Suppose you discovered Orangeburg was turning out the best eggrolls in the country. Would you be surprised?
So far as I know, there aren’t any life-changing eggrolls in Orangeburg. But Windsor, Ontario, just an hour away from my childhood home, is apparently producing some of the greatest pizza anywhere, at least according to recent press reports. This summer, a correspondent for Belt Magazine noted that a Windsor pizzeria was honored at the International Pizza Expo in Vegas for making the third-best pizza in the world. “Windsorites are crazy about pizza,” he wrote.
And this is where Orangeburg enters the picture. Never once have I heard anyone talk about crossing the Canadian border for a slice of pizza. Underage drinking, yes. And in the years before Detroit had casinos, gambling was a big draw. But to these native Michigan ears, the notion of making the trip for shredded pepperoni and canned mushrooms sounds every bit as absurd as journeying up Interstate 26 for magnificent Chinese takeout.
Clearly, I needed to sample the source of the fuss. Although I seriously doubted a customs agent would buy the purpose of my visit, while up that way for Thanksgiving, I arranged to eat at five of the city’s most notable pizzerias in the company of Adriano and Pina Ciotoli, a brother-and-sister team that promotes Windsor’s culinary scene through events, tours and the WindsorEats website.
(My terrifically kind hosts were very careful to emphasize that the five stops on our itinerary weren’t necessarily the best pizzerias in Windsor, since they’re still taking heat for a suggested eating list they once published, perhaps imprudently. There are more than 150 pizzerias in Windsor, and every single one of them boasts a cadre of loyal fans.)
“People who move away, when they come visit, they get like two dozen half-cooked pizzas to bring back with them, just so they can have it,” Adriano Ciotoli told me. According to Ciotoli, Windsorites regularly return from cities such as Chicago, Detroit and Toronto bemoaning the state of pizza outside of Windsor.
Their disappointment can be explained partly by the construction of Windsor pizza, which is generally made in a style originated more than 60 years ago by a pizzeria called Volcano’s: Its owner didn’t object to employees – most of them fellow Italian immigrants – borrowing his recipes when they opened restaurants of their own.
But unlike many American pizzas, a Windsor pizza isn’t defined by the subtle sourness of its crust or the zip of its sauce. A few Windsor pizza partisans will make a case for the uniqueness of local joints’ favored mozzarella, distributed by Galati Cheese. Really, though, the standout attributes of Windsor pizza are its mass of toppings and the requisite firmness of a crust to support them.
In Windsor, pizza almost always means mushrooms, green peppers, sausage, onions and shredded pepperoni; there’s very little cheese by American standards (One of Windsorites’ top complaints about pizza elsewhere is greasiness: Blotting pizza with paper towels is unthinkable.) I’m sure a Canadian could find a nicer way of saying so, but the pizzas I tried didn’t blow me away with their deliciousness. The thickish crusts were decent, but hard to appreciate beneath a blitz of salty pork. The sauce sometimes skews sweet. And if you care deeply about bronzed cheese and charred crusts, you may want to think twice about moving to Windsor.
Still, my likes and dislikes are irrelevant. What’s fascinating about Windsor pizza is the civic pride it inspires and the story it tells about a place that most Americans know only as a former bootleggers’ paradise and major manufacturer of minivans. Windsor is a blue-collar city, built by hard-working immigrants who wanted just a little bit more. At Arcata, Armando’s, Antonino’s or Marco’s, their children and grandchildren are guaranteed at least a slice of plenty.
Want to learn more about Windsor pizza from its makers and connoisseurs? A five-minute audio dispatch from my tour is here.