The obscure pizza traditions of the Quad Cities region—belonging to both Iowa and Illinois—deserve a whole lot more attention.
With its crispy, chewy crust rich in molasses, scissor-cut strips, a small avalanche of mozzarella burying generous amounts of lean sausage meat, and a conservative amount of spicy, fragrant tomato sauce hiding out way down at the base, a proper Quad City-style pizza is not something you forget, once you've tried it—the question is, will you ever get to have one in front of you?
There are two major obstacles that must be overcome before you get to stuff your face with one of America's most interesting pizzas. We may begin with the fact that many Americans have never even heard of the Quad Cities, and even if they have, odds are they've never been there. Roughly two and a half hours west of Chicago, facing each other on opposite banks of the Mississippi River, the Quad Cities are Rock Island and Moline, Illinois, both looking north to Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa.
Home of John Deere, and for years Alcoa, now Arconic, the Quad Cities region is a place of commerce, of industry; for a lot of people who've been here, it's often nothing more than a quick stop along I-80, somewhere in the middle of a multi-day, cross-country excursion.
And while there are certainly more ways than stuffing your face to connect with the local culture—the David Chipperfield-designed Figge Art Museum in downtown Davenport, for starters—a good Quad Cities pizza is one of the very best reasons to pump the brakes as you come through, one of the very best reasons to make a bit of time for a place that doesn't get a whole lot of attention. Oh, and then there's the fact that Quad City-style pies are mostly still enjoyed right here, and no place else. With just a couple of exceptions, if you want to try this pizza, you kind of need to come here.
The good thing is, once you arrive, you can't really move for pizza choices, but perhaps no address is quite so widely known as Harris Pizza, a classic, family-owned business with four locations around the area. Like many Americans, all my visits to the Quad Cities have been on road trips, and my latest stop was no exception. This time, however, I stopped off to dive deeper into the regional pizza lore, taking the time to sample a variety of different local pies. Better still, I managed to convince operations manager Rich Meeker from Harris Pizza to let me into the kitchen, to see how the sausage pizza is made. Between the lunch and dinner rush, we met up at the Bettendorf shop for a tutorial.
"Our version starts with a custom molasses and malt blend that goes into all of our dough, which, by the way, is never frozen," Meeker tells me, wasting no time in tackling a lump of dough, old-school style, stretching and throwing and working it out to roughly 16 inches, leaving it to rest for a moment on a cornmeal-dusted wooden board.
The way the dough is made, he says, it provides a nutty kind of sweetness to the pizza. Having molasses in the mix gives the crust a naturally deep, toasted look after just eight or so minutes in a 500-degree oven.
For a proper Quad City-style pie, the tomato sauce, too often barely concealing a wealth of added sugars in other American styles of pizza, comes in spicier than you might be expecting, bringing a welcome kick to the mix.
Once a conservative amount of sauce is added, in comes the sausage—a custom natural (no preservatives) blend seasoned lightly with fennel, red and black pepper that is finely ground on premises, cooked down and then drained, leaving an already lean blend even leaner, because that's the way they've been doing it for the longest time.
"None of our meats are ever frozen, they're always fresh—we try to use the best quality meat that we can buy, especially when it comes to the pork," says Meeker, estimating that their average sausage use each year runs in the neighborhood of about 179,000 pounds. A pound of sausage is said to end up on every pizza; a large Harris sausage pie can weigh around four pounds—because of the lean blend, and the draining process, there's no soggy, greasy mess at the bottom. (If there is, you've chosen the wrong pizza parlor.)
Finally, right at the top comes the mozzarella—the same mozzarella they've been using for half a century, which here is more chunked than shredded. When you shred, Meeker points out, "you get everything sticking together." No danger of that here. Once again, they have someone making mozzarella just for their four shops here in the Quad Cities—no unnecessary preservatives, just pure, simple, fresh Midwestern mozzarella.
Last but not least, a dusting of dried oregano signifies the pie's oven-readiness; after what seems like just a few minutes, the crust has already achieved that perfect brown hue, and the pizza is ready to come out. Quickly, it's placed on its cardboard base, and Meeker grabs a pair of giant scissors—food shears, if you like—to give the pie its final signature, the iconic Quad Cities cut. Down the center he goes, cutting the entire pie in half, before snipping each side into strips.
This started, he says, because this is what they used to cut pizzas here, back when pizza culture was just getting off the ground—the strips came about because it was felt best to go in a straight line, in order to get uniform slice sizes. Over time, Meeker says, the cut "became a thing—like, you knew where the pizza came from."
In the beginning, your pie likely came from either Frank's or Harris. Frank's—full name, Frank's Club Napoli—started out in the smaller town of Silvis, Illinois, over on the east side of Moline, while Harris opened up shop in the late 1950's, over in Rock Island.
"There was a rumor that they both agreed to stay on their side of the Cities," says Meeker, and while all parties involved in this gentlemen's agreement are now deceased, the agreement appears to have held. Frank's has just the one location, but even after expanding to their current four shops, there's still no Harris Pizza in Moline.