Square-cut pizza, also known as party cut, tavern-style, or just “pizza,” to us Midwesterners, is a way of life. When you sit down in front of a square-cut pizza, you’re there for more than just the pie. You’re catching up with friends, marking an occasion, or to hang out over a long conversation. Therein lies the secret of the square cut: While it’s there to feed you, it’s also there to celebrate the people around it.
What’s funny is that we don’t even eschew triangle slices. Of course we eat the wedge slices when they’re offered, and we love them too. I mean, we all grew up with the red vinyl booths of Pizza Hut, my parents bought us Little Caesars for birthday parties, and I watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as a kid. (Those turtles sure do love their pizza.) We eat Neapolitan style, New York style, hell, we eat 7-Eleven slices when we have to. The triangle stuff is also pizza to us.
But square slices are the norm, the tradition, the homestyle food of Midwesterners. It’s also the actual version of pizza we eat, and though people mostly associate Chicago (which is where I’m from) with deep dish, we reserve that stuff for friends and family visiting from out of town who are curious about it.
From an outside perspective, though, square-cut pizza remains an eternal mystery. People wonder why on earth you’d cut a pizza this way. As a proud Midwesterner and a scholar of pizza, there’s real reasons behind this geometric choice for slices, and I’m here to finally reveal them to you all.
It’s meant to maximize sharing
When pizza is cut into squares, the slices are usually pretty small. That’s because they’re deliberately designed for sharing. And it’s a documented fact that when you share food, it just tastes better.
Chicago Magazine explains that while pizza has been around in Chicago since 1924, starting with a restaurant named Granato’s on Taylor Street (which was sadly razed when the University of Illinois moved into Chicago), the square-cut thing didn’t become popular until post-Prohibition, in the early 1940’s.
One of this style of pizza’s nicknames is “tavern cut.” I’ll give you one guess as to where it was served. Some drinking establishments would offer slices for free as long as you were tossing one back; it’s thought that the whole square thing made the pizza easier to snack on, plus the pieces fit on cocktail napkins, negating any need to buy or do dishes. Snacking and drinking go hand in hand, and with free food at the bar, why wouldn’t you want to stick around for one last pint?
Now imagine trying to eat a big floppy slice of New York-style pizza while holding a beer in your other hand. Not so easy, is it?
You can pile plenty of stuff on top
The dough we use to make Chicago’s thin crust pizza is typically very sturdy, and sometimes so thin it’s got the texture of a saltine cracker. This means a little square can hold a lot of sauce, cheese, and topping of choice. At first you wouldn’t imagine such a small piece of pizza could be so filling, but since it’s got all those calorie-dense components on top, it packs a big punch in a tiny package.
Besides, we’re hearty and have to live through some pretty gnarly Midwestern winters. You don’t want to survive on an empty stomach. We’re admittedly quantity over quality eaters in the heartland sometimes, but that’s all part of the joy of where we’re from.
You can pick exactly how much you want to eat
When you take a wedge slice, you’re committed to the whole thing. If you’ve waffled on whether or not to take one more piece, and you’ve grabbed one anyway, you’re committed to it. No givebacks!
But square slices, they’re compact by default. You can house a piece in several small bites, which means pizza can even function as a snack, if you’re feeling somewhat peckish. But then if you want to eat an entire meal, go to town, have as much pizza as your heart desires. Be free and live the life you were destined to live.
Waste not, want not
This is a very subtle trait of a square-cut pizza: They’re almost always topped all the way to the edges. The remaining exposed crust is usually very minimal, which means when it comes to the perimeter slices, you simply eat the whole thing. With a New York slice, eating the crust is a take-it-or-leave-it situation (I end up throwing them out), but with a square slice, I eat the whole thing, crust portion and all. There’s no pizza bones to toss out and nothing goes to waste.
You get four incredible slices in every pizza
Everyone who’s grown up with square-cut pizza knows that the corner slice is the best one. If you’ve never had a square-cut pizza, they’re the only pieces that are shaped like triangles (ironic, I know). They’re also the smallest slices in every pie, which means you can pop them into your mouth whole.
But the ratios of everything on them are absolutely perfect. You get the sweet, pasty, slightly cooked-down sauce portion that’s been directly exposed to the heat of the oven, a small bit of cheese, and if you’re lucky, a tantalizing amount of toppings. It’s like an amuse-bouche for the rest of your meal, one bite to set the tone for the rest of it.
That’s why these slices are the ones to inevitably disappear first. If you let someone else take them, that means you truly love them, which neatly takes me back to my first point: All food tastes better when you’re sharing it. Especially pizza.
Dennis Lee is a Chicago-based food writer. He’s currently a staff writer for The Takeout, and has had words in Bon Appétit, Serious Eats, Chicago Magazine, and is also a former professional pizzamaker (who still occasionally covers a shift or two). You can find his local Chicago food newsletter, The Party Cut, which goes far beyond just pizza.
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Very true. Happiness is only real when shared, so is pizza ❤️