A pizza’s powerful origin: Alice Mae Redmond
Published on February 1, 2023
In support of Black History Month, we’re pleased to feature Alice Mae Redmond, the black woman who may have invented deep-dish pizza
By Dave Lifton (@daveeatschicago)
Chicago has hundreds of world-class restaurants and a thriving, diverse dining scene, but the city was put on the culinary map thanks to deep-dish pizza. Although pizza originated in Italy and was brought to America by Italian immigrants, it’s possible that the distinct twist that birthed deep-dish was the work of Alice Mae Redmond, a Black woman from Mississippi.
As we explored in depth here, the only aspect of deep-dish’s creation that everyone agrees upon is that it was introduced at the restaurant now known as Pizzeria Uno at 29 E. Ohio St. The spot opened in 1943 as The Pizzeria and soon changed to Pizzeria Riccardo, after owner Ric Riccardo, who also had a restaurant on Rush St. In trying to uncover the true story of deep-dish, pizza historian Peter Regas found photographs from the first 15 years or so of Uno’s existence. He realized that those early pies lack the depth and the ingredients aren’t layered in the reverse order—cheese on the bottom, followed by toppings and sauce—that the world has come to expect from deep-dish.
Further, none of the early press clippings about the restaurant acknowledged that Pizzeria Riccardo was offering a variation on pizza. It wasn’t even until 1971 that the phrase “deep-dish” first appeared, in an article in Northwestern University’s student newspaper.
And that’s where Redmond enters the story. Regas spoke with Redmond’s daughter Lucille Conwell in 2009 and 2010 and recalled his conversations in a presentation to the Culinary Historians of Chicago in 2021.
Born in 1915, Alice Mae Redmond was trained as a short order cook by her mother, Sarah Lee Murrell, in their hometown of Greenville, Miss. At an unrecalled date in the 1940s (Regas believes it was likely between 1945 and 1948), Redmond moved to Chicago as part of the Great Northern Migration and found work as a chef at Uno. But Redmond discovered she couldn’t properly knead the dough, probably because, Regas posits, the chefs weren’t giving it enough time to proof. He called it the “… rubber band effect. You can’t stretch it—it just goes right back on you.”
Instead of allowing the dough to rest, the only other way to make it more pliable was to add fat to it. Redmond’s instincts told her to incorporate elements from her family’s biscuit recipe, and doubled the amount of fat, likely adding olive oil and cream of tartar. Her contribution, which she called her “secret dough conditioner,” is considered to be the final piece in the creation of deep-dish.
Riccardo died in 1954, and control of the pizzeria fell to Ike Sewell, who became Riccardo’s partner a few months after it opened. Sewell opened up Pizzeria Due, and Redmond moved to the new location a block north on Ontario St. Conwell, who started working at Uno in 1950, told Regas that around 1960 Redmond had started moonlighting at Gino’s, a new pizzeria at 930 N. Rush St., making the same dough she had perfected at Uno and brought to Due. Lou Malnati, who was Due’s manager before going on to become one of the biggest names in deep-dish, found out about it and gave Redmond an us-or-them ultimatum.
Redmond chose Gino’s and, in 1966, they were able to open a second place, Gino’s East, at 162 E. Superior St. She stayed at Gino’s East until retiring in 1989. Regas pointed out that, wherever Redmond went, the pizza immediately improved. Pizzeria Due was considered to have better pizza than Uno. Redmond’s move to the first Gino’s caused it to become the most popular deep-dish spot in Chicago. Gino’s slowly declined after Gino’s East opened and closed in 2005. And all of this was long before the era of the celebrity chef, where the comings and goings of chefs make headlines. Redmond’s name and her contributions remained largely unknown for decades; people only knew which restaurant had the best deep-dish, and it happened to be wherever she was working at the time.
On the eve of her retirement, the Chicago Tribune spotlighted Redmond, who died in 2009. Patricia Tennison called her “sweet” and “soft-spoken,” and also noted the care she took in preparing the pizza. “[She] pats and coaxes—not slaps and splatters—the sauce on the pizzas,” Tennison wrote. “Part of it—her slow, deliberate moves as she arranges the pre-portioned sausage—you can imagine as you dig into a slice of Chicago-style deep-dish pizza.”
Maybe her “secret dough conditioner” was simply the care she put into every pizza she made.
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