Until recently, I’d totally forgotten about Sbarro, the pizza chain I’ve only ever really seen in malls. I remember it as a mainstay at the mall food court from when I was growing up, and my memories aren’t exactly what I’d call stellar. I’d eaten Sbarro on shopping trips a few times, declared it really boring, and moved on to other fast food stalls like Taco Bell, or that place that gave out bourbon chicken samples, or Great Steak & Potato for a heaping pile of cheese fries. By-the-slice mall pizza drifted gradually out of my mind.
On March 24 of this year, Sbarro announced its plans to open more than 100 new locations in 2022, both nationally and worldwide. A press release states that the pizza chain, which started in 1956, is aiming for a wide expansion into locations such as convenience stores. I suppose that’s a logical next step for a grab-and-go jumbo New York–style slice shop, considering it’s already conquered the mall and the airport terminal.
“Oh great, another boring, dried-out gas station pizza option to eat during a road trip,” I thought upon reading the news. But after passing immediate judgement, I realized I hadn’t actually eaten Sbarro in well over a decade. I barely set foot in shopping malls as it is, and their food courts have almost certainly been overhauled since the last time I had lunch in one. Is it possible that I don’t remember Sbarro’s pizza accurately?
Shockingly, Sbarro not only has a number of standalone brick-and-mortar locations in Chicago these days, but one of them is just a few miles away from my apartment. I shouted goodbye to the cats and hauled ass to Fullerton Avenue to see it for myself. I wanted—no, needed—to see if Sbarro pizza was as bad as I remembered.
The standalone restaurant was modern, sleek, surprisingly large, and squeaky clean. I stepped up to the counter to place an order for items I thought would encompass the true Sbarro experience.
I started with some meatballs, since they were sitting right there on the steam table, calling out my name. They were lightly spongy and juicy, with a uniform fine-grained texture throughout, but despite the presence of green bits of herbs, they weren’t seasoned with much. Still, I liked them for their comfort factor. If I had a pile of these on some spaghetti along with some grated parmesan from a shaker on the table, I’m sure I’d be happy.
Okay, no pulling punches: The New York–style slice from Sbarro is exactly as disappointing as I remember. This is why I avoided the Sbarro stall in the shopping mall food court. The pepperoni pizza is dry and bland, and there’s not one thing that’s remarkable about it. Believe me, I tried to find one. It’s not the worst slice I’ve ever had—that award goes to a long-defunct slice shop in Chicago’s Loop neighborhood, which I still remember like a decade later. Ugh. But a terrible experience would at least make this thing more memorable. Instead, it’s just dull.
It’s so boring, in fact, I immediately forgot what it tasted like after I finished each bite. That’s what kept me taking bites until it was gone. As a Chicagoan I’m probably going to get crucified for this next statement, but New York dollar slices taste better. They have more character, and they’re seasoned with financial savings. Mark my words: This will be my last slice of Sbarro NY-style pizza ever.
Sbarro’s supreme pan-pizza slice pops with some color and is loaded down with toppings. There’s pepperoni, black olives, Italian sausage, red and green bell peppers, and mushrooms. I am an ardent fan of supreme slices. Maybe it’s that my heart is in the Midwest, where abundant toppings reign supreme, but I love a pie with lots of flavors and textures on top.
Sbarro, just like most slice shops, keeps its pizzas under heat lamps in the display case until they’re sold. When you order a slice, it’s reheated (in this case in the tiniest conveyor oven I’ve ever seen), boxed up, and handed off to you.
This pizza, though generously topped and sauced, is dead on arrival. The sauce soaks into the crust, dispersing its moisture throughout the bread. In turn, it becomes pasty and dry, since the sauce’s liquid content is now soaked into the stale starch, leaving the solids behind up above. The garden of toppings just couldn’t save it.
When anything becomes a chore to eat, I don’t think you have to force yourself to keep eating it. So I didn’t. Like the New York–style slice, this will be my last pan pizza experience from Sbarro. You can count on it.
Sbarro now sells what it describes as a rectangular Roman-style slice. Roman-style pizza, also called pizza al taglio (which means “pizza by the cut”), is a light and airy rectangular slice that’s sold by weight. Typical Roman-style pizza places have a display case of whole pizzas at which you can point to indicate your order. Once you pick, the employee will cut you a portion from the whole with scissors, weigh it out, and charge you accordingly.
At Sbarro, you do not order by weight. In my experience, you just point at the slice you want and let out a guttural grunt. Really loud if you’re hungry. In terms of appearance, Sbarro’s “Roman” is more akin to a grandma slice, so the moniker is a bit off if you’re a purist. It has a thicker, but not pan-pizza-thick crust. The slice starts with a plain mozzarella base and the sauce is doled out on top in thick little piles. I was fully prepared not to enjoy this one, based off my sad reaction to the previous two slices, but the Roman-style was easily my favorite out of the three. By far.
The sauce is slightly chunky, which means each bite of tomato sauce bursts when you bite into it. It’s acidic and not overly sweet—which is notable, since I find so much fast food pizza sauce too sugary. And while there’s nothing remarkable about the flavor of the crust or cheese, the contrast between juicy tomato chunks and a pretty simple base makes for a combination that keeps you coming back. The whole time I was eating the Roman slice, I considered going back to the counter to order an entire pie to take home for later. I hope Sbarro sells its version of Roman-style slices at future expansion locations, for all our sakes.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I finally found something at Sbarro I like. It took about 35 years, but that’s not entirely my fault; Sbarro wasn’t selling the Roman-style slices when I was a kid. If it had been, maybe I wouldn’t have remembered it purely as a boring stall to be skipped at the mall food court.
Great. Now I’m craving Sbarro. I guess this story has a happy ending after all.