America's 25 Best Cheese Pizzas Slideshow

America’s 25 Best Cheese Pizzas Slideshow

Pepperoni may be America's most popular topping, mushroom may be the one addition where meat-lovers and vegetarians can find common ground, and sausage is the only other meat that can overtake our bacon obsession, but if you believe one study, when we order in, 37 percent of us order our pizza naked. Just cheese, sauce, and bread. Does that make us boring, indicate lack of imagination, or mean we can't agree on anything? All of the above? Or maybe we're purists? Whatever you believe, the plain cheese pie is the baseline by which all pizzerias can be judged. If you don't do this right, you don't deserve to top your pies. And because a list of the best cheese pizzas in America may be the purest list of the best pizzas in America, we've rounded them up in honor of National Cheese Pizza Day (September 5).   

#25 Micucci's Grocery, Portland, Maine

Micucci Grocery was opened in 1951 by Leo and Iris Micucci, and has been family-operated ever since. It's more sandwich counter-meets-deli-meets-dry-goods store than pizzeria. But the reason to visit this Portland icon is in back, up the stairs to the left where "slabs" of American-interpreted Sicilian-style pizza are baked and set on shelves.

The word "slabs," doesn't do these slices justice — a curious hybrid for sure, they're nowhere as heavy as the gut-bombs most descriptions convey. Half-again bigger than the conventional Sicilian slice, and just as thick if wetter and more doughy, Micucci's slabs may not be authentic Italian, but they feel like an idealized iteration of the focaccia style you've always sought, but never experienced.

Each is about a half-foot long. There's an uneven inch-and-a-half to ¾-inch cornicione, which is not much different from the rest of the slice, save that it's dryer for not being covered by the brush of sweet sauce and incomplete layer of mozzarella coating the rest of it.

"Pillowy" and "airy" have been used to describe these pizzas, and undoubtedly will be as long as Micucci continues to do things this way (the right way, mind you). Imagine a fluffy, light focaccia — almost an inch high in some places but no thinner than one third of an inch anywhere — that's doughy and a bit wetter than most with layers of bubbles. There's a scattering of Italian herbs on top, with cheese rivulets and sauce undercurrents around raised puffy sections of dough. There's no undercrust to speak of, but some crispy spots of cheese in places, especially along the edges.

It's not pizza in any other traditional regional American sense, nor can you say it's precisely Italian. But there's something intensely right and satisfying about it. Consider the warm, airy pleasure of freshly baked dough without much crust to speak of, the tang of sweet sauce, and the salty pull of just-melted cheese, and you get the idea of a fresh Micucci slice.

#24 Pizza Delicious, New Orleans, La.

"Best Pizza," "Pizza Delicious" — it almost seems as though new-guard pizza parlors are being named in ways to optimize how high up they'll show in your 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.), providing those in the New York pizza-lovers diaspora with their fix for slices from 18-inch pies in what they know of as the one true style, and preaching the faith to newcomers with cheese slices. 

#23 New Park Pizza, Howard Beach, Queens

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, thick, buttery-cheesy 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."


#22 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 (No. 51), Eddie's (on last year'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, and a sauce-to-cheese ratio that delivers as much as you need and not more than the structural integrity can handle.

#21 Amore Pizza, Flushing, Queens

Tucked into a Flushing strip mall along with a check cashing joint, Carvel, and a Pathmark, off the Whitestone Expressway just a few minutes before it takes you over the East River to the Bronx, is an under-mentioned and quintessential Queens slice joint called Amore Pizza.

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 replied, "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."

#20 Ernie’s Pizzeria, New Haven, Conn.

Connecticut's best pizza! Go. Discuss. "PepeSally'sModernBru!"

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 really don't want to be a 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 nearly 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?

#19 Domenick & Pia’s, Waterbury, Conn.

Every year, hundreds of well-known places are considered in pursuit of the 101 Best Pizzas in America, and locals across America cry foul about pit-stops along the pizza-writer trail getting attention when their local pizzeria is "10 times better" (usually followed by "You don't know what you're talking about"). In the case of Domenick and Pia DeRosa's eponymous spot in Waterbury, they may have a point.

Like another famous Dom about 100 miles south (Dom DeMarco of Brooklyn's Di Fara) Domenick and his wife Pia have been making pies their way for a long time. Just three years after marrying in Italy in 1961, they decided to open a pie shop that sold by the slice like New York City pizzerias did, an idea their landlord and carpenter scoffed at. They've moved once over the years, but otherwise they've proved everyone wrong, using the same mixer, ovens, and recipes all this time.

"It's a sweet sauce," the nonagenarian pizzaiolo said in a video last year. Domenick still comes in from time to time to help, although he doesn't do very much heavy lifting anymore. But his tradition lives on in the pies they make every day.

These are old-school Neapolitan pizzas: super-thin undercarriage and an old-school crunchy cornicione — no doughy chew. There's nothing fancy going on here, just an approach to pizza that mirrors the couple's philosophy on how to have a good marriage: adherence to moral values. "We made a vow before God to stick together in sickness and in health," Domenick explained. And in pizza.

#18 Gino’s of Long Beach, Long Beach, N.Y.

It's tough to explain Gino's better than Esca chef Dave Pasternack did to Ed Levine in his book Slice of Heaven when he gave the following advice: "Buy a round-trip ticket to Long Beach. The ticket includes a beach pass, so it's a really good deal. Get off the train, and walk across the street to Gino's for a slice. Nice, crisp crust, not too thick and not too much cheese."

This is a place that still packs during the winter, a pizzeria, with amazing murals, that families come into off the beach, a place where they serve something for everyone, though most notably pizza, as they have done for some 50 years. Gino's may be most well-known for their Special pie with sausage, meatballs, pepperoni, mushrooms, peppers, onion, mozzarella, and tomato sauce, but the the plain cheese, grandma pie is exemplary.

#17 Galleria Umberto, Boston, Mass. (Sicilian)

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 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 for these thick, over-the-edge-of-the-pan cheesy, saucy, completely over-the-top Sicilian slices anyway. That's right, that's the only pizza option, the Sicilian (and it's cash only!). And while they open at 11 a.m., they close at 2:30 p.m. (or whenever the dough is gone), so don't delay.

#16 Varasano’s, Atlanta, Ga.

What is it with these computer guys–turned–pizzaiolos? Like Paulie Gee, 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, 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. And with his success, other new locations.

At Varasano'sthe plain cheese pie is also the house special (called "Nana's"). And while the ingredients — mozzarella and San Marzano tomato sauce with a "secret blend of herbs" — may sound simple, the result is anything but ordinary. 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.

#15 Rubirosa, New York City

Three years ago, the buzz among the New York City pizza cognoscenti was around South Brooklyn Pizza (now closed, sadly) MotorinoRoberta's, and Paulie Gee's. These days, the latter three make up the old guard of pizza newcomers who have set the standard, and South Brooklyn Pizza has gone to that big cardboard box in the sky. Since then, the new addition to that "old guard of pizza newcomers" is Rubirosa in Nolita, a spot opened by former Esca cook Angelo (A.J.) Pappalardo, who learned how to make a super-thin crust and barely there cornicione at the age of 12 at his father Giuseppe's Staten Island stalwart, Joe & Pat's.

The slice at Rubirosa (which New York Magazine reported was named for a Florence, Italy, restaurant whose owners named it in turn after international playboy Porfirio Rubirosa) is the kind that inspires cross-section marveling and game-changing pizza paradigm shifts. Once they taste the "classic" pie with tomato and mozzarella ("our 50-year-old, New York-style family recipe), those who consider the city's average dollar-slice crusts the New York baseline finally understand the nuance of pizza. 

#14 Umberto's Pizzeria & Restaurant, New Hyde Park, N.Y.

If Staten Island is Gotham's least heralded pizza borough, Long Island has long gone uncelebrated as the New York pizza trove it truly is. That's OK. Let hipsters queue in Brooklyn — Long Islanders know those carless city schmucks don't know how good Nassau and Suffolk pizza country is. Long Islanders even have a pizza style, one that has caught on over the past decade since Erica Marcus publicized it in 2003.

If there's a Long Island pizza royalty, coronate Umberto's Pizzeria (not King Umberto's in Elmont — that's another story). You can thank Italian-born founder Umberto Corteo (from Monte di Procida near Naples) and his brother Joe, who opened the Original Umberto's of New Hyde Park in 1965.

Their humble joint turned into a self-described "majestic Tuscan architectural two-story restaurant with a full-service cafe." Regardless, Umberto's slings superior pizzas. Most notably, the grandma: a square, 12-slice, 16-by-16-inch thin crust pie topped with mozz and plum tomato marinara. Haven't experienced this thin, crispy-crust satisfaction? Start here. It's generally regarded as the originator of the grandma slice.

Why? How did the style spread? According to Pizza: A Slice of Heaven (which any pizza lover refers to as the most important pizza tome ever written), the brothers made the pizza "Mama made" for themselves and friends, but didn't menu-item it. They opened satellite pizzeria King Umberto with another Corteo brother, Carlo, which upon his retirement was sold to two Umberto's employees, Rosario and Sal Fuschetto (who, it should be noted, make no mention of the original Umberto's on their own site). A Slice of Heaven author Ed Levine reports that two pizza makers Rosario and Sal hired who'd gotten their start at the original Umberto's saw the potential of the grandma pie and put it on the menu.

So maybe you have them to thank for this light, thin, crispy-chewy pie with light crushed tomato sauce and a scattering of mozzarella that every pizza-proud Long Islander knows is better than Sicilian, better than deep-dish, heck, better than many pizzas you'll find in Manhattan.

Whatever you believe, you'll want to be sure to make the move of every grandma. Grab at least one corner.

#13 Santarpio’s, Boston

The local favorite (Usher's too, apparently) has already seen its fair share of fame after winning various best-of-Boston pizza lists over the years. Santarpio's, which opened in 1903, sticks to their traditional roots when it comes to the infamous slightly chewy and satisfyingly wet slices. Their menu consists of a variety of options, but includes a list of customers' favorite combos, like a pie that pairs sausage with garlic, ground beef, and onions, and even "The Works": mushrooms, onions, peppers, garlic, sausage, pepperoni, extra cheese, and anchovies. But sometimes less is more, and the plain cheese pizza at Santarpio's (the "Italian Cheese" pie) is more than good enough.

#12 Denino’s, Staten Island, N.Y.

Residents of the Forgotten Borough have long known what the rest of New York City, and more recently the country, are beginning to understand: When it comes to pizza, Staten Island doesn't play. And Denino's has led the charge since 1951, when Carlo Denino took over the tavern his Sicilian father John Giovanni opened in 1937. After John died, Carlo introduced pizza at the tavern, and locals have been ordering bar pies and downing them with pitchers ever since. A third generation of Denino's runs the operation now (and opened a second spot, in New Jersey), and they keep pulling regulars in for their light, pliant crust.

#11 Lorenzo’s and Sons, Philadelphia, Pa.

Native Philadelphians have a love/hate relationship with the tourist trap that is South Street. The drinks are overpriced, the shops kitschy, but this is where they spent teenage years seeing bands, visiting novelty shops, and getting a slice from Lorenzo's.

A no-frills, all-flavor pizza joint, Lorenzo and Sons wouldn't hesitate to toss you to the curb if you asked for anything other than a cheese pizza. There is nowhere to sit. You can't use the restroom. And most likely, you waited for 30 minutes before even ordering. But when you're selling slices the size of a customer's face for three bucks a pop that are absolute perfection every time, you have some wiggle room to be gruff.

In 2012, the beloved pizzeria burnt down from what the fire department said was an issue with the wiring in the ceiling above the oven and grill exhaust duct on the first floor, but has since been rebuilt and is still selling those cheap, delicious slices (with the prideful worst service).

#10 Lucali, Brooklyn

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.

#9 Lou Malnati's Pizzeria, Chicago

The first Lou Malnati's Pizzeria opened in 1971 to much acclaim, and it's now a Chicago — and national — institution. Lou died of cancer just seven years later, but his family kept his dream alive, expanding his chain to 42 locations at last count.

The Lou Malnati's deep-dish experience comes in four sizes: six-inch individual (serves one), nine-inch small (serves two), 12-inch medium (serves three), and 14-inch large (serves four). So you most likely will just be ordering one or two if you plan to finish them, even with a few friends (unless you're not planning to eat anything else that day).

They do actually make a thin-crust pie, but what's the matter with you? You're not visiting for thin-crust, so make sure one of those picks is the Malnati Chicago Classic: a casserole (remember, deep dish isn't technically pizza) made with Lou's lean sausage, some extra mozzarella, and vine-ripened tomato sauce on buttercrust. "It's authentic Chicago!"

#8 Grimaldi’s, Brooklyn

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). He supposedly trained Pasquale (Patsy) Lancieri, who opened the first Patsy's in East Harlem. 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 46 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 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.

#7 John's of Bleeker Street, New York CIty

Yes, John's of Bleecker is on the tourist rotation, but there's a reason it's become a New York City icon. Pizza is cooked in a coal-fired brick oven the same way it's been done there since 1929. Order a plain cheese pie (no slices, pies only) and scratch your name into the walls like the droves before you while you wait for it to arrive. It's a simple equation at John's of Bleecker Street: Thin crust plus tangy sauce plus classic New York City ratio equals institution. What more do you need?

#6 Patsy’s, New York City

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 — don't order a reheat.

#5 Totonno’s, Brooklyn

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, fuggedabout 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.

#4 Papa’s Tomato Pies, Robbinsville, N.J.

Lombardi's in New York City may be responsible for "America's first pizza," but as Nick Azzaro, owner of Papa's Tomato Pies, isn't shy about saying, Papa's — established in 1912 — is America's oldest continuously owned, family-owned pizzeria. With more than 100 years under its belt, no wonder Papa's again made this list of America's best pies. And the family behind them is key. Why? The recipe has been passed through generations, and survived a 2013 move from Trenton to Robbinsville.

The Azzaro family cooks made-to-order pies customizable in a variety of ways, but it's the tradition that makes this restaurant unique, so you'll be ordering their signature tomato pie. What's the difference between a tomato pie and a pizza? We'll let Papa's speak for itself: "There are those who say that the Trenton speciality known as 'tomato pie' has a thinner, crisper crust, with the cheese sparingly put on the crust before the sauce, whereas a pizza has a thicker crust with sauce first, then plentiful cheese on top. Nick Azzaro says that sign makers charged by the letter, and 'Pizza" is five letters shorter than 'Tomato Pies.'"

#3 Joe’s, New York City

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). Recent news indicates they'll be opening their first location in Brooklyn, in Williamsburg, where they promise not to lose sight of their blue-collar virtues — they'll still sell pizza for $2.75 a slice.

#2 Louie and Ernie's, Bronx, N.Y.

You hear people's tales of outer-borough travels to Di Fara in Brooklyn, but the Bronx deserves its own pizza paean, and Louie and Ernie's is up to the task of making this borough the pizza destination it deserves to be recognized as (according to The New York Times, it actually started out in East Harlem in 1947 but moved to its current location in 1959). The only thing stopping this place from becoming a national destination is its location in the deep Bronx. No matter. Thanks to Cosimo and Johnny Tiso, who bought the place from Ernie Ottuso in 1987 Louie & Ernie's keeps turning out amazing pies to the locals who know they have a good thing.

The sausage and onion pie at Louie and Ernie's is amazing (the sausage is made with an 80-year-old recipe from the S&D Pork Store four blocks down Crosby Avenue), but honestly, the plain cheese pie is it's own main event. WIth a crust almost as thin as the paper plate it's served on and perhaps twice that amount of cheese, it's can't-wait-for-it-to-cool, burn-the-roof-of-your-mouth-because-it's-worth-it good. 


#1 Di Fara, Brooklyn

Domenico DeMarco is a local celebrity, having owned and operated Di Fara since 1964. Dom cooks both New York- and Sicilian-style pizza Wednesday through Saturday (noon to 8 p.m., and on Sunday from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m.) for hungry New Yorkers and tourists willing to wait in long lines and brave the free-for-all that is the Di Fara counter experience. Yes, you're better off getting a whole pie than shelling out for the $5 slice.

Yes, it's a trek, and sure, Dom goes through periods when the underside of the pizza can tend toward overdone, but when he's on, Di Fara can make a very strong case for being America's best pizza. If you want to understand why before visiting, watch the great video about Di Fara called "The Best Thing I Ever Done." You can't go wrong with the classic round or square cheese pie with a drizzle of olive oil by Dom.