If there’s one thing the whole food world both adores and adores arguing over, it’s pizza. Let’s face it, we all grew up with our local joints, pizza houses that hold a special place in our souls. So special, in fact that we’ll easily get heated when arguing about what makes the “best” pizza and which toppings “belong” on your pie.
George Kalivas — a music marketer from Windsor, Ontario — has plenty of strong pizza takes of his own. So much so, in fact, that he made a whole dang documentary film about how his hometown pies are, indeed, the freakin’ best. Sure, he’s 100% aware of how nostalgia and “delusions,” as he calls them, frame the way we talk about our favorite slices of pizza. But he still wants to make a strong case that Windsor’s pies have every right to step into the limelight.
The nostalgia-vs-legit-culinary-cred dichotomy is one that Kalivas and director Tristan Laughton — Toronto-based digital artist and director — hit on with endearing charm in their film, The Pizza City You’ve Never Heard Of. That title itself is very apt. I consider myself a pizza aficionado. I’ve eaten the stuff from the jungles of the Congo to the streets of Sao Paolo to the rooftops of Rome. And it’s true, I’ve never heard of Windsor-style pizza — even though it’s a mere stone’s throw from Detroit. So I was stoked to jump on a call with Kalivas to talk about his hometown pies and what makes them special. We also took turns breaking down some of our favorite spots to eat pizza around the world.
Let’s dig in!
Let’s dive right in. I’ve never heard of Windsor pizza even though I love Detroit pizza, which is from right north of Windsor, Canada. Tell me: what is Windsor Pizza?
So Windsor-style pizza is something that’s been around for 70-plus years. It all started with a place called Volcano Pizzeria. They’re the originators of our unique flavor profile and style.
First and foremost, you mentioned Detroit. If you’re from Windsor, you have a lot of friends and family in Detroit. A lot of people feel like they live in both places sometimes. So when my friends from Detroit come over, the first thing they say is our dough is right in the middle between thick and thin. It’s not as thin as a Chicago tavern-style pizza or as thin as a New York slice, but it’s not as thick as a Sicilian or grandma slice. It’s right in the middle.
The one thing that we love to do in Windsor is we use heavy cornmeal when making the crust. So you can find cornmeal in places like Chicago with the tavern-style, we go a little bit extra with the cornmeal and flour mix. And it just has this consistency that’s unique to our city. The thickness is like, I don’t even know how to explain it, man. It’s like nowhere else I’ve seen.
The next thing that people always bring up when it comes to Windsor-style pizza is the sauce. Our sauce is sweet and spicy. We don’t have that middle-of-the-road, mild taste. It’s pretty distinct. It’s pretty sweet, but it also has a little bit of bite to it. In Windsor, every place follows that same recipe that started at Volcano. They might have tinkered with it over the past 70-plus years, but for the most part, they’re using that same sauce.
The third thing is the high-fat mozzarella we use. We use a local cheese from Galati Cheese Company, it can only be found in Windsor and around Southwestern Ontario. When I say high fat, man, I’m talking high fat. And that cheese is something that… if they don’t use that cheese at a pizza place in Windsor, Windsorites can pick it out right away and they won’t be back.
Over the past years, pizzerias have tried to use other cheese for maybe some cost-saving issues or whatever it may be. That’s probably lasted three to four weeks until they got complaints and had to go back to Galati. It’s just the taste that we’re fucking crazy for, man. People think I’m a representative of that company like it’s my uncle or something. I don’t know them. I met them when we did the doc. It’s just that they make a product that we absolutely love.
Crust, sauce, cheese… All crucial. What else makes this pizza so “Windsor”?
The next thing is the way we do our toppings. So first and foremost, the most beloved way to eat a Windsor-style pizza is called the “Large Super.” The Super is shredded pepperoni, canned mushrooms, green peppers, and bacon. So we’re the only place on the globe — as far as I know — that shreds their pepperoni. We do not serve grease cups on our pizza. You don’t have to take a paper towel and dab it before you eat it.
Man, canned mushrooms?
We love canned mushrooms. We don’t eat fresh mushrooms. Everybody is obsessed with canned mushrooms, man. And why do we do this? It all started with Volcano in 1958. These guys did it that way and it’s just what we’ve become accustomed to, you know what I mean?
So one thing that’s crazy about Windsor that a lot of people don’t know, we’re a small city of fewer than 300,000 people. We border Detroit. We have a very unique relationship with Detroit. We have Detroit radio, Detroit TV. A lot of us don’t have Canadian accents. We don’t really say “eh” at the end of everything. We’re a unique type of Canadian. Yet, we have the most pizzerias per capita in all of Canada, a city of less than 300,000.
Some of these places have over a dozen 12 locations in the same city. Some may have only five, but I assure you that they all are booming. They’re all thriving and they’re all in the exact same city. Windsorites won’t eat anything else.
The doc is about us having incredible pizza. I’m truly confident that we have some of the best pizza in the world, but at the same time, we really wanted to highlight the culture around it. There’s a real culture. There’s a real family tree that stems over 70 years. When you ask a Windsorite what’s the best pizza place and if there’s another Windsorite standing next to them, you’re going to get two answers, and then you’re going to get a 30 minute back and forth that gets heated.
There’s a lot of fun to it, but that’s basically what we are.
So let’s dive into that nuance a bit. I grew up in a small town with two pizzerias and I felt like half the town went to one, the other half of the town went to the other joint. Looking back, they’re not that different. What makes Volcano’s different than say the next big chain and what do people nitpick from each?
If you were to visit Windsor and go to all these places, I bet you that you would say they’re all alike, they’re all the same.
Or at least very similar, right?
Right. And they’re all similar because they’re truly following the recipe that Volcano started back in the day. So the one thing is for someone who knows pizza as well as you do, you do realize that we actually do have our style. Just for some reason, those four or five things that I mentioned make this unique flavor profile that we’ve had for years.
The second thing is I brought up a little bit of delusion. It all has to do with where you were born and raised. Where did your mom and dad order pizza from? And before we started this documentary, we polled over 400 people in Windsor to give us their top three. That process was a lot more difficult to narrow down who we were going to feature than we anticipated. The reason why we asked for three from every single person was that you grow up in a certain neighborhood, you live and die by your neighborhood pizza place. But then you grow up and you move, you might move to the other side of town. You get a job, you do whatever, and then you get your second place. But there are people that won’t even admit to their fathers that they order from the next place, you know what I mean?
I model it kind of like sports. If you’re from a sports town, it’s that type of vibe, and it has a lot to do with nostalgia, where you were raised, and who raised you. It becomes something that you’re proud of.
That makes total sense. You see the same thing everywhere, especially around food. I dig that you’re showing people who are actually making this pizza while also showing people who are making ingredients for the pizza.
Let’s look at the bigger picture here. When you see Detroit-style pizza blowing up. There’s Detroit-style in Berlin, London, Tokyo, Austin, Pizza Hut. It’s f*cking everywhere. Is there a little bit of you that’s jealous because, where’s the love for Windsor-style pizza? And did that drive you to make this doc?
I’ll tell you exactly why I did this man. So when I was 18, I moved to New York City for school. I was quickly introduced to Di Fara, John’s of Bleeker, things like that and I became not only obsessed with their pizza but obsessed with the culture. My friends who I made when I was there introduced me to this mom-and-pop way of living. We were eating at TGI Fridays and places like that when I was 18. When I got there, they told me, “We don’t eat that shit here. What do you want? You want ribs? You want a burger? You want pizza? I’ll show you where to go.” That’s when we did this neighborhood-style thing. And that basically changed my life for the better.
Up until now, 35 years old, I’ve gone all over and I’ve always been super curious to find out about different regional things. What are they popular for? What’s the thing you need to try when you go into that city? And I’ve seen a lot of places. Originally, I always thought nothing’s going to be on TV unless it’s a big market from Chicago, LA, New York, places like that. You’re probably not going to see it. But over the past five or so years, I’ve seen a lot of smaller market cities get a lot of love in Bon Appétit or Eater or someplace like that. Not to mention that we have a real food culture and there’s a history behind it.
And it started to fucking bother me, man. The name Windsor has never been seen anywhere in any of these places, large or small. And if you’re not from the Midwest, you probably have never even heard of the city, because as you see from the doc, we don’t really have like these blazing superstars that we’re exporting out of our city in different fields. We’re very low-key. We don’t really self-promote. We’re not that good at that. And I just felt like my hometown deserved to get a little bit of shine because I feel like we’re doing something at a level that would surprise most.
The passion comes through in the film, but also I kind of feel like the reason we know about these places is that they have champions that tell the world about it. And it’s obviously a good pizza and it’s very Midwest inspired in its heartiness.
We’re confident. We’re so confident about the product and trust me, man, I’ve met a lot of reluctant people during the making of this. I’ve been arguing about this for years. This just didn’t start last year for me. Since I was 18, I’ve been having conversations with a lot of people. Doesn’t matter the city I’m in, you get a fucking earful from me when you talk about pizza. And I’ve made a point to, whether it’s musicians that are performing in Detroit or Cleveland or whatever, that I have a relationship just to prove it to them. I brought a lot of people to my hometown. Everybody’s surprised. They’re like, “How is this possible?” They never would’ve thought that they would like our pizza as much as they did.
And it’s true, man. It takes a champion. It takes somebody to force gatekeepers to look in that direction. I know about Old Forge, Pennsylvania’s pizza. How the hell do I know about that?!? I don’t know anybody from there, but I’ve seen it. In two, three years, I’ve seen people cover that area.
Hell, I’ve covered it thanks to having spent so many years in the Maryland/Virginia area.
I think you kind of understand what I’m saying. I’m just trying to do whatever I can and to turn this into further coverage of the region. If I end up seeing it on a bigger documentary or a bigger TV show or whatever after this, then it’s a job well done.
Let’s say I’m in Detroit for work and I’m going to pop over the bridge. Which three spots should I be hitting from breakfast, lunch, and dinner pizza?
A lot of people have asked me this question and I’m scared. I’m scared to say it because I have such beautiful community support as of today. The city is rallying behind me.
Okay, let me say this. First and foremost, I grew up in a neighborhood called Fontainebleau. Sounds a lot nicer than it probably is. There’s a place there called Windsor Pizza, not the most unique name. I grew up on that pizza. So some might call me biased in Windsor. That’s my absolute favorite place because it’s what I know.
I’m going to say the director of the film — who was introduced to Windsor Pizza for the first time over those seven weekends that we were there — is probably going to say Amloze. That joint has only been around for ten years and ten years in Windsor is nothing in the pizza game. This guy came out of nowhere and reached back to the people of the neighborhood to find out exactly what they wanted. They guide him and he’s making some of the most incredible pizza Windsor’s ever seen. So I’ll say Amloze.
A third one I’ll throw out there is, let me say Antonino’s. But, man, they’re all great. Every place is f*cking awesome. We’re going to have people in this city who’s going to argue with the six places that we profiled in doc, you know what I mean? But I’ll throw Antonino’s as a third. Go see my guy, Gill.
So let’s make it a little bit lighter here. One place. What’s your favorite place to eat pizza in the U.S.?
I got to say Di Fara, in New York.
Yeah. Hard agree.
Honestly, man, doesn’t matter if it’s the regular slice or the square. I love both. I don’t think I’ve been back to New York since I graduated from school and have not gone there. I make time every time.
Let’s expand it out a bit. Where do you hit in Europe?
If I’m going to bring up Europe, I’m just going to say Naples right off the bat. So where I live right now in Toronto, there’s a diehard obsession with Neapolitan style here. 90 percent of the places, that’s what they’re making. Woodfire, all that. And I don’t want to say I’m sick of it because I could fold a margherita and eat it like a taco. I love it as much as everybody else, but I feel like that’s all we eat here.
So what place are you hitting in Naples?
It’s L’antica da Michele. I thought the pizza was unbelievable. It was as good as everybody said it was, but standing outside of that spot and eating that pizza was like … I almost started crying. This is the vibe I’m looking for, you know what I mean? I was there with my wife. It was unreal. I don’t know. You can’t recreate that. You can try your best and design something to make it look like the outside of that and stuff like that. But that was truthfully an incredible experience eating outside of there just posted up on a little circular table.
There’s nothing quite like it. There’s this little spot in Palmero, Sicily that I love too. It’s called Pizzeria Frida and they do a quadri pizza there where they fold over the edges to make it a square. So the crust becomes like a stuffed crust. And, man, it’s just perfection. Plus, it’s Sicily so you know it’s the most ridiculous, bright, fresh ingredients on top.
So I stayed a couple of nights in Palermo. There’s a little beach town in the northwest of Sicily and the pizza was incredible there. I mean, obviously, the pistachio and the pasta and stuff like that was next level. The seafood was next level, but they had better pizza than I thought they were going to have.
It’s also crazy how small some of those shops in Italy are. They’re often hole-in-the-walls with two siblings working the dough, oven, and service. It’s…
If you have a fridge for dough, a marble counter, and a good oven. You don’t need much space. Then after that, it’s, I hate this because it’s cliche, it’s just love. Love for the game.
Love and experience man, you know what I mean? These pizzaiolos, they were watching other people do it for their whole lives and that’s how they learned. It’s a different touch, man. It’s a different touch than learning from, like, a YouTube tutorial. And that’s why I fucking love it all, man.
‘The Pizza City You’ve Never Heard Of‘ is currently screening at film festivals and will be available to stream soon.