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Restaurants

The best pepperoni pizzas in America

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 (iStock)

From Sicilian to salciccia, these pizzas run the gamut across nearly every regional style out there. But today we’re sharing the top pizzas that made the list that contain America’s favorite pizza topping: pepperoni. 

We’ll start by defining the perfect pie. We believe the following qualities are basic to the platonic plain pie: a nuanced sauce, neither too sweet nor salty; good-quality, well-distributed cheese; a flavorful, savory crust; and perhaps most important, other than the overall quality of the ingredients, a judicious, well-balanced, and pleasing ratio of sauce, cheese, and crust that maintains a structural integrity no matter the style. And as for the pepperoni, it needs to be of a high quality (if it forms that small “cup” shape when it’s cooked, that’s a good indicator), and it needs to be evenly distributed and properly cooked.

 (Speaking of crust, what is this fancy-pants term “cornicione” that figures in many of our captions? Cornicione, pronounced "cor-nee-CHO-neh," is Italian for cornice or moulding, and in pizza terms means the edge, crust, or rim on a pizza.)

Read on to learn about the best pepperoni pizzas in America. Try some of these and you’ll understand why pepperoni is the default pizza topping. Is there really anything better on pizza?

1. Lucali, Brooklyn

A pinch of Di Fara’s Dom DeMarco, a dash of the murals of Gino’s of Long Beach, stretch the un-sauced classic Coney Island Totonno's crust a bit wider, add a few intangibles, and you’re close to the pizza experience Mark Iacono has made famous at his Carroll Gardens pizzeria Lucali since opening in 2006. There’s that classic New York thin-crust style and justified whispers about old-school execution praised at New York’s storied and beloved institutions. Eating pizza in Lucali’s warm, softly lit environs, you wonder how Iacono seems to have magically inherited Gennaro Lombardi’s pizza primogeniture. Iacono, who survived a stabbing in 2011 that left him with no feeling in about 50 percent of his body, hasn’t slowed, drawing crowds and he’s receiving similar accolades at his Miami location.

2. Grimaldi’s, Brooklyn

Being able to do the mental gymnastics intrinsic to understanding the history behind one of New York City's — er, Brooklyn’s — most storied pizzerias isn’t required for you to enjoy a slice of its famous pizza, but we have a few minutes while you wait in line.

Gennaro Lombardi opened what’s generally regarded as America’s first pizzeria (Lombardi's, No. 32). He supposedly trained Pasquale “Patsy” Lancieri, who opened the first Patsy’s in East Harlem (No. 22). His nephew Patsy Grimaldi opened a place, also called Patsy’s, in Brooklyn’s DUMBO in 1990 (he’s said to have also learned his craft from Jerry Pero, son of Anthony Totonno Pero, who founded Totonno’s — another story), but had to change the name to Grimaldi’s after his uncle died and his aunt sold the Patsy’s name.

Three years later, Patsy sold the Grimaldi’s at 19 Old Fulton Street to Frank Ciolli, whose two children expanded the Grimaldi’s brand to nearly 50 restaurants across the country. But Ciolli lost the lease to the original space and had to move into a larger former bank building next door on 1 Front Street. That’s when Patsy swooped out of retirement into the original Grimaldi’s space to open Juliana’s.

It comes down to this: Patsy Grimaldi, whose pizza lineage goes back to family members trained by Gennaro Lombardi, is making pies at a restaurant called Juliana’s in the original Grimaldi’s, and Grimaldi’s is right next door.

With that all said, you’re just about at the front of the line (remember: no credit cards, no reservations, no slices, and no delivery!). So sit down and order something simple: a Margherita made in a coal-fired oven that heats up to about 1,200 degrees F and requires about 100 pounds of coal a day. It’s crispy, it’s smoky, it’s tangy, cheesy, and delicious, and when you’re done, you can go next door to Juliana’s.

3. Lombardi’s, New York City

Anybody interested in tracing America’s love affair with pizza to its origins will find the way to Lombardi’s. Gennaro Lombardi opened a grocery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1897, and in 1905 he started selling tomato pies wrapped in paper and tied with a string to workers of Italian descent who took them to work (because most couldn’t afford a pie, it was sold by the piece). The pizzeria was run by the Lombardi family — first by Gennaro’s son, John, then his grandson, Jerry — until it closed in 1984, and was reopened 10 years later a block from the original location by Jerry and John Brescio, a childhood friend.

These days, Lombardi’s is almost always packed (their 110th anniversary, 5-cent pizza celebration queued a line around the block). There’s a thin crust, a cornicione without much bubble, and a thorough sauce layering that’s tangy and not overly sweet or salty.

There’s no shredded mozzarella layering but the fresh stuff, spread out. Even if you’re not a fan of this kind of cheese on your pie, you’ll probably like this. Is it New York City’s best pizza? No. Still, Lombardi's is a touchstone (sometimes, it's worth re-establishing your baseline). And when looking out on New York's pizza landscape, the devotion to a pizza from a time when it didn't mean artful charring and contrived golden-tiled ovens is comforting, even if that just means the pizza of 1994.

4. Piece, Chicago

In a city known for deep-dish, Chicagoans long ago learned how to give Wicker Park brewery and pizzeria Piece a chance (“Pizza is good for you!”). Owner Bill Jacobs had already started, sold, and made Piece with moving beyond the successful Windy City bagel family business they sold in 1999 (you’d say “rest in Piece,” but after his pizza success with Piece, he’s actually now back into bagels too!) three years before this New Haven homeboy ventured into pizza in 2002.

The haters protested, but they were soon at Piece eating this New Haven-style joint’s thin-crust red, plain (no mozzarella), and white (plain crust brushed with olive oil, diced garlic, and mozzarella) pizzas, all of which get at least a small piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano, oregano, and olive oil. 

Ingredients. You can have a classic New Haven pie with fresh tomatoes or clams (of course), and, in some kind of pan-New Haven Piece accord, there’s also a nod to Bru Room at Bar’s signature mashed potato pizza. Is it puzzling to see chips and salsa and warm spinach and tomato dip on the menu? Sure, but having brought quality New Haven-style pies to Chicago and bought out his lease so he can do so for years to come, Jacobs has brought Piece of mind to Windy City denizens and delivery to boot. Piece out.

5. Santillo's Brick Oven Pizza, Elizabeth, N.J.

What can you say about Al Santillo? Santillo may be the least well-known great pizza tradition curator in America, the gatekeeper to three generations of pizza-making and one of the most unique pizzerias in America. The man has tomato sauce running through his veins. Al Santillo’s grandfather, who had long made focaccia for his family at home, decided to try it as a business in 1950. "He wanted to keep the place open in the evening and make a little more money, so he started making pizza," his grandson Al has noted. "In 1957, he bought the brick oven I use now." It’s an oven Al says is called a low-arch, one whose every brick was cut by hand, and which he insists, "permits infinite possibilities in temperature and character."

Pizza infinity is difficult to conceive, but Santillo’s is something you just have to experience for yourself. You can only do takeout from Al's living room — it houses the massive cathedral-like oven that requires a 20-foot-long peel to retrieve the pizzas. And be prepared to order by the year — Al preserves every pizza style he can for posterity. They range from the 1940 Genuine Tomato Pie (no cheese) to the 2011 San Marzano "Tomatoes Over the Cheese" Pizza. But there are other intriguing options like Lasagna Pizza, thin-pan, Roman-style, Italian bread, and an off-the-menu grandpa pie as well. Start out with a 1957 Style Pizza Extra Thin (14-Inch round), or the popular Sicilian pizza, or just ask this quirky, pizza-possessed master to make you his own spontaneous creation.

Check out more of the country's best pepperoni pizzas.