Pizza may seem simple on the surface. It’s basically some bread, some sauce, some cheese, and some toppings. But reducing it to those base elements is akin to calling barbeque just “slightly burned meat.” Ultimately, the assumption of simplicity is an uninformed one. There’s a lot of nuance to these pies, and while a bad pizza is still pretty good, a good one is literally worth crossing the country for.
We picked the absolute best pizza in every state last summer, but this year we wanted to drill down a little further. What are the “essential” pies? The ones you really must try in order to brag, “Yeah, I’ve tasted the best pizza in the country,” only to have your ranking (and ours) get upended by some hole-in-the-wall in Miami or Omaha, because pizza — like food, like everything — is always changing, evolving, and growing. That’s the fun of it, it’s a constantly shifting conversation. What’s essential right now might not be essential tomorrow.
To reflect pizza’s endless variety, we addressed by-the-slice, casual, and upscale experiences, as well as regional twists on the artform. Every one of these picks has been lauded by numerous culinary stars, and many of them are historically significant. Consider this a bit of a masterclass in the past, present, and future of pizza.
Forcella — New York City, New York
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Forcella does some completely legit traditional Neapolitan pizzas, and that’s worth acknowledging. But the reason we consider this spot essential is that it’s owned by Giulio Adriani — the Italian pizzaiolo who introduced New Yorkers to fried pizza in 2011.
Adriani has a remarkable four pizza world championships under his belt, and he knows authentic Naples-style pizza from the inside out, so it’s no surprise that he would bring pizza fritte stateside. The delicacy comes in a few iterations, but the classic is the Montanara — which takes a thin, hand-shaped crust and flash fries it before topping it with tomato, basil, and fresh mozzarella. After, it’s finished in the wood-burning oven.
The fried and fired combo makes for a completely unique dining experience. When the dough is fried, it gets a little crispy and a little airy. Plus, it coats the crust in a fine layer of grease that feels rich and decadent. Firing in the oven adds smokiness and those dark leopard spots that everyone craves so much. There’s a depth of flavor here and a level of nuance that should quickly move this relatively new style to the top of your “must taste” list.
Pizzeria Bianco — Phoenix, Arizona
On a list of essential pizza places, it might seem like a shock to see an entry from Phoenix. But when you consider the number of accolades Pizzeria Bianco has received from luminaries in the food world, it makes a lot more sense.
When Jenn Harris, a senior food writer for the Los Angeles Times, was asked by The Today Show to name her fave pizza place, she went with this beloved spot, which put her in good company. Jeffrey Steingarten of Vogue called Pizzeria Bianco the best in the world. Ed Levine called the pies the best in the nation in his book Pizza: A Slice of Heaven. Food & Wine picked it as one of the best places to grab a pie in America. And, owner and chef Chris Bianco was recognized with a regional James Beard award for best chef in 2003. The accolades are totally deserved, as the pizza is sublime and the pizzeria literally changed the local food scene.
There are only six pizzas on the menu of the downtown location, but each one is a treat. We really like the Rosa with red onion, Parmigiano Reggiano, rosemary, and Arizona pistachios. The crust has a yeasty tang, a good chew, and manages to be both pillowy and charred. Plus, the nuts add a needed textural element. It’s good stuff.
Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana — New Haven, Connecticut
There has to be a New Haven entry in any list of essential pizza experiences, but it is a struggle to pick between Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana and Sally’s Apizza. And though both are incredibly good with long, long histories in the game, we went with Pepe’s because it’s one of the oldest pizzerias in the country and home of the white clam pie. Plus, Sal Consiglio, who opened Sally’s, was Pepe’s nephew, so Sally’s wouldn’t be what it is today without Pepe’s.
When Frank Pepe’s opened, it served two pies: the tomato pie made from tomatoes, pecorino romano cheese, oregano, garlic, and olive oil and that pie plus anchovy. But in the 1950s, this restaurant invented the white clam pie made with olive oil, oregano, grated cheese, chopped garlic, and littleneck clams. They only use fresh clams, and 700 pounds of cherrystone clams get shucked every day for the pies. Customers can order the white clam pizza with or without mozzarella, but Frank Pepe’s suggests people forgo the cheese, as it makes the dish too rich and heavy. Now, the white clam pie is a mainstay on New Haven menus. Sally’s, for example, makes one that captivated Frank Sinatra, while Ronald Reagan preferred the one at Pepe’s.
All the pies served use specially milled flour and cook in a coal-fired brick oven that goes up to 650 degrees, cooking the pies in eight to 10 minutes. All the restaurant’s locations have ovens that share the same build and dimensions as the New Haven one. We will say (speaking of the other locations) that the expansion has made quality vary a little, so be sure to go to the OG spot.
Totonno’s Pizzeria Napolitana — New York City, New York
Totonno’s opened in Coney Island in 1924. Owner Anthony (Totonno) Pero immigrated from Naples and started working at Lombardi’s in 1903; twenty years later, he was ready to branch out and make some of the best pizza in the country. And 95 years later, his joint is still family-run.
Considered one of NYC’s most iconic dishes, Totonno’s pizza has impressed many of the most respected people in the food world. The New York Times’ Pete Wells is a fan who said this is “unmistakably the finest sit-down pizza in the five boroughs.” Other fans include Ed Levine, the creator of Serious Eats; Daniel Young, food critic and author of Where to Eat Pizza; and Luigi Veronelli, the Italian gastronome. In 2009, the restaurant received a James Beard Award in the America’s Classics category. Mayor Dinkins even dubbed it a restaurant of distinction. Totonno’s certainly has a history that makes it relevant in a discussion of must-try pies, but over the years it’s continued to consistently produce quality eats and that’s the real reason we love it.
The original pizza dough recipe has been kept secret. They legit will not even let you check out the dough being made. And when you have a slice you will wonder, because the thin, coal-oven charred crust is absolute heaven. Top it with a tangy tomato sauce and some melted fresh mozzarella and you just might be talking about the perfect New York slice.
Buddy’s — Detroit, Michigan
We couldn’t put together a list like this without including Detroit-style pizza, which is getting a lot of recognition across the country these days. Fans of the porous crusts and the crispy, caramelized cheese that builds up around the edges (particularly in the corners) know that these square pizzas were born at Buddy’s, where they’ve been baked in blue steel pans since 1946.
Food & Wine declared “Detroit’s pizza scene is one of the most exciting in the country,” in 2018, and most of the scene dates back to the day Gus Guerra and Concietta “Connie” Piccinato borrowed some square pans from local automotive plants and made pizza with them. Now, the restaurant uses a Sicilian-style, double-proofed dough prepared using a process that sees the dough rise and get stretched twice. The classic pizza style is the Detroiter, so definitely order that. Pepperoni goes directly on the dough causing the flavors in the meat’s oil to be absorbed into the crust. Next comes crumbled Wisconsin brick cheese, which is literally a proprietary blend created for Buddy’s pies. Three stripes of the tangy tomato-basil sauce come next, followed by shaved parmesan, and an original spice blend sprinkled on the top before baking. USA Today lauded it for being “Pilgrimage-worthy pizza.”
Both the maker of first Detroit-style pizza and the first known square pizza, Buddy’s is a pretty large luminary in the history of pizza, so “essential” is certainly the right word here. Naturally, it spawned a lot of imitators — many of whom are making really good pies — but there still aren’t any that match the original at Buddy’s.
Pizzeria Mozza — Los Angeles, California
Nancy Silverton, the culinary mind behind Pizzeria Mozza, is a culinary force recognized for popularizing artisan breads in the United States. Yes, there was a time when you couldn’t expect to find a piccolo or a ciabatta in your local grocer. Thanks, Nancy. Given this background, it’s no surprise that Silverton crafts pizza crusts with a very particular charisma all their own. They are generally softly chewy with charred spots from the wood-burning ovens they are cooked in. They are also a bit sweet and sour thanks to the inclusion of rye flour and malt.
Most lists of the best pizza places in America are going to include Pizzeria Mozza with good reason. The crust obviously is a treat, but the toppings don’t hurt. Think simple arrangements of the best possible ingredients. For instance, the squash blossom, tomato, and buratta topped pizza is a revelation of rich mozzarella with a soft creamy center, acidic certified organic tomatoes grown in Los Gatos by Robert DiNapoli and Chris Bianco, and mild squash flavors from the blossoms. It’s well balanced and delicious. We also urge you to try the pie topped with Meyer lemon, tomato, fried capers, Fresno chilis, and fried parsley.
Every pizza has a sense of sensuality that is Silverton’s signature. It isn’t fussy or even strictly tied to Naples. It’s beautifully alive, and its freshness dramatically underscores the forward trajectory of pizza.
Di Fara — New York City, New York
Di Fara is another pizza place that ends up on every slice bucket list. What makes that interesting is that unlike somewhere like Pizzeria Mozza that requires a reservation or Pizzeria Bianco that has the shiny patina of a joint making artisanal pies, Di Fara is kind of a dive. New York Magazine called it “a dump” and it got shut down by health inspectors this year. Yet, it is still freaking iconic. Food & Wine named it one of the best in the U.S. and Anthony Bourdain said it was “The best of the best.” Looks like there’s no reason a dump can’t make the tastiest pizza in the nation.
Di Fara was opened in 1964 by Domenico DeMarco after he emigrated from the Province of Caserta, Italy in 1959. To this day, De Marco makes all the pies, which can be between 100 and 150 a day. When he isn’t available, the shop is closed. Because of this limiting factor, the wait can be up to two hours. What are people waiting for? Part of the appeal comes from the toppings, which are generally imported to make sure they are the best. Basil and oregano are ordered from Israel. And Italy supplies extra virgin olive oil, flour, San Marzano tomatoes, freshly grated grana Padano, buffalo mozzarella, hand-grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, and three types of mozzarella. DeMarco also grows herbs in a windowsill flower box and uses them on pizzas. The crust is thin and crispy, and cooked within seconds of burning, while the sauce, which is made daily, is a really traditional low profile treat with perfect acidity and a pleasant helping of spices that includes a fair amount of black pepper.
When a pizza is distinguished by its octogenarian maker, it’s worth getting in on it before the pizzaiolo isn’t around anymore. Dom’s relatives work alongside him, so one of them will probably take over his duties, but we know deep down that it won’t be the same experience.
Giordano’s — Chicago, Illinois
You can’t have a list like this without repping some Chicago-style deep dish pizza. Is it all that people in Chicago eat? Nope. But it is an interesting regional take on a classic dish, and that’s important when you’re covering the essentials (Jon Stewart be damned). It can’t all be Naples style pies.
Among the best of Chicago-style pies, we think that Pequod’s, Burt’s, Nancy’s, and Lou Malnati’s all bring something to the table. But Giordano’s is the best. Founded in 1974 by brothers Efren and Joseph Boglio from Turin, Italy, Giordano’s has become a favorite among Chicago diners. Though there is some controversy, many credit them with creating the iconic deep-dish delight, as the brothers began serving stuffed pizza based on a family recipe for scarciedda before most other restaurants (although Nancy’s released their version of scarciedda that same year). In the intervening years, the Giordano’s pie has been named the best in the city by NBC, CBS Chicago, New York Times, Chicago Magazine, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Eater, Home & Garden Magazine, Concierge Preferred and more.
A Giordano’s pie needs to be eaten with a knife and fork because it is a sizable undertaking. It starts with a thick crust that has the heft needed to hold all the toppings. What we like is that the crust is lighter and butterier than you would expect, thus helping eaters avoid falling to sleep after carbing it up. Then toppings are added. High-quality cheese follows and another delicate, thin crust. The whole thing is finished with a sauce that uses fresh tomatoes, peppers, herbs, onions, and other veggies. Some of the veggies are cooked down in butter, so the sauce has a richness that many other pizza sauces don’t. The classic Chicago pie uses pepperoni, mushrooms, green peppers, and onions as toppings, but we really like the fresh spinach and cheese option.
Apizza Scholls — Portland, Oregon
The Pacific Northwest has a lot of exceptional pizza, which people don’t always expect. However, despite the lack of a native pizza tradition, bigger cities in this region have watched sophisticated pizzerias pop up in every neighborhood. Among the many amazing shops serving locally sourced toppings and using new approaches, Apizza Scholls stands apart as the best.
Any person looking to try the quintessential pies being made in America needs to come to this hip, friendly restaurant. But show up early in the night because once they’re out of dough, you are out of luck. Ed Levine named this one of the top five pizzerias in the country and felt owner and pizzaiolo Brian Spangler deserved to be named in the Pizzaiolo Hall of Fame. Anthony Bourdain enjoyed the hell out of it on No Reservations, too. It has legit cred among foodies as well as diehard customers who always show up expecting a line because there is no calling ahead. There is also a limit on the ingredients you can choose for a custom pie, and you can’t substitute or omit items on house pies.
Cooked in an electric oven, these pizzas have a golden crust that yields to the bite but also has a light crunch. When topped with tomato sauce, whole milk and fresh mozzarella, Grana Padano, and extra virgin olive oil, even a plain pie is a freaking masterpiece of creamy richness cut by a bit of acidity and accented with spice. If you have a chance to go, try the diablo blanco, which foregoes sauce in favor of ricotta, roasted tomato pesto, herbs, black pepper, and fresh jalapeno. It’s a little bit sinful.
Zero Zero — San Francisco, California
Included in the 2019 Michelin guide to Bib Gourmands (“restaurants that serve high-quality meals which include two courses and a glass of wine or dessert for $40 or less.”), Zero Zero has a menu that offers more than just a superlative slice, but we’re only concerned with the pizza portion of their menu today.
Much like its west coast brethren Apizza Scholls and Pizzeria Mozza, Zero Zero approaches making pies in an upscale, craft-obsessed way. Chef and owner Bruce Hill made a name for himself in fine dining having worked at Oritalia, Waterfront, and Bix. He took that mindset into this endeavor, crafting wood-fired pizzas with a chewy crust marked by the occasional blackened blister and served in gorgeous surroundings. It has exactly the crunch that a good pizza should. There are only nine house pies, and the simplest is one of the best. Topped with tomato sauce, garlic, and De Padova Extra Virgin Olive Oil, the marinara pizza is savory and fresh, and you don’t really miss the cheese. Also worth trying is the Filmore, which is topped with hen of the woods mushrooms, leeks, mozzarella, Grana Padano, pecorino, fontina, garlic, and thyme.
And yes, we know that this is a list about pizza, but if you do get a chance to visit Zero Zero, save room for some Straus organic soft serve at the close of the meal. Get it with Bruce’s Calabrian chile caramel or regret not doing it for the rest of your pizza devouring days.