Pizza! If you grew up obsessed with it — postgame pizza, movie pizza, baby-sitting pizza, college pizza, pizza, pizza, pizza! — and followed that American passion for cheese, sauce, and bread with an adult pursuit of the best slice, the finest pie, the Platonic Neapolitan, then the idea of naming America's best is likely contentious.
Read more: America's 35 Best Pizzas Slideshow
"A best pizza list? I know pizza. That's not great pizza!" Yes, pizza is tough to rank responsibly. Consider that just years ago, The New York Times' then critic Sam Sifton said Motorino "serves the city’s best pizza." It was enough to make you roll your eyes and call him out for knowing better, right? City's best? Not its best artisanal or Neapolitan pie? What about its best slice? And what is a "best" slice or pie anyway? After all, you could argue that great pizza can be many different things.
Given America's current love affair for Neapolitan pies, some might argue great pizza must meet the requirements of the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana, the international nonprofit founded in the 1980s by a group of pizzaiolos to cultivate and protect the art of making Neapolitan pizza. Their rules? Fresh tomatoes as long as they’re San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese-Nocerino D.O.P., Pomodorini di Corbara, and Pomodorino del Piennolo del Vesuvio D.O.P. Canned, peeled tomatoes (Pomodoro Pelato San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese-Nocerino D.O.P.) as long as they’re strained, broken up, and homogenized. And depending on whether you’re making a Margherita or marinara, you ladle "sauce" (according to the organization's founder Antonio Pace, technically it’s not a sauce) on and top it with oil, mozzarella or fior di latte, grated cheese, and basil; or just tomato, oil, oregano, and garlic.
Things get more contentious.
Maybe great pizza means the use of the freshest ingredients and seasonal toppings? Does it involve a structural integrity to the underlying dough that ensures you can lift a slice without experiencing droopage? Is it an airy, charred cornicione that makes even the most ardent crust-chucker certain not to leave one pizza bone behind? Must it employ artisanal sausage, or does old-school pepperoni count? Does it involve fresh mozzarella? Or just the expert scattering and sauce to cheese ratio of good old-fashioned, low-moisture aged mozzarella and sauce made from canned San Marzano tomatoes? Does a bar pie count? And how do you stack those up against deep-dish pies?!
These are all questions you could get lost debating for hours. For me, great pizza doesn't include deep dish. That's not pizza. It's a casserole for crying out loud. Great pizza is a thin-crust New York slice right out of the oven that you can fold and that keeps its structural integrity despite the generous cheese, sauce, and orange oil on top about to burn the roof of your mouth that you're compelled to bite into anyway. It's a bar pie topped with hot pepper oil at Colony Grill in Stamford, Conn., or Eddie's in New Hyde Park — pizza so thin that it's more like a hot cracker with your favorite toppings. It's the best renditions of Long Island's much-overlooked pan-crisped genre: the grandma pie. It's the charred, airy crust of Da Michele that inspires devotion and poetry, and the renditions in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York City that aspire to and almost achieve that level of greatness. It's South Brooklyn Pizza (the East Village location), Little Vincent's incredibly saucy and bubble-crusted pie in Huntington, Long Island, Bianco's pistachio pie in Phoenix, and Great Lake's chewy crust in Chicago. For me, in its purest form, great pizza is fresh pizza: thin, cheesy, saucy, and with an airy bubbled crust. I could go on, but this isn't my list.
You could argue that all of these things should be taken into account when compiling a list. When it comes to pizza, there are so many nuances, there should be niche lists detailing the best in each category. The Daily Meal will take that approach next year. In 2012, we did the next best thing: we assembled a panel of experts across America, and asked them to vote for the country's best pies.
How did this list of 35 places come to be? The Daily Meal's editors racked their collective pizza memory. We consulted venerable texts and online sources, sought out old-school Formica-table joints and brazen newcomers alike. We carefully considered the stalwarts of the country's two pizza capitals, New York City and (cough) Chicago, but not so closely that we couldn't look beyond them. We ended up with a list of more than 140 places for pizza, most any of which, you'd be very happy with stopping in for a pie.
Knowing that it might still be possible to miss quite a few local gems across the country, we then asked each member of our panel to write in with five suggestions of their own. Altogether, we turned 140 places over to our panel and asked them narrow things down to five spots for each of seven regions: West Coast; Southwest and Texas; Midwest; South; Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, and New Jersey; New England; and yes, New York City.
There were hundreds of votes cast by a venerable panel of about 20 American chefs, restaurant critics, and pizza authorities, most of whom, besides the Los Angeles Times' Jonathan Gold and Chicago Magazine's Penny Pollack, requested anonymity. These are people who, like you (and us) live and die pizza. And you know what? The results are probably going to really bubble your crust, and burn your upskirt. That's just the nature of a list like this.
Panelists voted on places that you'd expect to make a best pizza list, like Bianco in Phoenix, Di Fara in Brooklyn, Pizzeria Mozza in LA, New Haven's Frank Pepe, and Una Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco. But they also put these places side by side with deep-dish pies in Chicago, and... wait, is that the jumbo slice from D.C? (Man, you've got to think that The Washington Post's Tom Sietsema and Tim Carman are going to be so mad.)
No $1-slice joints made the list. Neither probably, did several of your, or our favorites. Consider that in New York City alone, Roberta's, Kesté, Paulie Gee's, and South Brooklyn Pizza (that East Village outpost) didn't make the list. Neither did Pizza Moto (arguably, New York City's most underrated pizza — seriously, New York, how have you not acknowledged this as one of Gotham's best?).
That's the way these things go, until everyone can attest to having visited every reputable pizza place across the country. Below is the complete list of 2012's winners organized by region. Check out the slideshow for the countdown to number one. Think we missed a few great places? We're sure we did. Clue us in in the comments below and they'll be sure to be considered next year.
Pizzeria Mozza, Una Pizza Napoletana, Gjelina, Flour + Water, A16
Southwest and Texas
Bianco, Pizaro's, Roppolo's, Antonio's Ristorante, Fireside Pies
Gino's East, Great Lake, Spacca Napoli, Vito & Nick's, Pizano's
EVO, Monza, Scuola Vecchia, Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza, Reginelli's
Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania, and New Jersey
Osteria, 2Amys, DeLorenzo's, Jumbo Slice Pizza, Papa's Tomato Pies
Co., DiFara, John's, Motorino, Joe's
Frank Pepe's, Al Forno, Regina Pizzeria, Sally's Apizza, Santarpio's
Sean Flynn and Molly Aronica contributed reporting to this article.
Arthur Bovino is The Daily Meal's executive editor. Follow Arthur on Twitter.