middle pieces, edge pieces and corner pieces, depending on your preference. (Although everyone knew the edge pieces were best!)
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I still didn’t fully realize that the party cut was an anomaly when I went to college at Northwestern University, in Evanston, north of Chicago. When I had pizza during those years, I went for deep dish, the Chicagoland specialty. Those thick pies were cut in slices because, I figured, there was no other way to go about it.
It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I knew for certain it was a slice world and I just lived in it. The party cut was an oddity and displaced Midwesterers like myself who persisted in it were freaks. More than once I executed a party cut in front of non-Midwesterners to their bewildered confusion. “What are you doing?” they would say.
Still, I loved the cut. And I loved the style of pizza that most commonly wore it like a tattoo—variously called thin-crust, Chicago-style, Midwestern-style, bar pizza or tavern-style pizza. This pie was super thin, crispy, tangy, often a delivery system for lump sausage, inexpensive and eminently more-ish—that is, you always want more, another piece.
And having another piece was always a viable option. Unlike New York-style pizza, which can fill you up after two fat, doughy slices, a healthy adult can inhale an entire tavern-style pizza and not feel stuffed. I know. I’ve done it. Many times. (Thin-crust pizza is very like Roman-style pizza in this respect.) Moreover, in places that served it, there was always an option to order a “small” pie, which was usually 10-12” in diameter; basically what we call a personal pie nowadays.
Another reason I like tavern-style is because of the even ratio of ingredients. New York-style pizza can often be sweet because of the heavy emphasis on fruity tomato sauce; thin-crust veers toward the savory since the sauce, cheese and meat toppings are all equals. I’ll always choose savory over sweet.
I did not hear the term “tavern-style pizza” or “bar pizza” until I came to New York. But the name never confused me, because I ate many of my earliest pizzas in bars. It was not unusual for Wisconsinites, upon deciding they were eating out, to end up in a tavern. And if you were dining in a tavern, one of the inevitable (and only) food options was thin-crust pizza. It was a way for the bar to keep patrons around, to keep the drinkers drinking; and it also kept the kids happy. (Wisconsinites take their children to neighborhood taverns, which are considered wholesome places.) As far as I could tell, my Aunt Ruth and Uncle Fred, who lived in Green Bay, rarely ate out anywhere but taverns. I never minded, because taverns meant: pizza!
I love all pizza. But pizza is regional. And once I moved to New York, I gave up on the idea of being able to get Midwestern-style, thin-crust pizza, just as I gave up the idea of finding decent deep dish in Gotham. It wasn’t a problem. After all, I was surrounded by some of the best pizza in the world. I didn’t have to have everything.
But thin-crust never completely left my consciousness and I kept my ears open for signs of its existence in the city. For many years, the only time I ever heard about bar pizza in connection with a New York place was whenever anyone brought up Lee’s Tavern.
Lee’s Tavern is a Staten Island version of a Midwestern local. It’s a corner joint in the middle of relative nowhere, surrounded by few other businesses, and patronized almost entirely by locals. It’s been around since 1940 and is basically a bar. But it also serves pizza. Great pizza.
One year, I conned my family into going to Lee’s Tavern as a birthday present to myself. I’m sure they thought I was nuts, but I wasn’t sorry. Boy, that pizza was fantastic, and it transported me right back to the Midwest. It was thin, tangy, small-sized, cheap and lump sausage was an option. Just pitch perfect.
Until recently, Lee’s Tavern stood out like an aberration, the only known and self-aware purveyor of bar pizza in the five boroughs to my knowledge. It wasn’t just that New York didn’t have tavern-style pizza, it didn’t want tavern-style pizza. Remember back in 2010 when restaurateur Keith McNally brought in San Francisco hot-shot pizzaiolo Nate Appleman to open a pizzeria called Pulino’s on the Bowery? For months, they trumpeted how the joint was going to introduce a game-changing pizza. And when they finally opened, the big reveal was—party cut.
New York yawned. Pulino’s limped on and finally closed. And Appleman left to work for Chipotle.
Lately, however, the mood has changed. In late 2021, a joint opened in the West Village called Emmett’s on Grove. Emmett is Emmett Burke, a Chicagoan, and his new place was meant to evoke the vibe of a Midwestern tavern. He said he was serving Chicago-style thin crust. He was even doing the party cut.
My first thought was: Who is this wannabe and what’s he trying to pull? Then I went in and tasted the pizza and had the same kind of Anton-Ego-ratatouille moment I had had at Lee’s Tavern. Upon my first bite of Emmett’s sausage-oregano slice, I was spirited back to my childhood in Wisconsin. It was some of the best tavern-style pizza I’d ever had.
More recently, Patti Ann’s—which, like Emmett’s, aspires to Midwestern bonafides—introduced party-cut, thin-crust pizza. This got me thinking. Is thin-crust pizza exclusively a Midwestern thing? Or does it have an unsung history on the east coast as well? So I put out the call on Facebook: were there any notable standard-bearers of bar pizza in the Tri-State area beyond Lee’s Tavern? The answer was a resounding yes. I was directed to multiple pizzerias in New Jersey, Connecticut and Staten Island. And my shoe-leather-reporting follow-up to those suggestions confirmed the truth—tavern pizza exists on the Eastern Seaboard.
“When we opened up ten years ago I was trying to explain what tavern pizza was and some New York locals pointed out similarities to bar pie on the East Coast,” recalled Emmett Burke. Burke’s first restaurant, which specializes in Chicago food, opened on Macdougal Street in 2013. “Most notable spots are Lee’s Tavern, Star Tavern in New Jersey and Colony Grill in Connecticut.”
Both Star and Colony, which has several locations, were among the places mentioned by my Facebook friends. I didn’t get to Colony, but I hit Star on a double-header day in Jersey that began with Nancy’s Townehouse in Rahway. Nancy’s, which does business out of a cozy basement space, has been making pizza “the same as the original” since 1944. The room—like many I encountered in Jersey—is divided between a long bar and a cluster of small tables. We ordered a large pie with half sausage, half pepperoni. The pie hit all the tavern-pizza marks: crispy crust; tangy fragrant sauce; toppings spread all the way to the end of the pie, which had a cracker-like consistency.
As I ate in Nancy’s, it dawned on me that I’d actually had Jersey tavern pizza years before and hadn’t realized it. It was at Pete and Elda’s in Neptune City. Mary Kate and I were spending the summer hitting as many classic Jersey Shore joints as possible, and this longstanding bar/pizzeria was on the list. Expecting a New York-style pie, I was surprised by the thinness of the crust and the availability of lump sausage as a topping. Moreover, they actually sell a size called “bar pizza” which is only available at the bar.
It also occurred to me that the pizza at The Brothers Restaurant in Red Bank, NJ—which started in 1957 as a tavern—might qualify as bar pie. It is very thin, though not terribly crispy. And they do sell a “bar size.”
A word about sausage. There is no denying that in New York, and much of the rest of the nation, pepperoni is the king of pizza toppings. But in the Midwest sausage reigns supreme. And not just any sausage; a mildly spicy lump pork sausage. Why? Well, because it’s there. We raise a lot of pigs in the Midwest, and a lot of that pork goes into sausage. Everyone in the Midwest grows up on sausage.
And here’s a point of difference between Midwestern tavern pizza and East Coast tavern pizza—East Coasters aren’t agreed on how to do sausage. In the Midwest, you apply the sausage raw onto the pie in lumps.
Along the Atlantic, however, it’s chaos. Everyone has their own approach. At Nancy’s, it was lumps. At Kinchley’s Tavern in northern New Jersey, they do sausage slices. At Bunny’s in South Orange they cut the sausage into little squares. And at The Road House in Staten Island, the sausage is applied in thin shavings.
Another major difference: East Coast tavern pies are all cut into wedges. The only pizzerias doing the party cut are the NYC newbies, Emmett’s and Patti Ann’s. This makes their choice a conscious nod to Midwestern pies. Native Staten Islanders and New Jerseyans aren’t looking to the Midwest for pizza tips; many of the pizzerias have been in business as long as their famous Midwestern counterparts.
Mind you, I’m not complaining. As I’ve said, I love the party cut. But I’ll take tavern pizza in any shape I can get it.
One other note: East Coast pizzerias sometimes sell a version of bar pie topped with clams, a style of pizza that is popular mainly in Staten Island and New Haven.
Otherwise, I have to say I see more similarities between the two time zones than differences.
To the uninitiated, a tavern pizza can seem like an architectural wonder, like something that fellow Midwesterner Frank Lloyd Wright might have come up with, particularly when it’s laden with multiple toppings. How can a crust that thin hold up under all that weight? The answer is water. The dough used has a lower hydration level that typical pizza dough, leading to a firmer crust. So you shouldn’t equate thin with weak, though a bar pie does get a little floppy toward the center. (For a more technical deep dive into the matter of thin-crust dough, read this.)
Winning the prize for thinness among the pizzas I’ve tried over the past month is Star Tavern in Orange, which routinely tops many lists of the best pizza in New Jersey. Their excellent pies are impossibly thin, yet each small bite is packed with flavor, the sauce, cheese and crust perfectly balanced. A waitress told me they often get Chicagoans in who are lonesome for the pies of their hometown. They always ask them to cut the pies into squares, which flummoxes the Star staff.
The Star represents an unsettling trend in tavern pizza joints on the East Coast. Many have stopped looking like taverns. Star began as a bar that served pizza. But during Covid it underwent a massive renovation, losing a lot of its original character along the way. Now it looks like a commonplace restaurant that happens to have a bar. I didn’t get to any of the outlets of the Colony Grill chain in Connecticut, which was founded in Stamford in 1935, but, based on what I saw online, they all look like modern family-style eateries. Similarly, The Road House in Staten Island began life as a rustic corner bar in the 1970s. Today, it looks like a banquet hall.
Perhaps this is all a natural progression. The best known tavern-style pizzerias in the Midwest and East Coast started as bars that offered pizza to entice customers to hang around. In the beginning, the pizza was free. Eventually, the places became better known for their pizza than as drinking establishments. Bars that served pizza became pizzerias that served beer. In the future, we may end up with tavern-style pizza without the tavern.
I feel conflicted about that. The pizza is still very good at The Road House, but there’s something dispiriting about eating tavern pizza in a place that has none of the earmarks of a tavern. It’s the pizza that draws me to these places, but it’s the bar atmosphere that keeps me happy and causes me to return. Next time I eat pizza from Star Tavern, I will probably get it to go.
The “tavern” moniker, I learned from researching this article, is a slightly contentious one. Chicago pizza enthusiast Brian Erst, who has written extensively about Chicago’s many pizza styles, told me, “‘Tavern-style’ is hugely controversial in Chicago. It’s something that the media has put out there. We just call it thin crust.”
Adam Kuban, a pizza authority whose work I’ve followed for many years (and who, like me, is from Milwaukee!) concurs. “I think tavern-style is a marketing term,” he said. “And I think it’s pretty smart, because what it did is take something that already existed—thin-crust pizza—and gave it a new name. And now people are super-excited about it.”
Some people credit Chicago-based pizza expert and author Steve Dolinski with popularizing the term. Dolinsky declined to take credit, but said, “I feel like that term has floated around. It’s very unofficial. In Chicago, we called it Chicago Thin. That delineated it from regular thin.”
I tend to agree. I don’t know if tavern-style is that new a term; I heard it used from time to time for at least 20 years. But I must say, none of the pizzerias I went to in Jersey or Staten Island called their pizzas “tavern-style.” Most identified their style as “thin-crust.” A couple used the term “bar pie.”
They’re all good names as far as I’m concerned. And a lack of consensus on food terminology is very American. I can tell you as a student of hot dogs that the same style of frankfurter can go by multiple names depending on the state/city/joint you’re in.
I was happy to hear Erst say that he considered Zaffiro’s in Milwaukee a superlative example of the style. Zaffiro’s was founded in 1954 and they may make my favorite pizza on earth. There’s something about the combination of ingredients that is pure savory heaven. I particularly love the tang and zip of the sauce. Erst also praised Wells Brothers in Racine, an institution since 1921, which I have clapped eyes on, but still need to get to.
I haven’t yet tried all the Tri-State tavern pizzas that were recommended to me. (Patsy’s Tavern in Patterson, in business since 1931, is still high on my list, as is Conte’s in Princeton.) But of the eight I sampled over the past month, the winners are hands down Lee’s Tavern and Kinchley’s. Kinchley’s, in particular, was a revelation. We ate at the bar, avoiding the long wait for a table, and got two small pies, one with sausage and one with a slightly spicy fra diavolo sauce. They arrived quickly on metal pans, as they should. The pies were modest in size, the sauce and cheese pushed to the very edge, the crust paper thin. They were perfect, quite frankly, and they were gone in 10 minutes. We ordered a third pie—with sliced homemade meatballs—to go. (Many of these eastern pizzerias offer homemade meatballs of which they are very proud. The ones at The Road House are particularly good.)
Kinchley’s also has something that I expect from a tavern-pizza joint—reasonable prices. A small plain pie was $8; a large $11. Prices were similar at Nancy’s and only a little more at Star. That’s one thing the New York City tavern pizza purveyors can’t do. Pies at Patti Ann’s and Emmett’s can cost as much as $28, a price that would give any frugal Midwesterner a heart attack. Still, I wholeheartedly recommend Emmett’s. The pizza, the drinks, the atmosphere are all 100% and I feel at home there.
If you’d like to sample some Tri-State tavern pizzas, and don’t own a car, you’re in luck. Nancy’s Townehouse, Bunny’s and Kinchley’s are easily accessible via New Jersey Transit. And Lee’s Tavern is right by a subway stop. And if you’re interested in trying to make a thin-crust pizza at home, J. Kenji Lopez-Alt just published an informative article in The New York Times. Seems like everyone is thinking about tavern-style pizza these days!
And now it’s your turn. What’s your favorite place to get bar pizza?
Previously on The Mix: