There are two types of food in the world: Italian food and the rest. And pizza? It's so prevalent here in the US, and with so many local versions, that many of us make the mistake of thinking it's a local invention, along with the car (Germany), badminton (made by bored Brits in India), and turtle races (wait, that apparently is American).
But figuring out who makes the best pizza in the USA is a heated question, one that gets nerdy quick. Here are our favorites:
Thin-crusted pizza pies, sold as slices at greasier takeaway stands or in sit-down pizzerias with brick ovens, is a legendary part of the New York experience. A lot of Manhattanites tout Joe's in the West Village, John's in the West Village or Midtown, Patsy's uptown. Great, but not the best. You'll find that in Brooklyn.
Grimaldi's, under Brooklyn Bridge, is a hit with tourists − and it's good − as are the hole-in-the-wall Di Fara (1424 Ave J), Franny's gourmet offering in Prospect Heights, and Totonno's by Coney Island.
But the best, for the moment, has to be Lucali's in Carroll Gardens. Owner/chef Mark Iacono opened it up after testing pizzas for fun and neighbors starting asking about the mouth-watering smells. It's a pocket-sized, candle-lit place with a handful of tables that are open for dinner only (lines form quick -- you can wait hours, though you can call ahead to get on the list, as do Beyonce and Jay-Z often enough). There's no alcohol license (bring in your own wine or beer) and nothing but a couple rotating pizzas and calzones. Very very good ones.
The Chicago/New York pizza war is like a John Lennon/Paul McCartney debate − it depends on your taste, you'll never resolve it, and the bickering will never end. According to Lonely Planet's Chicago food author Nate Cavalieri, the best place to get Chicago's heavy dose of deep-pan pizza is at the local institution Giordano's in the Near North, north of the Loop. The founders swear the recipe comes from their mom's recipe back in Italy (that's sweet), and the special stuffed pizza with sausage, mushroom, green pepper and onions is an instant last-meal-of-the-day dessert-destroyer.
(By the way, Lennon is easily the choice over McCartney.)
'The thing about California pizza', says California pizza fan (and Lonely Planet staffer) Andy Murdock, 'is that there's no such thing as California pizza'. Sounds like a club that doesn't want us as a member.
One could say that 'California pizza' is a modern concept and can be boiled down as something of a fussier, more 'gourmet' version of a New York-style pie, with non-traditional toppings like artichokes or Mexican carne asada or Thai spices. That's pretty California. (Now, listen out for the collective smacking noise of palms hitting foreheads of beefy pizza chefs in Chicago and New York.)
The place for a rewarding snobby-yet-casual slice is Oakland's Pizzaiolo, run by Chez Panisse grad Charlie Hallowell, who burst onto the pizza scene a few years ago with scene-stealing pies, then tried to deflect it by downplaying pizza and promoting other slow-cooking dishes (kinda like REM refusing to play their early hit 'Radio Free Europe' live). Simply put, it's real pizza and it's good eating.
That's right, New Haven, home of Yale University. Apparently when Frank Sinatra was back in New York, New York from Vegas, he'd have his pies delivered from Connecticut!
The best three in town are easily the top three in New England, all offering the local 'clam pizza' (a white pie — tomato-free, with mozzarella or ricotta cheese — plus local clams). As local pizza expert John Spelman puts it, New Haven makes the best pizza, period. 'Some days you can get a sublime pizza here. Other times merely excellent'.
The most famous is Frank Pepe's. There are a few locations, but best is in Wooster Square, a compact Italian-American neighborhood hemmed in by interstates and train tracks. Spelman says, 'It looks most like an old-time pizza place', and serves 'red' (tomato sauce) and 'white' pies with lightly charred crusts.
Relatively flashy and modern is Bar, a huge industrial space with a bar and stage for bands, plus more topping options.
The best though, many locals including Spelman swears, is Sally's Apizza, around since 1938. As he puts it, 'It's the biggest pain in the ass — you can wait two hours to sit and the staff is hands-down the meanest — but it's most frequently giving you the perfect pizza.'
Welcome to the runt of American pizzas. Chicagoans, in particular, delight in making fun of the notion of 'St Louis pizza', but it exists and, dang it, it's pretty good.
'St Louis pizza' is a round thin-crusted pie cut into square slices, of all things, and with a heavy dose of 'Provel' cheese. Depending on whom you talk to, Provel is a local source of pride or contention; the creamy blend of Swiss, provolone and American cheeses aren't really available anywhere else (perhaps for a reason). A pizza expert over on the website Slice swears povel is evil: 'It's as if the cheese knows to wait to scald the roof of someone's mouth before it decides to let go of the heat'.
Imo's is a huge St Louis institution and likes to claim making the square-shaped slices first (borrowing a founder's job as a tiler).
This article was updated in Jan 2012.
For more information and inspiration on the gastronomic front, check out Lonely Planet's new World's Best Street Food.