But when she lifted the lid on the box and removed the red-and-white checkered wax paper, I realized there was perhaps a cheekier motivation: She wanted to conduct an experiment. She wanted to see if she could blow my mind by revealing the surprise inside that carryout box. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but what I saw caused me to gasp, as if I had stumbled upon an object of great beauty in the middle of a mundane American space.
Which is precisely what happened: I got my first glimpse of Grant Thompson’s Chicago-style deep-dish pizzas, which he sells under the banner of the DC Chi Pie in an ordinary, strip-center grocery store, the kind found in countless neighborhoods. Thompson is a pastor and a serial entrepreneur. His pandemic pivot was an unpredictable one: He created a pizza business based on the deep-dish pies that he has loved since he first sank his teeth into one at Armand’s, even though he had never actually baked one before in his life.
Check that. Thompson had never made any kind of pizza before, let alone the multilayered deep-dish construction that critics often dismiss as a Midwestern casserole that has improperly — perhaps immorally — adopted the language of its Italian forebear.
Thompson’s relative inexperience was hard to reconcile with the first pie revealed to me from under that sheet of wax paper. This pizza didn’t look like anything I had sampled in the Second City. This pie was a dense puck, perfectly round, its thick, imposing crust looking like castle walls that had to be scaled. The sauce was, according to deep-dish traditions, evenly distributed across the surface, and a row of overlapping pepperoni slices formed a cool stripe down the middle of the pie, each circle blackened on the part of the sausage exposed to the high heat of the oven. This thing had heft, too, like the weight of a good pan. You could feel its quality in your hands.
The DC Chi Pie leaves its pizzas whole, so that they can better maintain their heat and structural integrity until you’re ready to slice into them at home. But I knew I couldn’t wait that long. I had mine sliced right there in the supermarket. The crew even gave me utensils so I could dig in as soon as I settled into the driver’s seat of my car, with my steering wheel table anchored in place. It was then that I could marvel at Thompson’s crust, which sort of splits the difference between biscuit and pie dough. Just as important, his deep dish is ever so slightly underbaked, resulting in a crust whose exterior crunch gives way to a softer, more elastic crumb. Stained with sauce, a string or two of mozzarella still clinging to it, the crust is a meal all by itself.
Thompson is modest about his creation. When we spoke, he said he pieced together his deep-dish recipe from YouTube tutorials and good, old-fashioned trial and error. His dough, to my surprise, isn’t laminated, with cold butter pressed between its folds. Instead, he uses a yeasted dough weighed down with corn oil, a combination that my colleague G. Daniela Galarza tells me behaves much like a laminated dough. The oil, she says, prevents the yeasted dough from rising to the heights you’d find with Neapolitan pizza.
The interesting thing is that Thompson’s dough behaves differently depending on the preparation. With his deep-dish pies, the dough expands like a biscuit; with his flat pizzas, it assumes a pie-crust-like personality, thin and flaky. It’s a win either way.
As with many good things, the DC Chi Pie is a result of a craving that couldn’t be satisfied. After visiting a friend in Milwaukee, with the requisite day trip to Chicago for deep dish, Thompson and his wife, Margaret, returned home with a taste for the pie. The pandemic, however, had just settled in for the long haul, and Grant and Margaret, now 59 and 62, respectively, weren’t going anywhere, let alone for deep dish. They looked into shipping frozen Giordano’s pies from Chicago, but at $85 for a two-pack, Grant thought, “For that much money, I’ll make you a pizza.” He once ran a carryout in Petworth, so he has some skills in the kitchen.
He had no idea that his decision would blossom into another eatery. He and Margaret had been looking into launching a family real estate company. The couple had even prayed over it, on Dec. 31, 2019, at the Church of the Rock Praise Factory, where Grant Thompson is pastor. The idea was to have God bless the business plans of Thompson’s parishioners as they prepared to enter the new year. Some of those businesses have taken off, Thompson says, but God clearly had other plans for his family.
“We never got to it,” Thompson says about the real estate plan. Instead, God tapped Thompson on the shoulder and whispered two different words into his ear: deep dish.
There’s a generous spirit behind much of the DC Chi Pie, which is perhaps fitting for a man who does the Lord’s work on Sunday and the pizza gods’ bidding most other days. Thompson adds a touch of sugar to his tomato sauce to help customers who suffer from acid reflux. He named his bread pudding, with its accompanying caramel coulis, after Trouble Funk’s absolutely funktastic “Drop the Bomb.” (Both dessert and go-go tune, by the way, will make you get up and shake it.) He developed a smoked salmon pesto deep dish pie for a friend who couldn’t stomach red sauce, a surprise gift that benefits all of us.
The DC Chi Pie is something of a District time capsule, too: Thompson has developed a flat-crust pizza named for the Big Chair in Anacostia and featuring crispy pieces of chicken drizzled with a modified version of brother Joe Thompson’s mumbo sauce. The sauce was inspired by the sweet, tangy one they first fell for at Wings N’ Things near 14th and U streets NW. Grant has even created a steak-and-cheese pizza — mascarpone stands in for the red sauce — that’s a tribute to a sandwich once served at one of his favorite Adams Morgan restaurants, now lost to history. He used to watch the cooks make it. They griddled the beef with a little Worcestershire sauce, a trick he has preserved with his pie.
The steak-and-cheese deep dish is one for the home team, and they’re proud of it at the DC Chi Pie. Thompson’s son, Jheremy, a musician turned full-time pizza man, stopped me one day at the counter, remembering both me and my last order.
“How was that steak and cheese, Tim?” he asked.
I told him that I loved it. I was talking about the pizza, of course, but I might as well have been talking about the DC Chi Pie.
4801 Marlboro Pike, inside the Compare Foods supermarket, Capitol Heights, Md., 202-615-6022; dcchipie.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
Nearest Metro: Benning Road or Capitol Heights, with about a 1.5-mile trip to the supermarket.
Prices: $7 to $45 for pizzas and desserts.