For the longest time, when people from out of town asked me what the best pizza was in the Quad Cities, I'd always say, "There's no such thing as good pizza in the Quad's."
After a while, a couple three places opened up that gave me hope, but they're still not on the level of many other cities I've traveled to.
Quad City style pizza, as I like to call it, consists of a pizza crust that is not thick and not thin, almost too chewy for the depth, pretty bland sauce, either processed sausage pellets (looks like rabbit food pellets) or ground sausage, and they cut the pizza down the middle, then make 2" cuts the opposite way.
The Bad Ones -
Probably the most popular and famous pizza in the Quad's is Harris Pizza. And I can't fathom why it is the most popular pizza joint in the area. Once again, the sauce is bland, the dough is sort of in between deep and thin and too chewy for what it is. They use the processed sausage pellets, for God's sake! It's just horrible.
But still, there are people who grew up here who would CRAWL to get a Harris Pizza. I know people who have moved away and the first thing they have to do when they get back is get a Harris Pizza. I just want to gag when I hear them talk so fondly of Harris Pizza.
My Harris Pizza story - I had just moved to the Quad's in 1991 and everyone was telling me how great Harris Pizza was. So one night on a Sunday night, it was getting kind of late and I decided to call for a Harris Pizza to go pick up. I ordered my usual - sausage, pepperoni, mushroom - and I ordered a large so I could put some in the fridge and piece on it through the week.
I ordered from the one on E. Locust and went and picked it up. I took it back to my apartment and tried a piece. Hmm, something with the taste isn't right here. Ooo, what are these things on top? Is this the sausage? Where's the big chunks? I finished that piece and got into the second piece. It wasn't tasting too good. In fact, it tasted pretty bad. For the first time in my life, I actually threw away a nearly whole pizza.
I got home late on the following Monday night from a meeting in Iowa City and remembered that trash day was the next morning. I took the trash out to the curb around midnight and went in and went to bed. The next morning, I had to be up for a 7:30 meeting at the store I was working at. As I was driving out of the parking lot, I noticed that something had gotten into my garbage sack. I stopped and kind of cleaned things up around the sack and noticed that the Harris Pizza box was opened - and not one piece had been taken! The pizza was so bad, even the critter that got into my garbage thought it sucked and wouldn't eat it! True story!
Probably the second most popular pizza place in town is a chain called Happy Joe's. Happy Joe's was started by Happy Joe Whitty back in the 70's and has branched out to a number of restaurants in the upper Midwest. Happy Joe's pizza, in a word, sucks, too. Same type of processed sausage as Harris Pizza. Same type of doughy, chewy crust. Sauce is bland. It's just not very good. But they do a big business here in the Quad's. And they have over 70 places in the upper Midwest. Unbelievable...
Actually, Happy Joe's is famous for being the originators of the Taco Pizza. I was told the story of how the original Taco Pizza came to be by my good friend, Gwen Schroeder, whose son, Ryan, worked at Happy Joe's for a while when he was in high school.
Over 20 years ago, Joe Whitty had a contest that was open to all Happy Joe employees to come up with a unique pizza that they may eventually sell. One of the guys who was working at a Happy Joe's, who was a recovering drug abuser and "ne'er-do-well" that Joe took on out of the goodness of his heart, came up with the recipe for a Taco Pizza. It was a hit and has now been duplicated by pizza places all over the Midwest. The guy that came up with the recipe eventually turned out to be the manager at the restaurant at which Ryan was working.
(As an aside - I tell people from other parts of the country about Taco Pizza and they look at me like I'm from Mars. I don't care for it, myself, but it is one of Happy Joe's biggest sellers.)
The Better Ones - But Not by Much
The next tier of pizza joints in the Quad Cities are all places that have taken the Harris formula and tweaked it a bit. Two of the most notable ones are Frank's Pizza in Bettendorf (see map) and in Silvis (see map), and Wise Guys in Davenport (see map). Same doughy, chewy crust, bland sauce, except they actually use crumbled ground sausage (a definite step up from sausage pellets). Once again, people think Frank's and Wise Guys are great, but I really don't care for either one.
There's another pizza place on the west side that I think stacks up with the two I've just mentioned and that's Uncle Bill's (see map). Also a Harris knock-off, it's OK, better than Harris Pizza or Happy Joe's, but I wouldn't go out of my way to order it again.
Now We're Talking Even BETTER Pizza - but Still Not Great
There are some places that have taken the Harris and Happy Joe formula and turned out pretty good pizzas. My favorite of those is Sports Fans in Bettendorf (see map). Sports Fans is a great sports bar that also has a good sandwich menu. But I really do like their pizza. I can't really call it my favorite pizza, but it is good. The sauce is better than the other places and the ingredients seem to be better tasting. Every time Cindy and I get a pizza from there, it's been consistently good.
One other place that has a good pizza on par with Sports Fans is Gunchie's on the West Side of Davenport (see map). Gunchie's is a blue-collar bar that has burgers and other sandwiches, but they're well known for their pizza. It, too, is almost always good.
Not far from Gunchie's is another clone - and good pizza - Fat Boy's (see map). It's also known as a "Meat Market" pizza, because Fat Boy's is connected to the Meat Market tavern. They, too, make a good Quad City style pizza. Not great, but edible.
And one other place that is almost the same as all three is Clint's Pizza over in Moline (see map). Located in the Wells Fargo nightclub complex, Clint's former life was as a Harris pizza maker. But he decided to deep six the ingredients and use the ones similar to Sports Fans, Gunchie's, and Fat Boy's.
Out of those four, they're all good Quad City style pizza, with Sports Fans probably winning by a pepperoni.
The Ones That Stand Apart -
There's a couple three other places that go a little beyond the bounds of true Quad City style pizza. The first one is Beaver's East in Bettendorf (see map). They actually have a thick topping pizza that is better than most of the Quad City style pizzas. The sausage is more chunky and more flavorful than a lot of the other places in the Quad's.
They moved to a new building about four or five years ago after being in a little log cabin type building in east Bettendorf for years. The new building is of a north woods motif, lots of moose and deer heads. The pizza is pretty good, but still not the best I've ever had.
The Filling Station in Davenport (see map) is more of a sandwich place that happens to make pizza. Their pizza can go from very good to disappointing - all within the stretch of two visits. They, too, have pizza that has a little bit bigger chunks of sausage. But as I said, you've got to catch 'em on a good night or the pizza can be a little on the poor side.
And the Rusty Nail (see map) - a lounge/restaurant on the west side - also has surprisingly good pizza for a Quad City style. They're more of a soup/sandwich restaurant and night club, but they really do a consistently good pizza.
The Chains -
As far as the regional chains go - the three that still make good pizzas around here are Godfather's, Old Chicago, and, believe it or not, Casey's General Stores.
Godfather's originated out of Omaha in the 70's started by Willy Thiessen and grew to be one of the most popular pizza chains in the Midwest. Their pizzas are very good for a chain, although the one close to us here in Davenport is OK, at best. I haven't had a Godfather's for a while, so maybe I need to give them another shot sometime soon.
Old Chicago is a Colorado based pizza chain that tries to position itself as a Chicago-style deep-dish pizza joint with a lot of beers to choose from. The pizza is better than average, but it seems that the beer selection is spotty, especially with the micro-brews or imports they list on their menu. The one in Bettendorf seems to always be out of the beers that they highlight as some of their featured beers. But that shouldn't distract from the pizza. They used to have a cajun style pizza that had andouille sausage, big chunks of pepperoni and onion. I wish they still had it on the menu.
Casey's is the Midwest's high profile convenience store chain. They have a number of stores that make pizza in house. And, if you get 'em fresh and not in the food holder for more than 2 hours, they're pretty damn good. They have the chunk sausage that pizza should be, although I think it's more of a pre-processed sausage than ground sausage placed on the pizza. Still, their pizzas are tough to beat for what they are. Good and cheap.
The Best of the Quad's
The best pizzas in the Quad Cities still pale in comparison to pizzas that I've had in diverse places as Chicago, Decorah or Iowa City. But the ones that are the best are:
Benny's - Benny's is in Milan on the extreme south side of the Quad Cities (see map). In fact, it's almost not in the Quad's, it's that far out. When we lived on the west side of Davenport, we used to make the 25 to 30 minute trip to Benny's because it was that good. It's more of a Quad City style of pizza, but their sausage is better than any of the others that are similar.
The one thing I really like about Benny's is that they have Anchor Steam on tap. I was talking with the owner (who I'm guessing is Benny) one night and I remarked that I don't see a lot of places that have Anchor Steam on tap. He said, "It's my favorite beer, so I have it on tap." I see his point - I suppose that if I ran a place, I'd have Capital Special Pilsner on tap.
Nancy's Pizza - as I talked about in my Chicago pizza post, Nancy's is a stuffed pizza and they also make a pretty good thin crust, too. For what it is, Nancy's is better than the vast majority of pizza places in the Quad Cities. Tangy sauce, big chunks of fresh sausage, a good stuffed pizza and a very good thin crust. It's sort of sad that one of the best pizzas in the Quad Cities is from a chain out of Chicago. Well, then again, on second thought...
Centro's - Centro's is a Des Moines-based fine dining restaurant in the Redstone building in downtown Davenport (see map) connected to the River Music Experience. They have an extensive menu that for the Quad Cities is very good, but compared to a number of places I've eaten at in Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, St. Louis, etc., it is average at best.
They do have a very good pizza where they use fresh and natural ingredients, the dough is hand tossed and thin and crisp. For what it is, it is very good.
Lunardi's - Located in a strip mall called Northtown Plaza behind the Northwest Bank tower and Hooters (see map), Lunardi's is one of the best Italian restaurants in the Quad Cities. For years, Lunardi's had the best Italian food in the Quad Cities. And with restaurants such as Trattoria Tiramisu, Biaggi's, and Antonella's Ristorante opening up within the past few years, Lunardi's may still be the best of the lot. However, their pizza is their big secret. A deep dish Sicilian-style pizza that is surprisingly very good and full of fresh toppings - including big chunks of sausage. The pasta dishes at Lunardi's are what they're famous for - their pizza is the most under-rated in the city.
Pinocchio's - Also located in Milan, although not as far out as Benny's (see map). Pinocchio's bills itself as a gourmet pizza and they do have some eclectic toppings. Cindy likes the sun-dried tomatoes and garlic herb topping. I think their sausage, pepperoni and mushroom is outstanding.
Pinocchio's bakes their pizzas in a brick oven that is fired by wood. The temps climb to well over 600 degrees (they have a digital thermometor on the outside of the oven for all to see) and the pizzas are cooked fast, but evenly baked with a hint of woody aroma to them. I have to say that Pinocchio's has the best pizza in the Quad's.
But, then again, that's really not saying that much. There are better pizzas places throughout the Midwest and I'm frankly surprised that someone hasn't realized that the Quad Cities is such a vast, untapped market, starving for GOOD pizza. I'm afraid that a lot of people who live here don't know what good pizza really is.