Editor’s note: This article is from the award-winning Echo magazine in the Communications Department.
“I was always a bit of a ham as a kid,” Steve Dolinsky tells me as we sit on two benches facing each other at Hewn, a bakery in Evanston. I laugh because it makes perfect sense that a 25-year-old 13-time James Beard Award-winning food journalist would use an analogy that compares to food.
It’s a rainy Wednesday morning in March. I expected to follow Dolinsky and his camera crew as they create the food segment that will air on WMAQ-TV’s newscast next Thursday. Except Dolinsky shows up alone at the bakery, wearing a backpack and a duffel bag of his own gear, because it turns out “The Food Guy” on TV is the product of a one-man show.
“I always knew I could do it, but I was never really pushed to do it,” Dolinsky says of producing his own food segments. “Now that I’ve been forced to do it, I’m fine with it.” After 17 years working at WLS-TV News as “Hungry Hound,” the pandemic has arrived — perhaps the perfect push for Dolinsky to start filming on his own.
Dolinsky sets up the lights, camera, and microphone to interview Ellen King, Hewn’s co-owner. He works fast and it only takes about 10 minutes in total to set up and wrap up the interview.
We spend the next hour in and around different parts of the vast bakery kitchen where Dolinsky confidently orders the bakers to stop, go, or repeat moves, carefully following the unfolding of the bread-making process. bread through the lens of his camera.
Today, Dolinsky focuses on sourdoughs, baguettes and pastries, but make no mistake: he’s an adventurous eater with a wide range of tastes – his enthusiasm for food stems from growing up in a kosher house.
“I grew up very regimented. You know, I can’t eat this, I can’t eat that, I can’t have milk and meat together, no shellfish, no pork,” Dolinsky says. “My mom had to allow me to bring Domino’s pepperoni pizza home until I was in high school, as long as I ate it out of paper plates.”
Dolinsky was visiting his brother’s house, where he was amazed by the Thai and Chinese food his sister-in-law was cooking and wondered, “What have I been missing all my life?” While in college, he found himself trying more international dishes from Burmese and Middle Eastern cultures.
When his daughter, Madeline, was born, he and his wife, Amy, began taking her out for dim sum in Chicago at just six weeks old – she mostly slept in her car seat, but they brought her in for dinner. ‘she becomes familiar with sight, aroma and sound. “[Madeline] grew up in a stroller in Chinese restaurants, so she asked us when she was about 2 if we were Chinese because she was so confused,” Dolinsky says.
When the Dolinskys’ two children, Madeline and Max, were 15 and 12, they took a family trip to China and Hong Kong for “the real dim sum experience,” and at that time, Dolinsky notes, they were both pros, ready for their trip to Japan the following year.
While Asian cuisine remains Dolinsky’s favorite, and he always keeps ssamjang and gochujang in the fridge, the last five years of his career have led him down a “bottomless rabbit hole” of tomato sauce, cheese and dough. He remembers reading a list of the seven hottest pizza places in Chicago and thinking it was “total BS,” so he set out on his own quest for the best.
Dolinsky documented his first round of pizza search results on his website — a three-month high of 75 pizza places. He then wrote “Pizza City, USA: 101 Reasons Why Chicago Is America’s Greatest Pizza Town,” a book that features 101 pizza places he recommends.
For his first book, he went to 186 different pizzerias, and for his second, “The Ultimate Chicago Pizza Guide”, he visited 40 more – picking it up at 226 – and that’s only counting his taste tests in the Chicagoland area. In the end, Dolinsky took a month-long hiatus after eating pizza.
“Believe it or not, there’s a lot of bad pizza out there,” Dolinsky says. “For three places you go, one will be recommendable.”
So what does it take to get a Dolinsky pizza recommendation or seal of approval? “The crust always sets the tone for pizza. It is the base of every pie; this is the basis of every review: how good was that crust? said Dolinsky. “When you have a really memorable pizza, it’s not because the cheese has melted well. That’s because that crust was either crispy, chewy, crunchy, or soft.
And if you ask about his favorite is a thin, artisan pizza like the one from Robert’s Pizza and Dough Company in Streeterville: lightly brown, with an almost burnt bottom and a two- to three-day fermented crust.
“Pizza City, USA” is not just the title of Dolinsky’s book; it’s also the name of his pizza podcast and pizza tour, where he guides tourists and Chicagoans through four styles of pizza at four different restaurants. His new creation debuts this summer, with Chicago’s first-ever Pizza City Fest on July 23-24, featuring 40 different pizza makers (39 from Chicago and one from Nashville). The event will also welcome special guests and experts who will talk about the history of pizza.
Find your way, be an expert, and own it, says Dolinsky, and he certainly followed his own advice.
You can read the full Echo issue 2022as well as previous issues, on our website.