Iowa City Pizza: Airliner, Wig and Pen, Sam's, and Pagliai's


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Pizza is far from uncommon in Iowa City. There’s a dizzying array of potential places to treat your taste buds to cheese, meat, and vegetables piled atop (hopefully) cooked dough. I endeavored to try to taste the lion’s share of local and mostly local offerings.

In the interest of journalistic integrity, I tried to find the specialty at each eatery and, price permitting, test it against more traditional fare. While I am a pizza lover and not a professional chef, I’ve sampled pizza across the United States and Europe, and I am interested in seeing what Iowa City has to offer my fellow pizza-eaters and me.

This week, I tried some of Iowa City’s deep-dish pizza, a local hideaway, and a Clinton Street hangout.

The Airliner

A famous hangout for the younger crowd because of its kitchen staying open late, Airliner’s pizza has developed a relatively positive reputation. Its location, 22 S. Clinton St., is good, and the establishment is relatively spacious with comfortable booths for dining. At the recommendation of an employee, I ordered the Thai Chicken pizza: “A spicy citrus sauce accompanied by mushrooms, roasted red peppers, red onion, scallions, cheddar-jack cheese, and grilled chicken.”

This pizza is well-executed, despite the strangeness of its toppings. Generally thick and delicious, the cheese did have a tendency to congeal, creating a flavor at times too rich for my taste. All the raw ingredients performed to similarly high level of quality.

Despite the chicken being a bit overcooked, it paired well with the remaining ingredients. The mushrooms are more effective than any I’ve ever had on a pizza. The spice and taste of the sauce could be a little overpowering, but overall, it is extremely rewarding and sincerely reminiscent of Thai cuisine.

Unfortunately, the crust, attractively dusted with flour, was undercooked. However, even raw I could taste the pedigree of the dough. Based on the otherwise excellent pizza, I am willing to assume this to be an unfortunate aberration rather than a systemic problem. Unique specialties and an accessible location make Airliner a good bet.

Wig and Pen

An Iowa City original since 2003, Wig and Pen — with locations on the Coralville Strip (albeit still in Iowa City) and 363 N. First Ave. — boasts a tremendously inviting interior. I ordered the Union Jack Flying Tomato deep-dish pizza with pepperoni, sausage, green pepper, and mushrooms.

Easily a contender for best-in-show, this pizza boasts the best crust I have had the pleasure of eating in Iowa City. It manages to remain crispy on the outside while relenting a little toward the middle of the pie. The flavor is fantastic and manages all the rich flavor of greasier offerings without feeling slimy. Its cheese is thick, creamy, and cooked to a near-perfect golden brown at spots. The stylistic application of sliced tomatoes, open-faced, across the top appeals to both eyes and mouth.

Even the meats achieve a superior level of flavor. Especially of note is the sausage, which I find most pizza places skimp a little quality-wise. All the vegetables boast great texture, which makes them feel fresh, and they meshed well with the other ingredients. A superior quality of ingredients and acute sense of fulfillment are prizes well worth the high price of admission.

Sam’s Pizza

Functioning as both a bar and restaurant, Sam’s Pizza, 441 S. Gilbert St., offers “Chicago Stuffed” deep-dish and thin-crust pizza to Iowa City residents. Seating is what you would expect from a bar-restaurant: booths, wood décor, TVs, and various electronic diversions. I ordered the Chicago Stuffed Sam’s Special with sausage, mushroom, onion, and green pepper.

Despite coming out a little burnt, the pizza was no worse for wear. The crust was good and has a texture bordering on being too crispy. However, it had a satisfying weight which paired well with the abundant amount of cheese. The meat and vegetables were good and mixed well, even if they were occasionally overwhelmed by the amount of cheese heaped above them. Its sauce, served resting above the cheese, was a little watery but paired well with the cheese. This pizza is a bit pricey, but it will not disappoint or surprise you if ordered.

A&A Pagliai’s Pizza

This franchise, located at 302 E. Bloomington St., has Iowan-Italian roots dating back to 1957 and is the other contender for best in show. It has a nice, although compact, dining area. I ordered a green pepper and pepperoni pizza.

Pagliai’s sauce is full-bodied and a fantastic complement to its superb crisp crust. The dough is not as flavorful as that of Wig and Pen, but it does an excellent job of working with the other ingredients. Both the cheese and pepperoni avoid the trap of being too salty, and they are attractively presented. The peppers are cooked in but remain supple and delightfully crunchy. Pagliai’s pizza felt like a team player: No single aspect hogged the limelight. This is perhaps the best balanced pizza in Iowa City.

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