Pizza from the Ilinois–Iowa border is making a splash in the big city.
As regional pizza styles go, the U.S. is spoiled for delightfully inauthentic options.
There’s the classic New York City dollar slice, a giant, thin triangle perfect for folding in half and stuffing your face after a late night on the town. Chicago has its deep dish pizza, its cornmeal-dusted crust so thick it resembles a literal pie that demands a fork and knife. The California cuisine heyday of the '80s and '90s brought its own artisanal pizza to the table, and Detroit style has swung into the spotlight recently with heavy-hitter pizzerias like Via 313 in Austin and Brooklyn’s Emmy Squared.
But we know of one significant pizza preparation that you may have never heard of, from a region that you may have never heard of, either: Illinois’ Quad Cities. And thanks to one hometown-hero restaurateur, now is the time to eat it.
“Roots is the first and only place in Chicago for Quad Cities pizza,” Greg Mohr, co-founder of Chicago’s Fifty/50 Restaurant Group, told Travel + Leisure. The native of Rock Island (one of the five cities that make up the metropolitan area on the Illinois-Iowa border) started Roots Pizza seven years ago for a very simple reason: “Until I moved to Chicago, I had no idea there was even a ‘style’ to our pizza — but I couldn’t find it anywhere. And I really missed it.”
Trips to the Quad Cities with his business partner, Scott Weiner, helped convince Mohr to bring his hometown pizza to the big city.
“Scott really enjoyed it,” said Mohr. “That’s when I realized it's not just a nostalgic thing for me, something I only like because I grew up on it.”
The pair worked with Mohr’s favorite Quad Cities pizzaiolos to buy the original recipe — developed at legendary Harris Pizza half a century ago — and brought their staff down to train with the experts.
So what exactly is Quad Cities pizza? Perhaps the most important aspect, according to Mohr, is the dough. “It’s a heavy malt crust,” he said, “which caramelizes as you cook it to bring out this sweet, nutty taste.” At Roots, each pizza is hand-tossed for optimal crispy goodness.
The sauce on a Quad Cities pizza is deep red with some added heat — always smooth, never chunky — and the toppings are added under the distinctly heavy final layer of cheese. Instead of triangle wedges, these pies are cut into strips with giant scissors. “It’s what I always saw growing up,” said Mohr. “Sometimes people come in to work for us and say, ‘Are you sure? With scissors?’ But it just works.”
At Roots, the menu focuses on Quad Cities classics: pepperoni, crumbled house-made sausage, and the ubiquitous taco pizza with lettuce, tomato, and taco-seasoned tortilla chips. “It’s weird and delicious,” he said. “We didn’t want to dilute anything or change based on Chicago tastes.”
They are, however, inviting their pals in the industry to join in on the fun — commissioning big Chicago names like Stephanie Izard and Charlie McKenna for their Chef’s Series of pizza specials. Mohr and Weiner have invited more than 30 chefs — “from mom-and-pop shops to Michelin-starred restaurants” — to put their own stamp on the Quad Cities style, keeping bestsellers on the permanent menu.
With two Roots locations already spreading the Quad Cities gospel, and more locations on the horizon, this hyper-regional pizza style may finally be getting its big break.