Ever since Neapolitan Gennaro Lombardi opened the first American pizzeria in New York’s Little Italy in 1905, the humble confection of dough, cheese, tomato sauce, spices and assorted toppings has inspired passionate regional debates. Indeed, the only thing that inflames Americans more than insulting their hometown is demeaning their favorite pizza joint. Robust Chicagoans swear by their succulent “deep dish” pizzas; busy New Yorkers eat it by the slice on the run; sophisticated San Franciscans dote on gourmet pizza. But, somewhere in the land, is there a perfect pizza? There are, of course, as many opinions as palates. That richness of choice is what makes the quest all the more appealing. To settle the Great Debate once and for all, PEOPLE dispatched Associate Editor Jeff Jarvis. A self-confessed junk-food junkie, Jarvis braved indigestion, jet lag and countless bemused looks in pizzerias across the land. He traveled 6,776 miles, visited 39 of the most popular pizzerias in nine cities, and sampled some 76 pounds of pizza. Jarvis was rigorously scientific: He ordered a plain cheese pizza everywhere as a basis for city-by-city comparison; hungry friends ordered various toppings, everything from A (anchovies) to Z (zucchini). Each pizza was weighed on a portable diet scale, then held up and subjected to the five-second slither test (if the ingredients slide off the crust like slush off a windshield, it’s too greasy). Each part of the pizza was tasted separately—the cheese for flavor and stringiness, the sauce for spicing and the crust for telltale traces of cardboard or third-degree burns. Eighteen days later and eight pounds heavier, Jarvis weighed in with his admittedly subjective findings. Each city’s winning pizza was rated from five tomatoes (pizza de résistance!) to none (break out the antacid). Here, saving the best for last, are the results.
At Pizzeria Regina, in the city’s Italian North End, the crust is so thin it seems to defy the laws of physics. “It’s very light,” says Regina’s proud owner, John Polcari, 50, “like paper.” The dough, made fluffy with extra yeast, is stretched by hand and baked in an ancient brick oven. The pie is then cooked quickly—five minutes at most—so grease can’t seep down from the rich mozzarella, to which a dash of Romano is added to give every bite an extra bite. With any of the standard toppings—pepperoni, sausage, mushroom or salami—the result is a classic, unchanged since waitress Mary Piccione went to work there 42 years ago. (“I can’t eat any,” she admits, “maybe because I look at it too much.”) Polcari’s immigrant father, John, bought the pizzeria in 1944, after running a grocery across the street for 50 years. John Polcari Jr. now has 19 pizzerias throughout the Boston area, but he hasn’t even added air conditioning to the original Regina. As its manager, Domenic Strazzullo, says, “They sweat to eat that pizza.” One patron who didn’t was Frank Sinatra. He sent his bodyguards to Regina for a pepperoni pie to go.
“After Italy won the World Cup,” recalls Katherine Studt, 26, manager of Geppetto in Washington’s Georgetown, “we were packed with Italians from the embassy. They could not believe our chef and owner were not Italian.” Small wonder—the finished product tastes authentic and is as fashionable as a Gucci loafer. Pols like Pete McClosky and George McGovern go to Geppetto to exercise their jaws on a crust that is thick but light as a pillow. The cheese is a delicious, well-browned mixture of mozzarella, Romano and provolone. The provolone “changes the texture a little bit,” says Studt. “It keeps the cheese from being runny and gives it a good flavor, a little saltier.” As for the other ingredients, well, waiter Steve McMaster isn’t kidding when he boasts, “You can’t count the pepperoni.” The bona fide pizza lover has no room left for dessert, but Geppetto is one place to break that rule, most notably with its wondrous ricotta cheese pie, a calorie-crammed combination of ricotta, whipped cream, almonds and graham crackers. A truly Capitol concoction.
The presence of 32,000-student Indiana University makes Bloomington a quintessential college town (Breaking Away was filmed there), but the presence of Mother Bear’s makes it a great pizza town. Mother’s fiery sauce—pepped up with crushed red and black pepper—attracts hordes of salivating students every weeknight. On Sundays, when dormitory dining rooms are dark, Mother Bear’s and nearby Bear’s Place serve 300 pizzas in four hours. The sauce is too hot for some customers, but, says Mother’s manager, Frank Conaty, 25, “most of them have not moved into the Maalox generation.” The cook, music student Barry Kiernan, pooh-poohs the competition—”Their crust could be three weeks old.” But students, who are not known for their discriminating palates, eat enough of the stuff to support a pizzeria on practically every block. As Bear’s Place waitress Melinda Plaisier observes, “Eatin’ pizza, drinkin’ beer—it just goes with college.”
San Francisco is the home of gourmet pizza. Toppings range from the ridiculous (white truffles) to the sublime (artichoke hearts). But Tommaso’s, a 47-year-old pizzeria in the Italian North Beach, specializes in the real thing: Agostino Crotti’s Neapolitan pizza features superb cheese, subtle sauce and a woody flavor from the oak oven. This critic reluctantly sampled his companion’s clam pizza and fell in love—with the pizza, that is. It is spectacular—slightly fishy, very garlicky—a sort of poor man’s escargot. Singer Boz Skaggs, a regular, has veggie pizza with shrimp. Francis Coppola walks to Tommaso’s from his nearby office and makes his own pizza, using fresh basil from his Napa Valley ranch. Crotti loves his pizza, but tries not to sample his own wares too often. “If I had a slice every day,” he groans, then holds his hand an arm’s length away from his stomach. When he eats out, Agostino confesses, “I go to Chinatown.”
In the Big Apple, pizza is snack food, slurped by the slice, swimming in Olympic-size pools of grease. Ah, but John’s is different. Owner Pete Castellotti, 42, serves only whole pies (from $5.50 to $10) in his cozy Greenwich Village establishment, where the clientele is as noteworthy as the pizza. When Warren Beatty brings Diane Keaton, they order peppers and onions on their pie; when Warren dines alone, he adds sausage too. Woody Allen takes his plain and eats the whole thing—a pound and a half of pizza. “And he’s skinny,” Pete marvels. Jack Nicholson, Mary Tyler Moore and Johnny Cash have also stopped by. What draws them? It could be the 53-year-old coal-burning oven, which gives the pizza a sharp flavor. Or perhaps it’s the oily—but not too oily—mozzarella, rich and smooth, especially when bathed in mild garlic. Whatever, John’s is usually packed, and patient pizzaphiles often spill out onto the sidewalk. “It’s rough standing in the rain and snow in the winter,” says Castellotti. But they wait.
Mutt’s Sicilian Pizza
John Kennedy Jr., a student at nearby Brown University, once took Brooke Shields to Mutt’s Sicilian Pizza in Rhode Island’s heavily Italian capital city. But they had sandwiches rather than wait 20 minutes for pizza. Had they waited, John could have treated Brooke to a lively one, with a thick, bready crust (that’s what’s Sicilian), a tangy mix of mozzarella and Cheddar, and a subtle touch of mint in the sauce. “Before school ends,” crows co-owner Ken LoPresti, 31, “there is no way of getting near here. We’re thinking about franchising.” On the down side, Mutt’s has rashly tried to turn pizza into health food. (Nutritionists know that pizza is adequately healthful, high in carbohydrates and proteins and relatively low in fats, though unfortunately high in salt.) It sells whole-wheat crust, an unappealing brown, topped with broccoli, walnuts or raisins. This is the fruitcake of pizza.
Brooklyn’s Famous Pizza
“The food is really awful here,” Stan Yalowitz complained when he moved to L.A. from Brooklyn 10 years ago. So three and a half years ago he founded Brooklyn’s Famous Pizza in Beverly Hills. Proving its authenticity, a slice at Brooklyn’s fails the five-second slither test, yielding an oleaginous puddle. “Californians see that grease and say, ‘Oh-oh!’ ” growls Yalowitz, 40. “They don’t know.” Cook Thorn Bosco, imported from Hoboken, says the oil comes from his whole-milk mozzarella, and it does have a nice, buttery flavor. “The best this side of the Mississippi,” Bosco boasts. “Lots of people come in here from New York and say that until this, they haven’t had a good pizza in Southern California.” That’s understandable. Most Los Angeles pizzerias have no style of their own; instead they steal others and try to glitz them up. The worst offender is celeb-studded Spago, an airy hot spot on the Sunset Strip. It turns out a tasteless, overpriced copy of San Francisco’s “gourmet” pizza. It’s enough to make a tomato blush for shame.
Mama Rosa’s Slice of Italy
Every pizzaiolo has his secret—his dough, his spices, his oven. But Jim Bulger, 32, of Mama Rosa’s Slice of Italy in New Orleans’ French Quarter, disdains the mystique. Where does he get his sauce? Out of a can. How did he learn to make pizza? “I went to the library,” says Jim, “and got a book.” How did he get into the pizza biz? He got a bargain on the ovens. No matter. Bulger’s pizza is delicious, especially the crust, which tastes as good as the restaurant smells—like the fresh-baked bread that comes out of the oven twice a day. Bulger and partner Jason Wooliver have resisted the temptation of topping their pizza with local delicacies like crawfish, but the truly adventurous might want to pulverize their palates with Mama Rosa’s jalapeña pizza, which is hotter than Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras.
And now for the pizza de résistance. In the Windy City, pizza is more than a meal. It is a banquet, served on a lush, amber bed of dough (light and crunchy) with tomatoes and cheese slathered on thick as a mother’s love. This is knife-and-fork pizza, and the best can be consumed at Gino’s East, founded by cabbies Sam T. Levine and Fred Bartoli with a chef who, says Levine, “could take a pair of your old shoes and make them taste good.” Their recipe for perfect pizza grosses them $3 million a year—and it’s a secret. “I don’t even tell my wife,” Levine says. “She’d tell the neighbors.” Kate Jackson and Bruce Springsteen have dined there; so do doctors from nearby Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “And in all our years,” Levine jokes, “we’ve never had to pump anybody’s stomach.” Chicagoans argue pizza more passionately than politics, and there are many proponents of the North Side’s Pizzeria Uno, self-proclaimed home of the “deep-dish” pizza. But after sampling both, we must finally concur with the sign outside Gino’s. It reads simply: “World’s finest pizza.”