Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s National Pizza Day! (Yes, it’s also National Bagel Day and National Toothache Day, but hush.) In honor of this momentous occasion, we’ve asked a question that seemingly everybody has an answer for:
What’s your all-time favorite pizza spot?
My Lincoln Square neighborhood in Chicago was already pretty great, but nothing has ever incited my neighbors like the announcement that an old greasy spoon was being torn down to make way for a new Lou Malnati’s at Montrose and Lincoln. Before that, to get Chicago’s best pizza, we would have to travel out to the Malnati’s in Lincolnwood (conveniently located by the Bunny Hutch miniature golf course) or go all the way downtown. Delivery wasn’t even an option. So we all anxiously waited and watched the construction process until this triangular-shaped family restaurant was finally open, and have invaded it steadily ever since. I know deep-dish pizza has its detractors, but I find it hard to believe that those people have ever tasted Lou’s deep dish. It’s really more like a meat (or vegetable) pie, with a heavenly tomato sauce, and just the right amount of cheese lovingly layered atop of that famous butter crust. I agree that the crust and cheese of Giordano’s deep dish or similar would be better used to caulk your bathroom. But Lou Malnati’s is nothing less than pizza poetry.
There’s a little place in Northeast Minneapolis called Crescent Moon. It’s quiet and unassuming, but it’s home to one of the greatest pizzas you’ll ever eat. Their trademark Football Pizza (yes, that’s the only shape it comes in) can be made with one special element: skhug, a Middle Eastern spicy green sauce that gets generously spread upon the dough and covered with cheese and toppings before cooking. Their pizzas are already phenomenal, but this is what transforms it into one of the best foodstuffs I’ve ever eaten, let alone best pizza. The prices are ridiculously affordable, too, making it an option for even the poorest college student. Speaking of which: If you can lend me money for bus fare, I will meet you there in eight hours. Seriously, what are you doing tomorrow?
My favorite pizza is also one of Tom Hanks’ favorites, and that’s how you know it’s good. Lakewood, Ohio, spot Angelo’s Pizza makes the goddamn best original-crust, Northeastern Ohio-style pizza. I opt for pepperoni and mushrooms, original crust, and it’s just so good. Every time I’m in Cleveland, I joke about bringing a massive cooler, ordering 10 pizzas, and freezing up slices two by two for consumption at later dates. It’s perfectly greasy and delicious, and you don’t even have to take my word for it: It’s won a number of “best of” contests, including Best Of Cleveland, and even got the ringing endorsement of Amanda Berry, a Cleveland woman who was kidnapped and held in horrific captivity for years by a scumbag named Ariel Castro. Angelo’s was the first thing she ordered once she was discovered and sent home to her family, firmly cementing Angelo’s pizza as a classic comfort food.
My biggest regret about leaving Chicago for the Pacific Northwest a few years back is that it’s damn hard to get a good piece of pizza here. But while I have a certain affection for Chicago’s traditional slabs of thick bread and sauce—Pequod’s, where they burn the cheese onto the outer ring of the crust like a suit of delicious mozzarella armor, is a particular favorite—my favorite Chicago pizza place is a thin-crust joint. Piece, on North Avenue in Chicago’s Wicker Park, does a cracker-style crust that I can’t resist, especially when done up in white style: olive oil, garlic, and no tomato sauce, the perennial over-performing show-off of a standard slice. Piece goes fancy with its toppings, offering things like avocado hearts and fresh basil. But for me, there’s nothing better than classic pepperoni, the salt mixing with the grease to produce the perfect pizza experience. (Plus, the place is also a pretty great brewery, meaning you always have something tasty to wash it all down with.)
As a Chicago native (city proper), I find myself constantly battling people’s ignorance as to what Chicago-style pizza really is. Yes, Giordano’s has laid claim to the term for its deep dish, despite not excelling at its version of “Chicago pizza.” But if you have any sense (and have ever gone south of Cermak), you’ll know that the best pizza in the city can be found at Phil’s Pizza in Bridgeport. The tavern-style pie—thin crust; squares, not wedges—has the perfect balance of sauce to cheese. A bird’s-eye view of the pizza shows perfect rings of crust and sauce around a disc of cheese. The cooks are generous with other toppings, but this is the rare cheese pizza that stands on its own.
I am not going to understate things here: I love Aurelio’s Pizza beyond words. When I was a kid, it’s what I requested to have at every birthday party. When my mom suggested pizza for dinner, it’s what I stumped for (if my grandma wasn’t making her own homemade concoction). The point is: Aurelio’s was my first love, and my passion for it still beats deep in my heart. While the Homewood, Illinois, location is the original, the one I grew up going to was a hovel that was next to a fireworks stand in Hammond, Indiana. It was so dimly lit that it was often hard to see, and the best way I could describe its general aesthetic would be “a retired mobster’s rec room,” but the pizza made it all worth it. Aurelio’s Pizza feels like the spiritual cousin of St. Louis’ cracker crust, finding a way to be crisp and crunchy while still having just the right amount of heft so it doesn’t disintegrate in your hand. Slather on the sweet tomato sauce and a thin layer of cheese, and it’s what I think of when I think of pizza.
Balistreri’s pizza in Milwaukee is done in the traditional Milwaukee style—cracker crust, cut into squares—and is one of those joints that’s so popular it doesn’t deliver because it doesn’t need that delivery money. Eating in its Wauwatosa location is the best way to consume pizza anyway, as it’s the most chintzy Italian decor in existence, all old-fashioned, old-world Italian props that reaches absurdity when dated Christmas decorations are added on top. The staff are too busy for pleasantries, and the pizzas are so enormous they’re served on raised platters that hover above the table. There’s also a vague connection to Milwaukee’s mafia history, though the Balistrieri mafia family’s spelling is different, with an extra “I” (word is that the two families can be traced to a common origin in Italy).
Laura M. Browning
I am still searching for that magic delivery pizza—I’ve tried lots of places near my house, and they’re… fine. There are also some great dine-in places in Chicago with fantastic thin-crust, coal-fired pizzas. But my secret shame is frozen pizza from Whole Foods—particularly the stracchino and arugula pizza. It has fontina cheese—which, as far as I’m concerned, is laced with crack—it’s cheap, it’s ready in under 15 minutes, and, for something you buy out of a freezer, it’s surprisingly good. The crust is thin but not too crispy on the edges and not too soggy in the center; the arugula is generous enough to pretend you’re eating something healthy, but not so much that it interferes with the other flavors; and the fontina is what elevates this above all other frozen pizzas (and a lot of delivery ones).
My all-time favorite pizza spot—Burt’s Place in Morton Grove, Illinois—no longer exists (making the choice both romantic and unassailable). The tiny pizzeria tucked within a quiet neighborhood of the Chicago suburb closed in 2015, and proprietor Burt Katz died the following year. The man behind the Chicago pizza institution Pequod’s (which he sold and which still exists) made delicious, well-balanced pan pizza (no weighty blocks of mozzarella here), with fresh tomato sauce and wonderfully caramelized cheese around its buttery, crispy crust. But Burt’s was nearly as much about the ambiance as the food. Eating there felt like being in someone’s den. The wood-paneled walls were lined with ham radios, and there was an enormous whisk hanging from the ceiling. That no other diners were ever there when my friends and I were—allowing us to chat with Burt and his wife—made it feel all the more homey.
Kelsey J. Waite
As the partner of a New Jersey native, I must admit that I’ve been indoctrinated. The only pizza that exists to me now is New York-style, and the absolute best I’ve ever had came from right there on the Hudson, at Grimaldi’s Coal Brick Oven Pizzeria in Hoboken. Grimaldi’s is a family joint built by Sean McHugh, an Irish immigrant who got his start working in Patsy Grimaldi’s 1940s Harlem pizzeria. It’s an old-school, no-fuss place with red-checkered tablecloths and a straightforward menu where a “custom built, coal burning, thousand-degree oven” sends crisp, lightly charred perfection to your table in about six minutes. It’s insane. But a close second for me is right here in the Midwest, oddly enough, at Salvatore’s Tomato Pies in Madison, Wisconsin. There you’ve got a Jersey native making hand-crafted pies with Wisconsin cheese and seasonal produce, and it’s the real deal.
I have to hold down the fort for East Coast pizza, but in doing so, I also have to note that there are different types of pizza for different occasions. If you’re on the run, there is nothing like a slice of Joe’s, which was recently named the best slice in New York by Grubstreet and for good reason. There are plenty of ample, greasy, simple slices in the city, but if you’re near a Joe’s, it’s the best bet. However, if you ever find yourself in Connecticut, I must implore a trip to Pepe’s for a charred, garlicky clam pie.
Southeastern Michigan is a region of pizza contradiction: My childhood stomping grounds foisted Domino’s upon an unsuspecting world, but it also gave it square-shaped salvation in the form of Detroit-style pizza. The undisputed champion of this technique is Buddy’s Pizza, a small chain that perfected its signature rectangular pie in the same type of blue steel pans used in nearby auto plants. It’s a beautiful symbol of Rust Belt ingenuity—and it tastes great, too, a variation on deep dish that stays crispy by wearing its sauce on the outside, and gains an extra kiss of butteriness from big piles of Wisconsin brick cheese. It’s been heartwarming to watch the style gain esteem in culinary circles (particularly because I ate the stuff for 22 years without realizing it was its own, distinct thing), but to get the best version, you’ve got to go straight to the source. So if you ever find yourself in the Metro Detroit area, avoid The Noid, give Little Caesar the thumbs down, and seek out a Buddy’s.
I’ll go hoity-toity (sort of) and say Spacca Napoli in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood. It was one of the city’s first Neopolitan-style joints, which means the crust is chewy and the center of the pizza is soft—you can eat it with a knife and fork if you’d like, they won’t judge. It’s the passion project of Jonathan Goldsmith, who fell in love with the style and worked for years to perfect his crust, and he did indeed perfect it. You can go super simple, because all of the ingredients are incredible, or go with one of the daily specials. I still have dreams about one that had speck and onions and a couple different kinds of cheese. And though it’s on the pricier side for pizza—they’re meant for one person and cost $13-18 or so—it’s also nicely casual, and very kid-friendly.
One of the things about growing up in the New York area is that good pizza is pretty much everywhere. You practically have to seek out a crappy slice, and, in my experience at least, your go-to spot becomes more a matter of location and convenience than seeking out the absolute best (which, as Esther already mentioned, is probably Joe’s). Having spent my life on the south shore of Long Island, that spot has long been a place simply called Mama’s in the little town of Copiague. It’s by no means the best pizza I’ve ever had, but it’s consistently good, and they have a few truly righteous specialty slices, if you’re into that sort of thing. The shrimp pesto pizza, which swaps the traditional sauce for a creamy pesto and is dotted with fried shrimp, is an especially decadent guilty pleasure of mine.
I don’t know what people are coming to Minnesota for, but it sure as hell isn’t our pizza. Apparently Italian immigrants made it just as far as the Western edge of Lake Michigan and decided that was just far enough. So while this is still America, and you can always find a serviceable pizza, a truly exceptional one is more elusive. Broders’ Cucina Italiana has that exceptional pizza. Their plain cheese is a platonic ideal. A perfectly balanced thin, foldable crust, subtly spiced sauce and cheese. It stands as testament to how the best foods reject ornamentation. If each ingredient is properly used, a simple cheese slice will surpass any elaborate topping. Sadly, there’s only one location far out in the suburbs, which means going to get a pie is only slightly less of a pilgrimage than traveling to Italy for one.
This is not a terribly original choice (apologies, Gwen), but one of the things I miss most about Chicago is Lou Malnati’s, which specializes in Chicago deep dish, that gloriously excessive, transcendently Midwestern brick of cheese and tomatoes and oregano and dough that, to me at least, feels like home. Lou Malnati’s pizza is particularly distinguished by their homemade sausage and tomato sauce. After I moved from Chicago to a suburb of Atlanta, my uncle ordered a bunch of frozen pizzas from Lou Malnati’s. It immediately assuaged my homesickness and reminded me that Chicago was more than just crumbling schools, political corruption, and gun violence. Ah, Lou Malnati’s. I’m developing a powerful pizza hunger just thinking about it.
There’s nothing uniquely “Texan” about pizza, save for the sad, soggy cultural insults that are passed off as “taco pizza” in elementary school lunchrooms. But after nearly five years in Chicago, I still find myself longing for Austin-based chain Mr. Gatti’s, whose pizza does reflect the very Texan ideal of not especially giving a shit about how everyone else does it. Its chewy, Napoli-style crust isn’t likely to upset the purists, but the use of smoked provolone cheese instead of mozzarella gives Gatti’s pizza a unique, addictive bite that, to my dismay, no one else can replicate. Its approach to toppings—lots of ’em, piled on in a haphazard slop in its signature The Sampler—is also very Texan, and the cut in small, sharp wedges gives you the illusion you’re eating more sensibly than you are. It also doesn’t hurt that Gatti’s serves up a reasonably priced all-you-can-eat buffet that I probably visited twice per week as a broke college student, thus cementing my affections, or the fact that its earworm of a jingle was deployed twice hourly on radio and TV (“Dial 459-22-22, and get a Mr. Gatti’s pizza deliiiiivered”). As with a lot of things Texas has and does, I recognize that it’s not as great as other places, yet I will proudly, belligerently defend it to the death.