The United States of Pizza: Iowa
It's time to give you a taste of Iowa's pizza options. The Hawkeye State has a wealth of pizzerias, many of which have been around for generations. College town pizza joints abound, some where the atmosphere is more memorable than the slices, but artisan pies are also being made in Des Moines (and Decorah). Be warned: it's a land of rather creative pizza toppings. Half-taco, half sauerkraut pie, anyone?
Here's our guide to pizza worth checking out in Iowa. Got Iowa experience? As always, we'd love to hear your favorite spot in the comments!
Where to Eat Pizza in Des Moines
When Des Moines restaurateur George Formaro opened Centro in the old Masonic Temple, he included two coal-fired brick ovens to get the high temperatures he needed for making New York-style pizzas. Centro regularly receives praise from the Des Moines Register's Datebook Diner blogger W.E. Moranville, who writes: "George Formaro brings his love of pizza-making to the menu and executive chef Bill Overdyk (who cures his own pancetta) adds his influences with a nod to locally produced ingredients."
1007 Locust Street, Des Moines IA 50309; 515-248-1780; centrodesmoines.com
Bagni di Lucca
Chef Patrick Collins makes semolina-crusted pizzas in Pavailler ovens at this spot (owned by Steve Logsden, who also owns Lucca restaurant.) Fresh mozzarella is made in house. Brianne Sanchez from Metromix writes: "If the font Helvetica opened a pizza lunch spot, it might look a lot like Bagni di Lucca. It's utilitarian but elegant." In another review on Metromix, W.E. Moranville offers a recommendation:
These are refined, Euro-style pies. The red sauce provides just a subtle layer of flavor, rather than a defining note; in most cases, the toppings are judiciously balanced. Best was the Potato-Pesto, with see-through-thin potato slices topped with fresh pesto and a sprinkle of pine nuts, with dots of fresh mozzarella here and there.
407 E. 5th Street, Des Moines, IA 50309; 515-243-0044
Felix & Oscar's
This Des Moines favorite has been serving Chicago-style deep dish pizza since 1975.
When asked about pizza in Des Moines, my pal Kieran wrote:
The most famous pizza joint in Des Moines is Felix & Oscar's, which does a deep-pan style that is good, but you have to wait about 45 minutes for it to appear because of whatever magic goes into it.
The menu suggests calling ahead to cut down the waiting time. Yelper Angry Connesewer says that the pizza at Felix & Oscar's "just as good as any deep dish from Chicago. If someone tells you that it's not as good as X in Chicago, it's because they are one of Mayor Daley's spies, and have pizza envy."
4801 Westown Parkway, West Des Moines, IA 50266; 515-457-1000 and
4050 Merle Hay Road, Des Moines IA 50310; 515-278-8887; felixandoscars.com
Those looking for a pizza with the healthy char that comes from a wood-fired oven should head to Red Rossa in West Des Moines. Those who are too far away should at least watch the video above, which shows the pizzaiolo making the pie from dough to beautifully blistered finished product.
12695 University Avenue, Clive, IA 50325; 515-221-2529; redrossa.com
Chuck's has been serving pizza and Italian comfort food since 1956. Jim Duncan, the Food Dude at Cityview, the local independent weekly, writes:
Forty years before George Formaro brought "New York style" pizza downtown to Centro, Chuck's introduced Des Moines to the blistered edges and fresh flavors of high temperature pies. Spied recently with a Chuck's pizza, Formaro called it Des Moines' most authentic tavern-style pie.
3610 6th Avenue, Des Moines, IA 50313; (515) 244-4104; chucksdesmoines.com
The crab rangoon pizza is the unlikely fusion favorite at this pizzeria, which took over the space once occupied by Des Moines' oldest Chinese restaurant. According to Yelper Matt "Broodwich" E., Fong's is part pizzeria, "part Don-the-Beachcomber tiki lounge." On the LTH forum, David Hammond wrote:
The crab Rangoon pizza was tasty, though I doubt it will ever be pictured on the cover of Saveur. There were crispy egg roll skins on top, drizzled with chili oil, which complemented the asiago and mozzarella (representing, like the pizza itself, the Italian influence referenced above), some fluffy Rangoonish cheesy composition, and surimi, though the taste of this seafood sausage tended to be buried, which is I believe what this Franken-fish creation was engineered to do in the first place. Overall, good -- if somewhat easy and blunt -- flavors, though I sensed that for the full enjoyment of this place, it helps to be hammered and hungry in the hours just before the dawn's early light.
Slices are available at lunchtime for those not ready to commit to a whole pie's worth of crossover cuisine.
223 4th Street, Des Moines IA 50309; 515-323-3333; fongspizza.com
Big Tomato Pizza
This spot is open until 3 a.m., and some claim it's the best slice in town. Urbanspoon user Sam writes:
Before recently I would have said I couldn't leave a review for Big Tomato, because while I always thought it was fabulous the many times I had ate there, it was always between 2-3 in the morning while I was wasted with my friends. But the last two times I went, I was completely sober, and still loved it. I have a lot of people stay with me from out of town, and it is always the place I recommend for super late night cravings."
Big Tomato is also known for a fair amount of attitude; belligerent waiters (and crowds) are part of the charm. They have a sign in the window advertising "Lousy Service."
2613 Ingersoll Avenue, Des Moines IA 50312; 515-288-7227
Paradise Pizza Cafe
Paradise Pizza Cafe is known for their crock pizza, which is baked upside-down like a pot pie, and then flipped over before serving.
2025 Grand Avenue, West Des Moines, IA 50265; 515-222-9959
The Food Dude praised Frank's hand-tossed pies in 2007, but the restaurant has since closed. According to the restaurant's Twitter feed, Frank's Pizza is relocating and will soon be called Gusto Pizza Co.
Where to Eat Pizza in Iowa City
You can't have a college town without pizza, and Iowa City has plenty.
Pagliai's is an Iowa City institution with a devoted following. Yelper Stephen P. gushes:
This is, without a doubt, the best pizza I have ever eaten. Three reasons:
- 1. Crust: thin and comes out a little crispy. Holds up well to all of the ingredients on my favorite pie, the Palace Special. The crust does what any good crust should do, it complements (not overwhelms) the real ingredients.
- 2. Fresh toppings. Sauce is solid, cheese is not overdone, and the meats are outstanding! The sausage isn't pre-cooked, it cooks in the oven with the pizza, you can certainly taste the difference.
- 3. Presentation. Assembly line pizza production viewable from the big glass store front gives it the nostalgia of old time pizzeria. And the SMELL. Perfection!"
Three locations: 302 East Bloomington Street, Iowa City IA; 319-351-5073; 816 Fifth Avenue, Grinnell IA; 641-236-5331; and 5312 Merle Hay Road, Johnston IA ; 515-253-9800. pagliais.com
Wig & Pen
Serious East contributor Daniel Zemans visited Wig and Pen last year and tried their Flying Tomato Pie, "a cross between a stuffed pizza and a pan pie that was invented by a cook at the Wig & Pen who was having fun experimenting in the kitchen." Zemans reported that the pie was topped with massive amounts of cheese—it's for cheese fanatics only.
Three locations: 1220 Highway 6 West, Iowa City IA 52241;319-354-2767; 363 North 1st Avenue, Iowa City 52245; 319.351.2327; and 2005 S. Ankeny Boulevard, Suite 300, Ankeny, IA 50023; 515.963.9777; wigandpeneast.com
The Airliner Bar
This venue may be more famous as a gathering spot for Hawkeye fans, but it is also known for its pizza. The owner's grandparents, who moved to Iowa from Chicago, studied pizza-making in New York, and both Chicago-style and New York-style pies are available. Fun fact: there is a booth dedicated to frequent patron (and former University of Iowa student) Tom Brokaw.
22 South Clinton Street, Iowa City IA 52240; 319-351-9259; theairlinerbar.com
Deep-dish fans on Yelp praise Sam's, calling it one of the best deep-dish pies in town. The calzones also get an enthusiastic mention. Prepare for a wait.
321 S. Gilbert Street, Iowa City, IA 52240; (319) 337-8200; samspizzaic.com
Serious Eater brianstewart recommended Mesa Pizza to us. He says it "caters to the drunk crowd, but has some innovative and pretty good topping combos."
114 East Washington Street, Iowa City IA 52240; 319-351-6372; mesapizzaia.com
Where to Eat Pizza in Ames
Not to be outdone by their rivals in Iowa City, Iowa State students in Ames have quite a few pizza spots to choose from.
The Great Plains Sauce & Dough Company
Serious Eater polly28 writes: "I really like Great Plains Pizza in Ames. However, be warned that the crust is thick and dense and the pizza is absolutely loaded with cheese. The sausage pizza was my favorite." And Serious Eater foodiesci agrees:
Crust is awesome and chewy, and you eat up to the crust and then smother it in honey. Surprisingly awesome, especially when there is a little toasted cheese or tomato sauce left on the crust. Try the thin crust for a less intense experience, although less honey experience! The thick oat or whole wheat crusts are my fave, thin whole wheat or potato also great. Pizza by the slice at lunch at least Mon-Sat.
129 Main Street, Ames IA 50010; (515) 232-4263; greatplainspizza.com
Jeff's Pizza Shop
Serious Eater Foodiesci also recommends Jeff's Pizza Shop: "Thick, bready crust, good toppings, and pretty good all-around. Pizza by the slice for lunch and late night. Their calzones, stromboli, and "clones" [stuffed pizza dough breadsticks] are also great. (Spinach & mushroom clone is my favorite there!)"
2402 Lincoln Way, Ames, IA 50014; 515-292-2321; jeffspizzashop.com
Vesuvius Wood-Fired Pizza
Brianne Sanchez at the Des Moines Register heartily recommends Vesuvius Wood-Fired Pizza.
The mom-and-pop restaurant benefits from owner Scott Coldiron's years in the sustainable food scene in Minneapolis...We dug in to our Neapolitan-style (which uses special wheat flour, fresh mozzarella and plum tomatoes) pizza—the No. 7, which features La Quercia prosciutto, caramelized onions and basil over a roasted garlic cream sauce, instead of a tomato sauce. We probably each could have polished off a 10-inch pie on our own, but splitting one with the salad made for a light, flavorful lunch. Everything seemed super fresh. I loved that the edges came sprinkled with a coarse salt that set these slices apart from what I've had elsewhere. "
1620 S Kellogg Avenue, Ames, IA 50010; 515-233-7183; vesuvius-wfp.com
Black Market Pizza
Serious Eater Jenc310 really likes Black Market Pizza, which is currently recovering from a visit from the folks at Man vs. Food. "The experience of filming was pretty surreal," reports the restaurant's blog. They serve thin crust pies, as well as an extra-thin cornmeal variation, as well as deep dish, stuffed deep dish, a chili cheese dog pizza, and a BLT pizza baked with bacon and topped with mayo, fresh lettuce, and tomatoes.
2610 Northridge Parkway, Suite 107, Ames, IA 50010; 515-292-1111; blackmarketpizza.com
Sapore is a mobile brick oven, bringing wood-fired Neapolitan pies to various locations around Ames. Their outdoor season is over right now, but they are available for catering and fundraising events.
Pizza in Cedar Rapids and Surroundings
Cedar Rapids is the home to several popular independent pizzerias:
Tomaso's offers a choice of Chicago-style and New York-style crusts, as well as their best-seller, a Detroit-style crust, with the cheese spread all the way to the edge so that it caramelizes.
3234 Center Point Road NE, Cedar Rapids, IA 52402; 319-364-4313, as well as three other locations; tomasosonline.com
This pizzeria has the distinction of being one of the first restaurants to re-open in downtown Cedar Rapids after the devastating floods of 2008. It serves both New York-style and Chicago-style pies. Included among the offerings are an "Iowan" pie topped with ham and sauerkraut.
112 2nd Street Southeast, Cedar Rapids IA 52401; 319-247-5636
Zoey's Pizza (Marion)
Not far from Cedar Rapids, in Marion is another pizzeria we've heard good things about. According to LTH Forum user Abouna, Zoey's offers "absolutely the best pizza (thin crust) I've had (including big cities). It's not always perfect but when it is it's fantastic. Never bad." LTH Forum user EvA reports:
Friday night we enjoyed a "Zoey" pizza at its namesake restaurant, and it is outstanding. Medium thin crust (they call it NY style) with lots of excellent toppings and a generous hand with the cheese. The cheesy garlic bread we had as an app should have clued us to the cheese-centric style at Zoey's Pizzeria. We were happy with the food and beer choices, the comfortable neighborhood vibe in Marion, Iowa's little 19th-century downtown, and the prices so reasonable by Chicago standards. They also make a "Chicago-style" pizza, which we didn't try (why would we?), but I bet it's pretty good however loosely related to a real Chicago pie.
690 10th Street, Marion IA 52302; 319-377-2940; zoeyspizza.com
McCaffrey's Dolce Vita
Not all of Iowa's best pizza comes from the state's larger towns. Decorah has a population of only 8,000, but it has some of the best pizza in the state. According to my friend Sue T, "the best pizza in Iowa can be found at McCaffery's Dolce Vita in Decorah. It is an amazing place. It sits out in the woods, and they built the building around their huge wood-fired oven, which they constructed first." USA Today also included Dolce Vita in their list of great pizza parlors across the country. We must note, not everyone is so wild about it; we did see a pretty negative review on Pizzamaking.com.
2149 Twin Springs Road, Decorah IA; 563-382-4723; mcdolcevita.com
Casey's General Store
This chain isn't all about pizza, but according to my friend Nick: "Best breakfast pizza, order bacon. Really, no joke."
7015 NE 14th Street, Ankeny IA; 515-289-1953; caseys.com
Three generations of the Harris family have run this spot for over fifty years. It has four branches, two in Davenport, one in Bettendorf, and one across the river in Rock Island. Serious Eater naterMT highly recommends it: "I'm from the Quad Cities (Davenport and Bettendorf, IA)," he writes, and "you HAVE TO HAVE Harris Pizza! I worked there through high school. It is a pizza like no other! It is known as Quad City Style Pizza. There are several in the area that copied it but Harris is it." On her blog Greasy Joints, Sarah Richie describes the square-cut pizza at Harris:
Growing up, my family always ordered sausage or the Deluxe- a sausage pizza with green peppers, mushrooms, and mozzarella. Their sausage is spicy and layered on thick!...They use a scant amount of sauce and load it with toppings & cheese...[Since he's a Quad City transplant] I asked Richie what he thought about Q.C. style pizza. He described it as a thin crust pizza with thick crust toppings...Its success has inspired many Harris employees to leave and beget doppelganger pizzerias, but none of them have the recipe for spices quite right.
1601 W. 3rd Street, Davenport, IA 52803; 563-326-355; and three other locations; harrispizza.com
For more on Quad Cities-style pizza, check out our Illinois roundup.
Happy Joe's is part of a large regional chain, but it seems to evoke happy memories among pizza lovers, particularly of the taco pizza. Serious Eater naterMT writes: "If you are at Happy Joe's try the Nacho Joe. A taco pizza with nacho cheese for the pizza sauce. Out of this world!!!" For those not ready for taco pizza, Serious Eater Amish Berkleyite, has another suggestion: "Canadian bacon and sauerkraut. Trust me. My taste buds will never become too sophisticated for this greatness."
855 Century Drive, Dubuque, IA 52002; 563-556-0820; and many other locations. happyjoes.com
Add Your Favorites!
Where's your favorite pizza in Iowa? As always, this guide is just a start and we'd love your help. Let us know the can't miss Iowa pizza spots in the comments below.
Previously in The United States of Pizza
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