In a year when I stopped all in-restaurant dining around the end of February, pizza became the go-to food for takeout. You can bring it home, heat it up in the oven, and minimize the risk of covid19 transmission. And I did eat plenty of pizza in 2020, but much of it came from close-to-home favorite pizzerias.
Our annual recap is all about the discovery of new pizzerias, often prompted by travel, so we have a pretty compact list this time (unlike 2017, which featured 21 different pizza places). The quantity is reduced, but not the quality!
Let's begin with a clear understanding of this list: These are not the Top Five Pizzas in America, or my own favorite five, but simply the Five Best Pizzas Newly Discovered By Me in 2020.
5. 'Zza Pizza & Salad - Bee Cave, TX. The year began with this delightful surprise, when a St. Louis-style pizzamaker opened this location only minutes from my home. The long oval flatbreads (some under $10) are offered with a range of inventive toppings, and the salads were terrific too.
We said "It is pizza? It is flatbread? Is it pizza-flavored nachos? Whatever you call it, it is scrumptious, and easily the best 'fast casual' pizza I've had, edging out &Pizza for that distinction."
4. Whole Foods Fresh Pizza. If any national supermarket chain could crack a list of best pizzas, Whole Foods is the best candidate. I may never have tried it in a normal year, but tweaked grocery habits took me to Whole Foods and I was intrigued by the look of the pizza. The Friday special offering a whole large pizza for $6 was all the incentive needed.
I reported that "the crust on this pizza was just stunning" and "it reminded me of the ideal mix of chewy and crunchy that I'd found at some of the best pizza joints on the east coast." With a vibrant red sauce, this pie was wonderful.
3. Tonari Japanese Deep-Dish, Washington DC. My only air travel of 2020 took me to Philly and DC in late February. We visited Tonari, a restaurant offering pasta and pizza "wafu" style, which means "in the Japanese way." Of course, we had to try the deep-dish pizza, and it was like nothing I've had before or since.
It shared much with Detroit-style pizzas, and we noted it had a "formidable crunchy crust" but "the interior of the dough is white, soft, and pillowy." Texturally, while it resembles some of the best thick and airy pizzas like the ones at Rize in West Chester PA and Via 313 in Austin TX, it was distinctly different from any pizza crust I've ever eaten. The dough is fermented for up to three days to develop a structure that is common to Japanese white bread. Beyond its delectable silky interior and crunchy edges, it had a wonderfully complex flavor even without the toppings.We sought out the "most Japanese" pizza, opting for the Mentaiko & Corn pie that included brick cheese, mentaiko (cod roe) cream, Kewpie (Japanese mayonnaise) corn puree, and scallions. The toppings flowed like lava over this pie but the crust did not become soggy. Weird and spectacular stuff!
2. Casa Nostra, Spicewood, TX. Spicewood is home to Willie Nelson's Luck Ranch, and it's just five minutes down the highway from my suburban Austin home. To an east coaster like me, Spicewood is where residential Texas begins to yield to ranch Texas. I expect good BBQ, but not pizza. However, in 2019 I found that Pizzeria Sorrelina in Spicewood was spectacular. On each trip to Sorrelina, I drove past Casa Nostra thinking "that can't be very good."
I'm here to report that I was wrong. Every pizza is perfectly cooked, with no wet centers and a well-considered balance of ingredients. The simple Margherita ($11) rides on a delicate and puffy yet crisp crust with a tangy red sauce married to the mozzarella with basil and extra virgin olive oil. And Casa Nostra offers pizza ala tonno, (a white pie with mozzarella, tuna, carmelized onion, Kalmata olives, and pine nuts), which I had previously seen on on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.
Casa Nostra was a lifeline in 2020. Great pizza, efficient curbside service, and during the terrible spring when grocery stores had shortages, Casa Nostra set up an online system from which we could order staples like red sauce, pizza flour, and beer! In fact, yesterday I made pizza at home with the excellent flour I bought at Casa Nostra.
1. Lake Travis Pizza, Lakeway TX. Given the travel constraints of 2020, it's no wonder that three of the top five are driving distance for Austin suburbanites, but all three of these Texas pizzerias would be on my list in any year. Operating out of a tiny red shack on Route 620 in Lakeway, Lake Travis Pizza was getting a lot of buzz. I avoid 620 when possible, because it's the most congested artery in the region and folks around here don't drive so much as they mosey. But when I knew I'd be passing by on a journey home from Round Rock, I called ahead for a takeout pizza.
On the 15 minute ride home, I noted that the aroma in the car was intoxicating; it's a smell that instantly conveys "great pizza ahead." The taste measured up; the crust was a Neapolitan hybrid with some of the textural elements of a conventional soft and puffy Neapolitan, but also plenty of crispness. It had its own rich flavor and was cooked about perfectly, right down to the leopard spotting underneath.
On our pepperoni pie, the cheese was very well balanced to the rest of the pizza, but it was a role player. The sauce, however, was remarkable; dark, thick, rich, and bursting with flavor. The spicy cup pepperoni was about a perfect accent, adding yet one more layer of umami. Overall, a nearly perfect pizza.
The folks at Lake Travis Pizza know what it takes to make terrific pie. The superb Lake Travis pizza is more proof that "it's the water" is a silly myth about great NYC pizza. Any non-native Texan knows that the water here is lousy. I drank tap water all of my life in NY, NJ, PA - but not here. Water has almost nothing to do with it; it's about quality ingredients and pizzamaking skills. Lake Travis pizza has that in spades.
On a personal note, I love the Texas climate, the Austin vibe, the hill country, and the BBQ. I thought I'd be giving up some things to gain all that Texas offers, like great pizza and watching the Eagles every Sunday in the fall. But the pizza here is better than in my old neighborhood: Sorrelina, Casa Nostra, and 'Zza are all within 10 minutes, the terrific Toss and Lake Travis Pizza are within 15 minutes, and Via 313 is perhaps 25 minutes away. And bonus, because they are in the NFC East with the Cowboys, the Eagles are broadcast right to my home most Sundays.
Let's hope that 2021 gives you and me the chance for more travel, more pizza, and a return to normal. And for the Eagles, a return to the playoffs!