Friday, January 24, 2014

The State of Pizza in Philadelphia

Think about the great pizza cities in America and in the world. Which ones enjoy the best reputation?

New York, Chicago, Naples. 

Next you might hear about New Haven, San Francisco, Rome, Trenton. 

When the discussion gets to specialty pies, Detroit and St. Louis get some love.  

But Philadelphia, despite being close to the epicenter of the "Pizza Belt" (which I find amusing but not especially accurate as a theory), gets few nods for its pizza. Philly gathers some accolades for its bakery-made square "tomato pies" (not the same as a Trenton tomato pie - HERE is a primer), but the pizza talk in Philly often begins and ends with Tacconelli's.
 
Spatola's pizza, Paoli PA
Having lived most of my life within a short drive of Philly, I know the town and I know its burbs. There is always more research to do, but let's examine the state of Pie-sylvania in Philly and surrounding areas. For the sake of boundaries and brevity, I am drawing a line at the Delaware River, so the many fine pizzas of NJ won't be included in this tally.

What is the state of Philly pie today?  Let's look at the best in the city, and the best in the region.

PHILLY PIZZA COUNTDOWN

10. STELLA.  This Stephen Starr restaurant was an early player in the Neapolitan renaissance. I ate there before I began this blog, hence no detailed review. Starr did his homework to create an authentic Neapolitan pie (with the soft floppy crust) but this one comes in rather down the list because Starr can't be there all the time. We enjoyed our pies there, but I know they would have been better if I had been in the kitchen, so it leaves me thinking how good they might be if Starr was there.

9. BUFAD. This is a tentative rating - on my visit, I tried the wonderful square al taglio slices, but not the Neapolitans. But based on the squares alone (and the superb appetizers), Bufad makes this Best of Philly list. Add in the great ambiance and the relatively easy parking at this Spring Garden location, and Bufad is a great place for destination pie. Full review and pics are HERE.
Beauty and flavor at Bufad

8. ZAVINO. I love this place. A cozy ambiance, and a lot of love goes into every menu item, not just the pie.  Brilliantly executed Neapolitan where they proudly burn the edges. See my full review and pics HERE. I've never lived in Philly - but places like Zavino reward those who do.
 
Well-fired Zavino pie
7. SLiCE. These guys have two locations - center city and south Philly. They modeled their pie - sold whole or by the SLiCE - on DeLorenzo's Tomato Pie (formerly of Trenton, now in Robbinsville NJ). For that reason alone, they have a spot on any list I create. Thin crispy crust, quality cheese and cured meats, it's the best slice place this side of DiFara. And no waiting! HERE is the full review with pics.
 
A slice at SLiCE
6. OSTERIA. Another Neapolitan pioneer, Marc Vetri's Osteria is an epicure's oasis along a desolate stretch of North Broad Street. Like Stella, I went here before this blog was created. We had brilliant salumi apps, great cocktails and wine, and the pies were spot-on, almost above reproach. And we spent $100 for two people to have pizza. If you're going out to be seen, why not be seen having superb pizza?

5. NOMAD. Perhaps the best Neapolitan pie in the region, Nomad has two fixed locations and a roving pizza truck. I had pies right out of the oven from that truck at the South Philly Pizza Olympics - full review HERE.  According to me, Nomad slayed the competition that day. No one else was close. Beyond mastering the crust and the baking, Nomad knows how to be creative without stepping over the line into bizarre.
 
Made in the Nomad truck
4. PIZZERIA VETRI. Another entry from Marc Vetri, this one dedicated to pizza alone. Located on a newly re-developed block of Callowhill Street (just behind the Barnes Museum), this small and cozy spot is the kind of place that rewards city living. The Neapolitans here are top shelf, among the best I've had anywhere. But what really rang my bell was the square al taglio slices. Expensive at $6 each, but other-worldly. See more pics and full review HERE.
Al taglio with soppressata at Vetri
Neapolitan Marinara at Vetri

3. TACCONELLI'S.  It pains me to place Tacconelli's this low - in fact, I consider declaring a tie among the top three in Philly. I over-use the term "old school" but it surely applies here. Eating a Tacconelli's pizza in 2014 has to be very much like eating one 40 years ago. And it's magic. I have no idea how a crust so thin can be so sturdy without being cracker-like. But it's more than a trip back in time - it's the art of pizza, it's the craft and the dedication to take (mostly) ordinary ingredients and ovens and churn out one amazing pizza after another to adoring and loyal crowds. Full review HERE.
 
The margherita at Tacconelli's
2. GENNARO'S TOMATO PIE.  This South Philly pie, like SLiCE, is modeled on a Trenton tomato pie. But because the owner has Lombardi roots (yep, THAT Lombardi), this South Philly tomato pie stands with authentic Trenton versions, and in fact beats them all except DeLorenzo's. Superior ingredients, superior skill, amazing results. It is throwback all the way, and that's a good thing. Full review and pics HERE.
 
Tomato pie with onion and pancetta at Gennaro's
1. PIZZA BRAIN. It was a very tough call to place Pizza Brain above the wonderful Tacconelli's and Gennaro's. And it wins by a razor-thin margin. What makes it so remarkable for me is that Pizza Brain does not attempt to perfect some particular style. It's not Neapolitan, it's not Trenton, it's not apizza.  It's not "New York" style pizza, but it IS perhaps what New York pizza should aspire to become. The crust has some heft, yet it's chewy inside and crispy outside. The toppings are top shelf, and carefully considered and matched. The pizza museum there is a destination all of its own, but the kudos is for Pizza Brain's execution of a simple American Pie. Pizza Brain is our favorite pizza in the city, and it stands up to almost any pie in New York, San Francisco, and (easily) Chicago.  Full review HERE.
 
Pizza Brain = Pizza Magic
THE PHILLY BURBS

Even without the pies nearby in Jersey, the counties around Philly (Bucks, Montgomery, Chester, Delaware) have some legit contenders. Let's look.
 
Ate Corropolese pie so fast, almost forgot to take a pic!
5. (TIE).  CORROPOLESE and TONY RONI'S.  Both of these places offer a Philly-style tomato pie - bakery-style crust and sauce, with a dusting of cheese.  My sampling of Corropolese pie was a small leftover shared by a colleague, but the impression was much like that of Brooklyn's beloved L&B Spumoni Gardens. Read about L&B HERE, and see the full review of Corropolese HERE

Tony Roni's is a small local chain. They specialize in tomato pie, but also make pizza. Their tomato pie is a little thinner and crisper (good things) and the sauce is delectable - the star of the pie. Full review HERE.
 
Tony Roni's also wins the beauty contest
4. FRANZONE'S.  This Norristown pizzeria enjoys a good reputation, and we found out why. The crust is sturdy, crunchy, dark staff-of-life stuff. The sauce is way over the top in its sweetness, but that is an (occasionally) welcome twist. Where it failed was execution. On our visit, the pizzaiolo applied about double the proper amount of sauce and cheese, such that the pie was a soupy and gloppy (albeit tasty) mess. Still, the crust was so good that it makes our list for its potential to be destination pie. Full review HERE.
 
Crust stylin' at Franzone's
3. JULES THIN CRUST. Jules is a small chain that began in Doylestown. I first experienced it in Newtown (Bucks County) and now there is a location in Wayne. I'm still not sure it is pizza - but it is very tasty stuff baked on top of pizza-like but thinner-and-healthier flatbread. However you classify it, it is fresh, intelligently crafted with inventive combos, beautiful to look at, and fun to eat without excessive caloric guilt. This pizza would sell very well in California, which explains why there are now two CA locations in addition to the PA stores. Full review HERE.
 
Another beauty pageant winner at Jules
2. LA VILLA.  This Morrisville tomato pie place occupies a former Pizza Hut location, right across the river from Trenton. They offer a traditional round Trenton tomato pie, and (delight to some, heresy to others), a rectangular version. We tried it and loved it. Thin, crisp, delicious - I could eat the crust unadorned. But the sauce and cheese sing, and the sausage we chose for a topping was genuine chunks of real Italian sweet sausage. Big dining room, modest prices, great service. La Villa may be the best thing to happen to beleaguered Morrisville since the Bulldogs topped Merchantville NJ in the 1955 Little League World Series in Williamsport. Full review HERE.
 
Heretically square tomato pie at La Villa
1. LA PORTA. This bistro occupies the space of a former dive biker bar in Gradyville (Media) PA. We've written a lot about La Porta, because it's making magic look easy. Peter McAndrew, chef of Modo Mio in Philly and the chronically under-appreciated Paesano's in the Italian Market, opened this spuntino bar and it was an immediate and deserved success. Even better, it is only six miles from my office and you can get any two pies for takeout for just $20. And this stuff is top shelf. Imagine the best Neapolitan pie mated to the best Trenton tomato pie. The heady flavors of Naples, the unparalleled texture of Trenton. All in one pie. 

Thank goodness the folks out here are lining up for Olive Garden instead of La Porta, so that I don't have to struggle to get this amazing pie. It's a secret that I share with some reservation! Full review HERE.
 
Salsiccia pie at La Porta
OVERALL REGION.

An easy "Top Six" are Pizzeria Vetri, La Porta, La Villa, Pizza Brain, Tacconelli's, and Gennaro's. These are all so good that you cannot go wrong. No one ever needs to apologize for the underrated pies of Philly. Just ten years ago, Tacconelli's stood alone. But in 2014, Philly is a premiere pizza city. And hey, since you came for the pizza, stay and have a cheesesteak! We have the guide for you HERE.
 
Man does not live by pizza alone
PLACES YET UNTRIED.


Pica's gets a lot of love, but I haven't been there yet. In Riva is making Neapolitan pies of high repute. Also, Marra's in South Philly and Pizzeria Bedia
Perhaps best of all - on my radar is a dive bar in one of Philly's grittiest burbs, reputed to make an outstanding bar pie. As far as I know, the pizza cognoscenti have not discovered it. Shame on me for not getting there yet. It will remain incognito until I find out and then share.

2 comments:

  1. Felicias in Ardmore deserves a try ...the pizza is fabulous

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  2. Thanks for the note! I've been there, and it's very good indeed. Here is my review: http://mainlinepizzaquest.blogspot.com/2013/09/review-felicias-pizza-kitchen-ardmore-pa.html

    ReplyDelete