Year-End Lists Part 2: After my best pizza in Portland was a lucky find, I’m finally approaching the "best pizza" lists with a skeptical eye.
Last week, I talked about hitting five of the top-rated pizza joints in Pizza City USA (AKA Portland, Oregon)—except…
Pizzeria number 5 was a last-minute substitution based on a Google search for the closest pizza joint.
I’d never heard of it, never saw it on any list—and it was the biggest surprise of my two-day pizza expedition.
So, after years of regarding them with suspicion, I’m officially skeptical of the best pizza lists.
Sometimes, those lists are cobbled together from information scraped off the internet.
Other times, they’re just the assembled opinions of people whose opinions are questionable.
And so often, “best pizza” just isn’t an objective measure.
One of my personal five best pizzerias is in Cedar City, Utah.
Have you ever heard of Cedar City, Utah?
What in Utah have you heard of besides The Great Salt Lake, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, a handful of ski resorts, and the need to join a club to buy a cocktail? (The so-called club laws have been extinct for years, as has the infamously insipid 3.2 beer, yet their mythologies endure.)
That Cedar City pizza is one of the most memorable pizzas I’ve had—not in the least for the fact that it’s in Cedar City, Utah. (FYI, Cedar City about 170 miles south of Salt Lake City, with a population around 35,000. It's most famous for its annual Shakespeare festival. Really.)
It’s the same with my personal list of "Honorable Mention Pizzerias," which includes a pizzeria in Page, Arizona, population 4,000.
I couldn’t believe there was a pizza this good in Page, Arizona.
It also explains why the joint was packed on a Thursday night, even in a dinky little town.
So part of my own criteria for “bests” is the surprise of finding a credible product in an unlikely place.
I can Google best pizzas in the USA and Google’s “Artificial Intelligence” can give me a list of what reliably constitutes the nation’s most critically acclaimed pizzerias.
In other words, there are no surprises.
Here's a surprise: the best New England clam chowder I’ve ever had was nowhere near New England. It was in California on the Pacific Coast Highway just across the Ventura County line from LA County.
It was a sunny Sunday afternoon with blue skies and puffy white clouds—a perfect day for driving my purring rust-bucket 280ZX through the twisties with the sunroof open.
I stopped at a little roadside joint called Neptune’s net.
The view of the vast Pacific ocean was fantastic. There were windsurfers skittering through the waves off the beach. There were motorcycles parked all over the place. I loved it.
One reason that chowder is "the best" is because it is inextricably part of a memory in that place and time.
I can make a technically better clam chowder myself.
But it won’t match that chowder from Neptune’s Net because Neptune’s Net is part of the chowder.
Pellicci’s, The Tarry Lodge, Pizza Palace, Pizza Post, and Caruso’s: five places you’ve never heard of that are on my top five list of pizzas past.
Four of them are gone.
One remains, and their pizza today is not as good as I remember it then.
I was talking with Peter Reinhart about a joint in Atlantic City. It’s a landmark spot called Tony’s Baltimore Grill. (Which, as it happens, has never had a grill in it’s near century-long existence.)
Peter asked me how the pizza is.
I replied, “The pizza at Tony’s Baltimore Grill is exactly the pizza it should be.”
In a split second, he understood what I was talking about. I think I need a list for "Pizzerias That Are Exactly What You Expected Them To Be."
I know of people who’ve been to Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix who say it was nothing special.
I’ve been to Bianco twice on two consecutive days. It was exceptional.
But if someone goes in there and their reference for “best pizza” is Famous Ray’s or Sbarro’s, they’re going to have a hard time processing any of Bianco's best-ness. (There should be a list for that: Disappointing Pizzas I Didn't Understand.")
Tuan Tran is a chef I know in Miami Beach. He makes some of the most astonishing looking pizzas I have ever seen.
Chef Tuan has a cult following for his pizza popups.
He once told a story about a guy from South Carolina who drove down to Miami Beach with Chef Tuan’s pizza as one of his goals. This guy thinks Tuan's is the best pizza he’s ever had.
I rank some of Tuan’s pizzas on a scale with Sarah Minnick’s pizzas at Lovely’s Fifty Fifty in Portland, Oregon: they have stunning visual appeal.
I’ve also never eaten Tuan’s pizza.
But he’s on one of my personal “best pizza” lists: "5 Best-Looking Pizzas I Have Yet To Eat."
Anyone can go to a place that’s on a published list of “best pizza.”
It takes a different kind of sensibility to appreciate the unknown, the spontaneous, the “pizza found here and now.”
I have nothing against the best-of lists.
But aren’t we better off considering what’s the best of what’s happening right here and right now?
I’ve had people tell me they want to finance my pizzeria, that they’ve never had anything like my pizza. My pizza "has ruined them for all other pizza."
That and a buck 50 will get me a cup of coffee at Starbucks. So what?
Actually, I’ll tell you what: my pizza makes people happy—and it’s just not that difficult.
Yes, it’s a skill.
But it’s not magic.
The magic is in the ingredients. The magic is in the mythology. The magic is in understanding both.
And mostly, the magic is in the people who come sit around our table, eat pizza, drink wine, have fun, and laugh.
There is no best-of list for that.
You can make your own “best pizza in town.”
It really is possible.
And I’m going to say it again: it’s just not that hard. As someone just said to me earlier this week, "Thanks for one of the best gifts ever: making great pizza at home!"
Learn to do that, and one of your own lists can become, “The Best Pizza Ever Made In My Home Oven.”
I still remember the first pizza I turned out of my 1950s Wedgewood stove in Los Angeles in 2003. It was AMAZING!
It might not have been the world’s most fantastic pizza.
But it was the single best pizza I’d ever eaten in what was then the Los Angeles Pizza Desert, where almost all the pizza was mediocre—especially the ones that promised they weren’t.
Seriously: there was a guy who claimed to be making his “Boston-style pizza” with water trucked in from Boston.
It was just as mediocre as all the other pizza I’d had in Los Angeles and it tasted nothing like the 1926-brick-oven product from Pizzeria Regina in Boston’s North End. Now, that pizza from Regina was the first pizza that rocked my world. I had no idea that pizza could be transcendent. I was hooked.
The second transcendent pizza I'd ever eaten came out of my own oven.
I couldn’t believe I’d made that pizza with my own two hands using a cheap baking stone in that old, beater oven.
Looking back on it, the reasons it seemed so remarkable were simple:
a) most pizza recipes any newbie uses at the beginning usually offer fast-track mediocrity and compromise,
b) I was finally using all the correct, fresh ingredients, and
c) the pizza process required patience.
I had allowed that dough to ferment for three days in my fridge.
Most commercial pizzerias do not have the luxury of committing to a cold fermentation.
Yet, that fermentation is part of a transformative process.
In fact, I’m convinced that transformation is part of the reason people get hooked on pizza making.
At the simplest level, pizza is about transforming mundane components into something very happy-making.
You can dig much deeper and start examining the idea of creating new life from dead ingredients and maybe even start invoking the concept of transubstantiation if you’re that kind of person. (I’m not.)
But you take these simple parts and transform it all into this disc-shaped whole that makes people happy.
I believe that’s why there are so many aspiring pizzaioli, both amateur and professional, who want to make pizza that transforms people, even if only for a meal.
And that, I think, is why people are so pizza-fascinated.
And that’s why we get “best pizza” lists: the ongoing quest for pizza nirvana.
Everyone’s looking for the next best fix.
It’s kind of a drug. Pizza’s cheese/tomato/bread combination, along with the power of the Maillard Reaction, all have an immediate effect on our psychology that’s hard to match.
And when you sit down with a bunch of friends around a table holding a round pizza, it’s a communal experience unlike any other in our daily dining.
When that pizza arrives on the table, it’s almost always a little bit of a celebration.
And by learning to make pizza at home, you get to celebrate whenever you want.
Your home becomes everyone’s favorite pizzeria.
And that’s a great list to control.
Here’s to a happy and healthy 2024. May it be filled with all kinds of little pizza celebrations for you and your family and friends.
If you’re still thinking about starting your pizza journey, one good place to do so is inside Free The Pizza. Really, it’s A Simple System For Making Great Pizza Whenever You Want With The Oven You Already Have. It’s a manual that takes you from zero to pizza with a few laughs along the way. Also, if you buy a hard copy, I'll send you an autographed book plate. If you buy the Kindle edition, know that there are printable cheat sheets on this website so you can take them into the kitchen and spill red sauce all over them.
Blaine Parker is the award-winning author of the bestselling, unusual and amusing how-to pizza book, Free The Pizza. Also known as The Pizza Geek and "Hey, Pizza Man!", Blaine is fanatical about the idea that true, pro-quality pizza can be made at home. His home. Your home. Anyone's home. After 20 years of honing his craft and making pizza in standard consumer ovens across the nation, he's sharing what he's learned with home cooks like you. Are you ready to pizza?
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