In early January, we opened a poll asking you to vote for your favorite American pizza chains. More than 100 chains were considered, from the largest international behemoths to far smaller regional ones. Nearly 600 voters chimed in, and while the race was tight, one chain rose to the top of the heap.
Pieology Pizzeria R&D/Yelp
Pieology was founded in 2011 as a build-your-own pizza concept, and the formula seems to be working well: House-made dough is pressed into 11.5-inch crusts, and as guests go down the line they can choose from eight sauces and 40 toppings; after the pizzas are finished baking in stone ovens (it takes about three minutes), guests can top their pizza with sauces including Buffalo, pesto, and barbecue. Seven signature pizzas are offered along with gluten-free crusts and vegan cheese. In total, there are more than 78 billion pizza possibilities. There are locations in 20 states as well as Guam, but the vast majority are in California.
Papa Murphy’s takes a novel approach to pizza: “Take ‘N’ Bake.” Choose a pizza, it is prepared using fresh-made dough and other fresh ingredients — but not cooked; you take it home and pop it in your oven to bake when you’re ready to eat it. All the classic pizza options are available, and there are also desserts you can bake at home, like dessert pizza and chocolate chip cookie dough. It’s America’s fifth-largest pizza chain, with more than 1,300 locations in the United States and Canada.
The claim to fame at Chicago-based Nancy’s, which has nearly 30 locations in Illinois, Missouri, Atlanta, and Southern California, is the “stuffed” pizza introduced by founders Nancy and Rocco Palese in 1971. Based on a family recipe for an Easter specialty called scarciedda, these pizzas differ from traditional deep dish in that they’re constructed by stuffing cheese and toppings between two layers of crust, then topping the whole thing with sauce. Traditional thin-crust pies are also available, along with sandwiches, salads, pasta dishes, wings, and appetizers.
Hungry Howie’s, founded in Taylor, Michigan, in 1973, prides itself on being the home of “the original flavored crust pizza,” and this unique twist has helped it to expand to more than 550 locations in 21 states. Those crust flavors include Butter Cheese, Cajun, Garlic Herb and Onion. Pizzas are made to order using real mozzarella and dough made in-house daily. Oven-baked subs, salads and “Howie Breads” topped with cheese, Cajun seasoning or cinnamon-sugar are also available.
Russo’s New York Pizzeria/Yelp
Founded in Texas by New York natives in 1978, Russo’s began selling franchises in 1992 and today has more than 30 locations, most of which are in the Houston area. The fast-casual chain serves a full menu of Italian specialties. New York-style pies are available on traditional or gluten-free crusts, with four sauces (including Alfredo and homemade pesto), six cheeses, 19 vegetables (including fresh kale and artichoke hearts) and 10 meats (including Italian sausage, prosciutto, and sopressata) available. Pizza dough is made with no additives or preservatives, sauce is made with vine-ripened California tomatoes, and the mozzarella is from Wisconsin.
Round Table Pizza/Yelp
Round Table Pizza was founded in 1959 in Menlo Park, California, and today there are hundreds of locations focused on the West Coast. Dough is made from scratch in-house daily. The three-cheese blend contains aged Cheddar, whole milk mozzarella and provolone. The chain is known for applying toppings all the way to the edge of the pie, as well as for its wide selection of innovative combinations, like the King Arthur’s Supreme, with pepperoni, Italian sausage, Italian dry salami, linguiça, mushrooms, green peppers, yellow onions, black olives, three cheeses and red sauce.
Pizzeria La Rosa/Yelp
A Greater Cincinnati institution for more than 60 years, LaRosa’s was founded by Buddy LaRosa in 1954 and is still owned by his family. There’s a wide variety of calzones, hoagies, pastas, appetizers (including its famous rolled “Rondos,” which are like mini-stromboli), wings, salads and desserts; the whole menu is available for delivery. As for the pizza, it’s available in four sizes, four crusts (traditional, hand-tossed, crispy pan or multigrain honey), and there are nearly 30 sauce and topping options.
Pennsylvania-based Fox’s, which has 220 locations in 24 states, is committed to using the highest-quality ingredients in their pizzas: San Marzano tomato sauce, pecorino romano, Italian extra virgin olive oil, and a blend of 100 percent real cheeses. Specialty pies include the Buffalo Chicken, the Meat Supreme (pepperoni, ham, bacon, Italian sausage, and ground beef), and Steak Rancher (steak, ranch dressing, sweet peppers, onions, and mushrooms); the Big Daddy, measuring 24 inches by 12 inches, is a top seller.
Old Chicago Pizza & Taproom was founded in 1976 in Boulder by a few friends who wanted to bring good pizza and beer to the people. Today, the chain has locations across the country and serves small plates, pastas, burgers and sandwiches along with a host of pizzas, served on either a thick or thin crust, and a wide selection of beer.
Based in Toledo, Marco’s, founded by Italian immigrant Pat Giammarco in 1978, boasts locations across the United States and in the Bahamas, Puerto Rico and India. It credits its rapid expansion primarily to an emphasis on fresh ingredients: The sauce is made from vine-ripened tomatoes, the cheese is a three-cheese blend, dough is made from scratch every day and toppings are fresh, thick-sliced and abundant. Don’t leave without getting some CheezyBread and CinnaSquares.
Famous Famiglia can trace its roots to 1896, when the first location opened in New York City, and it’s still run by its founders, brothers Paul, John, and Giorgio Kolaj. It has locations throughout the city, and today there are franchised locations all across the country as well. Dough is made with a proprietary flour blend and spring water, tomatoes are from California, and pies are topped with 100 percent whole-milk mozzarella. Its pizza may not be quite the same caliber as New York’s most acclaimed slice shops, but it definitely holds its own.
Shakey’s Pizza Parlor/Yelp
Established in Sacramento in 1954 as America’s first franchise pizzeria, Shakey’s has about 500 locations worldwide and about 60 in the United States, with the highest concentration in Southern California. There’s an emphasis on fun as well as pizza, and all locations have a game room for kids. The pizza is also quite good: Go for the Shakey’s Special, with salami, pepperoni, Italian sausage, ground beef, mushrooms and black olives. And don’t forget to get some of the battered and fried Mojo Potatoes.
With more than 300 locations in Michigan, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, and several other states, this chain, started by brothers Eugene and John Jetts in 1978, has become famous for its signature square pizza (the recipe, which came from the brothers’ mother, hasn’t changed since 1978). Go for the Jet 10, topped with mozzarella cheese, pepperoni, ham, mushrooms, onions, green peppers, hamburger, Italian sausage, bacon, and black olives, or the trademarked 8 Corner Pizza, where every slice has a corner.
This Rochester favorite has 28 locations in the region, and along with a wide variety of pizza it also offers plenty of appetizers, including loaded fries, “Sausage Slingers” (chunks of Italian sausage topped with wing sauce), and chili from a recipe dating to the company’s 1978 founding, along with wings, sandwiches, burgers, ribs, and fried seafood. It’s best known, however, for its “Super Slice” (the size of one-quarter of a large pie) and its 32-piece sheet pizza.
Celebrating its tenth year in operation, Seattle-based MOD Pizza differentiates itself from the competition in a few major ways: Pies are made assembly line-style, more than 30 toppings are available (including pesto, house-roasted red peppers, fresh rosemary, spicy or mild Italian sausage, and fig balsamic glaze), and all pies –— no matter how many toppings — cost just one price. Ten specialty pizzas are also available, including the Mad Dog (mozzarella, pepperoni, mild sausage, ground beef, and red sauce), Dominic (white sauce, Asiago, basil, red onion, sliced tomatoes, and mild sausage), and Calexico (mozzarella, gorgonzola, chicken, jalapeños, hot Buffalo sauce, and red sauce).
Donatos was founded by Jim Grote in 1963, and has about 200 locations in nine states. The Ohio-based chain is famous for its thin crust and “edge-to-edge” toppings (more than 100 pieces of pepperoni come on each pepperoni pie), and specialty pizzas include the Serious Meat with pepperoni, sausage, ham, ground beef, bacon, and aged provolone; and the Chicken Spinach Mozzarella, topped with fresh mozzarella, chicken breast, roasted garlic, Roma tomatoes, chopped spinach, and a Romano-Parmesan blend. Gluten-free, hand-tossed, and thicker-crust pizzas are also available, along with oven-baked sandwiches, salads, and wings.
This Nebraska-headquartered mob-themed chain was founded in 1973 and has been a Midwest staple ever since. The wide-ranging menu features four crust varieties: original, golden,thin, and and mozzarella-stuffed, and there’s a wide variety of toppings and specialty pies. Godfather’s also offers “lighter” slices, containing less than 200 calories per slice, and gluten-free options.
Laura G./ Yelp
Founded in 1966 by two taxi drivers and a friend of theirs, Gino’s East, renowned for its Chicago deep-dish pizza, currently has nine Chicago-area locations, plus one in Texas, one in Wisconsin, and one soon opening in Phoenix. Pizzas feature Gino’s famous golden crust and chunky sauce and are available in four, six, or eight slices. Popular styles include four-cheese, Chicago Fire (with extra-spicy sausage), and vegetarian (with asparagus, green peppers, mushrooms, onions, peppers, squash, and zucchini). Thin crust pizza is also available, but when in Chicago…
In Chicago, Lou Malnati’s is synonymous with deep-dish pizza, and there are locations all throughout Chicagoland. The buttery crust recipe has been passed down to Malnati’s sons, who run the business today, the mozzarella comes from the same dairy that’s supplied the cheese for more than 40 years, the sausage blend is made according to a family recipe, water is shipped to each location from Lake Michigan, and every pizza is handmade from scratch. In the mood for one but nowhere near a location? It will ship anywhere in the country.
This Texas-based chain is renowned for its reasonably priced buffet, which boasts nearly 30 varieties of fresh-baked pizza as well as pastas, soups, salads, and desserts. The first location opened in Plano in 1985, and today there are more than 450 locations in 32 states.
What do we all remember about those childhood visits to Chuck E. Cheese’s? The arcade games, the slides and climbing equipment, borderline-creepy animatronic characters, and, of course, the pizza. While for most the pizza is a way to refuel after redeeming your tickets, it’s actually pretty darn good. And at more than 500 locations, you can get it gluten-free and thin-crust as well. The chain also recently added new items to its menu as part of a larger rebranding that includes doing away with the animatronics; these include stuffed-crust pizza and pizza-sized cookies.
This fast-growing pizza chain hasn’t been open as long as its competitors (it was founded in 2011), but its dedication to fast and fresh pies has caught the eye of investors and diners. The assembly-style pies allow diners to pick their toppings just like at Chipotle or Subway, and pizzas are cooked in approximately three minutes so there’s no waiting.
Founded in Atlanta in 1974, Mellow Mushroom currently has more than 150 locations nationwide. There’s a big emphasis on the bar and craft beer, and there are some extremely creative pizzas on the menu, like the Bayou Bleu (spicy blue cheese base topped with all-natural grilled shrimp and andouille sausage covered in mozzarella cheese and garnished with chives), the Magical Mystery Tour (pesto base with two kinds of mushrooms, feta and mozzarella cheeses, spinach, and jalapeños on a herbed crust).
The recipe for Giordano’s famous stuffed pizza dates back nearly 200 years, to a double-crusted Italian Easter pie served every year in Turin (similar to the one that inspired the signature pie at Nancy's, #33), but the recipe didn’t make its way stateside until 1974, when Italian immigrants Efren and Joseph Boglio opened the first location of this chain in Chicago. Its massive, deep-dish pies are a Chicago must-eat.
Ledo Pizza, with 29 D.C.-area locations, has nowhere near as many locations as its other rivals at the top of this list, but the chain, and its trademark square pizza, has a fiercely devoted following. The distinctive pizzas have a thin crust, thick-cut pepperoni, and a sweet sauce, and are available in several sizes as well as gluten-free varieties. Served by waitstaff instead of over a counter, the wide menu also includes appetizers, salads, subs, and entrées, including fettuccini Bolognese (using an original family recipe) and shrimp fettuccini Parmesan. The reason for the square pies? Round baking sheets were very tough to come by when the company was founded in 1955.
Opening in Boston’s North End in 1926, just a year after the famed Frank Pepe in New Haven, Connecticut, Regina Pizzeria has some serious cred. Made using dough from a 90-year-old family recipe, pizzas are topped with sauce, whole-milk mozzarella, and natural toppings with no preservatives or additives, and all cooked in a brick oven. There are nearly 20 different pies, some made traditionally, while others — like the St. Anthony’s, a white pie with Regina sausage, sausage links, roasted peppers, and garlic sauce — are unique. Today, there are 14 Boston-area locations.
Little Caesars, founded in 1959 in the Detroit suburbs, is perhaps best known for its mascot’s catchphrase, “Pizza Pizza!,” originally intended to advertise a deal where two pizzas were served for the price of one competitor’s pie. Today there are locations all over the world, selling round and deep-dish pizzas made with dough made in-house daily, as well as wings, Italian cheese bread, and Crazy Bread.
“Papa” John Schnatter opened the first Papa John’s in the back of his father’s tavern in 1984, and today it’s one of the nation’s most recognizable brands with locations in all 50 states. The emphasis on fresh dough, fresh-cut vegetables, and high-quality, never-frozen ingredients has attracted an enthusiastic fan base, and the cheese sticks and dipping sauces alone are crave-worthy. The chain attracted some negative press last year, when Schnatter blamed the NFL for poor sales; he resigned after substantial backlash and its stock price took a major hit.
This mall-centric chain got its start in 1956 Brooklyn, when the Sbarro family opened an Italian market. Eleven years later, the first modern-style Sbarro was launched in the borough’s Kings Plaza Shopping center, selling self-serve Italian fare with an emphasis on the pizza. Even though the company filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy and closed 155 locations in 2014, Sbarro is still serving New York-style pizzas on hand-stretched dough with a wide variety of toppings, as well as salads and classic Italian-American pastas and entrées, and it’s working on freshening up its image.
California Pizza Kitchen was founded in 1985 in Beverly Hills by attorneys Rick Rosenfield and Larry Flax. The casual dining chain is renowned for its innovative pizzas, including the barbecue chicken pizza, which is now ubiquitous but was basically invented there (visionary chef Ed LaDou brought the idea over from Wolfgang Puck’s Spago). The chain, which is constantly expanding, also does a lot of community outreach and fundraising. The menu is loaded with gourmet pizza offerings like Thai Chicken, Habanero Carnitas, and California Club, and seasonal offerings. Small plates, wine flights, and salads like caramelized peach with pecans, cranberries, and gorgonzola have a distinctly fine-dining feel, but the approach is always casual and fun.
Papa Gino’s Pizzeria/Yelp
Going strong since 1961, when Mike Valerio opened the first location in East Boston, Papa Gino’s today has 149 locations across New England. All the dough is made fresh daily at the chain’s headquarters in Walpole, Massachusetts, using just five ingredients (locally-milled hard winter wheat flour, water, yeast, salt, and oil); pies are hand-stretched, and they’re topped with fresh vegetables, California tomato sauce, and a three-cheese blend. Along with a variety of pizzas (try The Works, with pepperoni, Italian sausage, ground beef, mushrooms, onions, peppers, and cheese; and the Italian Sausage Ricotta, with chunky tomato sauce, ricotta, Asiago, Italian sausage, cheese, and red pepper flakes) in three sizes, Papa Gino’s also serves wings, toasted ravioli, garlic fries, and four varieties of breadsticks. Make sure you get the Cinnamon Swirl Pizza for dessert.
Founded in 1960 in Ypsilanti, Michigan, Domino’s is today the second-largest pizza chain in the U.S., after Pizza Hut, and the largest worldwide. Domino’s offers pizzas with a variety of toppings, toasted sandwiches, stuffed cheesy bread, wings, and desserts. The pies are greasy, tasty, and just about everything you’d want in fast-food pizza.
Dan and Frank Carney opened the first Pizza Hut in Wichita, Kansas, in 1958, when pizza parlors in the region were still a rarity. It took off, and soon the trademark red roof, which has since been retired, sprouted up all across the country. Never afraid to experiment with new “pizza-esque” products like the P’Zone, it occasionally struck gold, like with the now-ubiquitous Stuffed Crust Pizza. If there’s one chain that’s not afraid to reinvent itself or get a little silly sometimes, it’s Pizza Hut, and it’s a philosophy that’s obviously served the company quite well.
Formerly Pizzeria Uno, this chain boasts an origin story that is probably the best-known of the bunch. When Ike Sewell opened Pizzeria Uno in Chicago in 1943, he essentially invented the Chicago-style pie, with a buttery crust piled high with cheese, sauce, and toppings and baked for more than an hour, and it blew people away. Today, Uno spreads the deep-dish gospel across the country and around the world.. Along with pizza, they also serve appetizers, steaks, sandwiches, burgers, seafood, and even (gasp!) thin-crust pizza.
Every pizza made at Bertucci’s, which got its start in Somerville, Massachusetts, in 1981, is cooked in a brick oven, one of which is on display at each of its 79 East Coast locations. (The chain is a member of Vera Pizza Napoletana, the Italian organization that recognizes pizzerias whose ingredients and practices conform to the Neapolitan ideal.) You can craft your own pizza or try one of its unique topping combinations, like Balsamic BBQ Shrimp and Blue Cheese, Roasted Mushroom and Asiago, and the Ultimate Bertucci, where each quarter has a different topping: sweet Italian sausage, meatballs, rosemary ham, and chicken. Calzones, Roman-style long pizzas, and a whole slew of starters, salads, and pastas are also available.