There are regional debates over many food favorites. Who’s got the best bagels, burgers or hot dogs always seems to elicit an emotional response. But nothing like the discussions and arguments that seem to occur over pizza! And you know why? It’s because in many people’s eyes (and my own) it’s one of the perfect foods, a veritable food group in itself. Whether you are eating an artisan pie baked in a coal-fired oven, a mass-made pie delivered by a grungy guy from Papa Domino Hut or even a toasted english muffin slathered with marinara sauce, oregano and American cheese, it’s always good! So for a food item that came to the USA at the beginning of the 20th century from Italian immigrants, it’s become as ubiquitous and loved by nearly all.
So the question remains, is there really a “best” pizza? With so many regional types of pizza, everyone has their favorite and will defend their choice passionately. Thin-crust vs. deep-dish, sicilian vs. greek, tomato and mozzarella vs. white pies. The argument could go on forever but you know what? We’re all winners because they are all delicious! But in the end, there’s got to be a best, right? Let’s take a trip back to the old country, where pizza was born and we’re talking a Neapolitan pie in Italy. They take their pizza seriously here: San Marzano tomatoes, fresh herbs and mozzarella di buffala on a thin-crust. A very basic pizza with maybe garlic, oregano, basil and of course, olive oil. Just a simple pie with the perfect balance of crust, sauce and cheese to let the great ingredients shine through.
Now airfares are awful expensive nowadays so where to go for us poor pizza schleps in the US? While there are fantastic, one-off pizza places all over the country, in my estimation you ought to be focusing on two areas. New York City is the easy answer, given the density of Italian immigrants in the area. Having eaten at John’s, Motorino, Lombardi’s, Totonno’s and Di Fara’s, I’ve done some of the best in the Big Apple. And it’s always good, no matter where you go but the pizza at Di Fara was near transcendent. The tomatoes and cheese are from Italy, while the basil gets imported from Israel. The pizzaiolo, Dominic has been making pizza for 30-plus years and when he’s sick, the place closes down. His many years of pizza-making allows him to handle the scorching hot pizzas bare-handed, no gloves necessary! Only the best ingredients with maximum flavor and a dose of love, you can’t go wrong here. The only downside is the potential hour plus wait and $28 you’ll need for a large pie.
My other top choice is much lesser known, New Haven, CT. Having lived in the area for 6 years as an adult, I never realized how great the pies were here. Again, an abundance of Italian immigrants makes the pizza authentico. Between Sally’s, Pepe’s, Harry’s (W. Hartford) and Grand Apizza (my standby in North Haven), you’ll get a sublime pie at a decent price. So what makes New Haven pizza different from NYC? In my experience, they differ by using a slightly different mozzarella, lighter sauce and they char the crust a bit, purposely. There’s nothing like a delicious, baked cheese bubble on your pie! And if you’re in the area, make sure you try one of their white pies with clams, a bit unusual but amazingly delicious. Due to my years in Connecticut, I actually prefer New Haven style to NYC pizza but it’s a tough call!
So what about other areas of the country? Certainly Chicago is known for it’s deep-dish and it is delicious if you can afford 1,200 calories in your next meal. But let’s face it, Chicago-style is more of a casserole and non-traditional. Out in San Francisco where most of the food is amazing, it’s difficult to find a decent thin crust neapolitan pie. Their strategy of dumping loads of cheese and non-traditional (pineapple? c’mon now!), toppings just doesn’t do it for me. And out here in NC where I’m currently living, there are a handful of decent pizzeria’s but the South is not a bastion for Italian folks, yet.
When everything’s said and done, for those of you looking for pizza perfection, you’ll need a trip to the Northeast. From NYC you can easily hoof it out to New Haven, about a two hour’s drive from the city. With a rental car, some cash and time you could put yourself in pizza nirvana over the course of two or three days eating your way up the coast. And for those of you unable to make that trip, you’ll just have to make do with whatever you got in town, locally. And you know what? No matter where you are it’s not going to be half-bad because you really can’t make a mistake with the perfect food, bon appetit!
My Pizza Favorites of all time
- Ellio’s Pizza– School cafeteria, MA during my childhood!
- Totino’s and Trader Joe’s Pizza- My refrigerator
- Arinell’s– San Francisco
- Pizzeria Uno– Various locations
- Di Fara Pizza Tavern, Pizzeria Faulisi– Cary, NC
- Oakwood Pizza Box- Raleigh NC
- Pizzeria Regina, Galleria Umberto, Papa Ginos– Boston, MA
- Pepe’s Pizzeria, Grand Apizza- New Haven and North Haven, CT
- Sac’s, Lombardi’s, Totonno’s, Di Fara’s– NYC, NY