By Arthur Bovino
January 5, 2018
One hundred and eleven places — by my count, that’s how many I hit during 2017, mostly in New York’s five boroughs and Buffalo (where I was doing research on the best wings, beef on weck, and pizza), but also in New Jersey, Maryland, and Texas (Dallas and San Antonio). And while eating pizza once every three-and-a-half days will probably keep the dues paid as far as maintaining my pizza cowboy bona fides, it has made it challenging to narrow down a list of just the top 10.
So I’ll make it a little easier by not including for consideration the 33 places I’ve previously visited, some of which I hit several times in 2017. That leaves 78 places to whittle down. It was still tough, one reason being the dozens of Buffalo pizzerias I visited. They totally skewed this list by taking half its spots. One of them would undoubtedly have been king of the hill if it hadn’t been for one truly inimitable pie. (In fact, Buffalo pizza deserves its own best-of list, so look for it in June in my upcoming book “Buffalo Everything”!)
Before listing the top 10, here are a dozen pies that deserve honorable mention. Leonardi’s Pizzeria for a straight-up delicious parking lot meal-worthy cup-and-char pizza; Emilio’s of Morris Park for their chicken vodka slice; Rosario’s of Astoria, which I was turned on to by and visited with Adam Kuban; VIPizza in Bayside, Queens, for its exemplary Sicilian; The Parlor in Dobb’s Ferry, N.Y., for its bone marrow, everything bagel, and lemon pizzas; Lou Malnati’s, whose Toro pop-up made me grudgingly admit there may be room for love in my heart for this style of pizza; Delorenzo’s in Robbinsville for its tomato pie; Pizza Town USA in Elmwood Park, N.J., for its super thin plain cheese slice; Johnny’s Pizzeria in Sunset Park, Queens, for its old-school New York City slice; Vic’s in NoHo, for one of the most right-under-my-nose good pizzas in recent memory; Federici’s of Freehold, N.J., for its storied bar pizzas (hat tip to Adam again for this rec); and Anthony Falco’s Thin ‘n’ Crispy bar pizza served at a packed pop-up at Hair of the Dog on the Lower East Side.
I could go on. But with that…
#10 Martina Pizzeria (East Village, NY): Pork-Fennel Sausage and Mushroom Pizza
I keep expecting more positive reviews of Nick Anderer and Danny Meyer’s Roman-inspired pizzeria, wondering, “Have I just been blinded because it’s reliable, family-friendly, and blocks from home? Because it’s been one of the easiest places to pizza-spelunk, even with a newborn.” That’s not it. The pies are good. I know because I’ve tried every pizza on the menu (something I rarely do) during the five visits I’ve made (four more than I usually make to new places in one year). Nick says it’s the same dough as at Marta (which underwhelmed me), but it looks more like a bar pie to me. And the ratios and textures seem more in harmony. Maybe because they’re slightly smaller and the cheese and sauce go farther out to the edge. The leopard-spotting you get on Neapolitan pies is on the undercarriage but there’s a crunch to this crust, which in places is just about an eighth of an inch thick. There’s a burnt-edge rim, swirls of fresh cheese, razor-thin slices of creminis, and micro-pockets of sausage grease bubbling out of the three or four sausage nubbins per slice. The chicken meatballs… hold on, I’m raving about chicken meatballs? Yes. They’re moist and flavorful in a zesty sauce. The Martina mista salad, the fior di latte soft serve drizzled with olive oil… this has become the pizzeria I crave in my neighborhood.
#9 Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana (Darnestown, MD): Wood-Oven Roasted Potatoes
Full disclosure, I was invited down to Maryland by chef-owner Tony Conte (former executive chef at D.C.’s Oval Room and executive sous at Manhattan’s Jean-Georges), who presented a pizza tasting menu at his six-seat counter. Nuanced, delicate, bold, bright… dishes like citrus-marinated olives with warm prosciutto; burrata in heirloom carrot caponata with chili caramel that was on the verge of being a dessert; and gently roasted beets with persimmon dressing, cherry “olives,” and pecans made it difficult to save room for the pies. I just gorged. On the D.O.C Marinara’s SUPER bright San Marzanos garlic confit, olive oil, and oregano, pleased by the lip-tingling bite from the hot pepper that made it feel like a fra diavolo crawled up on the pizza. On the smoked prosciutto pie where a variety of textures and flavors assembled an unusual harmony – fior di latte, ricotta, with lemon-braised fennel leading. But the roasted potato pie was the memory-burner. Topped with roasted onions, smoked mozzarella, and seven to eight slices of ⅛-inch thick potatoes that almost lent an Indian profile to a pie whose three-flour crust is among the best neo-Neapolitans you’ll find around — just when you think it might get too doughy, you get a nice bitter char. I’d swing through Darnestown on the way to D.C. any day.
#8 Il Forno (San Antonio, TX): Pistachio, EVOO, Garlic, Orange, Calabrese, Red Onion, Pesto
This is said without condescension: Pizza has come a long way in Texas since I started visiting in 1998. San Antonio’s Il Forno is one of the better Neapolitan-ish pies you’ll find across the country — you could put this pizza up against any others in this genre made in New York City. At Il Forno, they assemble inventive but not over-the-top flavor combinations and make a fantastic chile oil using Chinese peppers. I love what Michael Sohocki is doing at this unassuming roadside neo-Neapolitan pizzeria.
#7 Santora’s (Buffalo, NY): Stinger Pizza
Buffalo’s oldest pizzeria was founded by Fioravanti Santora, who started selling pizza by the slice out of his homemade ice cream shop in 1927, a dozen years after arriving from Naples, Italy. By my research, Santora’s is the sixth oldest pizzeria in America. But it doesn’t get much love, even in Buffalo. This surprised me given how hard I fell for Santora’s stinger pie when visiting the Transit Road location in Depew. The white-pocked undercarriage is poofier than most of Buffalo’s pizzas, but browned, its crust rim lined blackened and a slight “trim” attached where the cheese had melted. That crust was topped with blue cheese and wing sauce base, a generous mix of chicken fingers, steak, fried onions, and a blend of mozzarella and provolone. There was a crispy-crackly bite. And a hot melted string of cheese stretched cartoon-like as you bit and pulled. So why doesn’t Santora’s get the love? I have a theory. It’s in the book!
#6 Margherita Pizza (Jamaica, NY): Plain Cheese Slice
Since 2015, Amore in Flushing was my favorite sloppy slice in the city. That changed in 2017, when my friend GutterGourmet turned me on to Margherita, a 15-minute walk from the LIRR Jamaica hub. It immediately earned a spot on my list of New York City’s most underrated pizzas for First We Feast. As noted: “This narrow, brightly lit slice spot is a silent killer — a pizza ninja among under-appreciated pizzerias. Sicilian-born Stefano DiBenedetto and childhood friend Frank Gioeliand opened this neighborhood icon in 1966. It’s not much to look at — there’s a nondescript green awning you’d miss if not for the blinking globes in the window — but once you walk up to the long counter bereft of stools and ask for a slice, you’re in pizza heaven. They come hot, they come quick, and you’re guaranteed a cheese pull for $2.75 every time. This isn’t about balance, it’s about indulgence. Margherita is a napkin-blotter’s pizza grease nightmare: we’re talking oil-dripping-down-your-wrist good. There’s twice as much cheese as crust.” Makes me wish I was there right now.
#5 Deniro’s Pizzeria (Buffalo, NY): Pepperoni
Deniro’s was a dark horse rec, friend of a friend. I couldn’t find anything about it online. “I hear it’s for real,” I was told by a credible source. For real indeed. It’s a tiny pizzeria in a small strip mall on George Urban Blvd., around the corner from the Dick Road Duff’s in Depew. This pie is a monster. With so much pepperoni there’s even cup-and-char on the cornicione. Most slices don’t have less than 12 pepperoni slices and some have more than 20. Bursts of spicy pepper and roni edge crackle with every bite, cheese pulls midway through the slice, plenty of cheese but open ridges where you can see the sauce is evenly applied. It’s bendy with a very soft undercarriage and little crunch except along the cornicione, crisp and dark at the very edge, and golden brown and delicious. I ate it in the parking lot because I had to take photos right away, but I can’t imagine how you’d do otherwise regardless.
#4 Lock City Pizza (Lockport, NY): Pepperoni
I would never have found this beaut without the expertise of Buffalo pizza blogger SexySlices. Nothing about this pie should appeal to a pizza purist who holds balance, nuance, and structural integrity dear — there’s not even proper cup-and-char and it’s distributed wildly and inconsistently. It’s like a combination Buffalo-based amalgam of a few different styles. There’s Bocce trim, a coal oven-esque dry crust, and a cornmeal bottom. There’s twice, maybe even three times as much cheese as undercarriage, and at least as much sauce as dough. Somehow there’s still a chew-pull to the undercarriage. The sauce is ridiculous (sweet, acidic, spicy) and pepperoni distribution is like the last grasp of matter trying to escape a pizza black hole. One slice will have four pieces, and others, 12. There are even pepperoni leaflets, stacks up to seven slices. It’s nearly a salt bomb, but it’s really, really good.
#3 La Nova Pizza (Buffalo, NY): Pepperoni With a Sesame Crust
The crusts on a fresh La Nova pie are a revelation, particularly the sesame, generously scattered an inch-and-a-half from the edge. The seeds toast in the cheese and pepperoni oil —they turn wonderfully nutty and slightly crunchy. It’s a nice contrast to the sweet sauce and uneven slices of charred pepperoni that’s generously, if unevenly scattered. There’s a faint shimmer of grease on the cornicione and an oil-scarred edge. I’ve been hearing about La Nova and Bocce Club for years, always as beloved places with local pull, but never really as national pizza pilgrimages. I’d put both on a rotation of pizzerias across the country I’d regularly crave.
#2 Bocce Club Pizza (Buffalo, NY): Pepperoni
Fresh from the oven, your 18-inch Bocce Club pie is sliced on a wood block with a two-handled blade, cheese, and toppings flowing over the edge of the crust. Imagine a New York slice with a soft crust, focaccia undercarriage, and bites toward the end where you finally find a crunch where the cheese has crisped over the mostly invisible cornicione. It’s still difficult to imagine this pizza’s inherent excess without tasting it and it’s not for purists (who needs ’em?). There’s no structural integrity — no surprise, given there’s three times the cheese and twice the sauce of a New York City slice. Thick rounds of pepperoni with pronounced ridges are thoroughly charred and filled with shallow grease pools. There’s a scattering of herbs and you get a cheese pull with every bite.
#1 Sofia Pizza Shoppe (New York, NY): Doughdici
Back in April, I called this New York’s most inventive pizza in years. I stand by that. Some may quibble with exalting the length of the cold-ferment, and the price (which earned it The New York Times’ headline, “The Rise of the $38 Pizza, Exclusive and Elusive”), but if you’ve had it, it’s hard to argue the resulting airiness from the 12-hour rise isn’t something special. (Even many skeptics have been swayed.) To recap my take on this pie: “The result is an ever-so-slight oil crisp-brown and golden undercarriage, a frico, Detroit-esque crust slightly chewy and salty from the cheese, but without the Motor City overflow. And because cheese lines the pan and is added to the dough as it grows, the frico seems built into the dough. There’s an “L-crust” edge that sinks about a quarter-inch out with the deepest part of the corner stretching an inch toward the center. The dough has dark brown patches, thick and chewy at the edge, soft and airy inside. There are similarities to focaccia, but there’s more lift and moisture, which makes sense given most recipes for focaccia require a rise of just an hour and a half to two hours, and the edge is unlike any focaccia you’ve likely had. While it’s gently dressed, this garlic knot-esque Sicilian pizza soufflé is pretty cheesy and saucy. And it’s light. You can eat several slices without that gut-bomb effect. It’s pretty spectacular.”
So there you have it, my top 10 pies from 2017. One week into 2018, I’m only at one pizzeria and counting. Better up my game. 🍕🤠