Roots Handmade Pizza
1924 W. Chicago Ave. Chicago, IL 60622 (map); 773-645-4949; rootspizza.com
Pizza Style: Quad Cities
The Skinny: Chicago's only Quad Cities-style pizzeria will leave you wondering why it took so long for someone bring that local delight across the state.
Price: 12" inch taco pizza is $22; 16" inch sausage is $21
At the western edge of Illinois and the eastern border of Iowa sits the Quad Cities, a region that is home to its own style of pizza. Chicago is about 170 miles away, nearly directly east, and the city has been a destination for countless Quad Cities natives over the years who have been drawn to big city life.
Sadly for the pizza lovers among them, they had moved to a land which offered a staggering array of pizza varieties but somehow overlooked their hometown treat. About six months ago, that changed when local bar owners Greg Mohr (QC native) and Scott Weiner (not to be confused with Scott Wiener) opened Roots Handmade Pizza in West Town. Getting people who know and love Quad Cities pizza into the door wasn't going to be an issue. The real questions were whether the pizza could or should catch on in Chicago; the answer to both questions is yes!
The first thing that stands out about the style of pizza is the odd rectangular cut. While that style is very uncommon, it is not unique to the Quad Cities. John's Pizzeria, born in south suburban Chicago but now residing in northwest Indiana (reviewed here), and LaRosa's Pizza in Cincinnati (reviewed here) both feature the same cut. A key difference is that at Roots, as apparently is the case in the Quad Cities, the pizzas are cut with a scissors rather than a pizza cutter.
The pizzas are blanketed in thick and rather nondescript mozzarella cheese that scores points for: its meltability; the ease with which it separates when bitten; and extra fat thanks to sheer volume. It loses a couple points due to blandness. The sauce, which has a slight kick to it, is barely there. That's not a mistake; that's part of the style. Despite the less than sensational cheese and the, for me, woefully inadequate amount of sauce, I really liked this pizza a lot for two reasons— the crust, which I'll get to later, and the sausage.
The crumbled sausage, which covers nearly every centimeter of the pizza, is sensational. The little bits of pork, riddled with fennel and pepper, really stand out. The meat Is cooked a bit before it's put on the pizza and placed in the oven so there's a little less fat and moisture than is typically found in larger chunks, but thanks to the aforementioned large quantity of cheese, that's not remotely a problem. Again, though, the sausage is hardly any different from the version being sold at John's.
Do not adjust your computer screens; that's a taco pizza gone wild and it's outstanding. Apparently taco pizzas are extremely popular in the Quad Cities, and after eating this thing, I absolutely understand why. This pizza should not work at all, but the iceberg lettuce, cheese, beans, sausage, and, yes, cheesy tortilla chips, make for a delicious pie that is a textural treat.
What really brings these slices together are the packets of taco sauce delivered by the bowlful to anyone who orders a taco pizza. The extra zip, the tangy, spicy boost from those packets of sauce, elevates this pie from potentially gimmicky to a level of deliciousness that is no laughing matter (no matter how silly the pizza might look).
Where the distinct nature of the style of pizza really jumps out is in the crust. The bread base of these pizzas is very chewy but is surrounded by a crisp, almost crunchy exterior. In addition to the normal basic ingredients that going into breadmaking, Quad Cities pizza crusts have some malt mixed in, which gives the bread a very slight sweetness and enhances the golden color.
How good is this crust? It actually has the power to make a teething baby (not mine!) stop crying for a solid hour. And since I've put in the gratuitous baby picture, I should also mention that despite having a hip, slightly frat-y vibe, Roots is very family friendly. Kids were all given crayons and their inevitable spills were quickly taken care of by a very attentive staff.
I haven't been to the Quad Cities in a decade and I've never had the pizza there, so I can't say how Roots stacks up against some of the classic institutions like Frank's that developed the style. But I can say that Roots is putting out some great pizzas and I'd be surprised if Quad Cities natives who live in Chicago still feel the need to bring back stacks of half-baked pizzas every time they visit home. Are there any current Chicagoans from the Quad Cities out there who can vouch for the quality of Roots?
About the author: Daniel Zemans is so devoted to Chicago that he covers pizza for Slice and burgers for A Hamburger Today. When he's not focusing on expanding his waistline, he works as a lawyer on behalf of employees and tenants.