Ask the average person who makes the best pizza, or read articles, blogs, and best-of lists by pizza “experts,” or wade into online comments, and you’ll find that there is a light side and a dark side — two flavors, if you will — of Pizza Opinion: The positive, passionate, all-consuming love for one’s own favorite cheesy, greasy, roof-of-mouth-burning slice; and the dark, fiery vitriol reserved for those who dare challenge the superiority of thin-crust over deep-dish, sweet sauce over savory, or any number of other fiercely divisive pizzalogical issues.
Considering the passion pizza inspires, responsibly declaring America’s best pizza can be challenging. But The Daily Meal doesn't shy away from the challenge. With this, our third annual pizza ranking, we have again sought the nation's best pies and slices, considering more places than ever in our quest for the best.
Pizza is arguably our most varied and beloved culinary genre, one whose followers are some of the most opinionated, and yet it remains one of the most accessible foods there is. Even the country’s most expensive, remote, and esteemed pizza temple is within reach of the average person’s budget. Every red-blooded American, rich and poor, grew up with his or her preferred regional style of this national fascination, knowing it as the best. Today, there’s better pizza and more knowledge about it and interest in it everywhere. That accessibility and loyalty makes for some tremendously spirited debate.
Consider New Yorkers' obsession with and (often unwarranted) arrogance about New York pizza. While you could argue the state of the average New York serving of pizza has never been worse (thanks to $1 slice), New York City in fact has so much great pizza that there are even inter- and intra-borough arguments about it. Then there’s the Neapolitan versus casserole… er, deep-dish debate (declaratively over, courtesy Jon Stewart); lesser-known regional styles represented by cities like Detroit and St. Louis; the West Coast powerhouses; Pacific Northwest and Southern upstarts; and the neo-Neapolitan movement that has exploded across the country. Wood-fired, coal-oven, grandma and grandpa slices, red pie, white pie, bar pie, pan pie, Sicilian — oh my!
For many pizza aficionados, however, there is no debate.
"There are only three pizza places on the planet: Sally's, Pepe, andModern, all in New Haven,” confided director Gorman Bechard, who is working on a pizza documentary Pizza, A Love Story. “People have dragged me to pizza joints all over the country and all it does is leave me with a horrible sadness and a feeling of pity for these poor people who really have no clue as to what amazing pizza is."
1. Frank Pepe, New Haven, Conn. (White Clam: Clams, Grated Parmesan, Olive Oil, Garlic, Oregano)
If you want to discuss the loaded topic of America's best pizza with any authority, you have to embark on a pilgrimage to this legendary New Haven pizzeria. Frank Pepe opened in Wooster Square in New Haven, Conn., in 1925, offering classic Napoletana-style pizza. After immigrating to the United States in 1909 at the age of 16 from Italy, Pepe took odd jobs before opening his restaurant (now called "The Spot," adjacent to the larger operation). Since then, Pepe has opened an additional seven locations.
What should you order at this checklist destination? Two words: Clam pie ("No muzz!"). This is a Northeastern pizza genre unto its own, and Pepe's is the best of them all — freshly shucked, briny littleneck clams, an intense dose of garlic, olive oil, oregano, and grated Parmesan atop a charcoal-colored crust. The advanced move? Clam pie with bacon. Just expect to wait in line if you get there after 11:30 a.m. on a weekend.
2. Di Fara, Brooklyn, N.Y. (Classic Round Pie: Mozzarella, Parmesan, Plum Tomato Sauce, Basil, Olive Oil, Sausage, Peppers, Mushroom, Onion)
Domenico DeMarco is a local celebrity, having owned and operated Di Fara since 1964. Dom cooks both New York and Sicilian-style pizza Wednesday through Sunday (noon to 4:30 p.m., and from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.) for hungry New Yorkers and tourists willing to wait in long lines, and brave the free-for-all that is the Di Fara counter experience. Yes, you're better off getting a whole pie than shelling out for the $5 slice. Yes, it's a trek, and sure, Dom goes through periods where the underside of the pizza can tend toward overdone, but when he's on, Di Fara can make a very strong case for being America's best pizza. If you want to understand why before visiting, watch the great video about Di Fara called The Best Thing I Ever Done.
You can’t go wrong with the classic round or square cheese pie (topped with oil-marinated hot peppers, which you can ladle on at the counter if you elbow in), but the menu’s signature is the Di Fara Classic Pie: mozzarella, Parmesan, plum tomato sauce, basil, sausage, peppers, mushroom, onion, and of course, a drizzle of olive oil by Dom.
3. Pizzeria Bianco, Phoenix, AZ (Margherita: Tomato Sauce, Fresh Mozzarella, Basil)
"There’s no mystery to my pizza," Bronx native Chris Bianco was quoted as saying in The New York Times. "Sicilian oregano, organic flour, San Marzano tomatoes, purified water, mozzarella I learned to make at Mike's Deli in the Bronx, sea salt, fresh yeast cake and a little bit of yesterday's dough. In the end great pizza, like anything else, is all about balance. It's that simple.''
Try telling that to the legions of pizza pilgrims who have made trip to the storied Phoenix pizza spot he opened more than 20 years ago. The restaurant serves not only addictive thin-crust pizzas but also fantastic antipasto (involving wood-oven-roasted vegetables), perfect salads, and homemade country bread. The wait, once routinely noted as one of the worst for food in the country, has been improved by Pizzeria Bianco opening for lunch, and the opening of Trattoria Bianco, the pizza prince of Arizona’s Italian restaurant in the historic Town & Country Shopping Center (about 10 minutes from the original. This is another case where any pie will likely be better than most you’ve had in your life (that Rosa with red onions and pistachios!), but the signature Marinara will recalibrate your pizza baseline forever: tomato sauce, oregano, and garlic (no cheese).
4. Roberta’s, Brooklyn N.Y. (Margherita)
Say Roberta's is in the new class of restaurants that has fanned the flames of the Brooklyn vs. Manhattan debate, call it a great pizza joint, recall it as a frontrunner of the city's rooftop garden movement, and mention that Carlo Mirarchi was named a Best New Chef by Food & Wine, and you'd still be selling it short.
Roberta's is in Bushwick, six stops out of Manhattan on the L, and it’s one of the city's best restaurants (it even serves one of the city’s hardest-to-score tasting menus). In Bushwick! Pizza may not be the only thing at Roberta’s, but its Neapolitan pies are at the high end of the debate about the city's best (and according to an interview with the blog Slice, inspired another great pizzeria on this list, Paulie Gee’s). Yes, some of them have names like "Family Jewels," "Barely Legal," and after disgraced New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Wiener, "Carlos Danger," but you can afford not to take yourself seriously in an environment where Brooklyn hipsters and everyone else tolerate each other when your pizza is this good. As much as the Amatriciana and the Bee Sting (when Roberta’s goes mobile) may tempt, the Margherita (tomato, mozzarella, basil) is Roberta’s pizza Lothario.
5. Sally’s Apizza, New Haven Conn. (Tomato Pie: Tomato Sauce, No Cheese)
Sally's Apizza is a New Haven classic, operating from the same location where they opened in the late 1930s in New Haven's Wooster Square. Their pizza is traditionally thin crust, topped with tomato sauce, garlic, and "mozz." The pies look pretty similar to what you'll find down the street at Frank Pepe, which any New Haven pizza believer will note is because the man who opened Sally's is the nephew of the owner of Pepe. The folks at Sally's will be the first to tell you that Pepe makes a better clam pie, but their tomato pie (tomato sauce, no cheese), well, they have the original beat there.
6. Pizzeria Mozza, Los Angeles Calif. (Squash blossoms, Tomato, Burrata Mozzarella, Tomato Sauce)
Renowned baker and chef Nancy Silverton teamed up with Italian culinary moguls Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich to open Osteria Mozza, a Los Angeles hot spot where the famous clientele pales in comparison to the innovative, creative fare. The pizzeria, which is attached to the main restaurant, offers a variety of Italian specialties, from antipasti to bruschetta, but the Neapolitan-style pizzas steal the show. Their list of 21 pies ranges from $11 for a simple aglio e olio, a classic cheese pizza, to $23 for a more unique pie with squash blossoms, tomato, and burrata cheese — a delicious and simple pizza that transports through the quality and nuance of its ingredients. So it’s no surprise that Batali and Bastianich have taken a stab at duplicating the success of this model pizzeria, opening in Newport Beach, Singapore (!), and San Diego.
7. Flour + Water San Francisco Calif. Margherita)
Although this San Francisco restaurant claims to specialize in house-made pastas, their pizza is formidable. Baked in a wood-fired oven, the thin-crust pizza at Flour + Water blends Old World tradition with modern refinement, according to chef and co-owner Thomas McNaughton. Pizza toppings vary depending on what’s in season, making each dining experience unique, but Flour + Water’s textbook Margherita is amazing. Heirloom tomatoes, basil, fior di latte, and extra-virgin olive oil… if only the simplicity implied by the restaurant’s name could be duplicated in pizzerias across the country.
8. Totonno’s, Brooklyn, N.Y. (Margherita)
By all accounts, Totonno’s shouldn’t exist anymore. Consider first that it was opened in Coney Island in 1924 (by Antonio "Totonno" Pero, a Lombardi’s alum). Then factor in the fire that broke out in the coal storage area and ravaged it in 2009. Add to that insult the destruction and subsequent rebuilding costs (some reported $150,000 in repairs) incurred in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy when four feet of water destroyed everything inside the family-owned institution. You’ll probably agree that Brooklyn (and the country) should be counting its lucky stars Totonno’s is still around.
And yet it does more than that. It doesn’t just keep a storied pizza name, or nostalgia for simpler times (and perhaps more authentic and consistent pies) alive. No. Owners Antoinette Balzano, Frank Balzano, and Louise "Cookie" Ciminieri don’t just bridge our modern era’s festishization of pizza to the days of its inception at Lombardi’s. The coal-fired blistered edges, the spotty mozzarella laced over that beautiful red sauce… ah, fuggedabout all the teary-eyed try-too-much words, this is Neptune Avenue! This is Brooklyn! This is Totonno’s. And this, is how you make pizza.
9. Paulie Gee’s, Brooklyn, N.Y. (Regina)
With a love for pizza, little formal training, no high school diploma, a career he has characterized as having "masqueraded as a computer geek," and a fear of becoming Shelley Levene from Glengarry Glen Ross, Paulie Giannone struck out into the unknown, to Greenpoint, Brooklyn. He ventured there before Girls, before the condos, in a time when the dream of a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment a 10-minute walk from the subway to Manhattan on the Polish word-of-mouth, no-lease real estate wire still went for less than $2,000.
This backyard do-it-yourselfing pizza passionista put it all on the line and earned every kind word he’s gotten. Greenpoint still isn’t much to look at, but Paulie Gee’s is a pizza lover’s haven, a clean, rustic space that looks like a barn but puts out a pie to rival every Naples memory you’ve had or dreamed of having. There are some 19 pies to choose from, all great in their own right and featuring clever names and great topping combinations — In Ricotta Da Vita, Ricotta Be Kiddin’, and the Luca Brasi (no anchovies) — but when The Daily Meal checked in with the pizzeria, the Regina was the pie noted as their signature: mozzarella, tomatoes, Pecorino Romano, olive oil, and fresh basil. And panelists agreed that Paulie’s Regina well deserved a top spot among America’s 10 best pizzas.
10. Tony's Pizza Napoletana, San Francisco (Margherita)
It’s one thing to be considered an expert on how to make Neapolitan pizza — and with too many awards to count (eight-time world champion pizza acrobat, first-place world champion pizza maker, first-place Roman pizza world championships of pizza makers) Tony Gemignani is definitely considered that. It’s another thing to also proudly offer, and be commended for being a master of, any and all pizza styles.
But that’s what goes on at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. Of course the signature pie is Tony’s pizza cup winner in Naples, Italy: dough mixed by hand using San Felice flour then proofed in Napoletana wood boxes, and topped with San Marzano tomatoes, sea salt, mozzarella, fior di latte, fresh basil, and extra virgin olive oil; just 73 of these champion pizzas are made each day, so get there early if you want one for yourself. But the menu also offers critically-acclaimed versions of pizza in the styles of California, St. Louis, Italy, Sicily, New York, Rome, classic American, and even Detroit. You could accuse Gemignani of just showing off, but then again there’s the old expression: “It ain’t bragging if it’s true.”
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