Sorry, Chicago, this story isn’t about you. Or, to be more accurate, Chicago has a part to play, but not with its famous deep-dish pizza, characterized by a cornmeal-and-flour dough that resembles a pie crust, filled with layers of cheese, vegetables and meat, and topped with a thick layer of tomato sauce. Comedian Jon Stewart once ranted that Chicago’s deep dish is “not pizza. This is tomato soup in a bread bowl.”
In cities across the Midwest, there are people intensely loyal to their local pizza who might agree with Stewart. Deep dish is not necessarily king — but these Midwesterners would also say that New York’s pizza isn’t, either. In fact, although a traditional Neapolitan pizza might be the go-to recipe for homemade pies across the country on any given Friday night, it can be difficult to replicate its wood-fired thin crust in the home kitchen, while Chicago’s deep dish requires more time to prep and bake. If you’re looking for pizzas that are focused on flavor and highlight truly American ingredients, look to the industrialized cities of the Rust Belt, where pizza is not a tourist attraction: It’s a meal.
Greg Mohr was not necessarily intimidated by Chicago’s storied pizza when he and his business partner, Scott Weiner, decided to introduce a new pizza to the Windy City. “Deep dish is certainly the most popular tourist pizza but not the go-to pizza for most locals.” When Mohr and Weiner opened Roots Handmade Pizza in 2011 in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood, their focus was on Quad Cities-style pizza, a pie made with a malt syrup-laced crust and spicy sauce that Mohr grew up eating in Rock Island, Ill., one of the places along the border of Iowa and Illinois known as the Quad Cities region.
“I grew up on a style of pizza that I didn’t know was any different than other places until I moved away,” says Mohr. “People in the QC don’t call it Quad Cities style, they just call it pizza.”
A few hours’ drive away, in Detroit, Shawn Randazzo grew up with a similar experience but a completely different kind of pizza, now referred to as Detroit-style, resembling Chicago’s version insofar as it’s baked in a pan and topped off with tomato sauce. But the similarities end there.
Randazzo says that Midwestern pizza’s time has come, whether it’s from Detroit, St. Louis or the Quad Cities area. “They all represent a unique history and style,” he says. “I think in the next few years there’s going to be a huge awareness of these different pizzas and the stories they tell. There’s more to pizza than just cheese and sauce.”
When the former pizza delivery driver and his mother bought a local pizza franchise in a Detroit suburb in 1997, Randazzo decided he needed to learn more about the pizza business, attending industry events and eventually entering a competition at the North America Pizza & Ice Cream Show in Columbus, Ohio, in 2009. “I was really shocked that no one else was making the same kind of tray-style pizza that I was making, with the cheese spread all the way across the top and caramelized,” he recalls. Other competitors made sarcastic remarks when he told them it was “Detroit-style” pizza, joking, “Does it have bullets in it?”
Randazzo ended up having the last laugh, winning first place out of 70 competitors, and then went on to be crowned World Champion Pizza Maker in 2012 at the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. “Winning those competitions added fuel to my fire,” says Randazzo, who opened Detroit Style Pizza Co. in Saint Clair Shores in 2012. “I thought, ‘this is a way to put Detroit in a positive light.’ ”
In St. Louis, the local pizza, made with a crispy yeast-free crust and a processed cheese called Provel, tends to spark nostalgia among the natives but can be puzzling to outsiders, who may be turned off by the idea of processed cheese on pizza. “The crust and Provel have to be together to make it a St. Louis pizza,” says Miguel Carretero, owner of Guido’s Pizzeria and Tapas in St. Louis. “Provel is a St. Louis institution. We even put it on salad.”
Although Quad Cities and Detroit pizza ingredients can be sourced pretty easily here in the Washington area, a St. Louis expat craving a taste of home hasn’t always had it so easy. Dating to the 1940s, Provel is made from white cheddar, provolone, Swiss cheese and a touch of “smoke flavor” and is difficult to find outside St. Louis. Now, however, through the magic of the Internet, Provel can be shipped right to your door.
That turn of events has been a game changer for Dawn Reeves, allowing her to finally make the pizza of her childhood, 800 miles from her hometown. Now living in Takoma Park, Md., Reeves grew up eating St. Louis’s famous Provel-smothered pizza, a dish that brings back taste memories. “When I was a kid, we used to go to this pizza place that no longer exists called Luigi’s. My parents went there a lot, and they also took my sister and I there with them,” she says. “When I think of it, it just brings back a really good feeling. I can see its dark wood and turquoise curtains and almost taste the pizza, which my parents would always order with hamburger and onion, light on the tomato sauce.”
Although pizza may be, in the general sense, just dough, cheese and tomato sauce, the truth is that there are pizzas being made in towns across the United States that reflect their origins, far beyond the well-known varieties from Chicago, New York and New Haven, Conn., evoking taste memories for locals that they take with them no matter where they settle as adults.
In St. Louis, a big part of the taste memory is that Provel cheese, forming a gooey blanket over a sweet tomato sauce on top of a thin crackerlike crust, the whole cut into small squares, known as “party-cut.” A pared-down pizza, it’s a first-rate foil for a local commodity — beer — perfectly matched with the crisp American lager being brewed at Anheuser-Busch, just down the street from places like Guido’s. Even Reeves’s husband, Jonathan, head brewer at Port City Brewing in Alexandria, Va., says there are things that call for a Bud, and St. Louis pizza is one of them.
“When Jonathan and I got married, we had our rehearsal dinner at a place called Cicero’s and served St. Louis-style pizza,” Dawn Reeves says. “I think I would have served pizza at the wedding if I could have gotten away with it.”
At Loui’s Pizza just outside Detroit, Chianti is the drink of choice to accompany Detroit-style pizza, with its thick, airy crust, similar to focaccia. The local pizza, based on a Sicilian version called sfinciuni, is especially characterized by its heavy baking pans, which can be traced to Detroit’s auto industry. Gus Guerra, credited with inventing the Detroit style of pizza just after World War II, is said to have used an automotive parts tray (a square pan made of blue steel) that he got from a friend who worked in an auto plant. Randazzo has since worked with Lloyd Pans to develop a heavy anodized coated-aluminum version just for the pizzas, and for sale to home cooks. Investing in a specific baking pan to make authentic Detroit pizza at home seems a small price to pay once you consider that you’d need to install a coal-fired oven to get that light coating of soot on a New Haven-style pizza, or that a properly fired Neapolitan crust must be blasted at 900 degrees to create the perfect crunch.
“Other pans work,” says Randazzo, “but the integrity of the pizza is better when it’s baked in a heavier pan, giving the color, texture and crunch that give the Detroit-style pizza that caramelized exterior.”
It’s not only about the pan, however. Also crucial is the cheese, a blend of traditional mozzarella with Wisconsin brick, a washed-rind cheese created in the 1870s by a Swiss-born American cheesemaker. With a somewhat higher fat content than the American cheddar that inspired the original recipe, the brick cheese helps contribute to the buttery flavor often ascribed to Detroit-style pizza: The shredded cheese is spread from edge to edge across the dough, dripping down as it bakes to form a rich, caramelized crust. “People fight to get the corner pieces,” says Randazzo, laughing.
Cold-fermenting the dough also helps to develop more flavor and texture, a process that Detroit-style pizza has in common with the Quad Cities version. Barley malt plays a role in both, as well, not necessarily a surprise in America’s heartland, where barley is a major crop. Diastatic malt powder can be used in place of sugar in Detroit’s pizza dough to help give the dough a better rise; a heavy dose of malt syrup gives the Quad Cities dough a decidedly rich flavor, forming the base for a pizza that also features tomato sauce and finely ground sausage, both distinctively spiced to form layers of flavor.
At first, Quad Cities native Mohr says, “I couldn’t judge if I was being overly nostalgic or if the pizza was really that good.” But when he introduced his business partner to his hometown pizza, Weiner’s reaction was unequivocal, according to Mohr: “His exact words were, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re doing this,’ after his first bite.”
Hartke is a food writer and editor in Washington. She’ll join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.