Pizza was born in Naples but has become far more widespread in America than Italy. Consistently among the nation’s most popular foods, it can be found in nearly every town and city with restaurants from coast to coast. The United States also rules in variety, with so many geographic takes it boggles the mind: Website SeriousEats.com identified 30 distinct regional variants, some very obscure — and they missed several, like Buffalo, Rocky Mountain, California and Pot Pie-style. A few are dramatically different, like Chicago-style deep dish, while other regional differences are subtle. Some regions even claim nearly identical pizzas as their own distinct creations: Pennsylvania’s Old Forge style sounds hyper-local, but is very close to both Buffalo and Detroit style. On top of all this, there are offbeat regional ways to eat pizza: On the Mississippi Gulf Coast, it is normal to dip slices in Catalina (creamy French) dressing, with bottles at every pizzeria, while in many pockets of the nation, locals do the same with ranch. In Colorado it is not only normal but expected to pour honey on the crust when eating Rocky Mountain-style “Ugly Pizza.”
While most regions fiercely defend a particular style, at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco, former World Pizza Champion Tony Gemingnani embraces the differences. His restaurant features seven different ovens burning coal, wood, gas and electricity, from 550° to 1000°, all so he can offer truly authentic versions of nine regional styles: New Haven, California, New York, NYC Sicilian, “Grandma” (Long Island, N.Y.), Detroit, St. Louis, New Haven and Trenton (N.J.) tomato pies. He correctly predicted the rise of Detroit style, and told me that the traditional New York style I grew up on was getting harder to find. If you love pizza, there are myriad options to try something new, but these are the major American styles.
Neapolitan-American (or coal-fired) style
The very first American pizza was made in New York by immigrants from Naples, but instead of wood-burning ovens common in Italy, they embraced the popular Big Apple fuel source of the time, coal. All United States pizza can be traced to coal ovens, and specifically those at Gennaro Lombardi’s grocery store in 1905. The new food’s popularity quickly spawned a trio of Big Apple spinoffs, all operated by his former employees. These four original temples of American pizza still exist: Lombardi’s, Totonno’s, John’s and Patsy’s. Coal burns very hot, and while traditional thin-crust Neapolitan pizza can be soggy in the middle, coal-fired pizza is uniformly firmer, but still chewy, with flecks of char giving it a lot of flavor. While this style was born in New York, its charms travel well, and it is now made authentically in lots of places, most notably New Haven.
John’s of Bleecker Street, New York: One of the original American pizzerias, and usually with a line out the door, John’s keep things simple — just pizza in two sizes, fantastic calzones, salad, meatballs or sausage, and a couple of basic pasta dishes.
Frank Pepe Pizza Napoletana, New Haven, Conn.: Many critics have called New Haven pizza the world’s best, but the main things that differentiate it from the coal-fired version invented at Lombardi’s — just 20 years before Pepe’s opened — is the absence of cheese unless requested (“red pie”) and the prodigious and delicious use of clams. The latter was Pepe’s creation, and to this day they still only use fresh-shucked clams, taking it off the menu when they cannot achieve this. There are several other famous pizzerias in New Haven, but Pepe’s is the best.
Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza, Chain: Easily the nation’s best pizza chain, Anthony’s started in Florida and has spread quickly up the East Coast. Their coal ovens are traditional, but they do eclectic combos — the house signature is topped with “eggplant Marino,” very thinly sliced eggplant stacked and layered with Romano cheese and tomato sauce.
New York style
The best known and most imitated style is classic New York pizza, which boomed with the popularization of gas ovens. This allowed for easy reheating, and the introduction of selling by the slice, rather than whole pies, made pizza much more affordable and accessible, turning it into a handheld street food. Shredded processed mozzarella did better at lower oven temperatures than classic chunks of fresh mozzarella, and New York-style pizza is completely covered with cheese, rather than dotted. The crust is very thin, and at its best it is just stiff enough to support the toppings while remaining chewy. While copied everywhere, this style is notoriously difficult to get at its best outside of the New York metropolitan area. As pizza maven and SeriousEats.com founder Ed Levine notes in his classic tome Pizza: A Slice of Heaven, “There’s a reason that every other city has pizza restaurants with names like Escape From New York, Big Apple Pizza and Manhattan Slice … But it’s just a come on. To enjoy New York pizza in all its forms, you’ve got to come to New York.”
Di Fara Pizza, Brooklyn, N.Y.: This tiny local neighborhood joint has been on the same block for over 40 years, always owned by the same man — and now pizza legend — Domenico DeMarco, who has personally handmade most of the pies ever served here. He takes an elevated approach, using a blend of fresh buffalo mozzarella, fior di latte, and parmigiana-reggiano, drizzles on extra virgin olive oil, and cuts fresh basil over each with scissors. In a world where people wait on line for food way too indiscriminately, this is one of the few places worth the effort.
Joe & Pat’s, Staten Island, N.Y.: Those in the city’s least visited borough take their pizza very seriously, but Joe & Pat’s is the pinnacle, and a good excuse to ride the scenic ferry. It looks every inch the traditional New York pizzeria, with a long to-go counter and booths. Better, fresher cheese sets this pizza apart.
Joe’s Pizza, Greenwich Village, N.Y.: Classic corner spot with virtually no room inside to eat, dispensing perfect slices for four decades — and it is open very late.
Chicago deep dish
The best known regional style after New York, Chicago’s pizza is a much heavier, fork-and-knife affair. Dough is spread in a round metal tray with high sides, and baked for upwards of half an hour. Because it cooks so long, cheese on top would burn, so whatever you get in (not on) a deep dish pie — sausage is very popular, as are pepperoni and, surprisingly, spinach — the top is usually tomato sauce to protect the innards. The result is the cake version of pizza, tall slices with “layers” inside. When done poorly, it can be a soupy casserole, but when done right it is a sublime balance of dough and fillings. It is also the style that travels best. You can find very good deep dish outside its birthplace, but frozen pies from classic spots like Gino’s East and Lou Malnati’s, which both ship, serve up a great taste of Chicago anywhere in the country.
Lou Malnati’s, throughout Illinois: The best of the Chicago chains. Deep dish was introduced at the original Pizzeria Uno, which later franchised, but according to period reports in the Chicago Daily News, the recipe was invented by Uno’s head chef, Rudy Malnati, whose son Lou opened the first Lou Malnati’s in 1971. Still family-owned, there are now more than three dozen locations. As pizza expert Levine wrote, “I liked Malnati’s buttery crust more … and in general, the pie had a certain textural balance and sharper flavors that the other pizzas hadn’t achieved.”
Capo’s Chicago Pizza, San Francisco: When chef Tony Gemingnani set out to recreate great regional pizza styles at his eponymous Bay Area gem, he intentionally skipped deep dish, because it takes so much longer to cook it would throw his whole restaurant out of sync. But he respects the genre so much he later opened this second eatery specifically to serve Chicago-style pizzas.
Pi Pizzerias, St. Louis: This Missouri pizzeria group wowed President Obama so much during his campaign that he later invited the chef to cook at the White House — and he’s from Chicago. Pi added cornmeal to their crust and created a sturdier deep dish you can pick up and eat by the slice — and it’s delicious.
If there is one pizza on the verge of its moment in the sun, it is the Motor City’s take, which while not new, is suddenly getting exposure. It plays well to a large audience because it is a hybrid between New York Sicilian and Chicago deep dish but with an airier, more buttery crust — a thinner, lighter take on thick pizza, which lets the toppings shine. Legend has it that inventive Detroit cooks once used metal parts trays from auto factories to bake pizzas, and today pies are cooked in blue steel pans that are oiled and preheated before dough goes in. This makes the exterior crunchy and crisp, but it is still light and airy inside, and the pies are square or rectangular, always four or eight slices. Many fans only order smalls so every piece is a double-crusted corner. “Everyone loves Buddy’s here, but I didn’t even realize what a big thing Detroit-style was until I saw it in Telluride, Colo., and started paying attention. Now it’s getting a lot of buzz everywhere,” said radio personality Michael Patrick Shiels, host of the statewide drive time Michigan Big Show.
Buddy’s Pizza, Detroit: A Prohibition-era speakeasy that added pizza in 1946 to help pay the bills, Buddy’s is widely regarded as the birthplace of Detroit-style pizza, and there are now 10 locations. Meat combos abound, with pepperoni, ground beef, bacon and sausage, but Buddy’s surprisingly progressive offerings range from a Kale Lovers to Dijon Smoked Salmon to gluten-free pizzas, with house specialties named for Detroit icons and each of the Great Lakes.
Cloverleaf, Eastpointe, Mich.: Just seven years after Buddy’s served its first square pie, one of the partners broke off and opened Cloverleaf, so named because it was in an Irish neighborhood. The crust, cooked in oiled pans, is crunchy in a good way, and in addition to the Eastpointe full-service restaurant, there are several take-out locations.
Brown Dog Pizza, Telluride, Colo.: Brown Dog is easily the best ski town pizzeria in America, thanks to its transcendent Detroit-style offerings, and recently opened an outpost in Denver, fittingly called Blue Pan Pizza.