The Great Seattle Pizza Smackdown

We’ve got a pizza renaissance in progress, people. Whaddya waiting for, an invitation?

By Kathryn Robinson, Matthew Halverson, Laura Cassidy, Jessica Voelker, Christopher Werner, and Calise Cardenas February 17, 2010 Published in the March 2010 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Hank Drew

JUST A HALF-DOZEN years ago, Seattle was a middlin’ pizza town, dominated by an omnipresent delivery giant and a few nostalgic independents. Fast-forward to the present and suddenly everybody’s default dial-a-dinner is the subject of rapt attention and furious loyalties.

So we set out to make sense of the pie profusion. We call it the Great Seattle Pizza Smackdown.

First we ate and ate (and ate), culling the myriad contenders down to a manageable couple dozen. Then we divided rivals by type, mindful that a crackling Neapolitan slice and a puffy beer-crusted pie are barely even the same food. And we let regional tics inform the selections. The city that launched a thousand Greek-style pizza joints has barely a Chicago-style deep-dish slice to be found. Go figure.

Oh, there will be arguments. And that’s as it should be; pizza’s a rough-and-tumble kind of food. But know this: Just like the old saw goes, pizza really is like sex—even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty damn good.
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Ballard Showdown
Veraci Pizza vs. Delancey 

Ballard is bloated with pizzerias—17-plus dot the North Seattle hood, like so many pepperonis atop a pie. But it’s Veraci ’s portable oven that changed the game. The shared enterprise of Marshall Jett, Errin Byrd, and Krista Elledge—one couple, now divorced, and a sister—was just a wood-burning DIY dome six years ago. Jett and Byrd would hitch the stove to a trailer each Saturday at the Ballard Farmers Market, offering slim slices accessorized with sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, red onions, and chevre. They made it for fun, for extra money, and to feed Seattleites a healthier, tastier ’za.

Veraci’s barely there, brittle crust.

A catering company emerged, and four years later came a permanent pizzeria on Market Street. From the start, Veraci’s founders decried the typical overly cheesed pie, anchored by a fat carbo-bomb of a crust and buried in toppings. Jett rolled Veraci’s wispy crust by hand so it was barely there, almost brittle, its outer edges hollow. He administered veggies, meats, and cheeses with a light hand so that his customers could slow down, eat six or seven slices, then leave the table feeling “wonderful, like they just ate some sushi.”

Then, last summer, came Delancey. Darling Delancey. The steamy-windowed storefront just a mile and change north of Veraci was the precious progeny of Brandon Pettit and Molly Wizenberg, an oh-so-cute couple whose courtship, marriage, and foray into the restaurant biz was well documented on Wizenberg’s world-famous, food-fixated blog Orangette. Its opening marked Seattle’s first artisan pizzeria of the New York style, where pizza makers use coal-burning ovens to churn out individually sized pies. But there’s no coal at Delancey, just a wood-burning flame box whose interior temp peaks at 900 degrees. “A wood-fired oven makes the pizza look and smell better, and makes bubbles in the crust,” explains Pettit. “I like bubbles.”

Ballard’s most darling couple opened Delancey, the city’s first artisan pizzeria of the New York style, making bubbly crusts in a 900-degree wood-fired oven.

That bubbly crust begins life as organic, local flour from Shepherd’s Grain, the pepperoni is supplied by Zoe’s Meats, and the pork-fennel sausage made in house. Delancey’s bright, slightly sweet tomato sauce goes into the oven uncooked on top of a disk of dough that is blasted from below while whirling, radiant heat scorches its edges with tongue-coating char. This crispy edge is spongy on the inside, and best showcased on the Brooklyn pie, made with aged mozzarella, fresh mozzarella, and Grana Padano. The result is sweet and salty, earthily aged but fecund with freshness, burnt then doughy.

The hour-plus wait is as much a testament to Orangette’s fame as to its food: Most Delancey guests silently hope to catch a swing of the lady blogger’s apricot-hued ponytail. Surprising, then, that this aware crew often finds itself, well into that first slice of the Brooklyn, deep in the clutches of a forget-you’re-in-public, sauce-splattering pizzagasm.

BOTTOM LINE: The only pizzeria in Ballard firing up a truly ecstasy-inducing pizza is Delancey. But if the wait gets too long, find healthy, cracker-crusted delights down the street at Veraci.
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Olmypia Pizza and Spaghetti House vs. Acropolis Pizza and Pasta

We won’t contest the notion it was the Italians who really mastered the whole pizza thing, but peek into the ovens of Seattle’s pizzaioli, and you find a surprising number of pies subscribing to the Grecian code of crust. By definition this means a hefty cliff of dough rises thickly around the rim like an easy-grip handle. Sculpting it takes finesse—too much bread overwhelms the toppings; the thinner, spongy interior requires a just-so coating of oil. It’s all about balance.

Cue Evangelos Pappas, who has owned Olympia Pizza atop Queen Anne since 1991. He takes inspiration from time-tested family recipes passed down “from mother to mother to mother to mother.” Pappas started working in a restaurant at age eight, so no wonder that after over 40 years in the biz he churns out pies with innate dexterity. His are masterful collages of texture, such as the Greek, in which a blanket of feta cheese—crunchy golden on the outside, with a smattering of bubbly brown pocks—conceals velvety dollops draped over onions, tomatoes, spinach, and housemade marinara. The biscuity dough starts soft and thin in the center and then bulks up with each outward bite. 

Olympia’s pizza recipes were handed down “from mother to mother to mother.”

Another notable Greek joint, Acropolis Pizza and Pasta over in Kirkland seems to have the crust figured out, especially with its pleasant pillowlike texture. Thing is, some pockets teem with so much oil the crust practically disintegrates—delicious—but others yield a tough, dried-out cake. Thank goodness, then, for the oily mess of meats (pepperoni, salami, and sausage) dressing the joint’s titular triumph—piled so high even a generous layer of cheese fails to fully cover it. Add in some veggies and you have a smorgasbord-packed punch that has Eastsiders crowding the restaurant at midday.

BOTTOM LINE: Olympia masterfully balances heritage with culinary craft.


New York Style
Topolino's vs. A New York Pizza Place

A New York pie is a matter of hand-thrown dough, exquisite mozzarella, thin crust, simple toppings, and portable slices. And though it’s become the default style of the many pizzerias in town that don’t know how else to categorize their pies—a couple of joints are fiercely intentional about their East Coast roots. Topolino’s and A New York Pizza Place both appear to labor hard for anonymity—they’re dives. With generic signage and plastic tablecloths at ANYPP and hardly room to stand at Topolino’s (Sitting? Fuhgettaboutit!)—the appeal of neither is in their quarters.

Reliably fiesty ‘za at Topolino’s.

The appeal is in the pies. At Topolino’s, a Bellevue spot cofounded by Brooklyn expat Robert Abergel, crusts are thin but appealingly puffy, topped with rich whole-milk mozzarella, fresh garlic, and a deftly herbal sauce. We liked the feisty clam pie and a subtler number with pesto and ricotta—we even liked the dingy storefront and brash service, essential New York ingredients.

Across the lake at ANYPP, Doug Armatage runs a less consistent enterprise that nevertheless soars higher. We sampled a few ho-hum pies on cardboard crusts—only to have our socks knocked clean off by the Hudson River, an improbable triumph of chicken, barbecue sauce, ranch dressing, red onions, and cilantro. Huh? say the New Yorkers. But on this pie the crust was perfect: flavorful and crispy and gloriously blistered. A big salad presented an original mix of greens with kalamatas and roasted red peppers. Chocolate chip cookies were gratis. All was right in the world.

But…next time?


BOTTOM LINE: Reliably solid like Topolino’s or periodically stunning like A New York Pizza Place? You make the call.
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Old World Pie
Wish you could make Filiberto's true Neapolitan pizza? Tough.

In the winter of 1982, while Veraci’s future pizzaioli were all but padding around in diapers, Mina Perry was convincing contractors in her native Italy to bring bricks and building plans for a traditional wood-fired oven to Filiberto’s, the Italian restaurant by Sea-Tac airport she owned with her husband and their partners. By spring, Seattle had a Naples-style pizza oven—the first, most local food experts agree, in the area.

A small, slightly rounded woman of 72 who will as soon raise her voice and shake a finger at a slow server as smile angelically after a compliment about her cooking, or her grandchildren, Perry had been feeding the South End handmade meatballs in her father’s simple, perfect, family-recipe sauce since the early ’70s. (For a brief time, she even fed downtown shoppers. Nordstrom asked her to do some cooking demonstrations for an Italian festival they held in 1974, and her lasagna was so successful they asked her to open what would be the department store’s first cafe. The partnership was short-lived; Perry couldn’t abide by the return policy: “It works for shoes, it don’t work for salami.”)

Perry hadn’t made pizza, however—not like this—since leaving her parents’ restaurant in Mirabella Eclano two decades earlier. When the oven was ready, the Filiberto’s clan sent word to the handful of families who also immigrated to the South End from the Avellino province outside Naples. It must have been quite a dinner. She probably prepared a few pies con la cipolla, with a tangle of sweet, caramelized onions, almost no cheese, and her trademark San Marzano tomato sauce. It’s easy to imagine friends like Carlo Durante, the owner of Alfa of Tacoma, lifting perfectly charred crust to his mouth, closing his eyes, picturing the village, Grandma, his boyhood home…while a couple dozen kids with names like Raffaela and Salvatore had the run of the squat cinder-block building on Des Moines Memorial Drive with its bocce court out back.

Thirty years later, at the end of last April, Perry stood outside what would be her new restaurant and anxiously oversaw the delivery of a second pizza oven. This one was also from Italy, but it came built and ready to go, and would burn gas—provided the movers could negotiate the eighth-inch sliver of wiggle room that the door jamb allowed.

The last six months had been difficult. By this time, it was just her and her son Pat—her partners were gone, and so was her husband; he died in ’02. Displaced by the completion of the third runway, Perry and her son had accepted the Port of Seattle’s buyout offer on their air-polluted property and began looking for a new location somewhere near the brand-new and, at the time at least, very promising Burien Town Square. But then all of the sudden the whole country was broke and paranoid, and the new buildings along 152nd Street were empty and alone. And it wasn’t as if Burien didn’t have enough Italian joints. Notably: Angelo’s and Vince’s, both red-checked-tablecloth holdovers from the era of Frank Sinatra crooning “One for My Baby,” and Abruzzi’s, a downtown Seattle favorite from the same era that had closed in ’94 and resurfaced in nearby Normandy Park.

At her age, Perry might have decided to walk away from it all, but instead she and Pat settled on an annex of the local KeyBank. The place works, and looks, better than that might sound, although nothing with the build-out went smoothly. Or according to budget.

Mina Perry alone knows the ratio of water, yeast, and flour that makes Filiberto’s crust taste like the essence of Italy.

“There are people who eat to live and people who live to eat,” she told me one afternoon after the long-awaited, successful reopening of Filiberto’s Cucina Italiana. Perry’s accent is still wonderfully thick and lyrical after all these years; almost every word has that southern Mediterranean “a” before or after it. “There is-a no limit to what they will a-do. These a-people, they have a passion to a-cook, and-a to eat. They don’t a-worry about the cost,” she said.

Perry’s customers certainly don’t—tortellini with meat sauce runs $17—and she’s teaching them not to be in a hurry, either. On Saturday nights they wait an hour for a table, and then another hour to be served that pizza con la cipolla. “I make it all by hand, and I’m proud of that. If they don’t want to wait, I don’t care,” she says of those who come for her Old World food and expect New World timing. There is only one Mina, and she alone knows the ratio of water, yeast, and flour that makes her crust taste like Italy the way perfect pita tastes like the Middle East and buttery croissants are the very essence of Paris.

In a city like ours, it seems impossible—or at least unwise—to declare one pie the best, but consider this: Before a now-beloved local chain sent out their first wood-fired Naples-style pizza, the proprietors came to Mina and asked her if they could study her technique and practice in her oven on her days off.

“Huh! What do you think I told them? If you ask that in Italy they gonna break your legs,” she snapped. “The guy, he tell me, ‘I went to Italy for 10 days and learned to make pizza.’ I tell him, ‘Ten days? You must be smarter than me. I been learning my whole life and I still don’t know nothing.’ ”

Except, of course, she does. —Laura Cassidy
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New World Neapolitan
Tutta Bella vs. Via Tribunali vs. Pizzeria Pulcinella

Tutta Bella’s certified Neapolitan pizzas (above and below) are made with San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and low-gluten flour.

Naples has served up pie in more or less the same manner since the sixteenth century, when, history has it, pizza was born in the western Italian town. Immigrants to America were forced to improvise, since wood-burning ovens were scarce and there was nary a San Marzano tomato (said to be the sweetest in the world, thanks to low-acid soil at the foot of Mount Vesuvius). A distinct American-style pizza emerged, but lately some artisan dough rollers have returned to the traditional Napoli style, going so far as to be trained and certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, a Naples-based organization, which back in the ’90s pestered the Italian government until Neapolitan pizza received recognition as a distinctly regional culinary craft—on par with Chianti and certain cheeses.

Tutta Bella was the first Seattle pizzeria to be certified. Founded in 2004 after onetime Starbucks exec Joe Fugere was inspired by his Italian grandmother—“you don’t know real pizza,” she used to tell him—to learn to make the old-country pizzas that sparked her vaguely insulting nostalgia. In Naples he discovered that product consistency was as fetishized as it was in corporate America: Dough must be kneaded by hand or with a slow mixer and cooked in a bell-shaped wood-fired oven at a temperature of 800 to 1,000 degrees. It must be crafted from low-gluten flour, milled just outside of Naples, and topped with pomodoro made from the aforementioned San Marzanos. Oh and hey, paisano, don’t even think about getting creative with the formaggio, capiche?

It is one thing to be certified, another to keep up with the rigorous standards. Maybe it’s Fugere’s corporate training, but Tutta Bella’s four locations consistently churn out transcendent margherita pies: Fresh mozzarella, spilling sloppily, fuses with those sweet San Marzanos, sea salt, basil, and enough extra virgin olive oil to lend a touch of viscosity. The crust is chewy at the center and charred to a satisfying black crackle around the edge.

The second certification went to Via Tribunali, also opened in 2004. The local chain is best known for its cinematic-cool-meets-Campania interiors, each befitting the neighborhood where it’s found: glam vinyl booths at the Trib inside the Croc in Belltown, rough-hewn bric-a-brac atop the bar in Wild West Georgetown. Eating pizza here starts off well. On the flavor-melding Dante, two handfuls’ worth of bitter, peppery raw arugula is piled high atop an expanse of tomato sauce, salty prosciutto crudo, smoked provole, and cherry tomato. But, for some reason (Prep methods? Undercooking?), the crust at Via Trib tends to turn into a wet blanket before the pie can be consumed. When you eat here, eat fast.

Among the most recently certified, in summer 2009, is Rainier Beach’s Pizzeria Pulcinella —its cozy, daffodil-yellow walls are augmented by cheery light streaming from dangling lamps. Friendly staffers serve up the usual suspects along with original pies like the Chiaia (tomato, eggplant parmigiana, and mozzarella) and the sausage-dotted Vesuvio, a tasty reminder that “meatsa” need not always be an excessive endeavor. The crust is more brittle than Tutta Bella’s and Trib’s, and hollow at the edges. It’s not bad when it has spent enough time in the oven, which alas it does not always have the chance to do. A pizza cannot be saved by even the freshest discs of mozzarella or the brightest basil leaves when the base is barren of char and tastes mildly of undercooked dough.

BOTTOM LINE: Tutta Bella earns its certification as a true Neapolitan pizzeria with unfailingly consistent, perfectly gooey margheritas, while Via Trib and Pizzeria Pulcinella don’t quite get it right every time.

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Supersize Slices
Talarico's vs. Northlake Tavern and Pizza House

Northlake pies are piled high with gooey cheese and mounds of toppings.

Unlike steak, there is no animal from which a pizza is cleaved, nothing—save for the size of the oven—to restrict a pizza’s proportions. (But imagine for a second what a wonderful world it would be if cattle made of dough roamed the open range.) And so the weighty responsibility of balancing boundless circumference with the bounds of good taste falls to the pie slinger.

Take Talarico’s, where the mammoth, individually sold slices are isosceles monuments to the power of perception: Yeah, it looks like you’re getting a lot for your money—14 inches from point to outer edge is an intimidating portion—but you’re paying $6 for it; the whole thing smells of gimmickry. Which isn’t to say it’s lackluster: The Coppola—Talarico’s thin yet dense crust covered with spritzes of goat cheese, long ribbons of roasted red peppers, and a dash of garlic—makes an admirable attempt at elevating the classic East Coast slice.

Northlake Tavern, on the other hand, favors depth to surface area. (Credit the appetite of its U Dub clientele for making that formula a success for more than 50 years.) Diameterwise, the meat eater’s special is no bigger than your average pie, but it sags under the weight of mounds—and mounds—of thick-cut pepperoni, Canadian bacon, and chunks of beef sausage that advance to the crust’s borders like Italy’s answer to Manifest Destiny. It’s edible expansionism, where the terrain is soft with fields of gooey mozzarella and provolone and the rivers run spicy with marinara—you know, the kind of place where a mythical beast of yeast and flour might graze. And for the lover of all things big, it’s the Pizza Promised Land.

BOTTOM LINE: Northlake Tavern weighs in with proof that sometimes you can’t have too much of a good thing.

Pagliacci vs. Zeeks

Like us, the peeps at Pagliacci and Zeeks categorically reject the notion that delivery pizza, by virtue of its inherently low effort-to-enjoyment ratio, need only be edible to be satisfying. Because really: Why, in a city where it takes longer to drive to a pizza joint than it does to bake the pie, should anyone be denied the right to an exceptional dial-and-dine experience?

We’ll forgive Pagliacci its Orwellian practice of answering the phone by reciting our name and address back to us because, well, the less we have to talk, the sooner the pizza will get here. But we can’t excuse the crust: Why dream up tantalizing topping combos like marinated chicken, artichoke hearts, red onion, peppers, and ricotta cheese only to plop them on the hand-tossed equivalent of a Kenny G concert? It says something about the quality of those toppings that Pagliacci has reigned over the delivery world for more than 30 years, ever since it began as an Italian family hole-in-the-wall on the Ave.

Zeeks elevates the dial-and-dine experience with flat-out delicious pies.

So that’s why the following pronouncement might come as a shock. On all counts, the relative newcomer Zeeks (it opened in ’93) is the czar of delivery ’za. From the airy, buttery crust, to the tangy-yet-sweet marinara, a Zeeks pie is a flat-out delicious disk of awesome. Even on the überpopular Puget Pounder—piled with Canadian bacon, pepperoni, mushrooms, black olives, and Italian sausage—the toppings are so flavorful, you’ll taste each one.

Zeeks’ only misstep: Its online ordering option. Makes sense in theory—we go the delivery route expressly to cut down on person-to-person interaction—but they call seconds later to confirm your order. A responsible, prank order–prevention tactic to be sure, but the extra interaction has no place in our antisocial eating.

BOTTOM LINE: Tasty Zeeks makes it safe to phone in dinner.
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Seattle Style
Flying Squirrel Pizza Co. vs. Serious Pie

Get a pizzaiolo talking about his craft and you’re going to get an earful about correct proofing times and proper firing temps. Some are so bound to the strictures of their tradition they even get their pies certified (see New World Neapolitan ).

Then there are those who favor a more innovative approach. “We went in with no preconceptions besides making really good pizza,” recalls Eric Tanaka, who as executive chef and partner at Tom Douglas Restaurants was one of the visionaries consulted when Douglas decided to open Serious Pie in 2007.

“For four months we drove our baker insane,” Tanaka chuckles. Tanaka and Douglas asked Dahlia Bakery ’s Gwen LeBlanc to come up with a more breadlike pizza crust than they were seeing around town; she produced three versions and the chefs nixed them all. “We wanted crispier, with a little bit of crumb to it,” he explains. So she lightened the dough with a softer flour. Too cakey. She tossed in semolina for texture and wound up with too gritty a crunch.

They went back to the original three—and through trial and error (“and a lot of Gwen shouting at us to get our act together!”) they discovered that the meaningful variable was fermentation. Too little, and the dough would lose flavor; too much, and it would smell too yeasty. The formula had to change whenever the weather did. “Crust is much more art than science,” Tanaka says.

Serious pie is serious.

They tinkered with their huge 1,000—degree Wood Stone oven, finally settling on six minutes at 650 degrees, with potatoes going on at the beginning, cheese in the last two minutes (“scorched cheese equals greasy pizza,” says Tanaka), and lighter charcuterie closer to the end. They made investigative pilgrimages to the country’s best pizzerias, from Oakland’s Pizzaiolo (“where we learned to finish pies with salt,”) to the legendary Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix.

Serious Pie, the stylishly dim and perpetually packed little joint downtown, is Seattle’s Pizzeria Bianco. All that bakery back-and-forth shows: Crusts are golden and toothsome, chewy within and crispy without, burnished with delectable bits of char. On top go A-list ingredients dictated by flavor and seasonality rather than tradition—hence our category name, the Seattle-style pie. One favorite is shingled with thin-sliced Yukon Golds, fragrant with rosemary and Pecorino Romano; another is dotted with sweet fennel sausage and cherry bomb peppers. Much attention is paid to cheese—which Douglas’s chefs intended to make themselves but learned on about their fourth slammed hour of their first slammed day that would be improbable at best. Like all toppings here, purslane to chanterelles to delicata squash, cheeses are ferociously seasonal—perhaps an Italian truffle variant, perhaps a tart sheep’s milk. The result is simply a masterpiece.

Flying Squirrel makes “everybody pizza” with meat from a local charcuterie.

Image: Hank Drew

That fiercely local identity marks South End newcomer Flying Squirrel as a Seattle-style innovator too, crafting its own exuberant combos from mostly organic toppings. One pie features local asparagus, goat cheese, and pine nuts; another—the Washington—stars ham from local charcuterie Zoe’s Meats, with caramelized onions and Granny Smiths. Owner Bill Coury is as irreverent about the rules as Douglas, claiming that he wasn’t setting out to be authentically anything; he just wanted to make a classic American “everybody pizza” with the best-tasting stuff on top. And—judging from the crowds of hipsters and families that throng the friendly, Mexican coke–and–Olympia Beer sort of Seward Park storefront every night—that he has done.

BOTTOM LINE: Flying Squirrel offers pristine toppings on a bumpy landscape of highly flavorful crust, which nevertheless lacks the moisture and chewy satisfaction of Serious Pie’s serious triumph.
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Late-Night Slice
Hot Mama's vs. Snoose Junction 

At Snoose Junction in Ballard, the zesty gourmet pies and arcade games last well into the night.

For a city so obsessed with food, we are notoriously bereft of kitchens that serve after 10pm. At least someone had the smarts to plant late-night pizzerias in two of the most hopping ’hoods. Of these, Hot Mama’s makes for a nice nightcap, but you don’t frequent these cramped Pine/Pike quarters for the pie. Sure, the New York–style, sloppy, big-as-your-plate slices (word to the wise—fold ’em or floor ’em) get the job done: With each bite the gloppy cheese covers your chin with a three-inch cobweb (yes, it’s that gooey), while the crunch of fresh-from-the-oven crust and slightly sweet pepperoni, toasted just a tad, punctures the early morning fog (even if the lackluster veggies won’t). But the real feast is the people. Here Seattle’s Jersey Shore kids spill over from Kurrent and mingle with glammed-out clubbers and buzzed, bearded hipsters. Throw in tattooed rockabillies and you’ve got one delicious scene, a true slice of today’s Cap Hill culture. Truth is, the morning after, it’s these characters, not the pizza, we (sorta) remember.

Not so with Snoose Junction, which whips up munchies of a higher pedigree. The crust—fluffy without losing firmness—cradles up to eight different cheeses and a zesty mound of gourmet toppings—and puddles of grease big enough to swim in. But who cares when it’s 2am? Once your belly greets a dripping mess of whole-milk mozzarella topped with Yukon Gold potatoes or CasCioppo Bros. Italian sausage, intoxication takes on new form. Added bonuses: elbow room, arcade games at the Ballard outpost, and music that keeps the party going.


BOTTOM LINE: Snoose Junction has us wanting more—whether the sun is still shining or just about to rise.

Zaw Artisan Bake At Home Pizza vs. Pizza Pi

Pizza Pi’s vegan and gluten-free pies are so good, they might even win over the carnivore crowd.

We know, we know—the very idea of “healthy pizza” just smells like Seattle. But if the concept sounds preposterous, two Seattle joints defining “healthful” in very different ways manage to purify the pie without trading away its essential naughtiness. Zaw successfully does this in its three (soon-to-be four) stark and spotless urban locations, through a commitment to sustainability that extends to the pizza boxes (strictly verboten), the toppings (locally sourced, organic), and even the delivery method (within a mile—by bike).

The idea is artisan toppings on bake-at-home pies, as in the house favorite, the Tailgate—with organic ale-soaked onions, pepperoni, and chewy chunks of Hempler’s bacon, built on whole wheat, gluten-free, or white organic flour crusts. So what if the thin crust tends to go cardboardy after baking. And they ask you to bake multiple pies one at a time, to ensure even heating. And the first-rate toppings lack the supporting nuance—herbs, where are you?—to showcase them most flavorfully. This pizza is free of everything bad except calories and a price tag. Sort of a big one, come to think of it. Whaddya want already.

For those singing out “cruelty-free!” there’s Pizza Pi, a sweetly shabby storefront in the upper reaches of the Ave that supplies vegan and gluten-free pizzas to those who favor them. We are talking Teese Cheese (not-bad soy mozzarella), Field Roast (grain meat, and the best pie here), and a white garlic sauce that turns in a fair imitation of aioli.

“This is the best vegan crust I’ve ever had,” marveled one trusty vegan, hired as a pinch-nibbler for our team of unapologetic carnivores. “And not too much grease!”

BOTTOM LINE: When we asked ourselves which was the greater achievement—pricey pie for foodies or vegan pizza that was edible—there was no question. It’s Pizza Pi.

Novelty Crust
All-Purpose Pizza vs. Jet City Pizza 

Jet City Pizza traffics in exotic toppings, but it’s the chewy beer crust that sets the pies apart.

Among pizza perfectionists, a pie’s crustworthiness is typically judged against the gold standard of Naples or New York. In these parts, two pizzerias veer proudly off that radar, thanks to secret ingredients all their own. Leschi’s All-Purpose Pizza takes three days letting each golden crust ferment. A crispy-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside marvel that not only achieves admirable heft and elasticity, it offers a gentle spank of sourdough in every bite. A heavily winey red sauce imports yet another layer of intrigue, adding up to a pie that will addict some palates and overwhelm others. (Kids tend to fall into the second camp, though they do love playing with dough at their own sawed-off tables in the airy, arty Jackson Street space.)

Across town and dotting the hinterlands is Jet City Pizza, a drive-by sort of franchise—takeout and delivery only—that traffics in similarly upmarket toppings. At Jet City, though, Thai peanut sauce with red onions and grilled chicken, or coconut, mandarin oranges, and Canadian bacon are piled on crusts fluffy with Redhook ale. You can also order your pie on a hand-thrown buttermilk crust tweaked with Parmesan—but why on earth would you, when the beer crust offers a yeast-puffed featherweight texture with a nearly caramelly malt flavor? Thin-crust aficionados won’t get it at all, and won’t care in the slightest how sublime gyro meat and tzatziki sauce taste on crusts as lush and tasty as bread sticks. That’s okay. More for us.

BOTTOM LINE: Jet City Pizza’s ethereally chewy beer crust is the underheralded sleeper of the year in this category.

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