Quad City, Salisbury Beach, jumbo slice: America’s quirky pizza styles

(Dylan Moriarty/The Washington Post)

Some people like to say that there’s no such thing as bad pizza, which is a debatable premise. But I think it’s fair to posit that there’s no such thing as an obscure pizza. Sure, you might not have heard of something called a Salisbury Beach Pizza, but for many people, it’s as an essential part of their summertime experience as an ice cream cone might be to yours.

The best pizza in America, region by region

So we won’t refer to these oddball styles that are attached to particular regions as being “off the beaten track” (because whose track are we talking about?) or “hidden gems” (in some cases, there are literal neon signs pointing you to them!). Instead, let’s take a tour of some of the quirky pizza genres that inspire devotion by, ahem, slightly smaller slices of the populace than those big guys in Chicago or New York.

Named for the Pennsylvania establishment where it originated sometime in the 1960s or ’70s, the Altoona Hotel Pizza, sometimes just called Altoona-style, isn’t likely to win any beauty prizes. The base, a thick Sicilian-esque crust, is topped with tomato sauce, salami and green bell peppers — and the whole shebang is shingled with slices of yellow American cheese, which is not the most photogenic finish.

Growing up in Altoona, Pa., Steve Corklic didn’t care for the local dish, though his older sister was crazy about it. “It’s one of those things you either loved or hated, you know what I mean?” His eatery, 29th Street Pizza, Subs and More, is one of the places that started serving it after the old Altoona Hotel burned down in 2013. Corklic’s version is more generous with peppers and salami than the original was, he says.

Unlike many of the pies served at that other city in the Empire State, Buffalo-style pizza isn’t meant to be folded. Its foundation — a quick-rise dough pressed into an oiled sheet pan — is sturdy, for a good reason, says Buffalo News food editor Andrew Galarneau. “One of the salient aspects is that the cheese is layered on with abandon,” he says.

It’s also spread widely, leaving a minimal crust (some locals order a “no trim” to be certain, and to guarantee a frico-like ring where the cheese sizzles on the pan). Other hallmarks? A slightly sweet sauce and a generous crop of cup-and-char pepperonis, which curl under the heat of the oven, forming little shot glasses that fill with oil.

“It’s the kind of pizza that would get you through a blizzard if you were stuck with one in the car,” says Galarneau, who adds that you can find “exemplars of the form” at La Nova, Bocce Club Pizza and Imperial Pizza.

“It’s thin, it’s crispy, it’s nostalgic,” says Hannah Selinger, a food writer from Massachusetts who grew up eating the seaside staple, which is sometimes referred to as New England Beach Pizza (since it’s traditionally served in both Salisbury, Mass., and neighboring Seabrook Beach in New Hampshire) or by locals simply as “beach pizza.” The components are simple: a wafer of a crust formed into a rectangular shape, sweet sauce and a small amount of mozzarella cheese (sometimes topped with rounds of provolone). A dusting of garlic powder is a frequent addition.

What makes the nondescript pie special, Selinger says, is the specific sense of place that its taste evokes — a rarity in today’s everything-everywhere-anytime food culture. Where there is beach pizza, there is sand between your toes and an arcade game awaits (purveyors include Cristaldi’s, Tripoli and Cristy’s). “It’s an experiential kind of thing — you’re not getting it delivered or eating it in a restaurant,” she says. “You have to eat it standing up at the beach or bring it to the beach from the boardwalk.” It’s such a part of the experience, she notes, that the beaches have specially designed cement trash disposals with slots sized perfectly for pizza boxes.

In Old Forge, a town near Scranton, Pa., the pizza tradition is all about the lingo. You order your “tray,” not a pie, from one of the “pizza cafes.” A “slice” is called a “cut.” Semantics aside, there are elements of its signature pizza that distinguish it. The crust is similar to a Sicilian, but a bit thinner and crispier, and the cheese is often a blend that incorporates cheddar and American along with the more expected mozzarella. The town’s white pizza is even less conventional: It has an upper and lower crust that’s stuffed with plenty of cheese and the toppings of your choice — but no sauce at all.

Angelo Genell has been making trays for 45 years; his parents opened Arcaro & Genell in 1962. He prides himself on doing things the way they’ve always been done: two rises for the crust, which gets hand-stretched into pans that have developed a patina from years of use. When it comes to toppings, Genell says anything goes — homemade meatballs and shrimp and pepper are popular. He’s a homer from a town that boldly calls itself the “Pizza Capital of the World,” and explains that the various cafes vary their recipes. His sauce is a little smoother than others, he says, while other restaurants might adjust their cheese blends. “But,” Genell insists, “You can’t find a bad pizza in this town.”

The defining characteristic of this hyperlocal style is, as its name suggests, its gargantuan proportions. A single slice “goes from the tip of my middle finger to crook of my arm,” says Ruth Tam, a writer and artist who co-hosts the Dish City podcast exploring the capital’s culinary scene. “And they’re floppy — there is no structural integrity.”

The jumbo slice’s origin story unfolded in 1999, when Chris Chishti, the owner of Pizza Mart in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, decided to use up some leftover dough by combining it with another ball to fashion a larger-than-usual pie. The style, sold by the slice and topped almost exclusively with either cheese or flat pepperoni slices, quickly caught on among the late-night crowds of 20-somethings spilling out of nearby bars.

Several other nearby establishments began selling similar slices, and the portions eventually grew cartoonishly exaggerated, as did the neighborhood jousting (a rival’s sign touting its “Original Jumbo Slice” prompted Chishti to hang one declaring his the “Real Original Jumbo Slice” and then another claiming to offer the “First Oldest Original Jumbo Slice”). The slices are typically served on two overlapping paper plates or a personal-pizza box, though a slice often still needs to be folded to fit.

Tam concedes that there isn’t anything particularly delicious about a jumbo slice, which is usually employed as a sponge meant to absorb that last ill-advised drink or two. “It’s less a meal and more of a rite of passage,” she says. “There are better pizzas in D.C., but jumbo slice is an experience.”

The region spanning the area bisected by the Mississippi River in southeastern Iowa and northwestern Illinois boasts a variety of pie that is distinguished both by its form and flavors. In the pizza style that arose in the area sometime in the middle of the last century, the dough is typically laced with malt, which gives it a bit of sweetness and a dark, toasty-brown hue. By contrast, “the sauce has a little bit of kick to it,” says Jeremy Burbridge, who has spent the past 20-plus years making pizza at Frank’s Pizzeria in Silvis, Ill., which opened in 1955 and helped popularize the style.

Get the recipe: Quad Cities-Style Pizza

Fennel-flecked sausage is a traditional choice, but whatever the topping, it goes under the cheese. “It makes for a good blanket to keep it together,” Burbridge says. And the most recognizable aspect of a Quad City pizza is the way the rounds are cut: not into the wedge-shaped slices, but in strips that form a grid across the pie’s face. That means the distribution of crust isn’t equal, creating the potential for conflict among diners. “Some people do fight over it,” Burbridge says.

Ask devotees of this hometown creation what makes this variation distinct, and you’ll hear a chorus as unmistakable as that arch marking the Missouri city: It’s the cheese, dummy. St. Louis-born Provel is a butter-hued processed cheese that combines cheddar, Swiss and provolone. With a texture similar to American and a slight note of smoke, a generous scattering is what makes a pizza a St. Louis pizza. According to Imo’s, the now-franchised restaurant that opened in 1964 and popularized the style, the choice to use it was the whim of a cook.

Get the recipe: St. Louis-Style Pizza

The crust is unusual, too — it’s thin and non-yeasted, often described as “cracker-y.” Toppings are spread all the way to the edges, and the cut is square. While the city-specific pie has plenty of devotees, it can be divisive. Late-night host Jimmy Kimmel, whose wife, writer and producer Molly McNearney, hails from St Louis, has made bashing Imo’s a running joke. “Seriously, we could fight right now,” Olympic gymnast Simone Biles said during an appearance, after Kimmel claimed that “Provel is the world’s most disgusting cheese.”


A previous version of this story misidentified the regions of Iowa and Illinois that are included in the Quad Cities.