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A Saucy Doc: The Pizza City You’ve Never Heard Of Premieres On CBC Gem 

Canada’s automotive capital finally gets the national attention it deserves for its delicious ‘za.

by David MacIntyre

Few things are quite as satisfying as a warm, cheesy, delicious pizza pie. If you’re looking to find the tastiest ‘za on Earth, chances are the first places you’ll think of are Italy, NYC, Chicago, or Detroit. But just across Detroit’s border is an unassuming city whose pizza community might pleasantly surprise you—and an upcoming documentary will show you why.

For George Kalivas, director of A&R at Warner Music Canada, his hometown of Windsor, ON is home to a seriously underrated pizza culture, one he thinks deserves to be among the top 10 pizza cities in the world. His desire to make The Pizza City You’ve Never Heard Of—premiering on CBC Gem—arose partly from him not seeing his hometown on any Top 10 pizza lists. As far as pizza cities go, Windsor is still overlooked by the world at large, and Kalivas wants to change that. “The city deserves to be an official pizza city that’s recognized by outlets all over the place,” he says. “If you cover food culture, people should be covering Windsor.”

A born-and-raised Windsor native, which he cheekily calls Dub City, Kalivas moved to New York City for school, where he discovered the best pizzerias the Big Apple has to offer. With friends taking him out to “every single place you’ve ever seen on a Food Network show, or VICE’s Munchies,” he became a dedicated foodie at the age of 18. Working as an intern at Def Jam Records by day, Kalivas would spend his evenings visiting pizza spots within NYC; New Haven, CT; and Philadelphia. He was hooked, and these experiences reminded him of the pizzerias in his hometown.

“Every time, a friend of mine would bring me to one of these new spots, it would remind me of the places in my hometown,” he says. “Not just how good the pizza was, but the culture surrounding it, and what you felt when you walked in. A lot of the similarities that the New York spots had was reminiscent of where I’m from. It just stuck with me.” 

Now, at 35, Kalivas has travelled to many of the world’s pizza capitals: Chicago, Rome, Naples, you name it. He’d also been making mini-documentary content for many of his artists alongside Tristan Laughton (a creative director at Warner Music) before COVID’s onset caused the music industry to grind to a halt. Kalivas then asked Laughton if he wanted to join him in making a documentary about his hometown and its history with pizza. Fast forward two months and the duo was on their way to Windsor in a van, cameras in tow.

It might seem odd that so many mom-and-pop pizzerias would thrive in a modest-sized city like Windsor, but local residents swear by the unique pies that define a big part of their culture. In fact, major chains that have attempted to open locations in Windsor have been shuttered there within a few years. Even Blaze Pizza, a chain boasting LeBron James as one of its investors, closed after only a year and a half.

Windsor boasts a distinctive pizza style that dates back more than 70 years (“The whole city follows that one style,” Kalivas tells us). Beyond this, the city—with a population of just under 230,000—is also the self-proclaimed pizza capital of Canada. Kalivas adds that some pizza chains have as many as 20 different locations exclusively in Windsor.

What, you ask, is the Windsor pizza style? First, it’s completely different from its stateside neighbour across the Ambassador Bridge, as the Detroit style is known for its thickness and rectangular shape, while baked in a pan. 

The Windsor-style pizza has four key pillars: Crust made from a unique mixture of flour and cornmeal, straddling the line between thin (like New York) and thick (like in Sicily); a sweet and spicy sauce using San Marzano tomatoes from California; locally-produced, high-fat mozzarella cheese, courtesy of Windsor’s Galati Cheese Company. (“If the pizzeria does not use this cheese, people won’t go there,” Kalivas says); and shredded pepperoni—no grease cups, no round-shaped pepperoni. When shredded, the pepperoni won’t hold grease on the top of the pizza, and you can eat pepperoni with each bite because of how it’s distributed on the slice.

So how did the Windsor style of pizza become such a local monolith? According to Kalivas, it all started in 1957 with Volcano Pizzeria, the now-defunct restaurant where that style was born. “Every single pizzeria in Windsor follows that exact same [recipe],” he says. “Everybody stole it from Volcano.” In total, seven pizzerias are profiled in the doc, all of which owe Volcano a certain amount of gratitude—Kalivas says each one has had someone within their family work at Volcano in decades past.

“We looked at a payroll sheet from Volcano Pizzeria. All the last names are the names of all these places we’ve come to love years later,” he adds. “I knew the connection was there, I just didn’t know how true it was. Usually, when people say, ‘Hey, you all took the recipe from a place, and you tried to mimic and duplicate it,’ they say it with pride. No one tries to defend against that. It’s like, ‘No, Volcano started everything. They inspired everybody 70 years ago.’ Year after year, this tradition was passed down through various families and businesses.”

The Pizza City also tells the stories of various Windsor pizzeria owners, which began as family businesses before spreading and evolving into beloved local pizza institutions. For a blue-collar city known largely for being Canada’s automotive industry capital, its rich pizza history is one the doc aims to introduce to entirely new audiences.

Having brought pizza connoisseurs to visit Windsor while doing press for the documentary over the last two years, the response from those first-timers has thus far been very positive. But given the traffic and loyalty to these family-owned pizzerias by locals in Windsor over many years, Kalivas calls them the “small business dream,” adding that they really don’t actually need the publicity. Nonetheless, the experience of telling these stories was an incredibly rewarding one.

“It was unbelievable to see these small business owners who just went through probably the hardest two years of their lives with the pandemic get this recognition,” he says. “We did a screening in December in Windsor. That was the first time they all saw it, before we had a deal with anybody. It was incredible to see these families show appreciation for us telling their story.”

So where should newcomers to Windsor go for their first slice? For Kalivas, it depends where you grew up, as this question is a hotly-contested debate among locals. But if you ask him, his answer isn’t exactly creative at first glance. “There’s a place called Windsor Pizza in my parents’ neighbourhood. That’s my ultimate favourite,” he says, later recommending that customers order the Large Super (shredded pepperoni, bacon, canned mushrooms, green peppers)—the order he named his own production company LRG Super after.

“I grew up on that place. But anyone that we profiled—Antonino’s, Armando, Arcata, Capri—these are legendary places that Windsorites fight over. They regularly ship pizzas across the world and all over North America for people who were raised in Windsor and moved far away.”

Though a trailer was first released a year ago, the documentary isn’t coming out until now. This is because Kalivas and Laughton spent a year taking the doc around the film festival circuit. Its world premiere took place at the Portland Film Festival in Oregon, and they won Best Documentary Feature at New Brunswick’s Silver Wave Film Festival. “A lot of these really cool things started happening for a very unique and small local story,” Kalivas says.

The fun approach The Pizza City You’ve Never Heard Of takes to family-over-everything stories like the ones we see in Windsor caught the attention of CBC Gem. Over the past five months, Kalivas says Windsor’s pizza culture has been getting heavier media coverage than before.

“Big, big outlets are heading to Windsor to interview these pizzeria owners, which is all coming out around the same time as the documentary. They love it,” he says. “The service and the way these places go about treating their customers—everything we say in the documentary is true… People who don’t usually talk about Windsor are starting to talk about it.”

As for how he’d describe a Windsor-style pizza in one sentence? “An extension of family,” he says. “My mom would have a hard day at work. When she came home, she’d order a pizza. If you wanted to celebrate something because everybody was in a good mood, you’d order a Windsor pizza. When company would show up and you’d invite them into your house, everybody would get excited. My mom would run to the phone and order a pizza immediately. It was just like looking at old family photos while we were making this documentary.”

The Pizza City You’ve Never Heard Of will premiere Friday, September 16, on CBC Gem in Canada.