Regional pizza styles often come with a mysterious past. The Quad Cities style is no exception. Then, again, the pizza itself is so odd that, if it didn’t have an unconventional history, someone probably would have invented one.
First, there’s the name. The so-called Quad Cities consist of Rock Island, Moline and East Moline in Illinois and Davenport and Bettendorf in Iowa. That’s five cities, in case you’re lousy at math—never mind that a quadrilateral by definition has four sides.
As for the pizza itself, it’s “kind of made backwards,” as Ryan Mosley, co-owner of Harris Pizza, one of the first Quad Cities-style pizza shops, told USA Today. First, the sauce goes on, followed by the toppings and then the cheese.
OK, so that’s not that crazy. The Detroit style, after all, features the sauce on top, which is also kind of backwards. But there are additional specific traits that make Quad Cities-style pizza legitimately unique:
- The dough is made with malt and molasses for a nutty, sweet flavor. “The malt and molasses…add a bit of sweetness, along with the flavor of the malt,” Dean Creech, owner of Uncle Bill’s Pizza in Davenport, told PMQ. “It also gives the crust a good crunch and color when you cook it.”
- The crust is hand-tossed to about ¼” thickness—not quite a thin-crust pizza, but not deep-dish either.
- Finely crumbled lean sausage laced with fennel is a must for a classic Quad Cities pie. It’s cooked down and then drained to ensure the crust doesn’t get soggy and greasy. (Harris Pizza reportedly runs through about 179,000 pounds of sausage per year.)
- The sauce is thick, with a zesty bite, often (although not always) spiced up with red pepper flakes and ground cayenne pepper.
- You’ll want to pile on enough shredded mozzarella to ensure “gooeyness”—and, again, the mozz goes on top of the toppings.
- The pizza is baked in a rotating deck oven for about eight minutes at 500˚ so the crust will have a toasted-brown look and a crispy, crunchy bottom.
- The pie is then cut into strips rather than the standard triangular or even square slices. We’re talking long, thin strips to ensure that every piece includes just a little bit of crust on the edge.
- Finally, a traditionalist cuts it with scissors, not a rock cutter or knife. They need to be long-blade scissors if you want to do it right. Harris Pizza has its scissors custom-made since blueprint shears—originally used for Quad Cities pizza—are hard to find nowadays.
Who invented this one-of-a-kind style? Several pizzerias in the Quad Cities claim to be its “original” home, including Harris Pizza and Frank’s Pizza in Silvis, Illinois. But it appears that the style was conceived in Calumet City, Illinois, only to be tweaked later. Pizzaiolo Tony Maniscalco worked for The Original John’s Pizza, opened by the Bacino family in Calumet City in 1943, and might have used their recipe as the base for a completely new style, which he brought to Rock Island in the early 1950s.
“We’ve never had any kind of spiciness in our sauce, but we do use a rotating deck oven, and we used to use malt and molasses in the dough, but we don’t anymore,” Phil Bacino, The Original John’s current owner, has told PMQ. “We make our own fennel-based sausage, forming it into loaves and cooking it to get the grease out before we grind it into crumbles. We also used scissors to cut the pizza up until the 1990s.” (Note: The Original John’s Pizza is now located in Munster, Indiana, just minutes away from Calumet City.)
Mark Mannen, who owns Fat Jack’s Pizza in Peoria, Illinois—one of just a few Quad Cities-style pizza shops outside of the actual Quad Cities—subscribes to a slightly different origin story. He told PMQ he grew up with Tony Maniscalco, Jr. and knew the family well. Starting at the age of nine, he worked in restaurants owned by the Maniscalcos in the Quad Cities. “It was definitely their unique style, a longtime family recipe from Italy,” Mannen said.
“Tony Sr. served the first Quad Cities-style pizza at the Paddock Club in Rock Island, and [Tony’s brother] Frank later opened Tony’s Pizza in Davenport, Iowa,” Mannen added.
Mannen himself went on to a career in the hotel business before returning to the pizza industry. He said he “obtained the original recipes” for Quad Cities-style pizza “after a great deal of negotiation” with another former Paddock Club employee, Dick Kennedy, owner of The Pizza Joynt in Milan, Illinois.
Nevertheless, Harris Pizza, with five stores in Rock Island, Davenport and Bettendorf, has trademarked its slogan proclaiming itself the home of the “original” Quad Cities pizza style.
Murky origins aside, one thing’s for sure: While some regional “styles” these days seem to be more about marketing than pizza-making, Quad Cities pizza is a true American original, no matter who gets credit for it.