Saturday, December 31, 2016

The 16 Breakout Pizzas of 2016

It is a wonderful dilemma that the ongoing pizza renaissance continues to yield more terrific pies than I have time or capacity to experience. Is certainly is fun trying, and 2016 turned out as yet another banner year in discovering "pizza worth the calories."
Shears for slicing the Neapolitan pie at Ghibellina, Washington DC
We found great pizza in all sorts of styles: Neapolitan (still trending), old-school, Detroit, NY style, New Haven apizza, and even a Chicago deep dish. If there was a theme to the standouts of 2016, it was the emergence of the pan-baked thick crust, be it the traditional Sicilian or the even better Detroit style.
Insanely oversized slices at Lorenzo & Sons, West Chester Pa
This is not a "Best 16 Pizzas in America" list - these are the best ones I discovered in 2016. And some are truly spectacular! Click on any pizzeria for the full review and more pictures. 

Honorable Mentions. These pies didn't quite make the top 16, but were too good to leave out. 

SNAP Custom Pizza, Exton PA. A trend we saw expanding in 2016 was the "build-your-own" Neapolitan pie chains, such as Blaze and MOD. One of the better attempts at this is the West Chester PA based SNAP Custom Pizza, now expanding into Philly. It won't change your life, but you won't get a soggy center the way we did at some more established Neapolitan pie joints.
The "Good Egg" pie at Snap Custom Pizza, Exton PA
Snap Custom Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


Bertucci's. Some will scoff at our inclusion of a chain pie, but it's hard to argue against the authentic old-school pies that come out of the smallish New England based Bertucci's restaurants. With a superb sauce on a classic thin and rigid crust, Bertucci's is better than 95% of the mom and pop shops.
Classic slice at Bertucci's in Concordville, PA
Bertucci's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


16. Milito's, Downingtown PA, is a full service Italian restaurant that offers a bar-style pie based on the owner's favorite pizza from Arnold PA, a small town near Pittsburgh. We found it crisp, simple, and elegant, and it drew comparisons to Rubino's in Columbus OH and Lee's Tavern in Staten Island.  
"Burg's Pie" at Milito's
Milito's Ristorante Bar Pizzeria Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

15. ZAZA, Little Rock AR. This was yet one more "build-your-own" Neapolitan pie chain, but it was a standout for its large yet cozy interior, zesty red sauce, and the thin chewy-yet-crisp crust. ZAZA is yet more evidence that you can find good pizza in almost any city, no matter how removed from New York or New Haven.
Fast-fired pies at ZAZA in Little Rock
Zaza Fine Salad + Wood-Oven Pizza Co. Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

14. Grande Pizza Co., Boca Raton FL. There is some world-class pizza in southern Florida, including our favorite Neapolitan pie at Scuola Vecchia in Delray Beach, and another pie to be found further up on this list. Coming in at number 14 for the year was Grande, a typical mom and pop pizza place offering a not-at-all-typical Detroit style pie. It was decadently piled with cheese and oozing oil, and still maintained a crispy crust with the signature cheesy caramelized crust edges. 
Cherished corner slice of Detroit pie at Grande
Grande Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


13. Bar 35, Honolulu HI. Waikiki is lovely, but I found that the further away I got, the more truly Hawaiian was the experience. It was just a 20 minute Uber ride to Bar 35, situated in Honolulu's Chinatown, which is evolving into a hipster destination. The pies were thin flatbread style, a little bit Roman but more akin to the fine pies at Jules Thin Crust. You don't have to put pineapple on it, either!
Tuscan pie at Bar 35
My mainland colleague learns how to hang loose from our Bar 35 server
Bar 35 Honolulu Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

12. Stella Public House, San Antonio TX.  While Austin remains the Texas pizza king with Via 313, Home Slice, and Pieous, San Antonio is trying to close the gap with Grimaldi's, Dough Pizzeria Napoletana, and Stella Public House. Stella takes the lead in the city of the Alamo with its superb twist on a Neapolitan hybrid that brings plenty of crunch with no soggy centers.
The hybrid Neapolitan at Stella Public House, San Antonio
Stella Public House Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

11. Berkeley Pizza, San Diego CA. It was only last year that we finally agreed on the merits of Chicago deep dish pizza, with the wondrously rich sea of red sauce on the pies at Louisa's in Crestwood IL. Perhaps because San Diego has no traditional pizza of its own, pizzerias are free to model and perfect their pies on styles from other towns. Two such pies made this year's list, and the first is the authentic yet by-the-slice deep dish from Berkeley, which is walking distance from the San Diego Convention Center in the gaslamp district. With its retro-hippie sign and reference to Berkeley California, I anticipated a place for vegan and gluten free pies, or quinoa pizza topped with free-range acai berries and amaranth sprouts. That impression was completely inaccurate. Instead, Berkeley offers Chicago-style deep dish pizza and a nice selection of craft beers. You won't quite think you are in Chicago, but this was a faithful rendition of a Chicago style pie.
Deep-dish slices at Berkeley, in San Diego CA
Berkeley Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


10. Coppa, Boston MA. Boston deserves, but does not always get, full recognition as a great legacy pizza city. Santarpio's, Regina, and some impressive upstarts like the impeccable pies at Picco. Just a few steps away from Picco is Coppa, a wonderfully cozy Italian restaurant on a quiet residential street. In addition to a wonderful salad, this was one of the best Neapolitan hybrids I've found anywhere. Ideal crust, balance, and bursting with complex flavors.
Margherita pizza at Coppa, Boston MA
Coppa Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


9. Collegeville Pizzeria Napoletana, Collegeville PA. In the Philly area, lots of bakeries make a Philly style tomato pie, which is like a rectangular Sicilian pizza without the cheese and served at room temp. Many love it; I like it but think of it as pizza that needs cheese and a reheat. So I approached the Collegeville Bakery with some reservation. However, I found very good conventional round pizza and a wonderfully crunchy and airy thick-crust pan-baked Detroit style pie. This is the kind of place that locals cherish and the world ignores, but if you are within 100 miles, make the trip for this destination pie.
Collegeville's Detroit pizza
Collegeville Italian Bakery Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

8. Conte's Pizza and Bar, Princeton NJ. In fact, I first experienced Conte's around 1980, but this was my first visit since beginning this blog in 2011. To my delight, I found the place unchanged. In the world of old-school pies, "pizza the way it used to be" is the holy grail. A thin and crisp crust hosted a lovely melding of red gravy and cheese into a perfect orange landscape.
Our Chinese visitors toured the University but Conte's was the highlight
Conte's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

7. Patsy's Pizzeria, East Harlem NY. It's always a delight when a legendary pizzeria deserves its reputation, as I found at Lombardi's, Regina, Frank Pepe's, and Totonno's. More than any other pie, Patsy's reminds me of the superb stuff I ate in the 1960s before pizza became a commodity.
A pepperoni pie at Patsy's in East Harlem
Patsy's Pizzeria Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

6. The Copper Oven, Ovid NY. A serendipitous find, we stumbled into this lovely lakeside winery/eatery during a visit to the Finger Lakes region. We were stunned and delighted to find this remarkable pizza named for the oven in which it bakes. For all those places making soggy Neapolitans, take note; this rustic eatery is miles ahead of you. Spectacular amoeba-shaped pies, impeccably balanced and delectable.



The Copper Oven Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato


5. Holy Tomato Pies, Blackwood NJ. Once you say the words "tomato pie," you have my attention. As it turns out, the fabulous thin crust pizzas here are not based on a Trenton tomato pie style, but they are remarkable on their own unique merits. Huge pizzas share characteristics of a Trenton tomato pie (including the Trenton cut) and a crackery bar pie. Funky decor, delectable salads, and small-town friendly service made this one of the best pizza experiences you'll find anywhere. 

First time I ever enjoyed a Buffalo chicken pizza
With my high school classmates at Holy Tomato Pies
Holy Tomato Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

4. Jerk Oceano, Lantana FL. Not far from the upscale towns of Boca Raton and Delray beach, a small restaurant with a limited menu of daily specials is making delicious seafood and - usually - pizza. It's a modern take on a classic thin crust pie, with some inventive toppings. This bar pie/Neapolitan hybrid not only rivals Scuola Vecchia for the best pizza in South Florida, it could contend for the best anywhere.

The "Basic" at Jerk Oceano
Pizzeria Oceano Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

3. Rize, Broomall PA. At the end of a sleepy strip mall in this town in Southeastern PA, Rize is a cozy spot where the husband and wife team of Jim and Julia offer slices of very good conventional pizza and spectacular Roman-style "al taglio" rectangles of thick-crust pan-baked pizza with sesame seeds on the bottom. "Rize" is a reference to how long the dough cures, and the crust here is other-worldly. Mix that in with some creative toppings (for example, fried chicken and maple syrup) and Rize may just be the best pizza you never heard of. Make the trip!
Jim and Julia of Rize Pizza

Sesame under the hood!
Rize Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

2. Al Forno, Providence RI. Another legend lives up to its reputation. Al Forno is credited with inventing the grilled pizza, and I can report that in 2016 they are executing that style at a high level. This pie was ideally balanced in textures and flavors. There was a bigger al dente chew than you'd expect, and it yields a very fulfilling pizza experience. Expensive and worth it.


1. Basic Urban Kitchen, San Diego CA. Who makes the best New Haven apizza? Frank Pepe, Sally's, Modern? Hard to believe, but the best New Haven apizza I've had was at Basic Urban Kitchen in San Diego. That's no knock on the wonderful pies in Connecticut, but the two pies we ate here were magnificent. Oversized ovals as you'd find at Sally's, but firmer and crisper and simply better. As with any pizza, the crust is the key, and this is as good as it gets. I've waited hours to get into places like DiFara and Pepe's and Regina, and it's been worth it. With that as perspective, you can imagine the delight of walking into this large and modern space, sitting down immediately, and begin sipping good beer waiting for this top-rank pizza. If you come to San Diego, this is a must-visit place. It's a contender for best pizza anywhere.
Sausage pizza at Basic
Half of our mashed potato pizza
Underneath that wonderful crust
Basic Urban Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Review: Specially Selected Stone Baked Pizza - Spinach and Goat Cheese (ALDI)

Frozen pizza. It's a go-to fun meal or snack for anyone short on funds or time. Most of us grew up enjoying frozen pies, even with the knowledge that it generally falls well short of the experience at our favorite pizzeria.
Click on any image for full size!
Historically, frozen pizza was pretty bad stuff, no matter how much I loved the rectangular slices of Ellio's in my youth. DiGiorno claims that it was the originator of the rising-crust frozen pie more than twenty years ago, and that was a quantum leap forward for frozen pizza. For this blog, our standard for any pizzeria is when we ask "Is it better than DiGiorno?"  Truthfully, a lot of the mass-sourced floppy pies sold across America are not.


After DiGiorno, the next leap forward (in my experience) took place with the imported Trader Giotto pizza in the freezer section of Trader Joe's stores. Those pies are made in Italy, and the crust has both a flavor and texture that exceeds just about any other frozen pie.
Out of the box, before baking
Almost in the same league are frozen pizzas from the discount grocer ALDI, but only if the pies are imported from ALDI's home base in Germany. Yes, the land of lager and lederhosen makes a better frozen pizza than the typical American version.
Out of the oven
We've reviewed ALDI's frozen Mama Cozzi's Caprese imported-from-Germany pizza before, and it was top-rank for frozen pizza. More recently, we found "Specially Selected" stone-baked pizza in the freezer case. Once I saw that it was made it Germany and on sale for just $2.29, I figured it to be a worthy gamble.

The uncooked pie is 16.5 ounces and has 1,050 calories, which is modest by frozen pie standards. It's big enough for two adults to share as a meal, but a big guy could eat the whole thing pretty easily. Before I baked it, I added some ALDI-sourced pepperoni. In addition to the goat cheese, the pie was made with emmentaler cheese, which did pair nicely with the other toppings.

Package directions called for 12-14 minutes at 400 degrees "until cheese is melted." After 15 minutes, the cheese showed no sign of melting and the cornicione remained pale, so I finished the pie with 3 minutes under the broiler. Looking back, I had done the same thing with the Mama Cozzi's pizza, too.
Golden brown underside, crisp yet chewy
I cut it into six smallish slices. The crust was firm, easily supporting the toppings. Crunchy throughout, it also had an almost-airy chewiness closer to the cornicione. This imported crust is just more like authentic pizza than most other frozen stuff. The mix of tomato sauce and cherry tomatoes was about perfect; on the Mama Cozzi's pie, the same type of cherry tomatoes had put out too much moisture, but not here.
Nice hole structure near the cornicione
While the spinach was more decorative than substantive, the round wheels of goat cheese were surprisingly redolent with umami and a "never-frozen" texture. I love goat cheese, even though I have mixed feelings about it as a pizza topping. Here, it worked perfectly. And of course, the entire pie was enhanced by my addition of the pepperoni, even as it inflated the calorie count.

Bottom line - this pizza won't make you forget any of the great pizzas found in the real world, but it's good flavor and a balanced texture at a modest  price in dollars and calories. Another win for ALDI.