You can find Quad City-style pizza along the border of Iowa and Illinois. It’s where the communities of Davenport, Bettendorf, Moline, Rock Island, and East Moline come together along the Mississippi River.
This unique take on a classic dish features some ingredients that you don’t typically find on your favorite slice. It’s sometimes spicy, a little malty, and your slices are cut into strips like breadsticks instead of the traditional triangle or square.
Iowans and Illinoians have had opportunities to enjoy Quad City-style pizza since 1955. If you haven’t had a chance to try it yet, then you’re missing out on an incredibly tasty dish!
What Is Quad City-Style Pizza?
You can find the Quad Cities about 2.5 hours west of Chicago. These small towns create a metropolitan area of 400,000 people, but about 25% of the population resides in Davenport. The chances are good that someone has never heard of this area of the central Midwest, or they’ve never had an opportunity to visit the region.
The Quad Cities is home to some iconic names in Americana, including John Deere. It’s also a stop along I-80 where you can find some incredible pizza.
One of the lesser known pizza types, Quad City-style pizza provides a unique combination of flavors. It starts with the creation of the crust, which gets made with malt. Some pizzerias will include red chili flakes or cayenne to spice up the flavor.
Making the crust requires hand tossing to get the stretch correct. There should be a slight lip that rings the edge while the thickness stays an even one-quarter inch.
The tomato sauce on Quad City-style uses the traditional Italian recipe with oregano and basil. If you like to enjoy a spicy slice, the formula allows you to use chilis and cayenne in it.
Then you would place the toppings directly onto the sauce. Any toppings are permissible based on personal preference, but the original recipe for Quad City-style pizza calls for fennel-infused Italian sausage. You can add it in chunks like a small meatball, or it can get ground up and spread out thinly from edge-to-edge.
The cheese goes on top of all of the toppings with this recipe. Mozzarella is the primary selection, although significant amounts of shredded or powdered Romano and Parmesan get added to the top to create the flavor profile. Crushed leaf oregano then gets added after the baking is complete.
Once everything comes together in the recipe, then the pizza cooks in a gas oven for about 12 minutes. It gets cut into strips instead of slices, so a 16-inch pie will generate about 14 pieces to enjoy.
The History of Quad-City Style Pizza
Quad City-style pizza first came about in 1955 through the Maniscalco family. Their business was the only sit-down restaurant and bar in the area, so it became a tradition for relatives to work in the place called Tony’s Club Capri.
The family moved from Calumet City separately in the 1950s. Reports indicate that this style of pizza was making its way around that community as early as 1943 before the Maniscalco clan made their way to the Quad Cities.
Phil Bacino, who is the grandson of the owner of Original John’s Pizzeria in Calumet City, confirms that Tony Maniscalco worked in the shop before moving west.
Tony’s brother moved to the Quad Cities after hearing how successful the restaurant was doing with the handmade sausage being made. They served Italian beef sandwiches and Stromboli at the time, along with a handful of pasta dishes using their family recipe.
Frank would open a restaurant in the region, and then another family tried a location in Minnesota that eventually failed. When the restaurant to the north had to be shut down, the group decided to open another Quad Cities location that still operates today. You can visit Frank’s Club Napoli Pizza in Silvis.
He would continue to open new locations throughout the area in the 1980s until finally getting out of the business before 1980. Some of his recipes were sold to Mama Bosso’s, who still makes pizzas you can purchase in Midwestern grocery stores in the freezer section.
The idea was simple. By using ingredients that were already available in-house, the Maniscalco family looked for ways to expand their business profile. It wouldn’t take long for their homemade pizzas to become their signature dish.
There’s a rumor that the competitors agreed to stay on their side of the Mississippi to serve customers in the Quad Cities. It seems to be an agreement that held true since you won’t find a Harris Pizza in Moline.
What Makes Quad City-Style Pizza Unique?
The Quad City-style pizza is one that’s best described as being made backward. It has a beautiful, toasty sweetness to it because of the malt in the dough, but the presence of cayenne cuts through it some to add a bit of fire – especially when it’s in the sauce.
Several additional changes to the approach of making this local pizza make it a favorite option for those who live in the Midwest.
1. The sausage is supposed to have fennel in it.
Although you could add a standard Italian sausage to this pizza, the original recipe called for fennel. It gives the toppings a flavor that’s slightly reminiscent of licorice, which is quite lovely when you combine it with the malt in the dough and a spicy tomato sauce.
Traditionalists will take the sausage from loaves that get baked to remove excess oil. There shouldn’t be any preservatives used in the meat product. About one pound of toppings end up on the average pizza. If you order a large pie from Harris, it can weigh up to four pounds.
2. You cut the pizza into slices by using scissors.
Not only is the Quad City-style pizza cut into strips instead of the squares like other party pizza options from the Midwest, but it is also traditionally sliced using a set of scissors. Harris Pizza, which opened in 1960, initially used a set of blueprint shears as a way to cut the pie. Now they have custom-made scissors that come from a proprietary mold that they own.
3. The “original Quad Cities-style pizza” is a copyrighted phrase.
The two oldest pizzerias in the region are Frank’s and Harris, with the former opening five years before. Harris copyrighted the slogan that says they’re the original provider of this unique regional recipe, but Frank’s Pizza still has a legitimate claim to the method.
4. You can find many variations in the Quad Cities.
The pizza community in the Quad Cities is quite small. Many of the current shops and restaurants got their start after former employees of Frank’s or Harris Pizza decided to strike out on their own. One example is Clint’s Draft House Pizza and Grill in Moline, which Clint Doran started after working for Harris for 25 years.
Greg Mohr, who grew up in Rock Island, has two Chicago locations that serve authentic Quad Cities-style pizza. Everyone says that their method is the best, but Harris says that they’ve never given the recipe away.
5. It cooks on a rotating deck.
The only way to correctly bake a Quad City-style pizza is to have it placed on a rotating deck oven. Then high temperatures, often above 500°F, allow for a fast bake and melt with the thin crust to give the top a gooey texture while the bottom is crisp and crunchy. This process creates a combination that creates a unique slice to enjoy.
6. Some shops put molasses into the crust.
Some of the pizzerias that feature this style from the Quad Cities add a touch of molasses to the dough for an extra layer of sweetness. This option replicates the flavor profile that one would receive from the sauces based more on traditional Italian recipes. That means the slices that have the most crust on them tend to have the nuttiest, richest flavors of the entire pie. The four corner wedges tend to be the most fought-over parts of this dish.
7. The sauce on a Quad City-style pizza is quite thin.
The traditional Quad City-style pizza uses a thin sauce that spreads evenly along the thin crust. It needs to be this way because the curl along the edge isn’t very thick. If paste got added to the recipe, there would be enough room for the toppings and cheese with this approach.
8. Traditional Quad City-style pizza doesn’t use frozen dough.
Pizzerias should make the dough from scratch for every ordered pizza. Some shops will make it in advance, shaped into balls for storage in the refrigerator. It should never be frozen because that would change the flavor profile of the dish. Then the recipe calls for it to rest for a moment on top of some cornmeal to create another texture to enjoy.
9. Shops shred the cheese in their restaurant or store.
The original method of making a Quad City-style pizza is still used today concerning the use of mozzarella. The Maniscalco family imported the cheese in wheels or blocks. Then they shredded it for a fresh topping on each pizza. That means you get more gooey chunks on each slice instead of the subtle layers that come from commercial shredders.
10. Dried or fresh oregano can top the pizza when it is ready.
Once the crust on this pizza forms a brown hue, it is ready to come out of the oven. Then it receives a dusting of oregano to finish off the expected flavor profile. Fresh herbs are a modification you can find at some locations that offer a slightly different take on this recipe.
Where Can I Find Quad City-Style Pizza Today?
Finding a Quad City-style pizza outside of Iowa or Illinois along the Mississippi River is rare. You’ll also discover that there are people who hate this recipe as much as those who love it.
The one difference between the pizza made in Calumet City and the style from the Maniscalco family is the spiciness of the sauce. Everything else was the same until the pizzeria switched their recipe in the 1990s.
Did Tony bring his skills to Rock Island from Calumet City? Was Harris Pizza the original innovator of this recipe? We may never know.The only thing that any of us can do is try Quad City-style pizza to see if it creates a loving relationship.