The 25 Best Cheese Pizzas in America
September 14, 2016
Cheese, sauce, and bread: These places do it perfectly
Photo by Amelinda L. via Yelp
The 25 Best Cheese Pizzas in America
Photo by Amelinda L. 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 shedding the toppings and sharing the top 25 topping-less pies that made the list this year, either in the form of a plain cheese slice or a Margherita-style pizza. All of these pizzas are just crust, cheese, and sauce, and they’re all astoundingly delicious.
#25 Loui's Pizza, Hazel Park, Mich.
Photo by Terry K. via Yelp
Loui’s started serving squares in 1977, when longtime Buddy’s chef Louis Tourtois branched out on his own. And it doesn’t look like much has changed since. There are checkered tablecloths, plastic and Formica tables, and empty, straw-wrapped Chianti bottles hanging all over the place. The third-generation, family-owned Hazel Park spot serves quartered, Detroit red top-style pies that are said to each have a pound of cheese on them. There are some eight charred-side pies on the menu – mostly variations on pepperoni pies featuring mushrooms, onions, green peppers, and ham. The restaurant’s signature is the classic cheese and tomato sauce, but two popular favorites are the Hawaiian pie and the option to get extra meat: ground beef, ham, bacon, and pepperoni.
#24 J&V Pizzeria, Brooklyn
Photo by Kendra C. via Yelp
J&V, that’s John and Vinny (John Mortillaro and Vincent DeGrezia), were two friends who founded a pizzeria at the corner of 63rd and 18th Avenue in what was then in 1950 a much more Italian Bensonhurst. Wood paneling, Formica booths, and metal napkin dispensers have all the hallmarks of a classic slice joint, one whose tradition is kept up by the family: John’s widow, Stella, his son, Joseph, and his brother, John. They keep things simple at this joint – which is considered to be one of the first to have sold by the slice – with a revolving deck oven, a choice of a round pie, square pie, or grandma pizza, and not even 10 toppings (the old familiars: pepperoni, mushrooms, onions, sausage, olives, you know the drill). Slices from the classic round pizza are super thin, narrow isosceles that pack more flavor than you’d expect at first glance. Save room for the chicken “JoJo,” a chicken Parmesan on a half a loaf of garlic bread that’s been making a name for itself among locals over the past decade.
#23 Galleria Umberto, Boston
Photo by Lydell A. via Yelp
Galleria Umberto in Boston’s North End is generally lost among Boston’s better-known pie shops like Santarpio’s and Regina. That’s curious, because, as put forth a few years ago by one Gadling.com travel blogger, it may very well be one of America’s best cheap slice places. But the fact that it’s somewhat under the radar is probably preferable to the locals, because as it is, there’s already a line outside the door for these thick, over-the-edge-of-the-pan cheesy, saucy, completely over-the-top Sicilian slices. That’s right, the Sicilian is the only pizza option, and the joint is cash only. Though it open sat 11 a.m., it closes at 2:30 p.m. (or whenever the dough is gone), so don’t delay.
#22 Pizza Delicious, New Orleans
Photo by Danielle M. via Yelp
"Best Pizza," "Pizza Delicious" — it almost seems as though new-guard pizza parlors are being named to optimize how high they’ll show in Google results. But New Orleans’ Pizza Delicious doesn’t need a search-engine-optimized name to get people talking about it; there’s been an amazing amount of buzz around and support for this Kickstarter success story since two New York-native Tulane grads started their pop-up–turned–brick-and-mortar Bywater institution in 2010.
The formerly one-day-a-week operation, routinely noted among best-of lists for both New Orleans and the entire country, is now open Tuesday through Sunday (11 a.m. to 11 p.m.). It provides pizza-lovers in the New York diaspora with their fix for slices from 18-inch pies in what they know of as the one true style, and preaches the faith to newcomers with cheese and pepperoni slices. There are nearly 30 toppings, including peppadews, Sriracha pineapple, and spinach ricotta, and well as daily specials like rosemary potato with red onion and spicy béchamel and eggplant Parmesan.
#21 Delorenzo's Tomato Pies, Robbinsville, N.J.
Photo by Tina C. via Yelp
DeLorenzo’s serves serious tradition with their pizza — 68 years’ worth. It was launched in Trenton in 1947 by Southern Italian immigrant Alexander "Chick" De Lorenzo; today, Delorenzo’s tradition is upheld by his grandson Sam Amico at the new location in Robbinsville, opened in 2007 (the original closed in 2012 when stewards Gary and Eileen Amico retired).
DeLorenzo’s makes a clam pie, albeit with tomato sauce (New Haven pizza purists, beware!), but customers can add to small or large tomato pies by selecting from a range of toppings ($1.75 each) including anchovies, artichokes, basil, spinach, black olives, broccoli, garlic, hot peppers, mushrooms, onions, sausage, roasted peppers, sweet peppers, and pepperoni. We list these fastballs (as well as the $3 homemade meatball topping) to make this curveball even more effective: this near-septuagenarian pizzeria serves a tuna tomato pie, too.
#20 Pizza Rock, Las Vegas
Photo by Drew A. via Yelp
This Vegas outpost, one of the some 11 pizzerias California pizza king Tony Gemignani owns, doesn’t skimp on pizza preparation. There are at least four ovens (a 900-degree-F wood-fired Cirigliano Forni oven, a Rotoflex gas brick oven, a Marsal gas brick oven, and a Cuppone Italian electric brick oven) the pizza champ uses to send out his signature pie styles (Napoletana, classic Italian, classic American, Sicilian, and Romano) of which there are many impressive iterations in each category. Your goal? Try to score one of the only 73 Margherita pies made daily using Tony’s award-winning recipe.
#19 Ken’s Artisan Pizza, Portland, Ore.
Photo by Jennell K. via Yelp
Ken Forkish and chef Alan Maniscalco co-founded Ken’s Artisan Pizza in 2006 after the success of Monday Night Pizza at Ken’s Artisan Bakery. There's been a cultish love for it in Portland ever since. There are gigantic Douglas Fir beams, sliding glass windows, and an open kitchen with a Le Panyol wood-fired oven, which guests can marvel at while digging in at tables made from salvaged wood from the late Jantzen Beach Big Dipper rollercoaster — once they get inside, that is (there tends to be a wait).
The thin-crust pies, baked in about two minutes and inspired by the co-founders’ visits to Europe, are known for their tangy, orange-red sauce, featuring heat and savory notes, and a style that, as the name of the restaurant states, is more artisanal than Neapolitan.
#18 2Amys, Washington, D.C.
Photo by Jason S. via Yelp
Once upon a time, the District of Columbia was a pizza desert, a land where khaki-wearers bided their time until the fortunes tied to two-, four-, or six-year cycles became clear, resigning themselves to late-night calls to Domino’s and hoping Manny & Olga’s wouldn’t turn them off pizza for good. They suffered locals’ misplaced love for Ledo’s and watched with frustration as Adams Morgan’s jumbo slices edged increasingly close to the half-smoke as one of the city’s signature dishes. Thankfully, those days are over. Thanks, 2Amys.
2Amys’ membership in the D.O.C (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) means its pizzaiolos adhere to the guidelines of what the Italian government deems a pizza should be. When you take a bite, you know you are getting a quintessential, traditional pie. Their menu is broken into D.O.C pizza offerings, stuffed pizzas, and more traditional but uncertified options, but panelists voted the namesake pie (tomato sauce and mozzarella) No. 53 on this list of America’s 101 best pizzas — higher than a number of pizzerias in New York.
#17 Amore Pizzeria, Flushing, N.Y.
Photo by Peng L. via Yelp
Tucked into a Flushing strip mall along with a check cashing joint, Carvel, and a Pathmark, off the Whitestone Expressway just minutes before it takes you over the East River to the Bronx, is an under-mentioned and quintessential Queens slice joint: Amore Pizzeria.
This is a no-frills sliceria that’s been around for about 40 years, the kind of spot that graces best-of-Queens lists from time to time. Truckers, taxi drivers, construction workers, and police officers stop in for super soupy slices barely thick enough to hold up to the sauce and cheese (their outrageous proportions almost make it seem like someone squared the original recipe’s measurements and left the crust to just deal with it).
There have been quibbles about this among the pizza cognoscenti, to which this year’s pizza panel once again replies, “We’d say, ‘Shut your mouth when you chew on this insanely-satisfying slice,’ but all that cheese and sauce would burn the roof of it.”
#16 Star Tavern Pizzeria, Orange, N.J.
The bar pie. In the annals of all things pizza, it is perhaps one of the most underrated styles. The maligned proponents of the pile-it-on philosophy behind deep-dish get bent out of shape when Chicago’s signature style is besmirched, but there doesn’t seem to be a similar geographic identification attached to this more nuanced, reserved, and minimalist approach. It’s a shame, save that it makes bar pie bastions like Colony, Eddie’s (on 2014’s list), and Star Tavern in Orange, New Jersey, even easier to like, and, selfishly, to eat at without battling crowds.
Owned and operated by the Vayianos family since 1980, “The Star” is run by former attorney Gary Vayianos, whose kitchen turns out super thin, crispy, to-the-edges-with-the-sauce toppings, with a sauce-to-cheese ratio that delivers as much as you need and not more than the structural integrity can handle.
#15 Ernie’s Pizzeria, New Haven, Conn.
Photo by Tom P. via Yelp
We’ll stop you there. Not that these aren’t amazing pizzerias, but the comebacks against well-known New Haven spots are enough to start a molten-cheese versus scald-your-mouth sauce debate you don’t want to be part of. There are so many great places that haven’t been given national attention. And Ernie’s Pizzeria in New Haven, almost exactly four miles from Frank Pepe, is among them.
These days, Ernie’s (named for its founder) is run by his son, Pat DeRiso, who has sworn he would never divulge his father’s crust recipe. It’s a recipe that’s been kneaded out in New Haven for 45 years. Sausage and mushroom and bacon and garlic are some noted combos, but when we called Ernie’s, they said to try the plain pie (mozzarella). Who are we to argue?
#14 Tony's Pizza Napoletana, San Francisco
It’s something to be considered a Neapolitan pizza expert — and with too many awards to count (eight-time world champion pizza acrobat, first-place world champion pizza maker, first-place Roman pizza world championships of pizza makers), Tony Gemignani is that. It’s another to also proudly offer, and be commended for being a master of, all pizza styles. But that’s the story at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. Yes, the signature pie is Tony’s award-winning Neapolitan: hand-mixed dough made with San Felice flour and proofed in Napoletana wood boxes, then topped with San Marzano tomatoes, sea salt, mozzarella, fior di latte, fresh basil, and extra-virgin olive oil. Just keep in mind that only 73 of these champion pizzas are made each day, so get there early. But the menu also offers critically acclaimed versions of pizza in the styles of California, St. Louis (yes!), Italy, Sicily (awesome!), New York, Rome, classic American, and even Detroit (sweet!). You could accuse Gemignani of showing off. Then again, there’s truth in the expression: “It ain’t bragging if it’s true.”
#13 Emily, Brooklyn
Not a fan of romantic movie plots? Keep in mind that this one ends with you eating pizza. What are we talking about? One of the cutest pizza love stories ever. Girl and boy's first date: at grilled-pizza icon Al Forno in Providence. Boy and girl's first meal together: pizza. Girl looks across pie and knows she’ll marry boy. Boy goes to culinary school, is invited to help open Brooklyn pizzeria, finds pizza calling, collaborates on successful pizza restaurant, then sets out with girl to launch own Kickstarter-funded, family-run successful pizza spot, inside which it also nurtures über-pizza blogger Adam Kuban’s own bar-pie pop-up, Margot’s . Everyone lives happily pizza after and it all happens in Brooklyn! See? Almost too good to be true.
Tough tomato sauce, because Clinton Hill pizzeria Emily and its co-owners Emily and Matt Hyland produce some of New York City’s best new pies. If you haven’t been, hightail it over to taste the bubble-and-char-blistered “Classic” (sauce made with puréed Jersey tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil). They also happen to serve one of the best burgers in the country, and with Emmy Squared on this year’s list (No. 85), own two of America’s best pizzerias.
#12 Una Pizza Napoletana, San Francisco
Photo by Michael U. via Yelp
When Anthony Mangieri, pizzaiolo for the East Village’s Una Pizza Napoletana, closed shop in 2009 "to make a change," move west, and open up somewhere he could "use his outrigger canoe and mountain bike more often," it was the ultimate insult. Sure, he’d done this kind of thing once before, leaving behind his Point Pleasant, New Jersey, Una Pizza incarnation in favor of Manhattan. But still. You're taking one of the New York City’s favorite Neapolitan pizzerias to people who denigrate New York's Mexican food? So you can canoe and mountain bike? (He was for real, by the way — there’s even a mini documentary about his bicycle passion.)
Good for Mangieri, and good for San Franciscans, who with Una Pizza Napoletana inherited one of the country's best Neapolitan pies (if only Wednesday through Saturday, from 5 p.m. until 9 p.m., or until they're "out of dough"). Motorino opened in Mangieri's old East Village spot, which softened the blow, but any New Yorkers who don't think it was a loss for the city are kidding themselves.
#11 Flour + Water, San Francisco
Photo by Elena N. via Yelp
Although this San Francisco restaurant claims to specialize in house-made pastas, their pizza is formidable. Baked in a wood-fired oven, the thin-crust pizza at Flour + Water blends Old World tradition with modern refinement, according to chef and co-owner Thomas McNaughton.
There’s a limited pizza menu that typically features just four pies. But the toppings vary depending on what’s in season, making dining experiences unique. Consider these recent examples: green zebra tomatoes, garlic scapes, lemon basil, scarmorze, charred Jimmy Nardello peppers. But Flour + Water’s textbook Margherita is amazing. Heirloom tomatoes, basil, fior di latte, and extra-virgin olive oil… if only the simplicity implied by the restaurant’s name could be duplicated in restaurants across America.
#10 Sotto, Los Angeles
Photo by Michael U. via Yelp
Sotto was opened just four years ago in a below-ground space in Pico-Robertson (“sotto” is Italian for “below) on the western side of a city that’s no slouch when it comes to good pizza. But chefs Zach Pollack and Steve Samson melded their mutual love for southern Italian cuisine and shared work history (Grace, Sona, and then Pizzeria Ortica, which they opened together in Orange County) into a place that these days quickly comes to mind when many discuss the best pizza in Los Angeles (LA Weekly called it that last year).
What’s the big deal? Hyper-micro-leopard spotting all around the cornicione and a center that looks like a shallow crater of molten cheese and crushed tomato about to burst up through the tabletop like some other culinary-worldly pizza volcano. There are eight pies on the menu, all cooked in the Stefano Ferrara oven imported from Italy. They feature interesting ingredients like Castelvetrano olives, house-cured pork cheek, buckwheat honey, and the spicy spreadable Calabrian sausage called 'nduja, and add-ons that include arugula, anchovy, egg, salame picante, and pioppini mushrooms. Our calls to determine which pie the restaurant considered its signature returned a common response: Margherita. That may be so, but you’d be remiss to not order the guanciale as well — house-cured pork cheek, ricotta, scallions, and what then-LA Weekly critic Jonathan Gold estimated to be “two bucks' worth of fennel pollen” — a pizza he described as “among the piggiest pies in town.”
#9 Al Forno, Providence, R.I.
Photo by Victoria K. via Yelp
On South Main Street in the heart of Providence, Rhode Island, Al Forno offers quintessential Italian dining for those who can’t afford the flight. Husband-and-wife owner-chefs George Germon and Johanne Killeen received the Insegna del Ristorante Italiano from the Italian government, a rare honor for Americans, attributable to their informed passion for pasta along with their invention of the grilled pizza.
George passed away late last year, but chef David Reynoso carries on Al Forno’s tradition. It’s a style that celebrity chefs have been noting on TV for a while now, and that’s spawning its own offshoots. The restaurant bakes six pies in wood-burning ovens and on grills over hardwood charcoal fire. Their most notable grilled pizza? The Margarita [sic]. It’s served with fresh herbs, pomodoro, two cheeses, and extra-virgin olive oil.
#8 Coalfire Pizza, Chicago
Photo by David P. via Yelp
You don’t expect pizza restraint in Deep-Dish City, but that’s what owners Bill Carroll and Dave Bonomi advise on the menu at their coal-oven Neapolitan pizzeria: “Due to the delicate nature of our crust, and the care we take to ensure maximum quality, we recommend: one to two toppings per pizza, no more than one vegetable topping, and evenly balanced toppings (i.e. half toppings are not recommended).” Crowds have heeded that advice for almost a decade now, enjoying the thin crust that emerges slightly charred and bubbly from Coalfire’s 800-degree clean-burning coal oven.
#7 Varasano’s Pizzeria, Atlanta
Photo by Tiff H. via Yelp
What is it with these computer guys-turned-pizzaiolos? Like Paulie Gee (No. 21), who characterized himself as having “masqueraded as a computer geek,” Bronx-born software engineer Jeff Varasano found a passion for pizza that led him down a saucy, bubbly road to pizza stardom. Atlanta has been the lucky beneficiary. It’s the city where Varasano has made a well-documented six-year stab at recreating his version of the Patsy’s pizza (No. 22), which he credited with changing his life. The fact that the pizza isn’t quite Patsy’s-esque isn’t a bad thing. There’s a taller cornicione featuring a shard-thin exterior that gives to pliant air pockets and a soft underlying crust. This means more textural variation with each bite.
Varasano's serves two traditional pies: Margherita di Bufala and "Nana's," which is the house special: mozzarella and San Marzano tomato sauce with a “secret blend of herbs” (sweet roasted red peppers are suggested, too). There are 12 specialty pies with a variety of toppings (including interesting ones like Emmenthaler, a pinch of lemon zest, and spiced olives) that come standard, but menu notations suggest extras. Speaking of which, if you want to build your own or add to menu options, there are 17 toppings (including handmade meatballs). They do recommend adding only one to avoid overloading the thin crust, and call out capicola as “our best topping.” P.S. Varasano doesn’t make it often, but his Sicilian-style pie is supposed to be amazing, too. So it’s always worth asking about.
#6 New Park Pizza, Howard Beach, N.Y.
Photo by Edwin R. via Yelp
If you talk to anyone from Queens about pizza, you won’t be able to get away without talking about the 1956 brick-oven stalwart New Park Pizza. If you haven’t been, they’ll quickly lose whatever respect they might have had for you (God forbid you’ve been and didn’t like it). The key to the perfect New Park slice may be in knowing how to order. Take the advice of Adam Kuban, founder of the now-defunct Slice blog turned pizzaiolo for his pizza pop-up Margot's) and ask for it “well done.”
It will be set into their second set of ovens, where the bottom will come close to being burnt. “It's not, though,” notes Kuban, “[it] just adds a bit more flavor. The cheese will brown and crisp in spots. The slice will have some serious pizza-burn potential — but you won't care. You will eat that slice and immediately order another.”
#5 Prince St. Pizza, New York City
Photo by Chris L. via Yelp
If you’re looking for the first Ray’s pizza (not the Original Ray’s, Famous Ray’s, Original Famous Ray’s or any other iteration of Ray’s) on Prince between Elizabeth and Mott, don’t bother. The famed pizzeria of 27 Prince Street opened in 1959 by Ralph Cuomo, a member of the Luchese crime family, closed in 2011 after a dispute with the landlord. While losing a piece of New York City’s pizza history (Ray may have been in the mob, but the pies were perfection all the way up to his death in 2008), you can take comfort in the pizza continuity that has soldiered on in the space since Prince Street Pizza started serving their “SoHo Squares” in 2012. Owner Frank Morano, who grew up on slices at Ray’s and uses his family’s Sicilian recipes, installed a new gas-fired, brick-lined Marsal & Sons oven in the half of the space that used to be Ray’s take-out slice shop to fire up seven signature Neapolitan pies and five styles of square slices.
You’ll want to start with their simple mozzarella and sauce signature square, but don’t leave without trying the Spicy Spring. It’s topped with tangy-sweet fra diavalo sauce, fresh mozzarella, and spicy soppressata that turns into crispy circles that cradle shimmering pools of oil. This is a grease-on-your-face slice, the kind whose sauce ends up on the white dress shirt of the investment banker standing next to you. Make sure you get a fresh slice and ask for a corner (and for any pepperoni that falls off in the pan). “No other square can compare.”
#4 Patsy’s, New York City
Photo by Amelinda L. via Yelp
Some would say this is the only existing place where you can get a proper and authentic coal-oven slice in the universe, given that its founder Pasquale "Patsy" Lancieri supposedly opened Patsy's after working with the godfather of New York City pizza, Gennaro Lombardi.
True or not, this 1933 East Harlem original can claim pizza heritage most only dream of, and was reportedly one of Sinatra and DiMaggio’s favorites. Still, the original is one of the most underrated and under-hyped pizza classics in the city. It’s a curious thing given the history and quality, though there are some caveats. Patsy’s pizza is so thin, and relatively short, that you can scarf down six slices at the counter. That’s what you’ll want to do, anyway — there’s something about this pizza that makes it miraculous just from the oven, but as exponentially unimpressive if you let it wait.
The move is to order the plain cheese, eat, and repeat — and don’t reheat.
#3 Joe’s Pizza, New York City
Photo by Rob Y. via Yelp
Since 1975, Joe’s Pizza has served fresh, hot, cheesy slices to tourists and residents alike, making it a truly iconic New York City landmark. It’s as synonymous with New York City as the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building. Everyone has a favorite slice joint, but if the city were to have just one, this would be it. It’s made every conceivable best-of list (many of them tacked on the walls and in the windows), and for good reason. The key to Joe's success is their traditional New York City-style pizza with thin crust, great sauce, and just the right ratio of cheese, sauce, and crust (just a bit less of the first two).
It took about 38 years for Joe’s to try to capitalize on its West Village success, opening an East Village location on 14th Street a few years ago that turns out a similar-quality product — if with slightly less demand (consider this side-by-side comparison). That was followed pretty quickly by their first location in Brooklyn (in Williamsburg), where they promised not to lose sight of their blue-collar virtues — they’ll still sell pizza for $2.75 a slice.
#2 Totonno’s, Brooklyn
Photo by Jenn F. via Yelp
By all accounts, Totonno’s shouldn’t exist. Consider that it was opened in Coney Island in 1924 (by Antonio "Totonno" Pero, a Lombardi’s alum). Factor in the coal storage area fire that ravaged it in 2009. Add to that insult the destruction and subsequent rebuilding costs (the Daily News reported $150,000 in repairs) incurred in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy when four feet of water destroyed everything inside the family-owned institution.
You’ll agree that Brooklyn (and the country) should count its lucky stars Totonno’s is around. Yet Totonno’s doesn’t just keep a storied pizza name or nostalgia for simpler times (and perhaps more authentic and consistent pies) alive.
No. Owners Antoinette Balzano, Frank Balzano, and Louise "Cookie" Ciminieri don’t just bridge our modern era’s festishization of pizza to the days of its inception. The coal-fired blistered edges, the spotty mozzarella laced over that beautiful red sauce… ah, forget about all the teary-eyed try-too-much words, this is Neptune Avenue!
This is Brooklyn! This is Totonno’s. And this is how you make pizza.
#1 Roberta’s, Brooklyn
Photo by Julia L. via Yelp
With all the development and gentrification along the L line in Brooklyn that has happened since Roberta’s opened in January 2008, the great Brooklyn vs. Manhattan restaurant debate seems quaint, and it’s almost difficult to remember there was once a time when this great pizza joint was considered a trek.
OK, so Bushwick may not be on the average New Yorker’s rotation, the pizzeria’s owners have been in the news as part of a few legal disputes, and earlier this year there was news that the notoriously non-corporate restaurant was being invested in by a member of the billionaire Tisch family, but at this point, if not part of the city’s pizza old guard, Roberta’s is without question a member of New York’s pizza icons, one that has inspired other great pizzerias, among them another one on this list, Paulie Gee’s.
The appellations of Carlo Mirarchi’s pizzas have ranged from echoing schoolyard slang and literary references to clever puns, and recently, just an eggplant emoji. No matter whether you choose the Margherita (tomato, mozzarella, and basil), or the Famous Original (tomato, mozzarella, caciocavallo, oregano, and chiles), or the Family Jewels (mozzarella, heirloom tomatoes, prosciutto bread crumbs, garlic, and basil) you’re guaranteed a chewy cornicione and an exemplary neo-Neapolitan pie.