Why Windsor-style pizza is finally getting its name on the map.
Every now and then, Dean Litster will get a call from a perplexed customer.
“They’re like, ‘I ordered a pepperoni and mushroom pizza, but I’m really confused about what you just sent me,’” says Litster, who owns the Armando’s in Amherstburg, a small town on the shores of Lake Erie, near Windsor. “And then you have to go into the spiel.”
That spiel, for the uninitiated, is educating these newcomers—and that’s who it usually is, even if they’ve just moved from say, Chatham, 40 minutes away—on the intricacies of one of the area’s greatest delicacies: The Windsor-style Pizza.
“The pepperoni is shredded,” Litster might say to someone who thinks their order has been bungled, “so you get some in every bite, and the oil is released over the entire pizza, not just in the ‘cups’ you get when it’s sliced.”
The mushrooms, he might continue, are from a can. Partially, that’s practical: fresh mushrooms release a lot of moisture while cooking, which can make for a soggy crust. But it also speaks to the origin story of this iconic regional pie. There wasn’t a nearby mushroom farm back in the 1950s, when the OG pizza place, Volcano’s, was training up the generation of dough-slingers who would go on to open their own shops (think, Capri, Antonino’s, Arcata, Armando’s)—and make this idiosyncratic topping combination the area’s signature style.
“In Windsor Essex County, pizza is a big deal,” says Litster, who got his first job at 15 folding pizza boxes in his neighbourhood Armando’s, and hasn’t looked back. “The big chains don’t have a stronghold here like they do in other big cities. Instead, it’s these local chains that take the market share from the big guys.”
The people of this slice (sorry) of Ontario that borders Detroit really, really like their pizza—to the point that the local tourism board has just created ‘The Windsor Pizza Club,’ which is essentially a pizza trail of eight different restaurants, each offering up their own take on this pie. Your reward for stamping each box on your membership card? Special offers, a club T-shirt and the experience of tasting all the subtle nuances each different maker brings to their pizza.
“We all use the same cheese from the same maker, the same pepperoni, the same mushrooms, we all bake it right on the stones in the oven, with cornmeal on the bottom,” says Litster. “But the variances come in the dough, and the process of making the pizza.” Some restaurants roll their dough with a rolling pin, for example, while others, like Litster, hand-stretch it. The result is still a bread-like crust that supports the weight of its toppings (and makes it great the next day, although heating it in the microwave, not the oven, is “a sin” as Litster puts it) but he swears you can tell the differences from maker to maker.
If anyone would know, it’s Dean Litster, who loves pizza enough to have a full sleeve of tattoos dedicated to the stuff. He was part of the team that helped Windsor-style pizza win the bronze medal in the world’s most prestigious pizza competition a few years back, and cares enough about the science of the dough to have appointed himself “Professor Za.” He’s even made the moniker his license plate.
And while he’s always got a soft spot for the pure shredded-pepperoni-canned-mushrooms incarnation, Litster is a big believer that a Windsor-style pizza, topping-wise at least, can be anything your mind makes it. “Your pizza is like a plate,” he says, which is why he’s experimented with everything from blueberries, to braised fennel and a balsamic reduction, to barbecue on his own pizzas.
He’s even invented a popular ‘Windsor-style deep dish’ that involves a four-day dough process. “I’m going to dress that pizza up however I want to,” he says. “And nobody can tell me what’s right or wrong.”
Unless, of course, you order a pepperoni and mushroom pizza in Windsor Essex and expect your toppings to be anything other than shredded and canned.
CONTENT FROM GLOBE CONTENT STUDIO
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED DECEMBER 11, 2020
as part of the Great Taste of Ontario Special Report