Who makes the best pizza on earth? This is the eternal question, the one that must be answered. Because: Round or square, flat or stuffed, thick crust or thin, slathered in pork products or simply covered in cheese, pizza just might be the most perfect food ever invented. Which is why Alan Richman traveled more than 20,000 miles across the U.S.A.— the country that makes it best — in a search for the 25 best pizzas you’ll ever eat.
Italians are wrong. Not about cars or suits. About pizza, and they’re not entirely mistaken about that, only about crusts and buffalo-milk mozzarella. They’ve got the tomato part right. Pizza was created by the Italians — or maybe by the Greeks, who brought it to Naples, but let’s not pile on the bad news. Right now it justly belongs to us. We care more about it. We eat more of it, and unlike the Italians, we appreciate it at dinner, at lunch, and at breakfast, when we have it cold, standing up, to make hangovers go away. Italians don’t really understand pizza. They think of it as knife-and-fork food, best after the sun goes down.
Pizza isn’t as fundamental to Italy as it is to America. Over there, it plays a secondary role to pasta, risotto, and polenta. To be candid, I think they could do without it. Not us. Over here, it’s one of the few foreign foods we’ve embraced wholeheartedly, made entirely our own.
The simple truth is that pizza in its most primal form — cheese, tomato, crust — is perfect food. It’s good for vegetarians, even though it contains no vegetables. It’s good for us meat eaters, chiefly because we don’t care much for vegetables but also because pizza is one of the few foods where the absence of meat isn’t missed. (Although, when I think about it, a little sausage never hurts, especially if it’s crumbled up rather than sliced.)
It’s the absolute best food for sharing (unless you’re in love, in which case we’re talking about an ice cream cone). It’s the healthiest of treats; the strictest mother wouldn’t argue that pizza is bad for kids. It’s the most versatile delivery food, because it reheats much better than Chinese, and if you accidentally burn it, pizza is still good. Most important, at least to me: Pizza gives pepperoni a reason to exist.
Home of Italian pizza
A word here about Naples, the home of Italian pizza. That’s supposedly where the pie reaches its pinnacle, in a distinct and idiosyncratic style that some American pizzamakers — let’s resist calling them pizzaioli, as the Italians do — are trying to emulate. They’re going for hotter ovens, puffier crusts, and weepy buffalo-milk mozzarella on top. I’m not impressed. Not by the genuine pies in Naples, and usually less by American imitations, although the mission has a certain nobility of purpose.
This is what happens when a Neapolitan pie comes out of the oven, after it’s been cooked a remarkably short time: The nearly liquefied glob of buffalo mozzarella — now resembling a snowman melting on a warm March afternoon — has become runny. Water drains from the tomatoes. Oil joins the flood. All that excess liquid has to go somewhere, which is why the bottom crust turns to mush, not that it was ever particularly crispy.
This is why Italians need a knife and fork. This is why our pizzas are better than theirs.
We have, remarkably, seven distinct kinds of pizza in this country, starting with those Neapolitan imitations that represent style over sustenance. Our most famous (and nonconformist) is probably the Chicago deep-dish pie, essentially a casserole. The crust is sometimes burdened with cornmeal or semolina, and sometimes it is flaky and sweet, like those on fruit pies. It isn’t much like the crust on any pizza outside Chicago, but this style isn’t about crust. It’s about massive amounts of cheese and sauce.
Deep-dish pies became popular in the 1980s when branches of Chicago’s Pizzeria Uno spread everywhere and Americans lined up. It was the last time we felt as strongly about pizza as we do today. I have no recollection of why Americans felt such a need to eat deep-dish pies, although I was elbowing and pushing alongside everyone else. I asked a Chicago friend to remind me, and she said, “They’re carbohydrate-and-cheese bombs. We’d buy a frozen one and throw it in the oven. Two hours later, it was ready.”
She wasn’t exaggerating by much. Indeed, uncooked deep-dish pie is still sold frozen in Chicago, and the instructions say it can be put into the oven that way. Pizza is odd in that its baking times vary widely. What other food sometimes takes two or three minutes to cook and sometimes an hour or more? All my life I’ve wondered about the difference between Chicago’s famous Pizzeria Uno and its almost-as-famous Pizzeria Due, and after traveling there, I found the answer. The numbing wait is one hour at Uno, two hours at Due.
There’s a minor variation on deep-dish that remains fundamental to Chicago: the stuffed pie, number three among the seven distinct species. This is a deep-dish pizza that’s been supersized and topped with a second crust that’s so thin as to be almost invisible. The stuffed pie is the black hole of pizza-eating, thicker than a deep-dish, and when I sat down to eat one, I couldn’t get through a single slice.
More widespread than any of those styles is the pan pizza, sometimes known as Sicilian and sometimes as square. This is a richer, heavier version of focaccia — a soft flat-topped bread prepared with olive oil. Pan pizza is easily at its best in Detroit, where aficionados seek out the corner slices that have caramelized edges blackened through contact with the hot pan. A crunchy bottom, blissfully created by the same process, is also a virtue. Most people, when they think of crunchy pizza, have an unrelated pie in mind, the thin-crusted ones known as Roman-style, tavern-style, or bar pizza. These crusts, at best, have a bit of suppleness; at worst, they are reminiscent of crackers.
The most curious of all pies is grilled pizza, invented at the restaurant Al Forno in Providence, and too wonderful to be dismissed as a regional peculiarity. The idea of grilling a pizza doesn’t sound promising: Dough is put on a (hopefully) charcoal fire, flipped, topped, and grilled some more. This results in crusts far more delicious than the sum of their grill marks, so irresistible I turned to a pizza authority to help me understand. Peter Reinhart, a baker and author, understood my bewilderment. He said, “Basically, grilled pizzas are fried dough. The pizza dough sits in oil, and the oil is seared into the crust. How can you go wrong?”
And then, finally and most wonderfully, comes the American pie, actually a recent phenomenon, probably invented by and certainly popularized by Chris Bianco, the godfather of American pizza, who opened Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix in 1994. The pie he prepares and that others emulate is as much about bread-baking as it is about crust-making. It’s primarily identified by two vital, distinct, and non-Italian elements: a golden glow and a chewy yet velvety interior. Such crusts have a resemblance to ciabatta, the light and porous Italian bread.
The American pie is more than crust. It is explosively inventive, with toppings as ingenious as American cuisine gets. In San Francisco, the heartland of innovative toppings, I found fresh thyme instead of dried oregano, Taleggio and Fontina cheeses instead of mozzarella (it’s my belief that getting beyond mozzarella sets a pizzamaker free), and a basil chiffonade instead of basil leaves. A pause here to reflect on the misuse of fresh basil by Italians. They seem to think of it as decorative rather than flavorful, and they spread not nearly enough of it on their fabled-but-flawed Margherita pies.
In searching for the twenty-five best pizzas in America, I traveled to ten American cities, the ones I knew had a lot of pizzerias or a lot of Italians. They seem to go together, although less so anymore. I visited 109 pizzerias and ate 386 pies, although almost never the whole thing. (Remember, I couldn’t finish a single slice of the stuffed.) I know what you’re thinking: You didn’t visit my favorite pizzeria. You missed the best.
I was forced to be merciless about this, because everybody I know has one of those, and everybody believes his is unsurpassed. In essence, a beloved pizzeria is almost always about memories. From friends I heard such claims as “Taking the first bite is to know perfection”…“Every bite is a party in your mouth”… “It has Italian authenticity”… “It is blissful in its crunchiness and perfect chew”… And so it went. There is no way of dealing with such devotion, so I decided to answer all demands that I visit an adored pizzeria with the same irrefutable (if unjust) reply: “No, I am not going to your pizzeria. Your pizzeria is no good.” In fact, on the few occasions when I was so badgered by a friend that I went to one of them, it was no good. Not one prepared a commendable crust.
I include in the list of failed favorites two pizzerias beloved by President Obama: Italian Fiesta in Chicago’s Lake Park plaza (takeout only, so I ate on the trunk of my rental car) and Casa Bianca in Eagle Rock, California, near Occidental College, where he went to school. The pies at both had hard, bland crusts that didn’t look or taste handmade. Out of respect to our president, who has enough problems, I will leave it at that.
Within each of the ten cities, I ranged far. In New York, where I went to thirty-three pizzerias, I ate in every one of the five boroughs, and I ventured deep into the suburb of Westchester, where I live. (I briefly left the state to visit nearby spots in New Jersey but had no success there.) During my tour of Philadelphia, I journeyed to as distant a land as Trenton, New Jersey. (Again, no luck.) In Detroit I drove nearly 500 miles, a consequence of the local pizza diaspora. Phoenix was easy — there’s precisely one pizzeria, Bianco, that anybody recognizes as worth visiting. I would happily have broken my rule and gone to any other personal favorite — but nobody had one.
I tried Polish pizza in Chicago (not bad, except for the nearly raw egg on top), Indian pizza in San Francisco (pretty good, although reheated chicken dries out badly, despite the tikka masala sauce), Turkish pizza in New York (invariably called “pitza” and, because it’s made with pita dough, rather crackly), and Korean pizza in Los Angeles. (The Korean-style Hanchi Gold pie was topped with spicy bean paste, sweet-potato mousse, ground beef, onion, bell pepper, olives, corn, mushrooms, edamame, jalapeño, bacon, Cheddar cheese, marinated calamari, sour cream, garlic, and parsley, and when you have that much piled on, it’s hard to tell the potato mousse from the sour cream.)
Dark side of the pie
Overaccessorizing was far from the worst problem I encountered. There is a dark side to the triumph of the American pie.
They often refuse to take reservations, thus guaranteeing themselves long lines of worshippers. Their primary weirdness, however, is preparing not quite enough dough for the day ahead so they might turn away the last few desperate customers. Even if they are doing this to ensure freshness, as they claim, they could rely on a practice perfected in modern times that would enable them to never run out of dough — it’s known as refrigeration. Or they could prepare more than enough, but that would create the possibility that a ball or two of the dough that they love more than their customers would have to be thrown out.
These guys find multiple ways of being annoying. At Pizzeria Bianco, a friend and I ordered four pies that we shared with the people who had stood in line with us for more than an hour. Still hungry, I tried to order a fifth, but I was cut off like a roaring drunk in an American Legion hall, told that I had reached my limit. At a pizzeria (I do not recommend) in Chicago, I was informed when I called that I had to order ahead of time, although there is no menu on the restaurant Web site and the lady on the telephone refused to tell me what pies were available. Pizzerias now inhabit a space once occupied by snooty French restaurants, and they are smug, too. One pizzeria in Brooklyn (I do not recommend) lets you know that its pork is sustainable, its beef grass-fed, its eggs organic, and its grease converted into biofuel. (If only as much attention had been given to crusts.)
Secrets of the trade
I have a final thought: ovens. Uniform and very high heat produces the best pies, which is why coal ovens have rightfully been so respected. The coal adds little to the taste, and in fact a retired pizzamaker in New York City, Sal Petrillo, now in his eighties, told me a secret of the trade. He said that at the old Frank’s on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village, where he worked with his brother Frank for twenty years, the most important person was the guy who moved the pies around the coal-fired oven. He made certain they were evenly cooked.
A wood-burning oven, in particular the very smoky one at Pizzeria Bianco, can add a pleasant (if superficial) aroma, but I don’t believe wood is behind glorious crusts. Gas and electricity frequently do as well. At Tacconelli’s in Philadelphia, the oven is heated with oil. The truth is that great pizzas aren’t made by great ovens; they’re made by great cooks.
1. Great Lake in Chicago: Mortadella pie
I phoned at 6:15 p.m., ordered a cheese pie, asked when I could pick it up. The reply: 8 p.m. When I arrived a few minutes early, two of the fourteen people seated in the tiny storefront shop were eating. The rest looked exasperated. Nick Lessins, the Polish-Czech co-owner and pizzamaker, seemed happily oblivious. I stood inside, watching for twenty-five minutes as he fashioned three pies, mine among them. No man is slower. He makes each as though it is his first, manipulating the dough until it appears flawless, putting on toppings one small bit after another. In the time he takes to create a pie, civilizations could rise and fall, not just crusts. His cheese pie, prepared with fresh mozzarella made in-house, grated Wisconsin sheep’s-and-cow’s-milk cheese, and aromatic fresh marjoram instead of basil, was slightly shy of unbelievable. The next day I returned to try the same pie topped with fresh garlic and mortadella, the dirigible-sized Italian sausage that looks like bologna, tastes like salami, and is usually cut into chunks. He sliced the meat very thin and laid slices of it over the pie the moment it came out of the oven. The mortadella, with its combination of burliness and creaminess, was a meaty addition to the earthy, bready crust. This pie — creative, original, and somewhat local — represents everything irresistible about the new American style of pizza-making.
2. Lucali in Brooklyn: Plain pie
Lucali, around since 2006, is an old candy store done up to look like an old pizzeria, and there’s an eerie glow about it. I’m not getting spiritual. There really is. Owner and pizzamaker Mark Iacono stands behind a candlelit counter, wearing a white T-shirt, looking mysterious and troubled, our first poster-boy pizzaiolo. It drives the women crazy, or at least the ones who went there with me. “He’s out of a romance novel,” one of them practically sobbed. (To me he looked like the character played by Nicolas Cage in “Moonstruck,” except with two hands.) Lucali takes no reservations, and standing in line is a necessity, although the staff is courteous and tries to alleviate the suffering by taking a cell-phone number and warning when your turn has arrived. More good news: Every pie that Iacono prepares is worth the wait. I picked the simplest of his creations, in essence a Margherita, although there’s no menu and none of the pies have names. When I asked what to call it, I was told “plain pie.” It has tomato, mozzarella, fresh basil, buffalo mozzarella, and a sprinkling of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, enormously satisfying for a pie so simple. The crust stands firm. The mozzarella melts exquisitely. The basil is wildly fresh. Should you need additional toppings, go for thinly shaved porcini mushrooms, so good I was tempted to put a second Lucali pie on my list.
3. Pizzeria Delfina in San Francisco: Panna pie
I sat at the cramped counter, watching a young woman standing in front of me crimp dough. She crimped and crimped, building in air holes with each purposeful squeeze of finger and thumb. Delfina has easily the best crust in San Francisco, an unusually successful fusion of Neapolitan and American styles. The pie placed before me looked slightly pale, but it had a yeasty aroma and a lovely sweetness. It was unlike any other I found, prepared with tomato sauce, heavy cream, basil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and olive oil — and priced at a remarkable $10. Indeed, heavy cream does seem peculiar, but if you think about the Italian evolution of cheese for pizza — mozzarella becoming fresh mozzarella and then becoming fresh buffalo-milk mozzarella, each one richer and milkier than the one before — heavy cream is the natural expression of where Italians intend to go. The final addition, shavings of tangy, salty Parmigiano-Reggiano, is a brilliant step in the creation of an extraordinarily well-balanced pie.
4. Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix: Margherita with prosciutto
Before Chris Bianco, superhero, founded the artisan American-pizza industry, all was seemingly lost. The honored pizzerias with their ancient coal-fired ovens run by families that had arrived with Columbus were settling for pies with moribund crusts. Not that eating at Pizzeria Bianco, which accepts reservations only for jumbo parties, isn’t annoying. You get in line, although if you’re lucky you can grab one of the galvanized-metal chairs left out front. You become parched in the heat and ask the nice person behind you to save your spot while you walk over to Bar Bianco, next door, and buy a glass of faded Rioja from a bottle opened the previous day. You fear you’re not going to get in, because the place seats only about forty. Even if you’re pretty far up in line, as I was, you don’t know how many friends of the folks ahead of you will suddenly materialize and march in before you. (The answer: plenty.) On the other hand, waiting outside is like a big communal party, and had I not become chummy with one regular, I would never have ordered a Margherita pie topped with prosciutto. This fellow had three of them on his table, and he said it was all he ate. Chris Bianco’s fabled Margherita has a smoky and slightly scorched crust, too delicate to handle most toppings, but the uncommonly subtle, tender, and porky Italian prosciutto was a superlative option. Prosciutto is usually not one of my preferred toppings, because it’s often tough, but here it was icing on the crust.
5. Bob & Timmy's in Providence: Spinach-and-mushroom pizza
There’s no Bob or Timmy at Bob & Timmy’s. Last I heard, they’d sold to Rick and Jose, and I don’t think those two were there on the quiet weekday afternoon when I arrived with a guest. Our companions were a lonely waitress and a guy drinking at the bar. Bob & Timmy’s is a small tavern with beer bric-a-brac, captain’s chairs, reproduction Tiffany lamps, and a TV that remained on even though nobody was watching. Maybe in another era it was a bar for whalers, but there were no whalers around, either. I tried peering into the kitchen at the huge indoor charcoal grill, curious about grilled pizza, but the cook rushed to the door and chased me away. I’m pretty confident he was the cook, because I didn’t see anybody else back there. The menu is vast, but I stuck to simple variations, and every one was expertly prepared. The pies came in standard grilled-pizza format, irregularly round but cut into squares. The crust appeared too skinny to be interesting, but it seemed about the best flatbread I’d ever eaten. The vegetable toppings were remarkably fresh, and it occurred to me that freshness is something we rarely think about when contemplating what pizza we admire. The pie I loved most had three cheeses, the dominant one being feta, which adds tang and saltiness. Now I understand what every Greek must already know: Feta, spinach, and mushrooms are an astonishingly compatible combination.
6. Sally’s Apizza in New Haven, Conn.: White pie with potato
Sally’s is ancient, in an old Appalachian way. I can’t believe the men’s bathroom has been cleaned since 1938, when the pizzeria opened for business. Service was equally dismal. I noticed regulars getting some attention, not so much that they appeared pampered, but the rest of us waited about ninety minutes before our first pies appeared. To me, Sally’s should be renamed Sartre’s Apizza, home of absurdity and despair. I wasn’t there on any particular holiday, April Fools’ Day or Halloween, but the somnambulant staff wore weird outfits — nutsy party hats, outdated ties, Bermuda shorts, and T-shirts (in winter). I wondered if Sally’s was the headquarters of a work-release program for the culinarily insane. The customers weren’t impressive, either, especially the lady in the booth across from mine, fast asleep. Out of this agonizing ambience appeared a pie of incredible finesse, a tour de force, a white (no tomato sauce) pizza prepared with thinly sliced potatoes cooked to an artful golden brown, a scattering of equally faultless onions, and a masterful touch of rosemary, all perfectly complemented by Sally’s crust, a bit denser, chewier, and thinner than the one up the block at the equally fabled Pepe’s. By the way, I bet Sinatra got great service when he ate here.
7. Tomato Pie in Los Angeles: The Grandma
The pizza is old New York. The mood is old L.A. Tomato Pie is a minuscule shop, entirely modern, hidden in the rear of an irregularly shaped strip mall not far from Hollywood. On a warm day, you might want to take advantage of Tomato Pie’s unique alfresco dining — orange fiberglass tables, blue fiberglass umbrellas, and an array of classic O’Keefe & Merritt kitchen stoves. Long ago, when Los Angeles was the oddball dining capital of America, casual restaurants specializing in such phantasmagorical settings were everywhere. On this day, a friend and I were seated indoors, in a tiny room entirely devoid of comforts, admiring crusts that I thought were the best in the city. Then I bit into a slice of the Grandma — a traditional and gorgeously assembled pizza with crushed tomatoes, fresh garlic, and a scattering of mozzarella, basil, oregano, and Pecorino Romano — I’m a sucker for Romano cheese. My friend and I simultaneously looked up and said, “This is great.” Indeed it was, the ingredients fresher than most, the crust unusually soft and tender, with a crisp bottom and a fluffy, nutty center. We shared a slice with a young mom named Katie, who insisted the pizza was better a few blocks away. Note to Katie: Your favorite pizza is no good.
8. Co in New York City: Margherita
The Margherita here has buffalo-milk mozzarella, but the cheese is applied so expertly and melts so perfectly that the center of the pie doesn’t become a watery mess. All of us in New York who thought owner Jim Lahey knew only about bread now know otherwise. His Margherita, modest in size at a mere eleven inches in diameter, is so delicate that you will be inclined to finish the whole thing and immediately ask for another. A friend of mine, after eating two, said with awe, “I could do with another.” Lahey, revered owner of the beloved Sullivan Street Bakery, apparently had no difficulty becoming a master of crust — his is supple, thin, chewy, and charred, with very little outer ring. And yet, when I think about it, maybe tomato sauce is his strength. Co.’s seemed summery and fresh (although it turned out to be half fresh, half canned), and my jubilation was so apparent that a guy a few seats down looked at me and said disparagingly, “This sauce is no good. The tomatoes on pizza have to be canned.” He’s wrong, of course. I also had a complaint, but mine was sensible. I asked the waiter why the leafy basil had been blasted into a shriveled green blob, rather than being tossed on fresh immediately before serving, and was told that Lahey preferred cooked basil. In fact, customers can have it either way, so I recommend eating one of each.
9. Tacconelli's in Philadelphia: White pie
Sometimes there is no explanation for great pizza. Sometimes there are no great ingredients in great pizza, no specially sourced mozzarella, no hand-harvested garlic. I come from Philadelphia, and I had never heard of Tacconelli’s until recently, even though it was in business when I was growing up, going to school, and working there. What a wasted life. When I asked my waitress how it could have been that Tacconelli’s was unknown for so long, she said obscurity ended when yuppies discovered it, which was after I’d left town. (Finally, a reason to love yuppies.) Tacconelli’s does have a couple of quirks, the sort that I would have expected to bring early notoriety, but back then there were no bloggers to discover places like this. It has no prices on the menu, and when you call for a table you are asked to “reserve your dough” by letting them know how many pies you want. This insistence that you predict when you are going to be full before you start eating is one of the earliest known pizza affectations — it started in the ’80s. I suggest ordering too much, because every pizza here is wonderful, the crust from the huge, oil-burning oven an example of how tremendously satisfying an amalgam of thin, chewy, and crunchy can be. I loved the white pie, so much better than the sum of its packaged parts: ordinary part-skim mozzarella, granulated garlic, salt and pepper. In essence, it’s the ultimate expression of cheese on bread. A note on decor: The hydrangeas, roses, and African violets in the window are artificial. Of course.
10. Totonno’s in Brooklyn: Margherita with pepperoni
The fire reportedly started from coals that had been removed from the pizza oven and stored overnight in a firebox. Damage was extensive. If this turns out to be an epitaph for the great Totonno’s in Coney Island, in business for eighty-five years until that fire closed it this past March, I hope it’s a worthy one. In my opinion, Totonno’s is — or possibly was — the template for the new style of pizzerias opening around the country, the ones where the owners prepare pies with deliberation, calculation, and stunning pride. The staff is slow-moving. If you are privileged to go there, you’ll almost certainly have to wait in a line. If it stretches out the door, you’ll have an opportunity to look over the neighborhood, mostly car-repair shops that park vehicles awaiting work on the sidewalks. The pies come in gorgeous hues, an artist’s palette of reds, blacks, and golds. The crusts are supple but crunchy. A friend who ate there with me a month before the fire said, “I know very good crust from the sound of it. As the roller cut through it, I heard the crispness.” The pies tend to be mild and understated, so the best option here is pepperoni, which adds heat and spiciness, and a good dose of dried oregano from one of the shakers scattered about the room. If you love old-style pepperoni pizza as much as I do, you’ll be looking forward to the day when Totonno’s returns.
11. Tarry Lodge in Port Chester, New York: Clam pie
The clam pie, legendary in New Haven, is an oddity that seldom succeeds, since clams taken out of their shells and cooked atop a pizza invariably turn into rubbery bits. At Tarry Lodge, an Italian restaurant run by Mario Batali, something profoundly simple and fundamentally correct is done: The clams remain in their shells. On my visit they were Manila clams, delicate and sweet, briny and fresh, tiny beauties accented by the garlic, oregano, red pepper, and Parmigiano-Reggiano atop a thin, nicely charred crust. You have to work to remove the clams from their shells, but compared with everything else required to access great pizza these days, that isn’t much effort.
12. Frank Pepe in New Haven, Conn.: The original tomato pie
I love the crust here — rather thick, quite soft, with nooks, crannies, colors, and char. I felt the same about the tomato sauce, not exactly what you would expect on pizza, a little more like a mild, chunky cooked pasta sauce. As I chewed and ate, ate and chewed, going through seven pies, trying one topping after another, it came to me: Keep it simple. The small, plain tomato pie without mozzarella and stunningly priced at $6.10 is pretty perfect when topped with plenty of silky, salty Pecorino Romano from the shaker on your table. The cheese is freshly grated each day. The single flaw in this pie? After adding so much cheese to so much sauce, you might have to use a knife and fork.
13. Luigi’s “the Original” in Harrison Township, Mich.: Gourmet veggie pizza
My nearly endless and seemingly futile quest to find a wonderful vegetable — not merely vegetarian — pizza somehow led me to Luigi’s, which looks like a roadhouse but is apparently a greenhouse. Topping a pie with broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, squash, mushrooms, and onions, as is done here, seems to promise a chaotic chorus of sad, shriveled, sacrificial plant life, and that isn’t the end of the potential problems. The crust contained sesame seeds, and the grated cheese was Asiago. The combination succeeded magnificently. The seeds contributed nuttiness and the cheese pungency to an array of vegetables that tasted remarkably fresh, to say nothing of cooked to order. The secret, according to the waitress: Toss everything on the pie, cook. That’s it.
14. Gialina in San Francisco: Wild-nettle pie
My friend said the wild nettles reminded her of newly mown artichokes, a lovely if implausible image. I found them a little like broccoli, but fear not: They’re better than that. These were bright forest green as well as earthy, and they came with a spectacular supporting cast of pancetta (unsmoked bacon), sliced portobello mushrooms, and provolone cheese. The pie, prepared without tomatoes or mozzarella in a standard commercial pizza oven, nevertheless lacked for nothing. The crust, cooked longer than most, was bubbly, luscious, and buttery, a little like warm Italian bread. Still, it was the wild nettles that did it, perhaps the best vegetation — okay, second to broccoli rabe — to put on pizza.
15. Buddy’s in Detroit: Cheese pizza
Buddy’s pizza crust is one of the best in America, although it’s unlikely you knew it was in the running for the championship. That’s because Buddy’s, as much a bar and sandwich shop as it is a pizzeria, specializes in Detroit-style square pizza, almost unknown outside the city. The crusts here are a little better than the competition’s, and almost every pizzeria I tried in Detroit did them well. The interior slices on a Buddy’s pizza are light, slightly crunchy, and extremely satisfying, but the goal in any Detroit experience is those slices at the four corners of the pan, where maximum blackening occurs. If you love the burnt ends on pork ribs, Buddy’s isn’t to be missed.
16. Antica Pizzeria in Marina Del Rey, Calif.: Pizza del cafone
Antica is one of those pizzerias that endeavor to create a classic Neapolitan experience, not easy when you’re located on the second floor of a Los Angeles mall. A multitude of Italian products, from cookies to olive oils, augments the set design, but the best touch is a pile of fifty-five-pound sacks of genuine “00” pizza flour from Naples, the secret to supple crusts. The ones here were entirely successful — light, puffy, and charred. Pizza labeled del cafone — fool’s or peasant’s pizza — isn’t uncommon, and it doesn’t always have precisely the same ingredients, but the combination here was brilliant. Uniting crumbled sausage, broccoli rabe, and smoked mozzarella seems mighty sophisticated to me.
17. A16 in San Francisco: Romana pie
The crust is Neapolitan-style, well prepared, which means soft, soothing, and a little spongy, with pleasing burned spots. The sauce contains anchovies, which I absolutely can’t abide whole, although I appreciate them as well as the next open-minded fellow when they’re chopped up as a flavor element. That’s what’s done here, as it is so often in Southern Italy. I had another fright: Plopped on top of the pie were whole olives, but in this case French Niçoise olives, which are not aggressive enough to scare me away. In Naples such a pie is known as pizza romana, whereas in Rome it’s a pizza napoletana. Before I’d tried A16’s spicy, bold, exuberant version, I would have guessed that each city wanted to blame this pie on somebody else.
18. Al Forno in Providence: Grilled pizza with roasted eggplant
Al Forno’s grilled pizzas are more than legends; they’re beauties. Our roasted-eggplant pie consisted of creatively arranged toppings on a flat and irregularly shaped crust, perhaps unintentionally resembling an artist’s palette. The pie was assembled with two cheeses, mild and creamy Bel Paese plus sharp and salty Pecorino Romano; dabs of impossibly delicious tomato sauce intensely flavored with eggplant; flecks of parsley for color; and shreds of mild, bright scallions that added a feathery texture. Al Forno was one of the first no-reservation restaurants in America’s modern era of dining. It set the standard not simply for grilled pizza but also for impossibly long waits.
19. Galleria Umberto in Boston: Square slice
The line fools you. After a half hour, you’re near the counter, a mere five or six customers ahead of you. The next pan, you think. Doesn’t happen, because nobody settles for one slice. Everybody wants six, maybe eight, to go. Galleria Umberto is as big as a cafeteria, rarely crowded but always with a line. The slices are Sicilian, which means squares, thick ones, airier and lighter than most, with a subtle crunch, a splash of tomato sauce, a scattering of cheese. It represents what Boston’s North End once was: bedrock Italian, absolutely old-world. When you get close, you’re sure it’s almost your turn, but an old lady who looks like she’s off the boat from Bari steps in front of you, and you let her, because she was here first and sat down to rest her feet. Strange thoughts come to those in line. Is it possible this place has only one pan?
20. Famous Joe’s in New York City: Slice
Once, this slice defined New York City. That was before pizza slices were supersized, became entire meals laden with wacky toppings and extra cheese. Joe’s crust, thin and flexible but not too soft, is perfect for street pizza. Atop it is not much cheese and not much sauce, merely enough, in ideal symmetry. You can ask for a topping, but then everybody in the tiny, cramped shop will know you’re from out of town. The crust has a few lovely burned spots, but the New York slice isn’t about the search for the perfect crust or the perfect sauce. It’s the perfect New York experience. A friend who came with me said, sadly, “In my youth, stores like this ruled the earth. Now they’re almost extinct.” You do know how to fold a slice like this, don’t you? No? I guess you are from out of town.
21. Tomatoes Apizza in Farmington Hills, Mich.: Pepperoni pie
Here you’ll find a coal-fired oven big enough to barbecue a cow, and here I found the purest expression of pepperoni pizza as I love it. Forgive me if you prefer your pepperoni thick (I don’t) or soft (I don’t) or covered by cheese and sauce — as is traditional in Detroit, but thankfully not at Tomatoes Apizza. The non-Sicilian crust was soft, slightly charred, and entirely appealing, the tomato sauce and cheese more than satisfactory. All was swell, but the precise pepperoni preparation was most appealing. There was lots of it, sliced thin, sprinkled with Parmigiano-Reggiano, and allowed to curl and crisp up in the oven. My compliments to Danielle, our waitress, who took the order, put down her pad, and under an emergency staffing shortage prepared our pepperoni pie exactly right.
22. Osteria in Philadelphia: Zucca pie
Zucca means “squash.” Yes, I know. Nobody sitting around the house suddenly says to the wife and kids, “Hey, let’s go out for a squash pizza.” I’m telling you, it’s terrific. The crust is thin and crispy, not ordinarily my preference, but the sweetness of this pizza is great when matched with crunchiness and char. Oh, I didn’t say it was sweet, did I? Don’t worry. There’s a little sweetness, not too much. It comes from the golden raisins and the toasted pine nuts, not from the puree or cubes of squash. There’s cheese, too, mozzarella. That helps, right? I’m telling you that this is a stylish, intense, dramatic, and absolutely special pizza, and you’ll love it. I didn’t believe I would, but I did.
23. Santarpio’s in Boston: Homemade-sausage pie
Talk about old-world. As we walk in, the guy up front yells, “Tony, table for two.” Cases of beer are stacked in the back, next to the jukebox and a bank of gumball machines. The gas-fired oven operates like no other I’ve seen — it has rotating shelves that look like the ones in diners that display cream pies. The kid busing tables has to be playing hooky, and I expect a truant officer to walk in, blow his whistle, and start chasing him around the room. All the pies are exactly right, but the one with sausage is better than that. Santarpio’s crusts are hearty, a little roughhouse, very much in the baked-bread family, and the homemade sausage comes crumbled, skillfully integrated into the tomato sauce. I know for certain that the owners are proud of that sauce: On the steps outside, where you might find stone lions guarding the entrance to a library, stand two industrial-size Pastene tomato cans.
24. Niki’s in Detroit: Cheese pizza with feta
I searched for the meaning of Greek pizza, a topic often discussed, undoubtedly because so many Greeks own pizzerias. I never found it, but the quest was worthwhile, because at Niki’s I discovered feta cheese as a topping. Niki’s doesn’t have Greek pizza. It has Detroit pizza, and one optional topping is feta cheese, which adds creaminess and tanginess while brightening up (and somewhat dominating) any pie. The feta here is crumbled, tossed atop the pizza, and baked. It becomes toasty and crispy, giving any pizza from plain to pepperoni a singular zip. Now that I’ve made this important discovery, my next goal is searching for the meaning of bouzouki music, finding out whether a man can go mad endlessly listening to it in Greek pizzerias.
25. Una Pizza Napoletana in New York: Margherita
This is the most beautiful pizza in America, the outer ring grand and pillowy, the San Marzano tomatoes bright, the buffalo mozzarella dazzlingly melted. Neapolitan pizzas are undeniably gorgeous, and Una Pizza Napoletana replicates their style and attractiveness better than any other pizzeria in this country. This Margherita, an expression of purity and restraint, could be immortalized in a painting entitled “Still Life in Pizza.” Many admirers consider this the best pizza in America. I don’t go that far, but I believe it’s more enjoyable than almost any pizza in Naples — maybe in all of Italy.