No restaurant experience feels quite as lonesome as dine-in pizza for one. Solitude itself is fine—especially in a steakhouse or sushi bar, where it’s a healthy way to eat at your own tempo and enjoy tossing trash across the free table space. But American pizza—at least the round, whole pie style—is built for sharing or takeout. There’s something unwholesome about a solo adult ordering their own, even if it’s personal-sized. That truth hit home especially hard for me last month, as I sat alone in Harris Pizza in Rock Island, Illinois, gnawing on my first slice of Quad Cities–style pizza in twenty years.
Quad Cities–style pizza is famous locally and obscure everywhere else. Which could also be said for the Quad Cities themselves, a cluster of five (yes, five, despite “quad” meaning four) cities spanning the Iowa-Illinois border, where I grew up. Chefs guard their recipes with secrecy worthy of nuclear launch codes, publicly agreeing only on the broadest strokes: dough with malt for sweetness, a spartan smear of spicy red sauce, one pound of crumbled pork sausage seasoned with fennel, and a chunked, regionally-made mozzarella. The cheese is shelved over the toppings thick as the rubber on an all-terrain tire. But QC pizza’s primary distinction is how it’s cut. See it once, and you’ll be able to pick it out of a pizza lineup for life. Instead of wedges, the pizza is sliced down the middle once, then in a series of strokes perpendicular to that first one, leaving each slice as skinny as a wrought-iron spike. You could theoretically rearrange the strips to construct a lattice of pizza. This is done using a pair of 13-inch stainless steel shears, specifically designed for industrial work. Harris’ are ordered custom from the manufacturer, so you couldn’t even copy them if you wanted to.
While I went to high school three blocks from where I’m sitting now, I grew up in a still smaller town far enough away that none of the QC-style places would deliver to us, so my memories of QC pizza are of benign authority figures. The cool teacher who would drive up on her lunch break and bring back two large cheese for the class, or a priest who served it while he taught us what it meant to ‘cover the spread’ and how to bet on football. The commute left it cold as clay, but it was pizza. Or a friend’s parents would toast it in the oven when you slept over. For a kid weaned on Pizza Hut, it was perfect for staying with another family—since, like everything else in the house, it was basically the same as the stuff your parents had, just arranged wrong.
I left after high school, living in bigger cities and eating better pizzas. I never found anything like the QC style. To be fair, I wasn’t looking that hard. I also never wondered why no one else used the strip-cut since I couldn’t see the advantage. In any case, I had just enough disconnect to be unsure, and I wanted to fact-check my memory, which is what brought me to Harris today. Though there are dozens of restaurants serving this style, Harris claims to be the originator and holds a copyright on the phrase “Original Quad Cities-Style Pizza.” Childhood friends told me this was the place to try first and to get the sausage.
My order came and I had no plan of attack. Normally, pizza is obvious. There’s a crust, and you know which end to grab and which to eat. The QC-style cut, however, spits in the face of pizza evolution. There’s no structural integrity. It’s essentially a limp strand of cheese and bread.
I tried eating it with two hands first. You can’t bite the middle because then the bridge fails and you’ll palm yourself in the face if you try biting from the cheesy end.
The obvious move is to use cutlery, but the thing resisted cutting and all the knife did was mash the cheese into the crust and squirt sausage out along the sides.
I tried deconstruction, pushing the cheese topping to the side, cutting the crust, then reassembling the ingredients for one forkful. Roadkill again.
Across the restaurant, a family of five was splitting a large; the parents had forks, and the three boys had greasy lips and fingers. The youngest pulled cheese over his face like a dead skin mask and wiggled his tongue through.
The family—if not the pizza—was something recognizable, a common scene across a nation where pizza remains a consensus builder. People would trade an hour of sleep a night for a free slice every day. We make up a third of the pizza global market, which is a bigger share than our cut of oil and coal and gas. It is a breakfast food healthier than cereal and has ended at least one police standoff. Pizza inspires the kind of devotion that anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers can only aspire to. So it should be protected.
Back to the Quad Cities for a moment: Let me note that, even if it doesn’t get much attention, the place has character. WWE Champ Seth Rollins graduated from West Davenport High and owns a pro wrestling school downtown. Prince’s plane made an emergency landing here shortly before the Purple One died, and the Illinois doctors were among the last to treat him. There’s a barn out in the cornfields which could be the best venue in the midwest. Last month a dude went viral for noodling a 50-pound catfish out of the flooding river waters, then marching it through downtown cradled in his bare hands for half a mile. There’s even another, better, pizza innovation over at Happy Joe’s, who invented the Taco Pizza in the 1970s. Point is, the QC has multiple sources of civic pride and as such can handle hearing that this pizza is horrible. It’s Gremlin vomit.
It’s not just that the pizza’s slice structure ignores the laws of physics, though I can’t overstate how much this complicates the simple act of eating pizza. Cheese and meat collapse like arctic shelves. It’s that the choices made at every stage making it are so nonsensical, the motivations so hard to trace, that it rises to the level of legendarily terrible—like The Room or the Troll 2 of bad pizza. It’s just that it’s impossible to ironically enjoy something you swallow.
Somehow there are more than two dozen restaurants advertising this style in the Quad Cities alone. Gunchies, Poor Boy’s Pizza, Fields of Pizza, QC Pizza, Sluggers, Spinners, Uncle Bill’s, Clint’s, Benny’s, Frank’s. I can’t say I tried them this go-round. I tried enough. If Harris is patient zero (Frank’s claims paternity too), today it’s creeping across the Midwest like a slow epidemic, showing up at Roots in Chicago and Hometown Pizza in West Des Moines.
The only answer I have to why this could is something called Pizza Cognition Theory. The theory was coined by former New York Times’ restaurant critic Sam Sifton, quoted in Ed Levine's book Pizza: A Slice Of Heaven: "The first slice of pizza a child sees and tastes (and somehow appreciates on something more than a childlike, mmmgoood, thanks-mom level), becomes, for him, pizza. He relegates all subsequent slices, if they are different in some manner from that first triangle of dough and cheese and tomato and oil and herbs and spices, to a status that we can characterize as not pizza."
If that’s true, then maybe Dad was doing me a kindness by avoiding the stuff. Quad Cities–style might be Sifton’s proof of concept. In fact, Harris’ Pizza own website details exactly how it might have happened.
Fifty years ago, the concept of pizza was so new to the area that Leonard and Mary Harris had to give it away to get people to try it. But, the infamous taste that would become Harris Pizza caught on, and half a century later Harris Pizza is a household name in the Quad Cities...Often imitated, never duplicated over fifty years later. A family-owned business, Harris Pizza is now run by the third generation of the Harris family, as we watch fourth and fifth generation customers coming through our doors.
I’ll take Harris at its word that 60-odd years after Gennaro Lombardi opened the first American pizzeria in lower Manhattan, no one in Rock Island knew what pizza was. It’s possible. Pizza didn’t boom nationally until the 50s. So here we have an entire community ready to be indoctrinated. For me personally, being too far out into the farmlands to get anything besides Pizza Hut delivered, this tracks—and also explains why I still have a soft spot for a thin crust Meat Lovers.
I tried explaining this to my friend Lee, who also grew up nearby and now covers government for an Eastern Iowa paper.
“You ever hear of pizza cognition theory?” I asked, trying to do him a favor and explain to him exactly why he loved Harris so much.
“Ha. No,” he said. “Have you ever heard of not whining and enjoying some fucking pizza?”
Fair play, Lee. He’s right, of course.
And I tried to follow his advice. I kept ordering pies for the rest of the week, hoping one would meet me halfway. I couldn’t find a way in. Every place I tried, those blueprint shears were dusted with flour and waiting to slice. Truckloads of supermarket pork sausage disintegrated. Always, somewhere, was another family or two, a dad edging his son’s cheese back onto the crust with the edge of a butter knife to feed him, much as ours must’ve too, once.