This is the fifth instalment in a weekly TVO.org summer series exploring the origins of Ontario’s signature foods.
People can be fiercely proud of their local nosh (insult a Montrealer’s bagels and see where that gets you). Pizza is Windsorites’ culinary claim to fame, and homegrown brands — Antonino’s, Arcata, Armando’s, Capri, Franco’s, Naples, Riverside, Riviera, Sarducci’s, Windsor — dominate the landscape, serving up pies with a local twist.
National chains simply can’t compete with the independents, says aficionado Siobhan Özege, whose parents, Denise and Ali, have been running a Capri Pizzeria outlet for the past 17 years. “One is Windsor pizza; the other is just pizza that is sold in Windsor,” she says.
Locally sourced vegetables, meats, and cheeses, she says, are key. But fresh ingredients are only part of the story. The Windsor crust is thick and chewy; the sauce is distinctively thick, with a spice blend that puts oregano at the forefront. At this point, Montrealers may be sitting up and taking notice, because the classic Windsor pizza much more closely resembles the Montreal variety than the average Toronto pie.
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But then there are the toppings.
Peppers are ubiquitous in both cities, but Windsor is possibly unique in its preference for canned — not fresh — mushrooms, which don’t burn. However, “the biggest thing that sets it apart is the pepperoni,” Özege says. “It’s actually a shredded blend of sausage and pepperoni; it’s not rounded pieces, so you get a lot more on the pizza, and it’s pretty flavourful.”
You might imagine the proliferation of independent chains would breed pizza diversity, but you’d be wrong, she says: “Windsor is not exactly homogeneous, but we like things the way they are.”
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If you want to order a Windsor pizza, your options will likely include the Super, featuring pepperoni, green peppers, bacon, and canned mushrooms. (“Everybody has some variation of that, almost always called Super, or maybe a Deluxe,” Özege explains.) There will probably be a Greek pie too (feta, mozzarella, onions, tomatoes, black olives, and green peppers), as well as the usual veggie, pepperoni, and cheese options.
“But there isn’t a ‘Canadian,’ with bacon, mushrooms, and pepperoni,” Özege says. “That combination of ingredients is not a thing in Windsor.”
As for size, round pizzas come in Baby, Small, Medium, and Large (don’t even try to order a single slice — also not a thing). “And what we would normally call an Extra Large [in Toronto] is called a Queen, and it’s square, and you get 24 pieces, so you get pieces that have no crust and lots of toppings,” Özege says. “Those are always very sought-after. Thirty-two pieces is called a King, and that’s a pretty distinct Windsor thing.”
When you dig into Detroit’s pizza history, you end up following a chain of succession not unlike the “begat” section of Genesis. Özege heard the founder of Windsor’s Capri and Naples outlets originally worked at Arcata, carrying that parlour’s tradition over to his restaurants. But before Arcata, there was Volcano Pizzeria, founded by the Gualtieri family, which added pizza to its menu in the 1960s.
Volcano is generally understood to be the first Windsor pizza outlet. However, founder Frank Gualtieri learned to make the dough at his cousin’s pizzeria in Detroit, another renowned pizza city. And Detroit pizza aficionados point to Buddy’s Rendezvous, established in 1946, as the progenitor of all other Detroit-style pizzerias.
The true origin of Windsor pizza is as buried as the crust beneath its toppings. Of course, it’s not necessary to know where something comes from to appreciate it. It suffices to know that it’s delicious.
Sarah B. Hood is a freelance writer and the author of We Sure Can!: How Jams and Pickles Are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food.