America’s Best Pepperoni Pizzas
March 10, 2015
From Philadelphia to Atlanta to Seattle, there are some excellent pepperoni pies being served across the nation
#7 The Backspace, Austin, Texas
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 huge surprise that chef Shawn Cirkiel has found huge success with his restaurant Parkside — but culinary degrees and high-falutin’ restaurant experience don’t necessarily mean that you can make a great pizza. Luckily for Austin, Cirkiel does, serving pizza cooked in a wood-fired brick oven from Naples at a temperature of 900 degrees. There are six pies on the menu at The Backspace, featuring toppings like fennel sausage, roasted peppers, and roasted mushrooms, but the one that garnered our enough of our experts’ votes to come in at #92 is the Pepperoni Americano: picante salame, tomato, mozzarella, and basil. Pair it with an aranciata, just like in Naples, or enjoy it Texas-style with a glass bottle of Mexican Coke.
#6 Pizza Brain, Philadelphia, Pa.
“Increase the piece!” It’s the world’s first pizza museum, for heaven’s sake, and those in the know know that when you’re craving great pizza in Philly, you need go no further than this nineteenth-century brick building in Kensington. There, you’ll eat 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, check out their pizza memorabilia museum (featuring what the Guinness Book of World Records called the largest collection of pizza memorabilia in the world), or rummage through their pizza tattoo book for a few laughs. Pizza Brain’s "Jane" is their version of a Margherita — a cheesy trifecta of mozzarella, aged provolone, and grana padano blended with basil — and that’s a good place to begin. The salty and satisfying Forbes Waggensense is the one that was ranked #80 by our panel: it features mozzarella, fontina, Grana Padano, basil, smoked pepperoni, and tomato sauce.
#5 Delancey, Seattle, Wash.
Those critical of the Pacific Northwest pizza scene need to back up. Let’s put this in context: Washington became the 42nd state in 1889, 16 years before Gennaro Lombardi opened America’s first pizzeria… in New York City. Washington and Oregon (though Oregon has 30 years on its neighbor) deserve some credit for working without a century-long tradition backing them up. Consider Seattle’s Delancey, which Brandon Pettit, a former New York music student, opened with his wife in 2009.
The idea for Delancey (named for Pettit’s favorite subway stop in Manhattan) grew out of his longing for the pizzas he grew up with in New York and New Jersey. As The New York Times noted, “the dough has an intense, slightly sourdough-like flavor from Mr. Pettit’s two-day fermentation process, and the topping combinations offered are basic but use the freshest seasonal ingredients available.”
There are 9 pies on the menu including the “Brooklyn,” inspired by Di Fara’s cheese pie, and the white pie (with house-made ricotta, slivered garlic, and grana padano), but Delancey noted (and panelists voted for) the pepperoni pie as the one you should seek out. It came in at #74, and is the fifth-best pepperoni pizza in America, according to our 78-expert panel.
#4 Santillo's Brick Oven Pizza, Elizabeth, N.J.
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. The way to go here, though, is the popular Sicilian pizza, topped with pepperoni, mozzarella, and pizza sauce — it’s so good it snagged the #51 spot on our compilation.
#3 Antico Pizza Napoletana, Atlanta, Ga.
Antico Pizza Napoletana may have only been open for a few years, but that doesn’t mean anything when it comes to discussions about the best pizza in Atlanta. Giovanni Di Palma’s Antico is generally considered to be the city’s best pizza, and many of Atlantans would claim that it’s among the top in the country. It’s difficult to argue, as their classic pepperoni with a thick puffy crust and cheesy center might just be one of the best pizzas you’ve ever tasted, and it scored the #45 slot on our list.
#2 Lombardi’s, New York, N.Y.
Anybody interested in tracing America’s love affair with pizza back to its beginning will inevitably be led to Lombardi’s. Gennaro Lombardi opened a grocery store on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1897, and in 1905 he started selling tomato pies wrapped in paper and tied with a string. His customers were mostly workers of Italian descent who took them to their jobs (because most couldn’t afford the entire pie, it was sold by the piece). The pizzeria was run by the Lombardi family — first by Gennaro’s son, John, and then his grandson, Jerry — until it closed in 1984. It was reopened 10 years later a block away from the original location by Jerry Lombardi and John Brescio, a childhood friend.
These days, Lombardi’s almost always seems packed. There’s a thin crust pizza: a cornicione that doesn’t have much bubble or puff, and that boasts a thorough layering of a sauce that’s tangy and not overly sweet or salty. There’s no shredded mozzarella — just the fresh stuff, well spread out. Even if you’re not a fan of fresh cheese on your pie, you’ll probably love it. Is it New York City’s best pizza? No, that honor was bestowed upon Di Fara’s in Brooklyn. Still, Lombardi's is a touchstone. And when looking out on New York's pizza landscape, the devotion to a pie from a time when pizza didn't mean artful charring and contrived, golden-tiled ovens is comforting, even if that just means the pizza of 1994. It’s so comforting, their version of a pepperoni pie with that fresh mozzarella, a san marzano tomato, Romano cheese, fresh basil, and Rosa Grande pepperoni took #34 on our ranking.
#1 Lucali, Brooklyn, N.Y.
Take a pinch of Di Fara’s Dom DeMarco, add a dash of the murals of Gino’s of Long Beach, stretch the amount of un-sauced classic Coney Island Totonno's crust a bit wider, add in a few intangibles, and you may be getting close to the pizza experience that Mark Iacono has become famous for in his Carroll Gardens pizzeria Lucali, open since 2006. The crust has that classic New York thin-crust style with whispers of the old-school execution praised at the city’s most storied institutions. Eating a pizza in the warm, softly lit environs of Lucali, you wonder how Iacono magically and mysteriously inherited from Gennaro Lombardi pizza primogeniture. Iacono, who survived a serious stabbing a few years ago that left him, as late as last year, with no feeling in about 50 percent of his body, hasn’t seemed to slow down, continuing to draw crowds and fans at the original Brooklyn spot. He’s receiving the same accolades in his newer Miami location. It took the very respectable #18 spot on our most recent list, and is the highest-ranked pepperoni pizza in America, according to our experts.