One of my first posts on "Road Tips" had to do with the dearth of good pizza places in the Quad Cities of Iowa and Illinois. You can see that post by clicking here. (For those of you who are geographically challenged, the four cities that make up the Quad's are Rock Island and Moline, IL; and Davenport and Bettendorf, IA.) Until very recently, for as many pizza places there are in this town, there were only two or three that I would deem as worthy. But those two or three are still not what I would call great pizza.
Quad City style pizza is usually a thicker, chewy crust and they use ground sausage instead of Italian Sausage chunks on top. That is, unless you're Happy Joe's Pizza that uses a form of processed sausage pellets on their pizza. Harris Pizza is still the King of Pizza in the Quad Cities with thousands of devotees still going through their doors to get the same type of pizza they were brought up eating. Over the years, Harris Pizza has spawned a number of "me too" pizza places that make pizzas almost exactly like Harris. As one friend told me recently, "Why would I want to go to a Harris Pizza 'clone' when I can just get the same damn pizza at Harris?"
Antonella's in downtown Davenport has good thin crust pizza, but there's still something missing in the taste of the dough and the sauce that I'm looking for. Lunardi's has very good deep dish pizza, but it's nowhere as close to Lou Malnati's in Chicago. We really like the calzones at Stashu's and Son's, but they also use ground sausage. When I order a calzone from Stashu and Son's, I order it with their cajun sausage where they just take a link and cut it up into pieces. It's better than their ground sausage, but it still ain't the big chunks of Italian Sausage that I'm looking for.
The 11th St. Precinct in the East Village of Davenport, just down the hill from where we live, has a good thin crust pizza with Italian sausage chunks. But they have a funky tomato sauce that they use on their pizza that isn't overly pleasing to my taste. Plus it's pretty expensive. There was a Nancy's Pizza franchise in Davenport for a number of years and they had good stuffed and thin-crust pizza, but it wasn't as good as what I'd find in Chicago. It went out of business about four or five years ago and there's been a void in the market ever since.
Things had been getting so desperate in regard to what I would call "good" pizza in the Quad Cities that Cindy and I had talked countless times over the past couple of years about opening our own pizza place just to show how real pizza should be made in the Quad Cities. But we also realized that the large number of people who think Harris Pizza is "real" pizza would probably hurt our chances.
About four months ago, a new place opened up in Davenport called "Van's Pizza Pub and Grill". It opened in what was the old Pat McGuire's location on Harrison Street (see map). The people behind Van's Pizza are the guys who are behind Kelly's Irish Pub on 53rd Ave. in Davenport - Marc Van Severen and Dan Kelly. They brought in Dan's brother, Dave, to be the managing partner of Van's. (Marc and Dave are pictured at the left.) Dave Kelly used to own and operate The Hub in Cedar Falls, and before that he managed The Other Place on the Hill near the Northern Iowa campus. Dave moved back to the Quad Cities a couple years ago and was helping Dan out at Kelly's from time to time.
(Update - I've since been told that Dave Kelly recently left Van's to pursue a vocation that is more in line with his degree from Northern Iowa. Something that is closer to a real "9 to 5" job. The hours one puts in while running a restaurant/bar are just horrific at times. Marc and Dan Kelly are still involved with the business.)
Now, I have a personal "in" with the Kelly boys through my friendship that I forged with Bob and Leo Kelly who play in Wicked Liz and the Bellyswirls, one of the more popular groups in the Quad Cities. (Leo, Bob and Greg Hipskind also play in Superfly Samurai when Liz isn't fronting the Bellyswirls.) I've come to know Dan and their other brother, Jerry, pretty well over the years, and I've got to know Dave by running into him at various places around town. When I found out that Dan, Dave and Marc were going to open a new place in the old Pat McGuire's - and that they were going to specialize in pizza - my initial fear was that it would be another place that sells the same style of Quad City pizza like everyone else.
But in talking with Dan one evening last fall, he told me, "We're going to fashion it after a Chicago-style, thin-crust pizza. We'll have Italian beef sandwiches, Italian sausage sandwiches, Chicago-style hot dogs, the works, man. We're bringing a bit of Chicago to the Quad Cities. For as close as we are to Chicago, there's no one that is embracing that style of food here."
When I asked him if he was going to have real big chunk Italian fennel sausage for their pizza, Dan said, "Oh, you bet!" I couldn't wait.
The Kelly's and Van Severen bought Pat McGuire's from Mike and Pat Shouse, the original owners of the business they opened in 1986. Pat McGuire's was one of our favorite places to go for a quick bite on a late Saturday night, they had a great beer selection with over 100 different beers to choose from and they also had a pretty good Sunday brunch that we used to hit from time to time. I especially liked their $1.00 vodka bar where you could make your own Bloody Mary's.
When the Shouse's retired in 2004, they ended up selling out to a cousin, Pat Kilfoy, and his partner, Pat Doyle, who own and operate Rookies Sports Bar in Davenport. Kilfoy and Doyle opened up a new place couple years ago called Jersey Grille not far from our house. (Surprisingly, Jersey Grille also has pretty good pizza and calzones, too.) Once Jersey Grille opened, Kilfoy and Doyle defaulted on their contract and the business went back to the Shouse's.
The Shouse's initially said that they welcomed getting back into the business because they found retirement in their early 50's as "boring". (I sure as shit wouldn't think being retired in my early 50's would be boring!) It appeared they were all set to reopen the restaurant, but suddenly the Kelly's and Van Severen swooped in and took the business off their hands. Dan said that he didn't want to have Pat McGuire's be in competition as a second Irish bar in Davenport, so they decided to go another way and that's how they came up with the concept for Van's Pizza Pub and Grill.
We had gone to Van's a couple times after it opened to get salads or a sandwich, but had never tried the pizza yet. One Sunday night recently, we met our next door neighbors, George and Hanna, at Van's, specifically to get pizza.
The lay out of the restaurant is similar to what Pat McGuire's had. The big changes are the menu, which is smaller than Pat McGuire's, but still a work in progress according to Dave and Dan Kelly; the televisions, which are all new flat panel TV's replacing the old, worn out tube televisions that were the same televisions in the place when I first started going there over 18 years ago; and the restrooms have been enlarged. The restrooms at Pat McGuire's were notoriously small. The Kelly's and Van Severen tore out the two restrooms and made it the men's room. The ladies restroom was built from scratch toward the back corner of the restaurant that was sort of a "catch-all" area when it was Pat McGuire's. Believe me, the larger bathrooms are welcomed as I sometimes stood six or seven deep waiting to use the men's in the past.
We took a booth up on the upper level of the dining area and we saw Jerry Kelly sitting at a table near the bar. He came over to talk with us for a bit and then Dave came over. Dave greeted us and I said, "Well, Dave, I have had some world class pizzas in my day. Tonight, I'm hoping to find out if your pizza passes the test."
He said, "We'll try our best to please you, buddy."
I ordered up a large (14") Italian sausage and pepperoni and had them put mushrooms on one half as Cindy doesn't like mushrooms. George and Hanna got the same size and had Italian sausage and black olives. George said, "I love black olives on everything."
Now, we have a rule in our family that we don't go to a restaurant that has been opened for less than three months. We want to give them time to shake out the process, making sure that everything is working on all cylinders before we give the place a try. On this visit, I think Van's had been open for about 10 weeks.
When Dave brought our pizza out, he said, "Well, Will, I've got good news and bad news. The good news is that I have one pizza here - I don't know whose it is, but it's here. The bad news is that the second pizza, well, they forgot to put cheese on the pizza. We're remaking it right now."
After Dave left, George sort of snickered and said, "Man, what kind of people does he have working in the kitchen? How can you forget to put cheese on a pizza?"
Fortunately for Cindy and me, it was George and Hanna's pizza that they screwed up. We offered to wait on their pizza, but George said, "Naw, that's OK. Go ahead and eat!"
And from the first bite I could tell - this was not another Harris Pizza clone. This was unlike any pizza I've ever had in the Quad Cities. The crust was crisp on the edges, but chewy in the middle. The sauce was rich and tangy, and the Italian sausage was GREAT!!! The chunks were large, meaty and had that great fennel taste. I was in ecstasy. FINALLY! A great pizza in the Quad Cities!
I told George and Hanna as I was devouring my pizza that the wait would be well worth it. Dave brought out their pizza to them, apologized profusely for the screw up and offered to take something off their total on their bill. Dave then asked me, "So, what do you think?"
I said, "I think it's the best f***ing pizza I've ever had in the Quad Cities, Dave. That's what I think."
George and Hanna also loved their pizza. When asked if he liked it, George said, "Oh, yeah. This is great pizza."
And he was amazed at the value. Their pizza was just a smidge over $13 bucks. George said, "This is a lot of pizza for $13 bucks."
Since our initial visit to Van's Pizza Pub and Grill, we've gone back a couple more times for pizza. One evening, we were with our friends Scott and Marcia and we each ordered a 14" pizza. The waiter came back and said they were out of 14" pizza dough. Hmm... OK, I'm sort of bewildered as to how a pizza joint can run out of dough. They were very busy that evening, so I'm guessing they make up the dough beforehand and ply it out as the pizzas are ordered. So we ended up getting three - 12" pizzas. We ordered an Italian sausage and mushrooms; Italian sausage and pepperoni; and an Italian sausage and jalapenos.
The Italian sausage and jalapenos was the first to come to the table. They could have taken it out of the oven a couple minutes earlier as the outer crust was almost burned beyond recognition. The Italian sausage and pepperoni came next and it wasn't much better on the crispy scale. Then our waiter said that they screwed up the third pizza - a troubling trend in that we've been there for pizza on four visits and they've screwed up a pizza twice. When the third pizza finally showed up at our table, the edges were almost black. We could still eat it, but we just didn't eat the crust. The toppings were still plentiful and fresh, but the pizzas were definitely overcooked. If they had taken 'em out of the oven three minutes sooner, they would have been much better.
Overall, I think Van's pizza is very, very good - that is, when it's not overcooked. It's not the best I've ever had as far as a thin crust is concerned. I still think Salerno's on West Grand in Chicago has the best thin crust pizza I've ever had. Other than my concern that the pizza is inconsistent on my visits over the past couple of months, I think Van's quite possibly has the best pizza in the Quad Cities. When they're on top of their game, it's the best. When they aren't, it's still better than the majority of pizza places in the area.