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Remembering 'Mama Malnati,' Matriarch Of Chicago Deep-Dish Pizza

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And now for a story far away from the hard news of the day. It's a story about pizza - Chicago pizza and the woman behind a famous crust.

MAUREEN O'DONNELL: This will be a good tomato-y (ph) palate cleanser.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

That's Maureen O'Donnell. She writes obituaries for the Chicago Sun-Times.

O'DONNELL: And I wrote the obituary of Mama Malnati, who is at the epicenter of two Chicago pizza dynasties.

SHAPIRO: Mama Malnati was born Donna Marie Carter in a small city in Iowa. Eventually, she moved to Chicago to become a registered nurse.

CHANG: But Chicago had other plans for her.

O'DONNELL: She got on the bus, came to the big city, and lo and behold, she became this pizza czarina.

CHANG: The czarina of deep-dish pizza, that is - you know, the thick, sit-in-your-stomach pizza Chicago is so famous for.

O'DONNELL: Some New Yorkers say it's more like a casserole.

SHAPIRO: As fate would have it, Mama Malnati met her soon-to-be husband Rudy Malnati while he was working in a pizza shop, and together, they created a deep-dish crust that would change the landscape of the Chicago pizza scene.

O'DONNELL: It's a love story written in tomato sauce and lots of good cheese.

CHANG: They passed the secret recipe onto their sons, who went on to run successful pizzerias of their own.

SHAPIRO: Like their son Rudy Malnati Jr. He founded Pizano's pizzeria, and he nearly started a rift in the family.

RUDY MALNATI JR: I went to her, and I said, Mom, I'm getting ready to open another restaurant, but this time I think we ought to do a thin crust pizza along with a deep-dish. And she said, you know, Rudy, I don't think we should do that.

CHANG: Well, she eventually caved. She worked in the kitchen making thick and thin crust until the very end.

SHAPIRO: Mama Malnati died earlier this month at age 93, and she left her son with explicit instructions about how she wanted to be celebrated this weekend - with pizza.

MALNATI JR: She told me, Rudy, whatever you do, all I want is deep-dish. No thin crust at that thing.

SHAPIRO: They'll be serving around 5,000 slices of deep-dish - sausage and cheese.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.