The 10 Best Pepperoni Pizzas in America
The 10 Best Pepperoni Pizzas in America
Photo by Mei S. via Yelp
For the past four years, we’ve cast a wide net and released our ranking of the 101 best pizzas in America. From Sicilian to salciccia, these pizzas run the gamut across nearly every regional style out there. But today we’re sharing the top 10 pizzas that made the list that contain America’s favorite pizza topping: pepperoni.
#10 Emmy Squared, Brooklyn
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It could have been enough for Matt and Emily Hyland to open a neo-Neapolitan pizza joint with a refined take on a thinner cornicione, to serve one of the city’s best new burgers, and by hosting former Slice pizza blogger Adam Kuban on Saturdays, to act as incubator for one of the more exciting pizza stories in recent memory. Opening a second pizzeria, one focusing on Detroit-style pies (pan-cooked, thick crusts, sauce on top of the cheese), in a metropolis notorious for pizza pride and skepticism if not disdain for Midwestern pizza styles, should have been tempting fate. But they doubled-down and won. The pizzas are thick but fluffy with frico-edged, crispy crusts that even co-owner Emily Hyland has called her favorite part of the pies.
There are six red pies and four white ones, a playful take on Hawaiian style and another that dares pizza purists to put hold the line against their anti-ranch dressing stance by making theirs from scratch. But the pie to not miss is the Roni Supreme: sauce, mozzarella, lots of pepperoni, and Calabrian chile. The pepperoni curls up so that it’s crispy and salty against the cheesy top and pools of tangy-sweet sauce dribbled on top.
#9 Pizza Brain, Philadelphia
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When you’re craving great pizza in Philly, go no further than this nineteenth-century brick building in Kensington. You’ll find thin-crust pizza cooked in the double-deck gas-fired oven at the cash-only joint Kickstarted in 2012 by Ryan Anderson, Joseph Hunter, Brian Dwyer, and Michael Carter. As you wait for the crew to cook your pie, bask in Pizza Brain's unique ambience, their pizza memorabilia museum (featuring what the Guinness Book of World Records called the world’s largest collection of pizza memorabilia), or rummage through their pizza tattoo book for laughs. Pizza Brain’s "Jane" is their version of a Margherita — a cheesy trifecta of mozzarella, aged provolone, and grana padano blended with basil — a good place to begin. The salty and satisfying Forbes Waggensense is the one that was ranked No. 84 by our panel: mozzarella, fontina, grana padano, basil, smoked pepperoni, and tomato sauce.
#8 Via 313, Austin
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Via 313 specializes in the Detroit-style pizza that its owners, brothers Zane and Brandon Hunt, loved eating at Cloverleaf, Loui's, Niki's, and Buddy's (where the style originated) when they were kids. They opened their customized pizza trailer on East 6th and Waller (in front of the Violet Crown Social Club) in 2011 and haven’t looked back. For the uninitiated, consider Detroit-style like a Sicilian slice — semi-thick but with a light and airy crust (similar to focaccia) formed from baking it in industrial steel pans that also allow for the cheese to be baked all the way around. There’s a delicious caramelized edge and two large strips of crushed red tomato sauce that add a flavorful touch. Via 313 offers eight thin-crust bar-style pies and 13 different Detroit-style pizzas with all the classic toppings you’d imagine, but they suggest starting with The Detroiter: mozzarella, white Cheddar, tomato sauce, and a double portion of pepperoni.
#7 The Backspace, Austin
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With a pedigree that includes a degree from the Culinary Institute of America and stops at The French Laundry and Café Boulud, it’s not a surprise that chef Shawn Cirkiel found success with his restaurant Parkside. But culinary degrees and hifalutin restaurant experience don’t necessarily mean you can make great pizza.
Lucky for Austin, Cirkiel can and does, serving pizza cooked in a wood-fired brick oven from Naples at 900 degrees. There are seven pies at The Backspace, featuring toppings like fennel sausage, kale pesto, and picante salame. According to the restaurant, the most popular pie is the Bianca, a pizza with arugula, mozzarella, ricotta, and pecorino romano.
Whether it's downed with an aranciata like in Naples, or Texas-style with a glass bottle of Mexican Coke, well… that’s up to you.
#6 Caserta Pizzeria, Providence, R.I.
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Al Forno and Providence Coal Fired Pizza have garnered Rhode Island pizza accolades in years past, but Caserta Pizza in Providence’s Little Italy has been around for longer than both put together. This salt-of-the-earth pizza joint has been all white-tile floor and pan-cooked pies since 1953. Caserta’s is thick but fluffy and not shy when it comes to cheese and sauce. It’s a Sicilian-style pie served in a six-slice circular pan when ordered small, with the large pie delivered as a 12-slice rectangular cheese-fest. Whatever the size, we’re talking a well-done, golden-brown undercarriage, a slice that maintains a fixed horizon when held by the crust even with considerable cheese and sauce heft. The only other toppings are pepperoni, mushrooms, olives, and anchovies. Don’t expect peppers or onions.
Order the Wimpy Skimpy (named for two best friends of the previous owner) and the Pepper Pig. These quasi-calzones are cooked open-faced, the former stuffed with spinach, cheese, black olives, and pepperoni, and the latter with Italian sausage and green bell peppers. “If you’re not eating Caserta’s, you’re not eating pizza.”
#5 Santillo's Brick Oven Pizza, Elizabeth, N.J.
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What can you say about Al Santillo? Santillo may be the least well-known great pizza tradition curator in America, the gatekeeper to three generations of pizza-making and one of the most unique pizzerias in America. The man has tomato sauce running through his veins. Al Santillo’s grandfather, who had long made focaccia for his family at home, decided to try it as a business in 1950. "He wanted to keep the place open in the evening and make a little more money, so he started making pizza," his grandson Al has noted. "In 1957, he bought the brick oven I use now." It’s an oven Al says is called a low-arch, one whose every brick was cut by hand, and which he insists, "permits infinite possibilities in temperature and character."
Pizza infinity is difficult to conceive, but Santillo’s is something you just have to experience for yourself. You can only do takeout from Al's living room — it houses the massive cathedral-like oven that requires a 20-foot-long peel to retrieve the pizzas. And be prepared to order by the year — Al preserves every pizza style he can for posterity. They range from the 1940 Genuine Tomato Pie (no cheese) to the 2011 San Marzano "Tomatoes Over the Cheese" Pizza. But there are other intriguing options like Lasagna Pizza, thin-pan, Roman-style, Italian bread, and an off-the-menu grandpa pie as well. Start out with a 1957 Style Pizza Extra Thin (14-Inch round), or the popular Sicilian pizza, or just ask this quirky, pizza-possessed master to make you his own spontaneous creation.
#4 Piece, Chicago
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In a city known for deep-dish, Chicagoans long ago learned how to give Wicker Park brewery and pizzeria Piece a chance (“Pizza is good for you!”). Owner Bill Jacobs had already started, sold, and made Piece with moving beyond the successful Windy City bagel family business they sold in 1999 (you’d say “rest in Piece,” but after his pizza success with Piece, he’s actually now back into bagels too!) three years before this New Haven homeboy ventured into pizza in 2002.
The haters protested, but they were soon at Piece eating this New Haven-style joint’s thin-crust red, plain (no mozzarella), and white (plain crust brushed with olive oil, diced garlic, and mozzarella) pizzas, all of which get at least a small piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano, oregano, and olive oil. Ingredients. You can have a classic New Haven pie with fresh tomatoes or clams (of course), and, in some kind of pan-New Haven Piece accord, there’s also a nod to Bru Room at Bar’s signature mashed potato pizza. Is it puzzling to see chips and salsa and warm spinach and tomato dip on the menu? Sure, but having brought quality New Haven-style pies to Chicago and bought out his lease so he can do so for years to come, Jacobs has brought Piece of mind to Windy City denizens and delivery to boot. Piece out.
#3 Lombardi’s, New York City
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Anybody interested in tracing America’s love affair with pizza to its origins will find the way to Lombardi’s. Gennaro Lombardi opened a grocery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1897, and in 1905 he started selling tomato pies wrapped in paper and tied with a string to workers of Italian descent who took them to work (because most couldn’t afford a pie, it was sold by the piece). The pizzeria was run by the Lombardi family — first by Gennaro’s son, John, then his grandson, Jerry — until it closed in 1984, and was reopened 10 years later a block from the original location by Jerry and John Brescio, a childhood friend.
These days, Lombardi’s is almost always packed (their 110th anniversary, 5-cent pizza celebration queued a line around the block). There’s a thin crust, a cornicione without much bubble, and a thorough sauce layering that’s tangy and not overly sweet or salty.
There’s no shredded mozzarella layering but the fresh stuff, spread out. Even if you’re not a fan of this kind of cheese on your pie, you’ll probably like this. Is it New York City’s best pizza? No. Still, Lombardi's is a touchstone (sometimes, it's worth re-establishing your baseline). And when looking out on New York's pizza landscape, the devotion to a pizza from a time when it didn't mean artful charring and contrived golden-tiled ovens is comforting, even if that just means the pizza of 1994.
#2 Grimaldi’s, Brooklyn
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Being able to do the mental gymnastics intrinsic to understanding the history behind one of New York City's — er, Brooklyn’s — most storied pizzerias isn’t required for you to enjoy a slice of its famous pizza, but we have a few minutes while you wait in line.
Gennaro Lombardi opened what’s generally regarded as America’s first pizzeria (Lombardi's, No. 32). He supposedly trained Pasquale “Patsy” Lancieri, who opened the first Patsy’s in East Harlem (No. 22). His nephew Patsy Grimaldi opened a place, also called Patsy’s, in Brooklyn’s DUMBO in 1990 (he’s said to have also learned his craft from Jerry Pero, son of Anthony Totonno Pero, who founded Totonno’s — another story), but had to change the name to Grimaldi’s after his uncle died and his aunt sold the Patsy’s name.
Three years later, Patsy sold the Grimaldi’s at 19 Old Fulton Street to Frank Ciolli, whose two children expanded the Grimaldi’s brand to nearly 50 restaurants across the country. But Ciolli lost the lease to the original space and had to move into a larger former bank building next door on 1 Front Street. That’s when Patsy swooped out of retirement into the original Grimaldi’s space to open Juliana’s.
It comes down to this: Patsy Grimaldi, whose pizza lineage goes back to family members trained by Gennaro Lombardi, is making pies at a restaurant called Juliana’s in the original Grimaldi’s, and Grimaldi’s is right next door.
With that all said, you’re just about at the front of the line (remember: no credit cards, no reservations, no slices, and no delivery!). So sit down and order something simple: a Margherita made in a coal-fired oven that heats up to about 1,200 degrees F and requires about 100 pounds of coal a day. It’s crispy, it’s smoky, it’s tangy, cheesy, and delicious, and when you’re done, you can go next door to Juliana’s.
#1 Lucali, Brooklyn
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A pinch of Di Fara’s Dom DeMarco, a dash of the murals of Gino’s of Long Beach, stretch the un-sauced classic Coney Island Totonno's crust a bit wider, add a few intangibles, and you’re close to the pizza experience Mark Iacono has made famous at his Carroll Gardens pizzeria Lucali since opening in 2006. There’s that classic New York thin-crust style and justified whispers about old-school execution praised at New York’s storied and beloved institutions. Eating pizza in Lucali’s warm, softly lit environs, you wonder how Iacono seems to have magically inherited Gennaro Lombardi’s pizza primogeniture. Iacono, who survived a stabbing in 2011 that left him with no feeling in about 50 percent of his body, hasn’t slowed, drawing crowds and fans at the original Brooklyn spot, and he’s receiving similar accolades at his Miami location.