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(All photos by Anthony Sulla-Heffinger.)
Cheese, dough, and sauce. With just three ingredients, you would think pizza is the simplest food of all-time — but it isn’t.
Thin crust, deep dish, Chicago-style, New York-style, Detroit-style, hand-tossed: I fancy myself a pizza connoisseur. I have spent my entire life living in New York City, arguably the pizza capital of the world (it’s the water), and consider pizza to be my favorite food on the planet. From Di Fara in Brooklyn to Frank Pepe in West Hartford, Conn., there isn’t a place that is too far when it comes to grabbing a great slice of pizza. While in 26 years, I’ve easily tried more than 50 places in the New York tri-state area, but my expertise isn’t limited to your local mom and pop parlors. I love the national chains, too.
I can offer you hacks on how to get four toppings for the price of two on your Dominos order and explain to you the difference between Pizza Hut’s breadsticks and Little Caesars’ Crazy Bread. I’ve made friends with delivery drivers — that’s how frequently I dine on pizza.
Recently, in an effort to once and for all determine the best pizza you can get across the United States, I spent an afternoon sampling some of the largest chain pizza shops in America: Dominos, Little Caesars, Papa John’s, Pizza Hut, and Sbarro.
The parameters of the test were simple: Order one large pie with half pepperoni from each store, delivered if available, and taste each one individually in order to determine which reigns supreme in the battle for cheesy, doughy dominance.
Delivery: Yes, delivery took 37 minutes.
Ordering method: Website
Price: $21.15 ($2.64 per slice)
Signature feature: Pepper and garlic dipping sauce comes with every pie
Review: The first thing I noticed about the pie from Papa John’s was that it looked as if it were a bit undercooked compared to the others – with the cheese lacking any color or burn marks and the pepperoni did not have any crisp around the edges. The size of the pie was comparable to Dominos and Little Caesars, but the cut was unbalanced, with some slices being much larger than others and not cut all the way through. The pizza’s texture was rubbery and too chewy and the sauce-to-cheese ratio was a off, with far too much cheese. When I did get a good taste of it, the sauce offered a nice sweet and zesty balance, but the cheese flavor was a tad overwhelming. I also would have liked for the pie to have been cooked a little more to give the cheese some nice burn marks, which may have prevented the chewy texture and provides a more aesthetically pleasing look. I will admit that Papa John’s had the best tasting pepperoni of the group and the topping was sliced thinner than the others, most resembling what you would get from a deli. As far as the crust, there was a nice balance between crunchiness and fluffiness, with the garlic dipping sauce adding a bit of flavor when used. Despite the great topping flavor, Papa John’s didn’t offer enough to make it stand out among its competition.
Delivery: Yes, took 60 minutes (was told 80 minutes).
Warmth: Cold, needed to be heated up
Ordering method: Website
Price: $17.14 ($2.14 per slice)
Signature feature: Garlic buttery spread on crust
Review: Pizza Hut was nearly the most disappointing of the five pizzas I sampled. Between the long delivery wait and underwhelming temperature, it easily could have finished behind Papa John’s, but there were some positives. The size of the pie was slightly larger than Papa John’s, Little Caesars and Dominos. At first glance, the pizza looked like it had been overcooked, with the cheese having burned on the surface. Pizza Hut offered a good ratio of sauce to cheese and was saved by having the best tasting-sauce of the entire group. The crust was a little tough, but the garlic buttery spread was a nice touch of flavor to an otherwise pedestrian offering. The pepperoni was distributed evenly across half of the pie, offering a similar texture and flavor to Dominos. Considering that eating Pizza Hut is one of my personal favorites when dining in, I expected more from its delivery offering. That said, the sauce was what really clinched it for me, as the flavor and amount used gave Pizza Hut a slight advantage over Papa John’s.
Delivery: Not available; order took six minutes to fulfill.
Warmth: Just right
Ordering method: In-store order
Price: $6.52 ($0.82 per slice)
Signature feature: Hot-N-Ready pies
Review: Despite not having delivery, Little Caesars was arguably the most convenient of the group because of its superb speed and price point. Overall, Little Caesars pie was solid: it didn’t offer the best tasting pizza, but there were only a few minor complaints with the offering. And at 82 cents a slice, it’s a great deal. The pie itself was slightly smaller than Dominos, Papa John’s and Pizza Hut, and the crust was a bit undercooked and bland. While Little Caesars sauce was very good, there could have been more of it on the pizza, especially when it came to the plain cheese slices. Even though the topping distribution was somewhat off, the pepperoni slices were far superior to the plain half of the pie. If Little Caesars could up its sauce flavor and pepperoni distribution, it would be right there with the top two chains on this list.
Delivery: No, order took 24 minutes to fill
Ordering method: Mall food court
Price: $13.07 ($2.18 per slice, pie was cut into 6)
Signature feature: Pizza by the slice
Review: Sbarro is the pizza slice king when it comes to food courts and highway rest stops, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that they also offered pizza by the pie. Sbarro was the closest thing to New York pizza that I sampled during this test, with the pie’s size being far larger than any of the others, even allowing for a traditional fold when eating. As I was able to watch as the employee made my pie and put it into the oven, it was easy to see why it was cooked nearly to perfection and provided a great balance between fluffiness and crunchiness. Compared to Little Caesars, Sbarro used an oven that is more likely to be seen in your local pizza shop, whereas Little Caesars used an oven with a conveyor belt. In terms of cheese, in addition to mozzarella, Sbarro used parmesan cheese on its pie, adding even more flavor to what was already a solid offering. While the sauce was the sweetest of the group, it was fairly bland and really the only true negative for Sbarro. The pie could have used a bit more pepperoni but, when compared to everything that Sbarro did right, it’s an easy fix.
Delivery: Yes, took 23 minutes.
Warmth: Just right
Ordering method: Website
Price: $18.55 ($2.32 per slice)
Signature feature: Garlic spread on crust
Review: There wasn’t anything that Dominos did that was far worse than any of the other offerings and, while none of the pizza’s components were overwhelmingly better than the others, it was firing on all cylinders in terms of flavor, texture, and convenience. With regard to the other chains that offered delivery, Dominos was easily the fastest and had the best temperature upon arrival. In addition to the speedy delivery time, the Domino’s pie was cooked to near perfection, as the cheese was not burned yet the edges of the pepperoni were crispy and even a bit well done. On the plain half, it struck a perfect cheese-to-sauce balance. On the pepperoni half, there was not a single bite where I didn’t get a good mix of topping, cheese, and sauce. Where the pizza truly stood out was the crust. Although Papa John’s and Pizza Hut each offered garlic flavor with their crust, Domino’s spread was the best tasting and most visually pleasing while offering a nice texture that fell just short of Sbarro.
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