America’s 25 Best Cheese Pizzas
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).
This is The Daily Meal’s first list of America’s best cheese pizzas. It’s unclear who created National Cheese Pizza Day and why it and National Pepperoni Pizza Day (September 20) don’t fall in October, which is National Pizza Month (how can you have a pizza month without the two most important pizza holidays?). Two leading online food holiday authorities, National Day Calendar and Holiday Insights, are honest about their lack of authority as to why September 5 is the year’s cheesiest pizza day, or why that’s also International Bacon Day. (So you know, National Sausage Pizza Day is October 11, National Pizza with Everything Day is November 12, Pizza Pie Day is February 9, and National Pizza Party Day is the third Friday in May.) The food holiday rabbit hole is a dangerous one for anybody tumbling through adventures in food writing land, but as companies reinforce these days with special offers, they become institutionalized (the University of Nebraska-Lincoln even lists them). While the reasoning behind the day may be unclear, the methodology behind how we developed this list isn’t.
First, we examined our recently released list of America’s 101 Best Pizzas and eliminated everything but the highest-rated cheese pies — you won’t find among these pizzas any Neapolitan Margheritas. Margheritas don’t count for two reasons. First, Neapolitan pies typically focus on dough and sauce, their pools of melted cheese rarely covering the entire pie (they just aren’t cheesy enough). Second, they actually have a topping: basil. You won’t find among these pizzas any Neapolitan Margheritas. Margheritas don’t count for two reasons. First, Neapolitan pies typically focus on dough and sauce, their pools of melted cheese rarely covering the entire pie (they just aren’t cheesy enough). Second, they actually have a topping: basil.
If you’re unfamiliar with our annual list of America’s best pizzas, we approach our rankings comprehensively, starting with our definition of the perfect cheese pizza: It has to have nuanced sauce, neither too sweet nor salty; quality, well-distributed cheese; a flavorful, savory crust; and most important (after quality ingredients), a judicious, well-balanced, and pleasing ratio of sauce, cheese, and crust that maintains structural integrity. (Speaking of crust, what is this ten-dollar word, “cornicione,” that figures into many of our captions? Cornicione, pronounced "cor-nee-CHO-neh," is Italian for cornice or moulding, and in pizza terms means the edge crust.)
From defining the perfect pizza we considered 800 spots, narrowing them by eating at as many pizzerias as possible, then consulting The Daily Meal’s in-house pizza experts, city editors, Culinary Council experts, and Culinary Content Network bloggers. We also called upon a blue-chip, geographically diverse list of pizza panelists — chefs, restaurant critics, bloggers, writers, and pizza authorities — asking them to share their considerable pizza experience with us, and to vote only for places where they’ve eaten. (If you’re in food media or are a recognized pizza expert and you disagree with this list and didn’t vote, email us with your pizza cred and we'll consider you for next year’s panel.)
After winnowing out topped pies from our annual 101 best, we were left with a list of 15 pies. These paragons of pizza include New York City stalwarts like Di Fara and Joe’s, New Jersey institution Delorenzo’s Tomato Pies, and newcomers like Philadelphia’s Pizzeria Beddia. But that list omitted obviously relevant plain cheese pizza paragons like John’s of Bleecker Street, Patsy’s, and Lucali. If it ranked on our list for a topped pie but was known for its standard cheese pizza, and that pizza was on the menu and included mozzarella (just grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or pecorino Romano didn’t cut it) but didn’t note basil as a topping, we added it back. For instance, Taconelli’s made the 101 list with a white pizza, but their tomato pie doesn't have cheese, their "margerita" features basil as an ingredient, and their regular pie consists of “little cheese and sauce.” Basil or not enough cheese meant we didn't include it.
“Wait a second!” someone is screaming. “Dom DeMarco is known for cutting up basil over his pies! You included that?” Let’s call that the garnish loophole. If a place added basil as a finishing touch but didn’t list it as an ingredient, we looked the other way. I mean, who could imagine a list of cheese pies without Di Fara?
Fair? You be the judge. There may be some surprises, but we think it’s a pretty good list. For purity’s sake, maybe next year’s ranking of America’s best cheese pizzas needs to be determined by its own panel. Or maybe not. Let us know who we missed, how we could have improved our methodology, or just weigh in in the comments below.
#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.