Wig and Pen, Coralville/Iowa City, Iowa
When most people think of pizza in the Midwest, they think of one place: Chicago. And why wouldn’t they? Deep-dish pizza is legendary in the Windy City, and they do it right, piling on the cheese and toppings before covering it all in tomato sauce and baking to perfection. The slices are big, hot, flavorful, filling, delicious and well-made. There’s no doubt that Chicagoland’s reputation for pizza is well-deserved.
Far fewer people know about Quad-City style pizza, and truthfully, that’s a good thing that it’s not as well-known as Chicago, because the pizza we serve here in the Q-C is frankly an insult to the word pizza. I’m not a pizza elitist like my good friend Will Palaszczuk, who has very strict standards on what is and isn’t a pizza, but I know what is good and what isn’t good, and frankly, Quad-City style pizza not only isn’t good, I wouldn’t even call it edible. It’s cut into thin strips, the crust is about the texture and taste of cardboard, it’s loaded with mediocre toppings and then essentially slathered in grease. I know, it sounds so appetizing.
Problem for me is, people actually like that stuff here. Harris Pizza started this awful trend years ago, and I found out the hard way that it’s popular when I worked for the newspaper here and they would repeatedly bring in Harris whenever they had a night that led them to bring in food for the newsroom (which happens whenever the real news writers have to stay late for a big event), which caused me to adopt the “Even If It’s Free” policy, which means I won’t touch it even if it’s free. It’s sort of a play off the Jacksonville Jaguars’ stance on signing Tim Tebow. But unfortunately, enough people like it that almost all of the local pizza places serve Quad-City style, meaning that if you want pizza, as in something that most people would consider pizza, you either have to go to a chain or conduct an exhaustive search for a place that doesn’t serve it Quad-City style. Or you can make the three-hour trip to Chicago, an option we’ve done a few times. Ames is also an option, but that’s even further than Chicago.
However, less than an hour away from the Q-C sits Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa and some pretty awesome restaurants of its own. At 50 miles away from the far western part of Davenport, Iowa City and its twin city of Coralville are far enough away to be untouched by the sprawl of Quad-City style pizza in this area. In fact, Iowa City actually knows how to do pizza right, and in the most unlikely of places. To find good pizza in Iowa City, you head into Coralville and head to an English pub.
Yes, that’s right, a place that looks more like something you’d see across the pond on a Saturday of watching the Premier League is actually home to some excellent pies, so much so that they’ve been named the best pizza in the Hawkeye State by Zagat. Well, Iowa isn’t exactly a bastion for great pizza, but it is home to Black Market in Ames, and that’s one that I know is good. Throw in an English pub and their uniquely named Flying Tomato pizza, and it was pretty obvious that I was intrigued by the Wig and Pen. Amy felt the same way, so in we stepped, passing an old-style red phone booth on the way in. This place really plays up the fact that it’s an English pub, first and foremost.
As she usually does, Amy decided that she had to try Wig and Pen’s Caesar salad. One of the easiest ways to bring a smile to my wonderful lady’s face is to give her a quality Caesar salad, as she loves the taste of Caesar salad and the freshness of one that’s made properly. She hasn’t found one quite like Woodfire’s grilled Caesar yet, but this one certainly had both quality and size going for it. This salad was so big that Amy quickly realized she had no hope of finishing it all if she wanted pizza, and seeing as how Amy is the kind of person who would be very happy to eat pizza for every meal for a week, she definitely wanted to try some pizza. So I helped finish it, and even though Caesar is not my thing, this was quality. I would have preferred it with a nice ranch dressing, but the lettuce and cheese worked well enough for this to be tasty despite my lack of Caesar fandom. About the only thing Amy wished she could have had here was a breadstick. Small thing, though, as it was still outstanding.
With that out of the way, it was pizza time. Normally, when Amy and I go out for pizza, we can get something to please both of us without much hassle. We like most of the same toppings, which usually makes this a simple process. However, this time, we decided to go for different pizzas, and not because of the toppings, but because of the crusts. Wig and Pen has three of them, and they range in style and thickness. The thin crust and deep dish styles are pretty common at pizza places anywhere, but the third one is fairly unique.
The third one is known as the Flying Tomato, and it’s kind of a hybrid between the two styles. The Flying Tomato is billed as a pan version of Wig and Pen’s pizza and topped with tomato slices along with the mozzarella, which essentially gives you a free topping. It’s something that isn’t easily found, and when I saw that, I knew that it was something I had to try. Amy, on the other hand, isn’t the biggest fan of tomato slices on pizza, so she decided to go for the deep dish pizza. With that being the case, I went with a mix of spinach, mushrooms and black olives along with the tomatoes, while Amy went simple and opted for mushrooms.
Both pizzas were excellent. The Flying Tomato proved even better than advertised because all of the tomato slices were topped with herbs and cheese, providing extra flavor throughout the pizza. The toppings were all fresh and worked in perfect harmony with each other, the dough was a great complement to the cheese and sauce and the top of the pizza was grease-free. Nothing irks me more when a pizza comes out so covered in grease that it needs to be mopped up before you actually eat it, but that’s not a problem here. This was a well-cooked pizza, not to mention a large one. Normally, I can finish a small pizza, but not here, as I had a couple of slices left to bring home and consume for lunch the next day.
Amy found herself in the same situation with her deep dish. The sauce was a high quality and the pizza looked and tasted like what you might expect to find in Chicago. As often happens, we each sampled a bit of each other’s order, and I found her pizza to be very impressive and very enjoyable, although not quite at the level of my own pizza. The Flying Tomato’s style was just something different that I really loved, partially because I happen to really be a fan of fresh tomatoes on pizza and partially because it was so nice to find something in eastern Iowa that could actually call itself pizza and be accurate.
You wouldn’t expect to find good pizza in a restaurant with an English theme, given that the English are much more known for a meal of fish and chips over a pint with the Premier League on the telly. But then again, you also wouldn’t expect to find an English-themed pub in Coralville or Iowa City, so conventional expectations should be thrown out the window here. It’s taken me almost three years to do it, but I’ve finally found a non-chain pizza place within an hour’s trip that I can genuinely enjoy. It’s truly been a long time coming.
Time to go: Lunch if you want to eat in Coralville, as it opens at 11 a.m. every day. Wig and Pen’s eastern location in Iowa City proper opens at 4 p.m., making it a dinner-only option.
Wait during my visit: None. It’s Iowa, you’re not going to wait long for a table unless people are cramming in to watch a Hawkeyes game. That reminds me, don’t go on a Iowa football Saturday unless you love battling traffic.
Location: Wig and Pen’s main location is at 1220 Highway 6 West in Coralville, Iowa. Technically, it has an Iowa City address, but truthfully, nobody is exactly sure where Iowa City ends and Coralville begins, because the restaurant literally 200 feet away has a Coralville address. This might really be a problem for writers who have to cover track or softball at Iowa, because the facilities are right across the street, which means that they might be entirely in one city or that it might be possible to have a ball start in one city and land in the other.
Cost: This can be a bit high, but remember, these are big pizzas, so you’re essentially paying for two meals, not one. That makes the $13 price tag for the basic small pizza easier to stomach. For each topping, you’ll pay $1.55 for small, $1.75 for medium and $1.95 for large. Or, you could just pay for a specialty pizza, such as the Union Jack (Italian sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, onions and red peppers) or the Twickenham (artichokes, garlic, black olives, Roma tomatoes, spinach and feta), which will run $17 for a small and $24 for large. These prices are for Flying Tomato and deep dish only, though, as thin crust is $4 cheaper than Flying Tomato and deep dish, so if you’re on a budget, thin is in.
Parking: Plentiful. With another restaurant next door, you definitely don’t have to worry about finding a spot to park…unless, of course, the Hawkeyes are at home on Saturday.
Seating arrangement: Think wooden booths like your typical English pub, and you’ve got the picture.
Website: Wig and Pen
Specialty items: Flying Tomato pizza