Pizza pizza, Midwestern style

When talking pizza, you’re talking personal—territorial.

Unlike regional foods like crab rolls (Maine), vinegar barbeque (Carolinas), Korean tacos (California), and cudighi (ultra-regional, found only in Marquette County in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula), pizza is everyone’s meal.

We defend our preferences fiercely and vociferously: Deep-dish, thin-crust, Neapolitan, with fork or without, the dish thought to be born in the clay ovens of southern Italy in 997 AD, a pie originally made with tomato slices, olive oil and dough, has since created rifts among its American loyalists.

Roadfood.com, Jane and Michael Stern’s local eats website, offers just the space for the various pizza camps to hash out their differences. In the Roadfood Forums we asked, “Why is it that the world’s largest pizza chains (Pizza Hut, Little Caesars, Domino’s) have all started in the Midwest?”

The debate was on: Northeasterners asserted that people west of the Hudson River simply don’t know a good pizza from bad, hence the bland fast-food giants. Midwesterners were not so willing to accept that assumption. Everyone had a theory.

Writes one user, “I think pizza in the East [sic] typically was started by Italian Americans in their restaurants,” said one Roadfood member.  “In the Midwest, I think it started more in bars as something to offer patrons that was salty (particularly the toppings), cheap, and an alternative to pretzels and peanuts that went great with beer.”

Several from the East Coast disagreed, saying that Midwesterners have “never tasted real pizza.” Real pizza being, we surmise, a province solely of the coasts.

Let’s review the facts:

  • Little Caesar’s Pizza was founded in Garden City, Michigan in 1959. (Just to note, my grandfather Frank Quattro was the company’s first general manager).
  • Domino’s Pizza; Ypsilanti, Michigan; 1960.
  • Pizza Hut; Wichita, Kansas; 1958.
  • Papa John’s Pizza; Louisville, Kentucky; 1984.

Noticing a trend?

Pre-Papa John’s tomato pie came with its Italian cooks as they settled in coal, car and cow country flush with fresh ingredients during the early twentieth century. Coupled with an entrepreneurial spirit and an understanding of a growing need for inexpensive, fast, family-friendly meals, restaurateurs like my grandfather were able to develop the recipe for pizza as we eat it today.

It’d be a once-a-week treat, he used to say. Something the average American could afford.

That is, a pizza fired and boxed in the heartland.

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