Conventional wisdom is that summers would be a slow time for a college-town pizzeria, but that is not the case for Quatro’s Deep Pan Pizza in Carbondale. Owner Steve Payne says his restaurant actually becomes busier when nearby Southern Illinois University (SIU) goes on summer break.
It’s not that locals avoid the restaurant during the school year. In fact, the restaurant is popular with both students and natives of the region alike. But what happens in the summer are vacations, and for many SIU alumni and others returning to the area, no trip to southern Illinois is complete without a visit to Quatro’s.
“We’ve seen growth in visitors and alumni year after year,” says Payne, who has owned the restaurant, located just north of the SIU campus, for more than 45 years.
What they find when they return to Quatro’s is familiar: unique deep pan pizza, a welcoming atmosphere and iconic yellow take-home cups. Odds are many of the returning visitors have those very same cups in their cabinets at home. Payne has been giving them away to dine-in customers for decades.
Payne decided to serve soft drinks at the pizzeria in yellow cups as a short-term way of marketing the restaurant. “I figured it would be a year or two program, one and done, but they’ve just kept going,” Payne says.
He says a couple of decisions made four decades ago have proven to be monumental when it comes to the drinkware: First, he selected a premium grade of cup that is stronger and more durable. Second, he made what then seemed to be the too expensive decision to go with the “oddball” yellow color instead of the standard and less expensive white.
“It’s really paid off,” he says.
Payne estimates Quatro’s cup distribution averages 50,000 each year. That makes approximately 2 million yellow cups – not just in kitchen cabinets in southern Illinois but all over the world. He said he has heard stories of Quatro’s cups being used in Australia, Bangladesh, China and dozens of other nations. The cups are so iconic that a regional newspaper recently used them to kick off a list of 100 items that “say” southern Illinois.
While the cups may be a familiar reminder of Quatro’s for many, it is the food that keeps people coming back. The menu flagship is deep pan pizza. Payne says it is a unique pie – one he hasn’t found anywhere else.
“It’s a pan pizza, but it’s not Chicago-style, although originally we started out that way,” he explains. “The problem with Chicago-style is that it takes too long in the oven – 45 to 50 minutes. We found that students and others around here were not willing to spend an hour or two waiting for a casual dining experience.”
To address the situation, within the first couple of years of business, Quatro’s simply rearranged the ingredients and toppings. By moving the mozzarella from the bottom to the top, they were able to significantly cut cooking time. One thing Payne says the restaurant has never cut, however, is quality ingredients. Everything is fresh.
“Other places may do a pan style, but they have a tendency to use precooked meats, canned ingredients and pre-blanched sauces,” he says. “Our claim to fame, if we have one, is that we’ve always used fresh cheeses and sauce. It’s not remanufactured and never cooked before; everything we do is labor-intensive, but fresh. We’ve never changed the cheese we use. It’s always been the same and from the same supplier. We aim for a level of freshness not found in the pizza industry. I guess in a way we were farm-to-table before anyone recognized that.”
Payne said the top seller at Quatro’s is the “Challenge,” a deep pan pizza featuring sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms, onions and green peppers, all covered with extra cheese. Specialty pizzas ranging from taco to chicken Alfredo and a Philly cheesesteak pizza are also popular. Full-size pizzas are available anytime; lunch guests often select a combo: salad, slice of pizza and drink (served, of course, in the yellow cup).
While not quite as famous as the deep pan, Quatro’s also offers thin crust pizza, a variety of pastas, subs and specialty sandwiches. They are immensely popular as well. Payne reports that the restaurant sells more than 500 Italian beef sandwiches monthly. Like the pizzas, everything else on the menu is made with fresh ingredients and a never-wavering recipe.
“We want to be the ‘Steady Eddies’ for our customers. We want to be predictable, and we want to be here for when you have an inkling for something you remember,” Payne adds.