One of the most abhorrent expressions of intolerance is the dismissal of another people’s food. So I’m a bit ashamed to admit the reason it took me so long to get to this novelty shop from the owners of the Fifty/50: it specializes in one of the more bizarre regional expressions of pizza-making in the country (after deep dish, of course).
At Roots, partners Scott Weiner and Greg Mohr, the latter a Rock Island native, have taken the unpredictable gamble that Chicagoans will develop an appreciation for the pizza of the Quad Cities, a land where they don’t shriek if you want your pie sprinkled with sauerkraut, covered with an inch of spaghetti, or buried in Doritos, iceberg lettuce, and taco sauce.
But what Quad Cities pizza is more respectably known for—and what makes those taco pies possible—is its dough, which is incorporated with malt, resulting in a puffy lip and crispy epidermis that clads an airy layer of bread. It’s a sweet crust that bestows real tactile pleasure when your teeth penetrate, and at Roots great pains have been taken to duplicate it. That crust is a big part of the reason—against all expectations—I really like the taco pie, despite its ridiculous appearance, topped with spicy sausage, a cheddar-mozzarella blend, lettuce, tomato, and corn chips and served with foil packets of Heinz taco sauce. I liked even better the more basic sausage, first covered in finely ground pork and then blanketed in just barely melted mozzarella, all atop a minimally applied sweetish sauce and scissored into rectangular strips.
But see? I know some of you out there are thinking, “What sort of people apply the toppings before the cheese?” It’s just that kind of polarizing sense of superiority that will allow the terrorists to win. There is room in Chicago for this sort of pizza, which can be customized according to whatever demented whim possesses you (except spaghetti and, oddly, sauerkraut).
The pizzas, however, are only a part of a broad menu of house-made sausages, pastas, sandwiches, and garbage salads—like the one named for Moline native and First Ward alderman Proco Joe Moreno (romaine and red lettuce, corn, red peppers, diced radish, and feta, with a bracing mint vinaigrette). You can build your own too, and I’m going to go ahead and say that some of the most appealing options on this menu are not the pizzas but these deep, seemingly endless bowls.
That’s no slight against many of the other upgraded lowbrow eats, particularly the mozzarella sticks, thick golden ingots of creamy house-made cheese that stretches more like silk than rubber and doesn’t enlarge dangerously just as it reaches your windpipe. Attention to detail elevates a bunch of otherwise pedestrian stuff that can be found on pretty much any block of the city: fresh snappy giardiniera with a somewhat dry Italian beef, an $8 Vienna beef dog completely inadequate to handle the mudslide of tasty bacon baked beans and cheese on top, and house-made lamb and Italian sausages and brats, each with a distinct grind and spicing. Try not to snicker when your server asks if you’d like them “corndogged”—the batter is the best kind of greasy.
Of course a menu this big is bound to be mined with absurdity and overkill, like the fat artichokes stuffed with fistfuls of wet bread crumbs, smeared with bechamel and garlic oil, and served with mustardy goo. Order the lasagna by yourself and you might make a dent in it. But then later that night when you’re guiltily shoving it in your face long after it should have been a bad memory, you’ll remember that lasagna is meant to be a layered and textured thing, not a paving tile of ricotta barely held together by pasta suffering under a lava flow of marinara. “Our lasagna is the bomb” a server told me. By that she meant unexploded ordinance.
Still, overall this big, breezy wraparound barroom with spacious booths and a long midwestern beer list is a pretty comfortable place to get a peek at how they do pizza at the Iowa-Illinois border—there’s a rear dining room where you can watch the chefs toss your pie before slinging it into a multitiered rotating pizza oven. I’m not so open-minded that I’m ever going to accept a Big Mac-styled pizza topped with pickles and Louis dressing, but Mohr and Weiner have done right by the Quad Cities, which is far better than my prejudices allowed me to predict.