By Jason Diamond
(Photo Courtesy of Via 313)
While it isn’t American by origin, we’ve done everything we can to perfect and retool the classic Italian dish to the point where it is hard to call it anything but one of our nation’s favorite foods. From thin to thick, loads of toppings to basically naked, wood smoked or pan-fried, these twenty places across the country offer pizza lovers the chance to experience everything that is great about the dish now, to respect its past, and to experience the future. We know you know a place right up the street that does it better — and you might be right — but we stuck with a few big dogs and added a couple of upstarts to come up with a list that’s a must for anyone.
Al Forno Pizzeria, Providence, RI.
This Providence, Rhode Island riverfront restaurant makes so many exceptional Italian meals that the pizza might get lost on the menu, since it’s listed as an appetizer, and even more so because it comes to the table looking like a first time chef’s misshapen mistake. It’s all on purpose. As the birthplace of grilled pizza, Al Forno’s take on everything from the margarita and calamari pies to the seasonal pumpkin, with pomodoro and two cheeses, is as unique as it is unmatched.
Buddy’s, Detroit, MI.
People love to talk about Detroit’s comeback, but Buddy's has been serving up the Motor City’s signature square pie since servicemen were coming back from fighting in Europe. An icon like the Ford Mustang, the Bad Boys, and Iggy Pop, make sure to go to the original location on a Saturday morning to get your dose of pepperoni and to play some bocce ball.
Pizzeria Bianco, Phoenix, AZ.
James Beard award–winning chef Chris Bianco is quick to turn down the notion that his or anyone else’s pizzas should be categorized as the best in the country. A taste like that is too subjective. But the native New Yorker, who started working in a slice shop when he was 13 and eventually opened Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix when he ran out of gas on the way to L.A., stands out because of his dedication to the “intention, execution, and repetition” of his craft, and his relationship with local and handmade ingredients. And, yes, they are some of the best in America. We don’t care what he says.
Varasano’s Pizzeria, Atlanta, GA.
New York and Chicago might have their own pizza styles, but you can’t really miss out on what the south has to offer. Atlanta's Varasano’s, from its specialties like the Chic Bella (ricotta and mozzarella topped off with arugula and some lemon squeezed on) to its classics like the Margherita, pretty much makes a trip below the Mason-Dixon Line a must.
Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria, Chicago, IL.
A typical visit to the Windy City includes the big buildings, the museums, and maybe a boat ride around Lake Michigan. Oh yeah, and you have to try the city’s famous deep dish pizza, that’s sort of a must. Since 1971, nobody has made a better Chicago-style pie (literally, it’s a pie) than Lou Malnati’s.
The thing that sets Malnati’s above all the other spots that claim to make the city’s best deep dish is the crust. You get that buttery flavor in every bite no matter which pie you get, and combined with the lean sausage and vine-ripened tomato sauce, you’ll instantly understand why Chicago earned its own pizza style.
It might put you out after once slice, but there are very few pizza experiences like it anywhere in America.
East Side Pies, Austin, TX.
We know you go to Hill Country for the brisket, but when you need a break from all that meat, East Side Pies will be there for you.
True pizza artists, the three locations serve up a number of pies from the Buscemi with Italian sausage, jalapenos, onions, and peppers, to the Damon’s Cotto with salami, chillies, red peppers, garlic, and optional sauerkraut, and a Jamaican-style with jerk chicken, jalapenos, habaneros, red onions, and some pineapple to mix in some sweet with the spicy. The scary thing is that those are just three of well over a dozen red sauce options. Once you make it through those, they also have two spinach curry sauce pizzas, three with black bean sauce, and as a tribute to the the city landmarks made world famous in Dazed and Confused, a Moon Tower pie made with ricotta sauce.
Pizzicletta, Flagstaff, AZ.
Flagstaff, Arizona is pretty far off the beaten path of any road trip, but this small, rustic pizza shop three hours north of Phoenix is well worth the travel time. Chef/owner Caleb Schiff daringly opened his wood-fired Neapolitan pizzeria in 2011 just down the street from the best pizza spot in town. He was soon named one of the best eateries in Arizona and is now making his name nationally by focusing on made-in-house ingredients, including mozzarella, burrata, cured meats, and gelato, all of which can be paired with craft beers and “food-friendly” wines for the perfect meal.
Piece Brewery & Pizzeria, Chicago, IL.
Most Chicagoans might not tell you that the city’s famous deep dish pizza is the type of thing you eat once every year or so, they have too much pride to admit that. Yet those monster pies are basically like Thanksgiving turkey or candy corns around Halloween, they’re things you save for special occasions.
Under normal circumstances, putting a place like Piece on a list like this, with its New Haven-style pizzas, might be tantamount to sacrilege. You normally wouldn’t go into a major city like Chicago and say anything from anywhere, especially pizza, is better. But since 2001, this pizzeria and brewery has been busy making locals realize that it is perfectly fine if they stray from the deep dish from time to time. Serving up red, white, and plain pizzas with a catalog of fresh toppings, you’re going to feel quite nice wobbling out of this place that specializes in two of the best things on the planet: pizza and beer.
Joe’s Pizza, NY.
New York City’s Greenwich Village might be less bohemian and more expensive apartments and college students trying to get into bars with fake IDs, but one institution remains strong. Joe’s on Carmine, around since 1975, doesn’t have the fancy-looking brick oven, the list of organic and locally sourced ingredients on the wall, or tables made from reclaimed wood. What it does have, according to locals, is one of the best damn slices of no frills pizza you’re going to find in the five boroughs. It’s just perfectly melted cheese and zesty tomato sauce that you might flavor a little with garlic powder or a few shakes of the hot pepper bottle, but is also just fine the way it is in all its roof of your mouth burning–glory.
Franny’s, Brooklyn, NY.
Is it any surprise that the 21st century pizza experience would be in Brooklyn? Franny’s, located in the Prospect Heights neighborhood, a place that is just as serious about sourcing the best sustainable and local ingredients as they are about serving great cocktails and food, is getting even the most hardcore Manhattanites to cross the water for the wood-oven pizza. The kind of place where you can’t go wrong no matter what you get (we suggest the ricotta, buffalo mozzarella, basil, garlic, and hot peppers pie and also the tomato, sausage, and buffalo mozzarella), Franny’s commitment to making sure they’re part of the solution and not the problem makes you feel good even after you’re ready for a post-meal nap. From the renewable energy the restaurant uses to convert kitchen grease to biodiesel fuel, Franny’s is one of America’s new pizza institutions. (Photo Courtesy of John Von Palmer)
Punch Neapolitan Pizza, Minneapolis, MN.
They’ve been making pizza in Naples for hundreds of years, so if you’re going to go into the Neapolitan pie business, you’d better get it right.
Growing up in Italy, founder John Soranno developed his love of pizza on its native soil. Living in the States again in the 1990s, he just couldn’t find a place that compared to the authentic Italian version that he ate as a child, so he did what so many of us dream of doing by opening up Punch in 1996. Nearly 20 years later, it’s a Minnesota landmark.
You can’t go wrong with the story, but the pizza is another level. The Margherita D.O.C., made with basil, mozzarella di bufala, crushed tomatoes from Campagna, and that perfect little bit of black on the crust from the wood-burning oven, will warm you up on even the coldest day in the Twin Cities. It would make any Naples native proud.
Modern Apizza, New Haven, CT.
Though it’s just now finally spreading west, few outside of New Haven, Connecticut know about the small town’s unique Apizza style, which was invented by Frank Pepe in 1925 and (according to some locals) perfected by Modern in 1934. The “plain” thin crust brick oven pies, topped with oregano, tomato sauce, and pecorino cheese, might seem simple compared to the latest trend of artisanal style pizzas, but there’s a reason that the New Haven Pizza Rivalry has now lasted more than eight decades. (Photo Courtesy of Jonathan Wiggs / The Boston Globe / Getty Images)
Osteria, Philadelphia, PA.
Osteria, this Vetri Family–owned restaurant named for traditional Italian eateries that feature small, simple menus and great wine, where you’d be happy ordering just about anything they’re offering. But James Beard award–winning chef Jeff Michaud’s classic thin crust Roman style pizzas (specifically the lombarda, topped with baked egg, cotechino sausage, bitto cheese, and mozzarella) are still a stunning highlight at one of Philadelphia’s best restaurants.
(Photo Courtesy of Francesco Rizzato / Getty Images)
Serious Pie, Seattle, WA.
Tom Douglas brings his outside-the-box take on food to Seattle with Serious Pie, where the smell of wood-fired artisanal pizza, fresh made buttermilk biscuits, and delicious fried chicken combine for an overwhelming sensory experience. It doesn’t get better than the roasted seasonal mushroom pizza with truffle cheese, which you can savor while looking down into the massive production kitchen. Wash it all down with one of Serious Bar’s 22 rotating draft beers on tap (or the other 60 bottles and cans available). (Photo Courtesy of Getty Images)
Pizzeria Mozza, Los Angeles, CA.
Mario Batalia and company combine fresh farm to table ingredients with a classic wood burning stove taste for some of the best pies the West Coast has to offer. We prefer the classic margherita or the breakfast-for-dinner option topped with eggs, bacon, Yukon potatoes, and Bermuda onions, but while any of the pizzas (or pastas, salads, and crispy duck legs) are a great, affordable treat, it’s the option of pairing each piece with one of more than 100 wines that makes Mozza stand out among a crowded L.A. pizza scene.
Del Popolo, San Francisco, CA.
There are food trucks, and then there’s Del Popolo, a twenty-foot transatlantic shipping container that’s been repurposed into a mobile wood-fired pizza shop and serves any place in San Francisco that it damn well pleases. It’s easy to chalk up Del Popolo’s popularity to a bit of novelty, but chef Jonathan Darsky, formerly of Flour + Water, makes Neapolitan style pizzas with sourced ingredients that can stand on their own as some of the best (and fastest) in the country.
Pepe’s, New Haven, CT.
When you talk about American pizza, you quickly learn there are two types of people: those that don’t know that there’s a pie mecca less than two hours from Manhattan on I-95, and people that swear New Haven’s product trumps all others. Around since 1925, Pepe’s, with two locations down the street from Yale and a few more scattered throughout the state, is known for its white clam pizza. While New Yorkers might debate which corner place serves the best slice, fans of Pepe’s will tell you this institution’s signature pie is the best you’ll have anywhere in America. (Photo Courtesy of Deb Lindsey / Getty Images)
Roberta’s, Brooklyn, NY.
Sure, Bushwick is luring plenty of 20-somethings in, but it’s a rare thing to see a former president and past (and possibly future) presidential candidate and secretary of state make the trip deep into Brooklyn for anything. But leave it to the power of Roberta’s to do the trick. The pizza is so good that Bill and Hillary had to stop by the place the New York Times described as looking like a “cinder-block garage space,” but also “one of the more extraordinary restaurants in the United States.”
If you haven’t experienced the place before, it is indeed worth the hype. Ingredients grown on site, if they aren’t lovingly sourced by the chefs who might not look like they take anything seriously, let alone making you something like a pizza, help make basically any pizza on the menu one of the best you can find in America. From the “Famous Original” to “The Speckenwolf” which, yes, has speck and mozzarella on top, the Clintons had the right idea making the trip.
Via 313, Austin, TX.
It almost doesn’t seem right that the best Detroit-style pizza in America would come from anywhere other than the Motor City, but Via 313 makes a hard case. Thankfully, this Austin staple is owned by a pair of Michigan native brothers who just wanted to share their hometown’s semi-thick Sicilian-style with the good people of the Lone Star State. Obviously we’re going to tell you to go with The Detroiter, which is four slices of cheese and double pepperoni in its original casing, but you can’t go wrong with really anything on the menu. If you’re feeling crazy, they might serve up the best Hawaiian pizza in all of America too. How’s that for smashing up regional boundaries?
Nostrana, Portland, OR.
For a city known (and often made fun of) for its farm to table food culture, no chef could hope to survive without a dedication to fresh, locally grown ingredients. That kind of pressure is nothing for Nostrana chef and six-time James Beard finalist Cathy Whim, who makes wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas that you can enjoy no matter what mode of transportation brought you to the restaurant. Save room for an extensive dessert list that includes tiramisu, chocolate budino, and a flowerless hazelnut torta.
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