How Pizza Nerds Determine Which Pizza Is ‘Best’

It's a combination of factors that really seal the deal.

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pizza cooking in oven
Photo: Andrewshots (Shutterstock)

As long as pizza exists, there will be arguments about which ones are the best. Those debates are eternal, and people who swear by their favorites will never back down. I mean, I get it. I used to make pizza for a living. I’d get a lot of “What is your favorite pizza place?” and “What’s the best kind of pizza?” The truth is, however, is that there isn’t one. It’s entirely subjective. But there are generally agreed upon qualities that pizza aficionados look for when searching for the best of the best, and these are things that you too can employ when trying to decide which pizza is your favorite.

The crust better be good

Pizza crust is the foundation upon which a good pizza stands. If the crust isn’t good, it’s likely that the rest of the pizza is going to be a disappointment. Pizza enthusiasts look for a crust that exemplifies the style, like an airy Neapolitan with a puffy outer edge (called a cornicone); a satisfyingly crisp, supple, but chewy New York slice; or perhaps a thin cracker-like crust for Midwestern square-cut pies.

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You also have to consider flavor. Is it seasoned with enough salt? You’d be surprised; a lot of pizzerias don’t employ much in the crust, instead relying on toppings to make up for the seasoning in the dough. How prominent is the flavor of the yeast that was used to leaven the dough? Is it perceptible, and does it add a good flavor to the experience?

Think about it this way: if you took the pizza dough from the pie you’re eating and transformed it into a loaf of bread, consider whether or not you’d enjoy it if you ate it on its own.

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How well the crust is baked matters

Let’s talk about the execution. This is where the talent of the pizzamaker comes into play. A great dough is one thing, but transforming it into a proper crust in the oven takes some skill, instinct, and practice.

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If you’re dining with a pizza geek, you’ll notice that one of the first things they do is lift up a slice to examine the bottom. They’re looking for a nice consistent color on the bottom, indicating that the pizza was baked evenly on a cooking surface. Some styles have an ideal appearance, like New York style, for example. On a pizza like that, you’ll want an appealing brown color with a regular speckling of darker spots or small black ones, evenly distributed beneath the whole pizza.

The little bits of contrast, including those little black speckles, all contribute to the final flavor of the pizza. The bottom of the pizza is the first part of the pie to hit your tongue, and if it’s no good, the rest of the pie’s probably not much better.

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Then, there’s texture. Does that New York style slice sag at the tip, making it hard to eat, even when folded? Is the whole thing soggy? For me, an ideal slice is thin, crisp, and chewy, with a slightly charred flavor on the bottom, and doesn’t sag too much.

That being said, there’s different characteristics to look for in other styles of pizza. A good grandma slice will have a crisp bottom with a slightly fried texture, since it cooks in a well greased pan. Neapolitan style pizza (I’ve made thousands of these) are always cooked in the same spots in a wood-fired oven over and over again. The floor of a wood-fired oven is typically blazing hot, 800 degrees F or more (I’ve cooked at a whopping 1000 before).

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If you don’t consistently cook in the same spots, the bottom bake of your pizzas will vary widely. If you’re cooking in random spots in the oven, you run the risk of scorching the bottom in ultra-hot spots. The nuances are many. An attentive pizzamaker will always check the bottom of a pizza as it’s cooking, usually with a deft flick of a pizza paddle to examine it quickly.

How do you judge a good sauce?

Pizza sauce seems like a pretty easy thing to not mess up, but you’d be surprised. Sauce quality varies across the board. Next time you bite into a slice, see what you can taste in the sauce. Some sauces are very sweet (think fast food), some are heavily seasoned, and some are very salty. How rich is the tomato flavor? What is its texture? How acidic is it?

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Pizza obsessives tend to gravitate towards sauces that really showcase a tomato’s flavor, which is a marker of quality. We’re looking for sauces that are fresh, bright, and lively, without too many herbs and spices detracting from the natural deliciousness of the tomato.

Sauces are also tied to their respective styles of pizza. For Chicago-style thin crust, I like a slightly thicker cooked sauce that’s seasoned with spices. On a Neapolitan I’m looking for nothing more than crushed tomatoes. And on a frozen pizza, most of the time a sweeter sauce is inevitable (so I’ve grown to love it).

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There are a few artisan tomato brands that pizza shops swear by, like Bianco DiNapoli (founded by widely renowned pizzamaker Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco). Another brand I love, California-based Stanislaus, isn’t widely available to consumers because it’s mainly for restaurants.

Cheese matters

Ideal cheese types vary per pizza. Neapolitan style favors fresher cheeses like fior di latte (which is more or less fresh mozzarella) and buffalo milk mozzarella. As wonderful as fresh cheese is, however, it’s not always the most ideal for all pies. Fresh mozzarella has a high water content, so when it’s baked, it gets sort of leaky and can sog up a pie with pools of water. That’s why Neapolitan pizza doesn’t come loaded with tons of cheese (plus the crust is baked relatively soft).

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American-style pizzas use low moisture mozzarella, which is the dryer stuff you can get in slices, pre-shredded, or in full logs. It’s exactly what the name implies, there’s less water in it. What’s really important, however, is the fat content. My favorite is whole milk mozzarella, which is full fat. It creates a silkier texture, a rich flavor, and more indulgent bite. Part-skim mozzarella results in a more dry and rubbery end product, especially when it cools off. Most pizza superfans prefer the full fat stuff because, honestly, it just tastes better.

Cheese quality does vary, but it depends on the pizza place. Higher end pizza restaurants take pride in which cheese purveyors they order from. If you’re getting into the nitty gritty of mozzarella cheese, focus on how rich it tastes, how tangy it is, and its texture.

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That being laid out, not all pizza styles favor mozzarella. St. Louis style, for example, uses Provel, which is a processed cheese product that contains cheddar, Swiss, and provolone. It melts much like American cheese, so it sort of ends up being more like a goo or a sauce once its cooked. St. Louis style is sort of maligned because of Provel, but guys, it’s just pizza.

Yes, toppings matter, but now it’s up to you

Toppings can turn a pizza from just a humble concoction of crust, sauce, and cheese into something absolutely glorious. (I’m a firm believer that if a plain cheese slice isn’t fantastic, the end result won’t be great.) If you’ve got good quality toppings like flavorful meats and top-end produce, your end product may be nothing short of sublime.

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Toppings are obviously a matter of personal preference. I’m not an enormous fan of pepperoni pizza, but pepperoni is the gold standard for a lot of pizza fans out there and I can still appreciate a good pep slice. I gauge topping quality by asking myself, “Would I eat these ingredients even if they weren’t on a pizza?” No, I wouldn’t be seeking out Little Caesars pellet sausage by choice, probably, so I wouldn’t rank it high up there in terms of quality.

In terms of combinations, I’m looking for some kind of harmony between all the ingredients. At my old job, we had a white mozzarella pie (no sauce) that was finished with a hefty amount of shaved parmesan and fresh arugula after it came out of the oven, and was then dressed with olive oil and fresh lemon juice. As simple as it sounds, it was a remarkable pie that felt fresh and satisfying, and the sum of its parts were mighty. Balance is the name of the game.

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So what’s the best overall kind of pizza?

You know the answer to this: There isn’t one. I can’t really tell you what’s best, because that’s up to your preferences. I can just tell you what obsessives and pizzamakers aim for in their ideal versions. Ask one of us nerds what our favorite is, and you’ll get a million different answers. And a million different arguments.

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Some pizzas just fill a certain need. A pitch perfect (to me) plain cheese New York style slice is a thing of beauty, but only when I’m in the mood. I can still appreciate it for what it is, but if I’m looking for a fast food slice from Domino’s, then fuck it, that’s the best pizza for the moment.

We’re all looking for the perfect slice. The rules above apply to celebrate what a style is aiming to achieve, but in the end, it’s entirely about what makes you feel good. If you examine each pizza carefully, you just might find what it is about it that makes you happy. And isn’t that the joy of pizza, anyway?