The Pizza Puff Is Chicago’s Greatest Local Food Institution

And most people outside Chicago have never heard of it

November 7, 2023 5:45 am
Stuffed pizza puff pastry in a bakset with fries
An ode to an underrated Chicago classic — the pizza puff

A pizza puff is not a calzone. George Costanza did not get George Steinbrenner addicted to pizza puffs. A pizza puff is not a pizza roll. Kids aren’t leaving school to run home and eat a few dozen pizza rolls before their parents get home from work. (Can you tell I grew up in the ’90s?)

A pizza puff is not a pizza bagel. Why would you even think that? A pizza puff is kind of like a calzone meets a Hot Pocket meets a Jamaican beef patty. But better than all of them.

Just ask Michael Nagrant, founder of The Hunger Substack. The former (and final) Chicago Sun-Times food critic and a contributor to the James Beard-winning Alinea cookbook says, “They’re basically what would happen if an egg roll, Pop-Tart and a bowl of spaghetti Bolognese had a baby.” I agree. Except for the Pop-Tart part. 

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The pizza puff is a regional dish — dish? treat? snack? piece of food? — that has yet to receive the same level of international attention as the Chicago-style hot dog, Italian beef sandwich, deep dish pizza or even the jibarito. But why?

We asked Nagrant why the pizza puff hasn’t received the adoration it deserves to become a nationally recognized, Chicago-based institution.

“It’s a good question,” says the food critic. “I guess it depends on the criteria for a local institution. I’ll hazard some.”  

“To be an ‘institution,’ generally it has to be a food that, one, was invented in our town,” he continues. “Two, the definitive version is served in our region. And three, is actually really good to the point that even people from other places will become obsessed with it and make lesser versions elsewhere. I think the first two are slam dunks for the pizza puff. The third is debatable.”

“A standard pizza puff falls into the ‘cheap and greasy, best consumed when hammered, or in dire need of salt and fat while sober’ category,” he adds.

Nagrant is referring to the classic, original pizza puff (OPP) first produced by Iltaco Foods in 1976, and sold throughout the city and suburbs mostly at hot dog stands and restaurants. But there are now “fancy” versions of the pizza puff. 

“The Hermosa version is likely amazing,” says Nagrant. The Hermosa Restaurant in (you guessed it) Hermosa is definitely the “elevated” version of the comfort food. There’s also Terry’s Place in Austin, which serves a quite large, homemade version of the puff, and Albano’s Pizzeria in Cicero offers a similar “homemade cheese pizza puff.”

Thus, there are at least three local spots doing their own take on the pizza puff. It’s not enough, but it’s a start. 

I grew up eating pizza puffs, completely unaware that it was a regional creation with a mostly regional fan base. But why? Why hasn’t it left the Chicagoland area and grown nationwide, like most other pizza-related snack foods?

“Because the sister-adjacent Totino’s pizza roll is available almost anywhere,” Nagrant says. “And also because most people aren’t so enamored with the pizza puff over, say, a regular pizza that they’re importing it to places that don’t have it because they’re obsessed.”

Maybe Nagrant is right. While it’s technically possible to share a pizza puff, it’s meant for a single person. It doesn’t help the puff that pizza is the most shareable food, and one that travels incredibly well. No other food is as deliverable as pizza. Finally, pizza puffs are kinda ugly. 

It seems like the pizza puff is destined to remain a local food institution — though one with national distribution, if not a national reputation. That’s fine. If you’re craving one right now, or have no idea what a pizza puff even is, there’s a handy “puff finder” for the frozen version on the Iltaco site, with vendors from Pompano Beach, Florida, to Bellingham, Washington.


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