Monday, February 17, 2014

Chain Gang: Pizza for the Masses

The main objective for compiling this blog is to identify "destination" pizza - pie so good that it's worth the trip (and frequently the wait) to get some.

At the same time, we recognize that "la pizza male è meglio che non la pizza" (even bad pizza is better than no pizza).  And occasionally, many serious pizza lovers will indulge a guilty pleasure of devouring some frozen or chain-sourced pizza. So with that perspective in mind, let's evaluate some of the chain pizza joints in America.
A slice of Chicago deep-dish. Not pizza.

A Little History

This is my understanding of the history of pizza in America; please add (or correct) in the comments! Immigrants from southern Italy began crafting pizza here 100 or more years ago. In the (mostly East Coast) cities where the Italians lived, pizza became popular. As recently as the 1960s, it was more often a snack than a meal. My family would get a Saturday night pizza around 9pm, hours after dinner.

Out in the Midwest, some enterprising folks (Italian or not) began opening pizza shops too. Pizza Hut was founded in Kansas in 1958. Because it was crust, sauce, and cheese, most folks enjoyed it. Few had experienced "real" pizza in New York, Trenton tomato pie, or New Haven apizza. 

Pizza Hut spawned a host of imitators, and for a long time those chains sold pies in towns where you could not get an authentic slice. What the chains did - beyond making pizza popular across America - was to drive down the price of pizza by standardization and mass production. Eventually, this allowed the chains to move into the pizza strongholds and compete on price.

In the 1980s, Trenton NJ was in full bloom renaissance and gentrification. The old Italian section (Chambersburg) was still home to a half-dozen legacy tomato pie makers, and the simple Italian restaurants were going upscale and drawing in suburban diners. I remember seeing a Pizza Hut open its doors on the outskirts of Chambersburg, and I laughed. "Why would anyone in this great pizza town go to Pizza Hut?"

Well, the Pizza Hut is still there. All the tomato pie makers have closed or fled to to the suburbs. What? Why?

For many people, pizza is a commodity food, and the first consideration is price. Two big thick cheesy pies for $12.99 or one thin crust tomato pie for $11? That is compelling for those on a budget.

I have long scorned most of the big chains, but they made pizza the popular food it is today, they are ubiquitous, and the pie is not always awful.  Let's take a closer look.

The Uber Chains

The big three (in my mind) are Pizza Hut, Domino's, and Papa John's. Close behind are Little Caesar's, California Pizza Kitchen, Papa Murphy's, Sbarro, and CiCi's. You can find one of these in most states.

I  haven't had a Pizza Hut or Domino's pie since I began this blog in 2011. I do avoid them, I feel they are truly empty calories. I can't say I've never enjoyed a slice - and I have a vaguely fond memory of the "Philly Cheesesteak" pie from Pizza Hut from decades ago.
Conventional crust pie at Papa John's

In 2012 and 2013, Papa John's gave away a lot of free pizzas in a Super Bowl promotion, and I got a freebie pie both years. You can read my reviews of their thin crust pie (awful) from 2012 HERE; and then my 2013 of their conventional pizza (not awful) HERE. Bottom line, it's hard for me to think of a circumstance when Pizza Hut, Domino's, or Papa John's is my best option. Avoid all three.

In my latest list of 100 Pizzas Worth the Calories, I include California Pizza Kitchen at #84. I've taken a lot of heat for that!  "CPK? Invalidates your entire list!"  I've only had CPK once, at a full-service sit down restaurant that offered a lot of other non-pizza items (such as Asian lettuce wrap appetizers). 
Nice underside on CPK crust

You can see my CPK review and pics HERE. It won't make you forget Frank Pepe's, but the crust was sound and it was a very good pie. Perhaps the CPK hate comes from the versions offered at turnpike rest stops?

I've never had Papa Murphy's or CiCi's, so I can't judge. Sbarro, though, may be the worst pizza I've had. It is pizza without a soul.

The Sneaky Big Pizza Chain

Among my guilty pleasures is the obscenely thick and cheesy $1.99 slice at Costco. Costco is not, technically a pizza chain, but Adam Kuban explains where Costco ranks among the big pie joints in this 2011 article on  I confess, Costco pizza is among my guilty indulgences. I should hate it for plenty of reasons, but HERE is my review and pics trying to justify why I enjoy it.

Worthy Regionals

Bertucci's is a Massachusetts-based Italian restaurant chain, with 89 locations from New England to Virginia. The pizza there is excellent - it looks and tastes like it came from an artisan pizzaiolo. The chefs at Bertucci's certainly understand that good dough means good crust which means good pizza. Kudos. 

Even better is Anthony's Coal-Fired Pizza. Founded in Florida (and each location has some Miami Dolphins and Dan Marino memorabilia decor), there are now 44 locations in Florida and several northeast states. I've eaten this remarkable pie in Boca Raton FL, and in two PA locations. Thin and crisp crust (usually) and superb flavors throughout.
Anthony's Coal-Fired Pizza

I have found that the pie loses a little bit with each new location. Anthony's will have to work hard to maintain the quality as it expands. My review of my first two visits, HERE.

Another New England chain is Papa Gino's, which I've encountered at rest stops along the Massachusetts Turnpike. The slices are big, soft, and floppy, like Costco pizza, but with better flavor and prepared with good top heat. Not great, but probably as good as you can get at a turnpike pit stop.

Being Philadelphia-based, I had never heard of Monical's Pizza before a recent visit to Bloomington, IL. There are 64 Monical's restaurants in Central Illinois and Indiana, and one more in Wisconsin.
Top and bottom of some Monical's slices

Monical's has a devoted following. They make several kinds of pizza, but on my visit I chose a thin-crust pie cut in traditional triangle slices. This wafer-thin pie looked at first like a bad frozen pizza, but it was a solid representation of what I call a Midwestern-style. 

It's similar in many ways to a bar pie like the superb version at Lee's Tavern in Staten Island, but it has more in common with other cracker-thin pies of the Midwest such as Vito and Nick's in Chicago and Rubino's in Columbus OH. My full review and pics of Monical's Pizza is HERE.

There are 25 locations for Texas-based Russo's New York Pizzeria (and sister chain Russo's Coal-Fired Pizza). At a Houston location of the Coal-Fired restaurant, we sampled the square "Neapolitan" and the round New York "Margherita." 
Neapolitan at Russo's in Houston
None of it was life-changing, but it was thin, crisp, fresh, flavorful, and the toppings were well-matched. You can read our full review and see pics of Russo's pizza HERE.

The Micro-Chains

I could never hope to get a comprehensive list, but I'll share what I know. Use the comments on this article to help fill the gaps!

Jules Thin Crust was founded in Doylestown PA. This is flatbread style rectangle pie, sold as whole pies or "al taglio" in the Roman fashion. Our full review and pics are HERE.
Al taglio slices at Jules

Jules now has six locations - four in PA, and two in CA. It is very "California" style with its thin and light crust and inventive toppings. It may not be truly authentic "pizza" but it is delicious. Great pie in a place with a great vibe.

Grotto Pizza may be to Delaware what Monical's is to Illinois. There are sixteen locations in DE, PA, and MD. It's not life-changing, but it's pretty good pizza. Read our full review HERE
Grotto pizza
There are ten Arizona locations of Sauce Pizza and Wine. Although airport food is improving rapidly (perhaps in response to the fact that the carriers rarely feed passengers any longer), I surely never expected to find any airport pizza worth eating.  But a colleague stumbled upon a good, fresh, wood-fired oven pie at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, and I was able to verify his research.
Sauce Pizza and Wine

This pie is a credible rendition of a Neapolitan, with a puffy charred crust and artisanal toppings. Truly one of the best airport meals I've ever had. My pics and full review HERE.

Legends That Grew

Sometimes, a legendary pizza decides to expand its footprint, such as Boston's Regina Pizzeria. There are now more than 20 locations in the Massachusetts area. I tried it once at a mall - it was better than ordinary, but ultimately forgettable. The original, however, is fabulous - proof and pics HERE.

In a similar fashion, Brooklyn's famous Grimaldi's is truly exceptional pie - I've been to the home location at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge. There are now Grimaldis' locations all over, with many locations in Florida, Arizona, and Texas. I tried to get into a San Antonio location on a Saturday night, but the wait was over an hour.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has ruled that Chicago deep-dish is not truly pizza. Jon Stewart, in a rare display of bipartisanship, agrees, calling deep dish "tomato soup in a bread bowl."  Who am I to dispute this consensus? Nonetheless, we'll talk briefly about Uno Pizzeria and Grill (formerly Pizzeria Uno). There are over 200 locations. After a bad experience there 10 years ago, I have avoided it, feeling it was the Chuckie Cheese of adult pizza. But, after a recent visit, I was wrong. Uno is crafting damned decent deep-dish and flatbread pizzas - read about it HERE. 

Pocket Guide to Chain Pizza

Anthony's Coal-Fired Pizza - Absolutely
Bertucci's - Absolutely
California Pizza Kitchen - Yes
Costco - Why Not?
Domino's - Nah
Grimaldi's - Probably
Grotto - Yes
Jules Thin Crust - Absolutely
Monical's Pizza - Yes
Papa Gino's - Yes
Papa John's - For emergency use only
Pizza Hut - Just say no
Regina Pizzeria - In a pinch
Russo's Coal-Fired Pizza - Yes
Sauce Pizza and Wine - Absolutely
Sbarro - Leave the slice, take the cannoli
Uno Chicago Grill - Yes

Please let us know about CiCi's, Papa Murphy's, and other significant chains we missed.


  1. I grew up in Cornwells Heights, PA (just outside of Northeast Philly), in the sixties, and I, too, fondly remember eating pizza more often as a snack than as a meal. It sure was a treat to sit down for a night of family TV viewing and have dad say he'll run out for a pizza!

  2. It would be really great to add Grimaldi's to this list as it seems they have several locations now in Las Vegas? I'll voluneer to take a flight and review :-) Seriously, I've been to the original Grimaldi's and it's probably my all time favorite. Best of all the Manhattan, Brooklyn walk in joints IMHO. I know there are a ton. It would really be good to know how the LV Grimaldi's enterprise is going.

  3. rbenash - If you get to a Grimaldi's, take pics and write up your impressions, We're happy to post guest reviews here. It broke my heart when I didn't have time to wait to get into the San Antonio location.