Original article posted by Vince Guerrieri for Canada Week on Thursday October 15th
Like Detroit, its neighbor across the river, Windsor, Ontario, is known as an auto-producing hub—and the history of the auto industry in Windsor goes back almost as far as it does in the Motor City. When Henry Ford started making cars, he set up a factory in Windsor to get around paying British tariffs, and soon, Ford of Canada was exporting vehicles throughout the British Empire. The automaker maintains a presence in Windsor to this day, as does Fiat Chrysler, whose assembly plant is the city’s largest employer.
And also like Detroit, Windsor has its own style of pizza that rose out of the post–World War II era. In fact, Windsor bills itself as the pizza capital of Canada. While Detroit-style pizza is thick-cut and crispy around the edges, Windsor pizza features a cornmeal-kissed crust, not thin like New York (or, heaven forbid, St. Louis), but not as thick as its neighbor’s.
Windsor-style sauce is sweet yet spicy, but the main factor that distinguishes the pizza is its toppings. Or rather, how they’re all put together. Windsor pizza’s classic fixings are pepperoni and mushrooms. But the mushrooms are canned, and the pepperoni is shaved into matchstick-thin slices. It allows for better distribution across the top of a pizza, but nobody’s sure if that’s the reason it’s done.
“I can’t tell you why they did it, but it’s stayed,” says Dean Litster, an award-winning pizza chef known as Professor Zaaa in Windsor. “I still have the sliced pepperoni for other things, but if someone ordered pizza from us and we put round pepperoni on it, we’d have a problem.”
For 60 years, Windsor residents have been fiercely devoted to their pizza. The chains that started in Detroit—Domino’s and Little Caesar’s—have a presence across the border, but their business pales in comparison to any of the dozen local pizza parlors, each offering some variation of Windsor pizza.
“Windsor style pizza is the only style pizza we make,” says Ralph Mattano, owner of Sam’s Pizzeria and Cantina, which can lay a claim to being Windsor’s oldest Italian restaurant. “We wouldn’t try to push anything else. If it ain’t broke, we’re not going to try to fix it.”
The high point of Italian immigration in the United States was the late 19th and early 20th century, but in Canada, the great migration came in the years following World War II. Those immigrants were drawn, like their compatriots in the United States, to plentiful industrial jobs.
Any city in the United States with a significant Italian population had its own Little Italy, replete with restaurants serving pizzas—or communal ovens that men stoked before leaving for work so their wives could use them for baking.
But the dish really went mainstream following World War II. The New York Times detailed its growing popularity in 1944 in the sort of prose American newspapers used to explain mysterious foreign dishes. A dozen years later, it marveled at pizza’s popularity, noting that immigrants, advertising, and refrigeration “have made pizza as delectable as such other postwar imports as [actress Gina] Lollobrigida,” and speculating if pizza could supplant the hot dog as America’s favorite food.
Italian restaurants started opening in Windsor in the 1940s—Sam’s opened in 1946—and while the origins of Windsor pizza are murky, most accounts point to one place originally located at Wyandotte Street and Victoria Avenue downtown.
“There are few definitive facts and quite a bit of myth and legends,” says Craig Capacchione, exhibit coordinator for Museum Windsor. “But Volcano Pizzeria is usually seen as the Godfather of Windsor style pizza.”
Volcano had a fleet of iconic delivery vehicles, first Jeeps then Volkswagen Beetles, that crisscrossed the city, and soon Windsorites had acquired a taste for the pizza. Pizza itself was invented out of thrift (it’s said it was originally made so leftover dough insufficient for a loaf of bread wouldn’t go to waste), and the Volcano recipe made do with what was available: specifically, canned mushrooms. Windsor pizza predates the mushroom farms in nearby Essex County, Litster says, but the canned mushrooms also lead to a distinctive taste.
“Fresh mushrooms actually give off water when they’re cooked,” he says. “They can make the crust soggy. It’ll come out like a swamp.”
Soon, people who worked at Volcano left for other restaurants or started their own, bringing the Windsor pizza recipe with them. A lifelong Windsor native, Mattano has eaten Windsor pizza since he was a child nearly 50 years ago. He started his pizza career as a driver for Gavino’s, a now-defunct pizzeria in Windsor, before he and his family bought Sam’s in the 1970s. Sam’s is near the University of Windsor, and students there are no different from anywhere else: Pizza is a staple. “Most of our clientele is university students,” Mattano says. “Pretty much everyone likes it.”
Litster, 34, grew up eating Windsor-style pizza. At 14, he went to work at Armando’s, a pizza restaurant that was founded in 1967. “I started washing pans and folding boxes,” he said. “Now I own my own franchise. I’ve only done one thing in my life and that’s make Windsor pizza.”
Litster loves to experiment with pizza, and started entering pizza-making contests, finishing third at the 2015 Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. “That really put us on the map,” he says. Since then, Armando’s has won first place at the Canadian Pizza Summit, with a new twist: a deep-dish Windsor pizza. The dough ferments for four days and is baked twice, taking elements from both the Sicilian and Detroit styles. (Litster will be giving a demonstration at this year’s virtual summit on October 19.)
“It’s something for the next generation, to complement traditional Windsor-style pizza,” he says.
Today, there are more than a dozen restaurants serving Windsor pizza, and each can probably trace it back to someone who worked at Volcano, Capacchione says. And each has its own loyal customer base.
“If you asked 10 Windsorites the best pizza shop in Windsor you could easily get 10 different answers,” he says. And none of them would be chains.
“The local places have the stronghold,” Litster says. “All the pizza in the area uses the same ingredients. It’s the people that run the stores that make it the customers’ favorite.”
Guest blog by Windsor Pizza over Everything | September 23, 2019
Canada’s most southern city, Windsor, most popular for being an automotive hub and Detroit’s Canadian neighbour, is a gem for any foodie and adventurer. The city is a melting pot of culture, and it’s well known for its amazing selection of restaurants. From African to Mediterranean, no matter what the stomach desires, Windsor offers it.
That being said, when it comes to Windsor and its food scene, one thing every person visiting needs to try is the pizza.
Windsor is the capital of pizza in Canada, and once you try it, you’ll know why. You can ask any Windsorite and they will back us up In fact, it’s common for former Windsorites to order a pizza from their local pizzeria, freeze it, and bring it to their new cities or deliver it as a gift for friends and family in other cities. Occasionally Windsor pizzerias will even ship their pizza to long-time customers who have moved away. We have heard of Windsor pizzas traveling to Calgary, Texas and even Germany! There is even a pizzeria named after the city in Calgary.
Continue reading to find out why you need to stop for a slice in Windsor and where to eat once you visit. Want to know the best spots for pizza in Windsor? We’ve got you covered.
Where Windsor Pizza originated is unclear. If you ask any Windsor Pizza fanatic, they will most likely say Volcano Pizzeria.
Volcano Pizzeria was started in the 1950s by cousins Gino Manza & Frank Gualtieri, Italian immigrants who settled in Windsor. Rumour has it, Gino worked at his cousins’ pizzeria in Detroit. This is where Gino learned to make pizza dough and the decision to open a restaurant in Windsor came.
The cousins named the restaurant after Mount Vesuvius, near Naples Italy. When it was first opened, the restaurant was just an Italian diner. It wasn’t until the early 1960s, when they installed four-deck pizza ovens, that they started to serve pizza. This is when the restaurant gained notoriety, and Windsor experienced a pizza boom.
At its height Volcano Pizzeria had a fleet of 20 delivery vehicles, all iconic Volkswagen Beatles. Volcano’s last pizza was served in 1986, with the location being sold to the Downtown Mission Centre, ending almost 30 years of serving pizza. Their pizza legacy did not end there, though. As is with any restaurant’s kitchen, it can be a revolving door. Many former employees saw the successes of Volcano’s and ventured on their own, taking the pizza craft and replicating the recipe with them. Of course, not every pizzeria in Windsor started at Volcano’s, but it was a major influencer in the city and the backbone of many local pizza chains.
So, what is Windsor style Pizza? Chicago has a deep dish, Detroit too and New York has a large Neo Neapolitan style. Windsor Pizza style can be best described as a medium-thick, Neo Neapolitan, very similar to a New York-style, except the slices are not as wide and big, but rather are made in a smaller rectangular shape, if you order Queen or King size.
The most popular pizza in Windsor is a Classic Super with pepperoni (shredded), green peppers, canned mushrooms and mozzarella cheese (from Galati Cheese Company). Of course, you can order any pizza toppings you like, but here is a breakdown of what Windsor does differently:
Picking a place to order a pizza in Windsor is actually a tough choice. Not because there is a lack of options, but rather because there are so many delicious options to choose from. Most Windsorites are grandfathered into a local pizzeria and vow their favourite pizzeria is the best. But here is a guide to help you choose when you visit Windsor.
If you are looking for a classic Windsor style pizza, most Windsorites will recommend one of the following pizzerias: Antonino’s, Arcata, Armando’s, Bullseye, Capri or Naples. These are staple pizzeria chains in Windsor and you can find one of their restaurants on any side of the city. These pizzerias are not sit down. They focus on pick up or delivery, so if you are looking to try one, keep that in mind.
What makes Windsor such a great pizza city is the diversity in pizzerias. For example, if you are looking for a traditional pizza such as classic wood oven-fired Neapolitan style pizza, then you need to check out Caboto Club, Sam’s Pizzeria & Cantina, Tera Cotta, Vito’s and Wineology. These restaurants are perfect if you are craving somewhere to sit down and munch on a traditional Neapolitan pizza.
Windsor pizza chefs are not scared to push the boundaries either. For example, Arcata pizzeria made headlines when they decided to make a shawarma pizza (Shawarma is another food Windsor has a quality abundance of). Windsor pizza chefs are always looking for something new. If you are looking for a completely different experience then you must visit Armando’s Pizza Bar and Oven 360.
Armando’s Pizza Bar is a unique pizzeria concept, not just to Windsor, but to Canada! Armando’s Pizza Bar is a newly renovated pizzeria that serves five different styles of pizzas. Two of which are exclusive creations by Armando’s corporate chef Dean Litster. The menu also features three award-winning pizzas from both the Canadian Pizza Summit and International Pizza Expo. The five styles served at Armando’s Pizza bar are the Neo-Napoletana, Roman, Windsor Style Deep Dish, Detroit Style Deep Dish, and New Windsor Pizza. The Windsor Style Deep Dish and the New Windsor Pizza are new pizza concepts created by Dean Litster. Windsor Style Deep Dish is a hybrid between Detroit Style Deep Dish and Windsor Style Pizza the New Windsor Pizza is a hybrid between New York Style Pizza and Windsor Style pizza. If you go with a group of five, you can each order a different style of pizza and share it!
Before Blaze pizza could open a restaurant in Windsor, there was Oven 360. At Oven 360, you can design your own delicious Neapolitan style pizza with any one of their fresh toppings, and if you get stuck, you can choose one of their suggested pizzas. The pizza is cooked in a wood-fired oven, and in 10 minutes you have your own personalized Neapolitan pizza. The warm and inviting atmosphere doesn’t hurt either.
In Windsor, the vegan community is represented by local pizzerias. Places to check out if you are a vegan include Armando’s Cabana location, Bullseye South Windsor and Riviera Pizzeria. Bullseye South Windsor is the most popular hot spot for vegans as you can find many vegan-friendly options, local vegan products sold, and even vegan meet-ups.
To see a broader list of Windsor pizzerias, visit Tourism Windsor Essex Pelee Island’s Windsor Pizza directory for a listing of all Windsor pizzerias.
If you’re a Windsor Pizza enthusiast or just a pizza enthusiast, and you want to represent the city with the best pizza in the world, check out Windsor Pizza Over Everything. Here you’ll find exclusively designed apparel, including t-shirts and sweatshirts, allowing you to show off your love for Windsor Pizza. You can also shop WPOE apparel in person at Bullseye South Windsor.