The Origins Of The Pizza Puff, Chicago's Quiet Local Legend

Outside city limits, the pizza puff virtually disappears.

Hot dogs. Italian beef. Deep dish. Those three items are the Holy Trinity when it comes to Chicago's versions of comfort food. There are other unsung heroes in our culinary pantheon, too, like the Maxwell St. Polish, but hidden among the other offerings at a typical Chicago hot dog stand is one little-talked-about gem: pizza puffs.

What is a pizza puff?

"Of course I know what a pizza puff is," you might cut me off to say. "It's a pizza roll, right?" Nope. Hold on just a sec, because a pizza puff is not a pizza roll. In fact, pizza puffs are more akin to a flat, deep-fried chimichanga, filled with pizza-topping-esque ingredients like thick red sauce, ground sausage, and mozzarella. They are always, always, soaked in grease, and always come to you screaming hot right out of the fryer. It's sort of a sacred rite for most Chicagoans to burn the shit out of their mouths after their first bite. (We never learn.)

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Part of the charm of a pizza puff is that it's never listed beside the other mains on the menu board at hot dog stands; instead, it lives as a "side" offering, next to the french fries and such. The price currently hovers around $4-$5, though like so many other street foods, it used to be much cheaper, like a couple bucks per. Personally, I'd say these things are almost too substantial to be classified as a side, but that's part of what makes them weird and interesting. Heftiness is in the eye of the beholder, I guess.

Pizza puffs are a Chicago-specific specialty

Once you're outside of Chicago city limits, the existence of pizza puffs drops off exponentially the farther out you go. And I'm talking about mere miles, unless you land at a dedicated Chicago-style hot dog stand in the suburbs. I have done some informal polling of friends who don't live in Chicago to see if they've ever had one, and nearly everyone has no idea what the hell I'm talking about. I'm hoping a few of you reading this are just learning about them right this very second.

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Since I grew up with them, the mystique of the pizza puff is so funny to me. The flat, deep-fried pizza pockets are all manufactured by one company, Iltaco. That name is not inspired by the word "taco" but instead comes from the words "Illinois Tamale Company," which is even more delightfully confusing. The company was founded in 1927 by Elisha Shabaz, who sold tamales to pushcart operators in Chicago. As the company grew, the name was shortened to Iltaco, and in 1976, the pizza puff was invented.

I'm not kidding when I say the pizza puff is like a chimichanga; the exterior is an actual flour tortilla, freshly made, surrounding its pizza-like filling. After assembly, the whole thing is frozen and shipped off in bulk to local hot dog stands. You can also buy individual frozen pizza puffs at grocery stores around Chicago, though I imagine most people don't deep-fry them at home, which is the absolute best way to eat them.

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The above video from local station WTTW is a great introduction on Iltaco, the pizza puff's quiet significance in Chicago, how pizza puffs are made, and the Shabaz family itself, which still runs Iltaco today.

Are pizza puffs any good?

So, you're probably wondering just how these things taste. Well, they taste sort of like pizza, of course, with the most common fillings being finely ground Italian sausage or just plain cheese (though I've also seen pepperoni versions at the grocery store). Most of the flavor is dominated by the tomato sauce, which is interspersed with stretchy cubes of cheese. The tortilla soaks up an extraordinary amount of grease as it fries, which renders the puff flaky and crisp on the outside, but can also make the thing floppy too, depending on who's at the fry station.

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But are they any good? Opinions among Chicagoans vary. I like them a lot, especially when I'm specifically seeking out greasy food, but most people I know either avoid them (specifically because they're greasy) or are somewhat ambivalent about them. It's not like the fillings are particularly novel, nor are they classified as anything higher than fast food, but I don't know—there's just something about them that I'll always have a soft spot for.

Pizza puffs don't just come in pizza flavors, either. An interesting but often overlooked fact is that, like Hot Pockets, Iltaco's puffs come in many varieties, including taco, spinach and cheese (this one's pretty good), ham and cheese, gyro, and more. I only know they exist because I've seen them in the freezer aisle at the grocery store and that's it, so maybe that's why no one ever talks about them. I'd love to see these hit the hot dog stands, too.

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If any of you travel to Chicago this summer, do yourself a favor and order one of these wherever you can. You may not consider it haute cuisine, but if you want to experience life as a native Chicagoan, scalding your mouth on a pizza puff is as authentic as it gets.

 

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