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Cheese, Please: How Did Pizza Become One of Windsor, Ontario’s Hottest Exports?

Cheese, Please: How Did Pizza Become One of Windsor, Ontario’s Hottest Exports?

By Chris Dart

Windsor, Ontario — directly across the river from Detroit — has had its share of hard times. For most of the twentieth century, the city was one of the hubs of Canada’s automotive industry, home to Chrysler’s Canadian head office, as well as manufacturing operations for all of the Big Three. And as with its neighbor across the river, a series of plant closures have left Windsor with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. While the city still makes some cars, more and more, its number one export is people, many of whom are leaving the city to find work in the resource-rich provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Well, that, and its pizza.

Windsorites are crazy about pizza. Outside of Chicago, there may not be another city in North America where the regional pizza is such a source of civic pride. A Windsor pizza place, Armando’s, was named the third-best pizza in the world at the 30th International Pizza Expo in Vegas in 2014. Windsor-style pizza features among other things, a spicy-sweet arrabiata-style sauce, shredded pepperoni, and toppings that go on top of the cheese. Never under. Ever.

Armandos“The cheese won’t cook properly underneath [regular pepperoni,]” says Fil Braga, who runs a location of Windsor-area chain Naples Pizza in the suburban town of Amherstburg. “Then you run into, ‘OK, I’m going to take a bite of this pizza, and one bite will be, wow, lots of pepperoni, and then the next bite would be no pepperoni.’ So it distributes over the pizza a lot better. And one thing we were taught was, when you make a pizza — this was day one — make sure that every bite they take, there’s a little bit of every topping on that bite.”

Expat Windsorites regularly complain about the inferior pies of their new hometowns.

“Pizza in the west is a nightmare of inconsistency and failed execution,” says Lyle Fox, a Windsor native now living in Calgary. “I’ll never understand why someone would put pizza toppings under the cheese. They’re called ‘toppings’ for a reason.”

Jessica Danelon, who now lives in the pizza mecca of Chicago, says that she still likes her hometown pizza better.

“I’ll never understand why someone would put pizza toppings under the cheese. They’re called ‘toppings’ for a reason.”

“It can be enjoyed equally at any temperature,” she says. “While it is amazing piping hot, my favourite way to eat it is at room temperature, the next day. You can’t say that for Chicago deep dish.”

She adds that in Windsor, pizza is used to celebrate pretty much every occasion from birthdays to weddings. “It’s a special event food. Family event? Pizza. Wedding midnight snack? Pizza. Movie night? Pizza. Birthday? Pizza.”

Windsor’s mass pizza fixation has led to everything from recipe theft to pizzas being put in carry-on luggage to (seriously) a market in illegal cheese.

According to Arcata Pizza owner Bob Abumeeiz, the city’s precise pizza style stems from the fact that in the 1950s there was only one pizzeria in downtown Windsor: Volcano’s.That spot eventually closed its doors when the owner retired in 1986, but the Windsor pizza, according to Abumeeiz, is just variants on a Volcano’s pie.

split za s“Volcano’s had 20 delivery vehicles at a time,” says Abumeeiz. “You can tell how busy they were… and every person who arrived off the boat, like myself, they landed a job at that pizzeria. And most of them, they stole the recipe, and they ventured on their own. That’s why Windsor has one of the best pizzas in the country, maybe, because they all have similar recipes from the original pizzeria.”

National and international chains have a relatively weak foothold in Windsor. Sure, Pizza Hut and Domino’s exist, but the city of 300,000 is also home to more than a half-dozen local mini-chains, some with as many as 17 locations, a level of local pie saturation that would make larger cities jealous. Ask six Windsorites who makes the best pizza in town and you’ll get seven different answers: Capri, Naples, Riverside, Arcata, Armando’s, Antonino’s, Windsor, or any other number of one-off holes in the wall. And once a Windsorite is loyal to a pizza place, they’ll go to remarkable lengths to get a hold of one.

Abumeeiz is one of the pioneers in the growing trend of making a pizza that can be put in one’s carry-on luggage for a flight back to the prairies. In February, he made national headlines in when a pair of ex-Windsorites living in Saskatoon paid CA$184 (US$140) for a king-size Arcata pie to be shipped more than 1,400 miles for a Super Bowl party.

“When parents are visiting their kids, the kids are craving this pizza,” he says. “It’s always half-cooked, and we freeze it and we wrap it up in foil and plastic. And we compact it — we make it a lot smaller size than the original size so it can fit in the luggage. They take it in carry-ons. And when they get to their destination, they just preheat the oven for a certain time, at a certain temperature, and they just pop it in, and as good as new… We see the same people doing it over and over, so you know, it’s been successful.”

low angleAccording to Danelon, the difference isn’t just the sauce or the shredded pepperoni, it’s also the cheese, which more often than not comes from local manufacturer Galati Cheese. “That’s the thing [all the pizzerias] have in common,” she says. “That cheese is magical.”

Galati started making cheese in 1998 after nearly 30 years in the industry as a distributor and importer. Their cheese, when melted on a pizza, has a softer, more malleable texture than other mozzarellas, and a gentler flavor. According to manager Peter Piazza, there’s actually no great secret to Galati’s success.

“We just use pure milk,” he says. “No protein solids, nothing like that.”

mozzGalati, however, is not Windsor’s only source for cheese. There is a reason that pizzerias that use Galati products put a sticker on the box saying so, because the other source for Windsor mozzarella is smugglers.

Dairy products are more expensive in Canada than in the United States. A strictly enforced series of price controls and steep import tariffs meant to protect Canadian dairy farmers means Canadian dairy products can cost up to three times as much as they do south of the border. And cheese is one of the biggest line items for any pizza maker.

“I like to call cheese white gold,” says Braga. “Cheese, in Canada, costs more per pound than gasoline does per liter… when I pay my bills at the end of the month, 60 percent of what I pay is just for cheese.”

It’s not surprising, then, that in a pizza-mad border town, there’s demand for black market cheese. In 2013, three men, including one current and one former police officer in Niagara Region, across the border from Buffalo, were charged with illegally importing roughly US$200,000 in illegal brick mozzarella.

Abumeeiz says that Windsor also has a smuggled cheese problem, and that while he has only ever used Galati products, he has been approached by people trying to sell him cheese from across the border.

“I like to call cheese white gold. “Cheese, in Canada, costs more per pound than gasoline does per liter.

“There’s a wholesale which is not far from the border, people buy whatever they can,” he says.

He adds that since he went public about the smuggling in 2013 in an interview with the CBC, the offers of illegal cheese have stopped coming, but he swears the smugglers are still around.

“You can tell,” he says. “The customers come talk and just say, they bought a pizza from this place or that place, and say the cheese is not the same, you know?”

According to Tara Scott, another ex-Windsorite living in Calgary, the thing outsiders need to understand about Windsor pizza isn’t just that it’s delicious. It’s that it’s a source of civic pride for a town that’s become shorthand for the decline of the auto industry in Southwestern Ontario.

“Windsor’s an interesting place,” she says. “It’s had the shit kicked out of it by various recessions and the downfall of the North American auto industry. Many people in my generation have left because jobs are short, but pizza is something that’s been consistently excellent there.”

___
Chris Dart is a Toronto-based writer whose work has appeared in Vice, The Onion AV Club, CBC Music, The Globe and Mail and the National Post. In addition to having a deep and profound love of pizza, he’s also a big fan of kickboxing, small animals, friendship and the Toronto Raptors.

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34 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    August 19, 2015

    This article is completely spot-on. I always have pizza when I’m back home visiting. The pizza where I live now is just not good.

    Reply

  2. Avatar
    August 19, 2015

    You are speaking gospel! Windsor pizza is by far the best. Nowhere else in Canada compares.

    Reply

  3. Avatar
    August 19, 2015

    There is nothing like Windsor pizza anywhere, I live in Edmonton now, and it’s not even worth ordering a pizza here at all..
    Pizza is always the first thing we get when I go back home to visit.. It’s just the best there is.

    Reply

  4. Avatar
    August 19, 2015

    Yes, Windsor has best pizza in Canada.
    I have been all over and it really is the best.
    I grew up eating Arcata and Armando’s
    I now am a faithful Arcata costomer, well I occasionally cheat with Cheeze Wheelz.
    They are reletively new to the Windsor pizza sceen but have a rocking good pizza.

    Reply

  5. Avatar
    August 20, 2015

    Where is the pizza in the picture at the top of the article from?

    Reply

    • Avatar
      August 20, 2015

      Looks like Naples or Capri

      Reply

  6. Avatar
    August 20, 2015

    And there are so many more this article can’t even mention. Sam’s Pizzeria on Wyandotte haunts my hungry dreams 20 years after leaving town! Toronto people can’t comprehend that their pizza is worthless garbage by comparison.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      August 20, 2015

      @Baron, you’re not joking about Toronto’s aweful pizza and the people that seem to think it’s great. I lived in TO back in 2000, I can’t remember the name of it, but there was a pizza joint advertising it self as selling “Windsor style pizza”…. it wasn’t. lol

      Reply

  7. Avatar
    August 20, 2015

    The article nails it. The pizza is sooo good here in Windsor. You can order it from so many different places too and you can hardly tell one from another. Capri, Armando’s, Windsor Pizza, Arcata, Riverside Tavern, Franco’s, Naples, the list goes on. Super delish! You cannot go wrong. Sure if you move away there will always be a Pizza Hut or Pizza! Pizza! but those are the fast food version of a masterpiece and only serve to fill your stomach. They do NOT satisfy the craving for a home town pizza! Not even close.

    Reply

    • Avatar
      August 21, 2015

      You missed my fav and probably the best pie in Windsor….Johnny Piez on Dougall by the new Gluten Free Bakery.

      Reply

    • Avatar
      August 21, 2015

      YES. No other pizza in Canada can compare to Windsor pizza. I grew up with Arcada as my #1 choice and now living away and coming back to the city only to visit family… I settle for Naples or Franco’s when ordering out. As a family we still argue about the best place to order because they are all so damn good it is hard to even choose. Nothing beats Windsor pizza! Shredded pepperoni all the way baby!

      Reply

  8. Avatar
    August 20, 2015

    For those which may not be aware, Antonino’s pizzeria was orginally opened on Dougall Ave. and was called Capri. The [Antonino’s] family sold Capri and the name was changed to Arcata. The [Antonino’s] family then opened another pizza shop called Capri, which was sold as well.

    Currently, there are two Antonino’s location, which continues to serve it’s customers with the highest quality gourmet pizza I’ve ever experienced.

    Reply

  9. Avatar
    August 20, 2015

    Don’t forget the importance of the crust! Hard to describe, but another delicious thing that sets Windsor pizza apart. Not too thin, just crispy enough, no big chunks of bread, perfect delivery method for that cheesy goodness! I will put my vote in for Naples and Capri!

    Reply

  10. Avatar
    August 20, 2015

    My boyfriend and I live in Sylvan Lake, Alberta, originally both from Belle River. We most definitely order Armandos half cooked and vacuum seal that amazingness and pack it into our luggage every time we are home. Our friends out here just don’t understand, and try to give us recommendations on where to order from, we try them.. But never order twice lol! Another thing I find that’s different is the way it’s cooked, I haven’t seen one actual pizza oven, it’s all those conveyor belt pizza oven things like you see at Doninos or similar to how they toast your sub at Quiznos… It’s just not meant for pizza and that’s what all of the places here use instead of pizza ovens. My next question is, when the heck are one of the local chains going to open up a joint out west!

    Reply

  11. Avatar
    August 20, 2015

    I’m horny for the breakdown!

    Reply

  12. Avatar
    August 20, 2015

    I have had pizza from all the places aforementioned and have concluded imo Amloz’s pizza (tec and lesperance) is our families favorite, from the always friendly family behind the counter to the consistent top quality pizza… It can’t be beat… The cheese on the pie…. It cost less then many other joints!!

    Reply

  13. Avatar
    August 20, 2015

    Windsor Pizza is what I crave everytime I go back. I have had pizza every province and state… none compare….NONE

    Reply

  14. Avatar
    August 20, 2015

    Here are some pizza places for you Alberta transplants to try. In Edmonton, Royal Pizza, but only the 80th Ave. location. And in Calgary, Volos Pizza, Red Carpet Inn, Nick’s or my personal fav, Spiro’s. Aside from Nick’s, these are all a sort of Greek-style pie with lots of cheese and a thick-ish fried/crispy crust from baking in an oiled pan. So not the same thing as Windsor pizza but still pretty good in its own right.

    Reply

  15. Avatar
    August 20, 2015

    Not to mention that only Windsor pizzerias use canned mushrooms instead of fresh. Fresh mushrooms are dry and completely ruin the pizza. W Pizza is one of the only reasons I like going back to Windsor, don’t tell my family that though!

    Reply

  16. Avatar
    August 20, 2015

    Visited Windsor for the first time last weekend. So true – there is something so professional, unique, and well organized about their pizzas. Apart from my own Italian dad’s pizza (made with much Love), gotta say pizza in Windsor was da bomb!

    Reply

  17. Avatar
    August 20, 2015

    I live in LaSalle, me and the wife battle over ordering from Capri or Naples here in town, but since I’m the one posting this…go to Capri’s on front rd lol. Not only is the pizza the best, but the family is very appreciative and thankful for your business. Such a warm feeling picking up a pizza from them.

    Reply

  18. Avatar
    August 20, 2015

    I got out of Windsor two years ago and live in Toronto now and one of the hardest things to do is convince locals that Windsor’s pizza is superior. The only pizza I’ve actually enjoyed in Toronto is FBI pizza which is actually just outside of Toronto.
    Armando’s in Windsor will always be the best pizza I’ve ever had, hands down. Windsor pizza sauce is the game changer…aside from the cheese, the crust, and the toppings of course.

    Reply

  19. Avatar
    August 21, 2015

    I live near Toronto and would walk through the desert for a Windsor pie. Naples has a location on Veteran’s Parkway in London. I almost had a car accident when I spotted it out of the corner of my eye. The kid and I stopped and ordered one for the road – it was the real deal. Even the box had all of the Windsor locations on it. Now for me – Capri is #1 but Naples is excellent too. So whenever we go to London for the kids hockey or ball games – we always phone from the car and pick one up for the drive back to Cambridge. Delicious!

    Reply

  20. Avatar
    August 21, 2015

    I lived in Edmonton for 7yrs and tried a lot of the pizza there. Not even close, and if it’s not Windsor Pizza then it isn’t pizza to a Windsorite.

    Reply

  21. Avatar
    August 21, 2015

    When I was little. My cousin would visit from Toronto and all they ever wanted was Capri pizza to eat. I didn’t get it until four years ago when I moved to Toronto. Now every time I head home for the weekend it’s one king size ordered on Friday night and another Sunday afternoon to take back to Toronto. Nothing can compare! Penny more, penny less… Capri pizza is still the best!

    Reply

  22. Avatar
    August 21, 2015

    Spot on. I moved here from the toronto area when I was in grade 9… and let me tell you, I didn’t know how bad the Pizza in toronto really was until we got here.

    I lived in river Canard for a long time and was a frequenter of the now defunct “villanova’s Pizza” which is still easily the best Pizza I have ever had, hands down.

    My wife’s family always brings 3 or 4 pizza home with them when they go back to Toronto or Florida, or wherever they came from, it’s just a given.

    Reply

  23. Avatar
    August 21, 2015

    The very worst Windsor pizza would still kick Toronto pizza’s ass…

    Reply

  24. Avatar
    August 22, 2015

    Grew up in windsor. Have lived in Toronto ,Calgary, Vancouver and Kelowna. Nowhere has pizza like Windsor(and gyros I might add as well ie: mr Shiskabob)
    Great eats for a little city. You’d think with the size of the other cities somebody would be able to figure it out .

    Reply

  25. Avatar
    August 23, 2015

    Butter chicken pizza 3 blocks from my house OH yeah!

    Reply

  26. Avatar
    August 26, 2015

    Hands down– windsor pizza is the best!!! From windsor, living in TO now, and I have never ordered a pizza from TO!! Every time I’m back “home”, Naples proudly sends me on my way with half cooked pizzas! I freeze them, and cook them in the oven…. Often debate with the neighbours about “windsor” pizza!!! And the odd time, I’ll share a slice!!!!! And on my drive in to Windsor, always make my first pit stop at the pizzeria to pick up a pie!!

    Reply

  27. Avatar
    August 30, 2015

    Great article. I’ve had Windsor pizza delivered to me in Toronto, Calgary, and as far away as Australia. True story. Capri is the best of the best but the others mentioned are spectacular as well. Windsor pizza is legendary.

    Reply

  28. Avatar
    November 05, 2015

    Jimmy & Kevin have the best Pizza and Greek Salads in Windsor.

    Marsh

    Reply

  29. Avatar
    July 14, 2016

    How good was Windsor Pizza?
    as a young union man being in Toronto for negotiations in the auto business, we were stuck in Toronto for months . what we missed the most was Windsor Pizza one night one of our guys suggested we order a Windsor pizza delivered by the restaurant that would agree to the Windsor to Toronto drive I cost us 200 bucks for the driver but we received a Volcano Pizza . 20 pizzas were delivered cold but were heated in the ovens of the Royal York hotel at the end of they contract I will never forget it was 10 pizzas from Riverside and the Volcano restaurants after that when in a far away place we paid for the gas for anyone who was traveling to where we were how serious were you ? Windsor pizza is a very special Pizza Many cities attempt to match it but fail miserably what surprises me is all they have to do is try any pizza in Windsor and beg for the recipes a good cook shares his knowledge with other great cooks .
    this story was done in remembrance to the greatest Pizza chef ever Michael Ingratta Of Windsor who has just past away , condolences to his Family who inherited his skills. thank God those of us who are friends
    of his Daughter Lisa
    still enjoying his creations
    Mickey

    Reply

  30. Avatar
    February 09, 2017

    What makes Windsor a great Pizza town is the high concentration of quality Pizza places. Most cities our size or larger have a varying degree of good Pizza places, but nothing like Windsor. On the other side of the coin, Windsorites claiming that you can’t get good Pizza outside of Windsor are delusional. I travel all over North America and find delicious pizza everywhere I go.

    Reply

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