Philly Pizza & Golf Weekend

Philadelphia Magazine , 7/11

A list of downtown Philly's best pizza joints from local authority Philadelphia Magazine , matched with the best of Philly area pizza-budget golf by Fat Guy.

In Defense of Philly Pizza
Why did we eat 1,000 slices of pizza for the July issue?

BY TREY POPP, Philadelphia Magazine

There’s something wrong with the pizza in Philly …

If you’re a stranger to that lamentation, you obviously haven’t lived here long enough. Or haven’t been paying attention. It’s usually phrased a little more colorfully, sure—like with the authoritative disdain of a pie-eating journeyman who calls Tacconelli’s “an expensive joke,” or with an air of exasperation verging on misanthropy, such as that of the Foobooz commenter who declares herself “sick of people thinking the garbage in Philadelphia is decent pizza.”

But that’s just the mild stuff. Because apparently we live amidst pizza slices so deficient that the mere memory of them fuels the revenge fantasies of budding arsonists: “Marra’s,” wrote another commenter, “sucks so bad I want to burn that place down.”  So clearly there’s something wrong with Philadelphia pizza. But what, exactly, is it?

The toppings? Maybe. I mean, Tacconelli’s does lean a little heavily on the granulated garlic, and the place isn’t exactly stretching its own fior di latte cheese. But wait. Doesn’t Barbuzzo make its own, almost every day? And can’t you get guanciale on your pie there, fragrant with wood smoke? Or pop up to Osteria for octopus and chili flakes atop smoked mozzarella?

Not that you have to go that far or spend that much. I just walked two blocks to Café Rustica in West Philly, which to my knowledge has never made anyone’s Best Of list. Grabbed a slice mounded with artichoke hearts and roasted peppers that could have passed muster at Di Bruno Bros. Less than four bucks. Not bad.

Is it the crust that ruins us? Oh, yes, it’s definitely the crust. Anybody who’s ever lived in New Haven, fabled home of Sally’s and Pepe’s, can tell you that. There’s just something about a coal-fired oven that a wood-burning one can’t touch.

Wait. I lived in New Haven. Ate pizza there almost daily for about 1,200 days. It was mediocre on about 1,195 of them. But the average corner slice shop anywhere is going to be, well, average. Which is why judging pizza on a city-by-city basis makes about as much sense as an emo rocker at a mumbling convention.

Besides, who’s really still moaning now that most of Center City is in the delivery zone for Slice , whose crackery crusts claim inspiration from Trenton but harken all the way back to Rome? Not the folks living out in Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill, where Earth Bread + Brewery manages a decent Neapolitan-style foundation.

But the haters have a trump card: It’s the water. No matter how close Philadelphia comes to the New York or Italian standard-bearers, our water will always hold us back.

Now, there is something to this water business. The level of dissolved minerals in water can affect gluten formation in dough, and thus—the theory goes—crust quality.

But not so fast, says Kenji Lopez-Alt, an MIT grad and a pizza geek who blogs for Serious Eats . He staged a double-blind taste test in which Mathieu Palombino, chef-owner of New York’s Motorino, crafted pies using waters ranging from soft Aquafina (mineral content: less than 10 parts per million) to hard Evian (470 ppm). Longtime Vogue food critic Jeffrey Steingarten joined the tasters. Their verdict: It didn’t matter. “There are so many other factors—like kneading, oven temperature, all kinds of things—that swamp whatever difference water could make,” Lopez-Alt told me.

Fact is, Philadelphia’s pizza makers have conquered an awful lot of those factors in recent years. But there is something that remains wrong with the pizza scene here.

The people who are still griping about it.

Best Pizza In Philly, Period:

OSTERIA 640 North Broad Street | 215-763-0920 | .  Something we probably shouldn’t tell you: The Parma at Osteria is the pizza we used as our perfect 10—the one against which all of the other 999 èpizzas we ate would be judged. It is, quite simply, the best pizza in Philadelphia, and we’ll fight anyone who says different. From the crisp-but-giving blistered crust and ideal mix of mozzarella and fontina cheeses to the dream-thin slips of prosciutto laid on top and verdant tangles of impossibly peppery arugula, there was nothing about this pie that wasn’t the best we tasted, from Limerick to Jersey and back again.

Fat Guy's Best Pizza In Philly, Period: RENZI'S 2728 Orthodox St, .  OK, so it's in a Polish working class neighborhood.  OK, so it's owned by a guy named Wojtkowski.  OK, so they put the sauce on top (a semi-popular pizza derivation in Philly).  But the sauce... my God, the sauce... tastes like it's straight outta Grandma Leoni's kitchen in Naples circa 1955, perfectly seasoned with a blend of spices that Ramsey Wojtkowski won't even tell his wife!  And the pepperoni... my God, the pepperoni... the best marriage of meat and spices that's ever graced the top side of sliced mozzarella and Northern California tomatoes.

Best By The Slice:

John’s Place 1529 Spring Garden Street | 215-665-0972  Despite looking like your average Philly pizza dive, John’s Place is one of the friendliest joints in the area. A plain slice comes served on a paper plate, miraculously unstained by grease. The crust is thin and crisp, with sauce so fresh it’ll make you wonder if John is growing his own tomatoes out back. And even more complicated pizza-world confections don’t fall flat here. The Ratatouille pie (named after the rustic French vegetable dish, not the movie about the talking rat) comes loaded with veggies just as fresh as that sauce, including pieces of breaded and fried eggplant that add a nice crunch without loading on any extra grease.

Lorenzo and Sons Pizza 305 South St | 215-627-4110 | .  The simple, dependable charms that secured this family-run icon a spot on our list: slices so big they flop over the sides of the grease-speckled paper plates; a by-the-slice toppings selection consisting of just salt, pepper and powdered parmesan; a late-night, alcohol-;soaked line that moves quickly no matter how far it snakes down South Street. And most importantly, it offers that most vital component for proper paper-plate dining: a full belly for less than three bucks.

Roma’s 6129 Ridge Avenue | 215-482-9022   Yes, there are a few booths, but we recommend ordering your thin-crust slices to go (or your pie to pick up) from this no-frills Roxborough shop. The place gets bonus points for fast service and well-timed oven warm-ups on the slices. And if the wall of autographed photos is to be believed (and, for the record, we consider a wall of autographed photos to be an unimpeachable source of pizza data), Mayor Nutter and at least one Eagles cheerleader are fans, too.

Rustica 903 North 2nd Street | 215-627-1393 | Rustica is to pizza what the perfect partner is to a growing relationship. The morning after a drunken night out, you won’t regret having tried it.  You will find it even more enjoyable sober. And when you’re ready, you won’t be ashamed to introduce it to your mother. Give the Chicken Man specialty pie a whirl, and expect quality toppings on an unpretentious paper plate. And isn’t that what everyone is looking for in a new (pizza) relationship?

La Rosa 2106 South Broad Street | 215-271-5246  Pizza crust should be, at its soul, really good bread, with a crisp exterior and a soft crumb. La Rosa’s thick-crusted pies get that—and everything else—just right. Regulars and those in the know stand at the worn Formica counter cutting each sizeable slice topped with a well-balanced sauce and blistered cheese into bite-size morsels. But the whole rosemary and potato pie is, hands down, Philly’s best argument for white pizza.

Mack’s Boardwalk Pizza 2700 South Hutchinson Street | 215-755-7553  It’s both easy and impossible to miss Mack’s near 10th and Oregon. From the outside, the beat-up brick shack looks more like a hubcap shop or the entrance to a meth lab than the home of the best Boardwalk-style pie this side of Wildwood. Nine bucks gets you a large thin-crust, with a light layer of cheese and a swirl of slightly sweet red sauce. Throw in two bucks for a traditional topping like homemade meatballs, and you’ll practically smell the saltwater in the air as you dig in.

MAMA PALMA’s 2229 Spruce St | 215-735-7357 | When Mama Palma’s (named for owner Renato Russo’s mother) opened 15 years ago, it introduced gourmet pizza baked in an oak-fired brick oven to the Philadelphia pizza scene. Today, along with motherly classics like the margherita and clams-and-garlic pies, Mama Palma’s also serves some of the city’s most original (and least mom-ish) pizza combinations—everything from Peking duck with hoisin sauce, mushrooms, scallions and plum sauce to lump crab and asparagus with lemon and basil. For those so inclined, there are also low-at and whole-wheat versions available, but seriously? Suck it up, you wuss, and eat your pizza the way Mom intended—covered in clams, asparagus and duck.

MARRA’S 1734 East Passyunk Avenue | 215-463-9249 | On a stretch of avenue now defined by its perfect one-to-one old-school-to-hipster ratio, the big, bubble-crusted, brick-oven pies at this 80-something-year-old Italian-American landmark are one thing all the neighbors seem to agree on. The curmudgeon behind the counter will tell you, “Everybody knows that the most popular in a pizza place is the pepperoni pie,” and there’s good reason for that. But because we’re difficult, we still prefer the classic margherita, with a bright San Marzano sauce, fresh mozzarella and basil leaves.

STELLA 420 S 2nd St | 215-320-8000 | The red-and-white tiled pizza oven holds the place of honor at Stephen Starr’s Stella—smack in the middle of the kitchen, which itself is smack in the middle of the floor. There is nowhere you can sit where you don’t have a view of it, and it deserves this spotlight because it is from this oven that 13 of Philly’s greatest pies emerge. Every pizza at Stella has its fans. From the simple charms of the margherita with buffalo mozz to the earthy funk of the egg-and-truffle tartufo, there-s something here for everyone to fantasize about while stuck gnawing on some lesser pie gotten from a shop that doesn’t care whether its pepperoni comes from Abruzzo or Cleveland and wouldn’t know a ball of scamorza if it rolled up and started humping someone’s leg.

BARBUZZO 110 South 13th Street | 215-546-9300 | The best-kept secret at Barbuzzo might be the $4 La Quercia prosciutto upgrade available on any pie on the board. The worst-kept secret? That would be the Uovo—a rustic mess of brussels sprout leaves, house-cured guanciale, black truffle oil, house-stretched fior di latte, “secret” white sauce and a single egg, cracked right in the center. This was the pie that launched a thousand photo spreads, and if not for the fact that Barbuzzo’s menu changes all the time, we could easily name it among our absolute favorites. The problem? Thanks to that ever-changing board, we never know when something even better might come along.

ZAVINO 112 South 13th Street | 215-732-2400 | At the northwest corner of 13th and Sansom—the hot, radiating center of Philly’s restaurant universe—Zavino has held court for almost two years now, delighting the Center City faithful with perfect thin-crust Neapolitan pies. Cooked in a 900-degree brick oven, it only takes a few minutes for each to emerge, the artisanal cheeses bubbling and the crust blistered and charred from the heat. Tangy crushed tomatoes brighten several of the pizzas here, and we like ours best topped with polpettini—pillowy veal meatballs stuffed with ricotta—and eaten while seated alfresco, watching the world go by.

JAKE’s & COOPER'S WINE BAR 4365 Main Street | 215-483-0444 | Yeah, the name is stupid. But get past it. Ignore your confusion over the dueling monikers and the side-by-;side (but differently ambianced) restaurant spaces (we suggest going left), and never mind the way the menu somewhat alarmingly heralds its “wood-;burning” pizza. Just trust us and order the petite pies. They’re perfect for one, but too good for slurs like “personal pan,” and once they make it to your table, you’ll be rewarded for your patience by receiving the freshest of ingredients mounted atop the thinnest of crispy-thin crusts.

JG Domestic 2929 Arch St | 215-222-2363 | This may seem like a strange inclusion for a few reasons. One: JG only offers one kind of pizza on its menu, usually only at lunch. Two: It isn’t really a pizza at all, but a flatbread that kinda sorta tastes like a pizza. Sometimes. And three: That single flatbread changes often enough that the really good ones are usually gone before you can develop a true and lasting relationship with them. But the reason it made our list, despite all these marks against it? Because when this kitchen has a good pizza-like object on the board (like the truffle, black trumpet mushroom, prosciutto and egg version, or the local asparagus with ricotta and pancetta), it can easily stand up among the best pies in the entire city.

Kennett 848 South 2nd Street | 267-687-1426 | Kennett’s pizza selection may not be huge, but the kitchen nails every one of the five pizza choices on the menu. Most notable? The Porchetta, topped with slow-roasted pork, farmer’s cheese and honey. Yes, the stuff that bees make. The ovens at Kennett are wood-fired, adding a unique, smoky flavor to the pies, and the kitchen’s attention to all the little details sets it far apart from the riot of other, lesser pizza restaurants, slice joints and pie-slinging establishments in the crowded Queen Village/South Street area.

Best Sauce:

TACCONELLI’S PIZZERIA 2604 East Somerset Street | 215-425-4983 | The elder gods of heirloom, roma, plum and all things red and juicy have spoken and said that the sauce at this one-man, one-oven landmark in Port Richmond is the best you’re going to find. Tomato fanatics will rejoice that what sits atop Tacconelli’s so-fresh-you-have-to-call-ahead crust (they only make enough to fill daily orders) leans more toward two parts sauce to one part cheese than anything else. The red is sweet yet complex, and bold enough that it could easily hold its own on South Philly’s streets despite the shop’s Northeast location.

LITTLE ITALY PIZZA 901 South Street | 215-922-1440 | Don’t let the confusing South Street address (it’s just north on 9th) or the relatively plain-Jane look of the place throw you. Little Italy is a top-notch pizza spot. The crisp but chewy crust scores big where so many others fail so miserably, but it’s the bright, sharp sauce here that’s the true standout—uniting several good elements into one excellent whole. A host of slices are offered, but our favorite is still the simple and satisfying margherita, which stands as an ideal example of why this pie became the standard by which so many are judged.

CHARLIE’S PIZZA 4300 Roosevelt Boulevard | 215-744-3249 | .  In the lower Northeast—largely a vast and sucky desert when it comes to good pizza—Charlie’s isn’t a mirage. It’s a cheesy, saucy oasis (near an otherwise singularly unimpressive strip mall) where anyone with a hankering for it can score an amazingly authentic-tasting round of the good stuff. The sauce on these red pies hits a perfect bull’s-eye between tangy and saccharine, and is accented by just the right amount of stringy cheese, making for an ideal balance that will cause powerful cravings in those who’ve discovered Charlie’s for themselves.

FRANZONE’S 501 Dekalb Street,Bridgeport | 610-275-0114 | Everyone talks about sweet sauce versus savory sauce—about the sharpness of oregano, the vegetable sweetness of San Marzano tomatoes, and the differing preparation methods that result in sauces that, let’s be honest, are never all that different from one another. They compete on a narrow slice of the spectrum. But not Franzone’s. If you like a sweet sauce, this is the only place to go, because what they serve here is as unlike the sauce anywhere else in the region as a scallop is to a marshmallow. Honest to god, it tastes like the cooks at this fast-moving pizza machine just dump in sugar by the bucketful. And yet somehow it never tastes too sweet or too strange and, after a slice or three, becomes truly addictive.

LASCALA’S 615 Chestnut Street | 215-928-0900 | It’s no surprise that even with a menu full of delicious Italian-American dishes, it’s the pizzas at this upscale Italian restaurant that keep showing up on customers’ plates. Appropriate, too, that LaScala’s lives in Philly’s historic district, because the pies—though not topped with Ben Franklin’s wig or shards of sautèed Liberty Bell—are classic Neapolitans with sauce just like Grandma’s. Toppings from the short list include clams, bacon, eggplant and ricotta, but it’s still the crushed-plum-tomato sauce that accounts for each pizza’s rich flavor.

Best Toppings:

DOCK STREET BREWING CO. 701 South 50th Street | 215-726-2337 | While the beverages might get top billing, the unusual pizzas at Cedar Park’s Dock Street Brewing Co. certainly deserve some recognition of their own From the Fig Jam, with Gorgonzola and apple, to the onion-and-bacon-topped Flammenkuche (a classic Alsatian-style pizza, and France’s answer to the Italian pizza obsession), each pie defies expectations, proving that no pizza (or pizzeria) has to be boring, and that those that are just aren’t trying hard enough.

DI BRUNO BROS. 1730 Chestnut Street | 215-665-9220 | At first, the fact that these pizzas come only as half-pies may seem troubling. But that’s until you order and taste the prosciutto and fig pie with reduced balsamic vinegar. Even if you’re exhausted by the over-reaching of certain modern pie joints, trust us: It’s worth the risk to order this one.

VINCE’S PIZZERIA 1900 Grant Avenue | 215-464-8998 In a world vastly dominated by pepperoni as the go-to pizza topping for the dim and unimaginative, Vince’s white-with-broccoli version is a vacation from the spicy, rubbery norm. A white broccoli pie may sound like the stuff of slices too simple to impress, but this back-to-basics combo will have even the most ardent of meat lovers rethinking their reflex topping loyalty.

TRIUMPH BREWING COMPANY 117 Chestnut Street, | 215-625-0855 | Who knew Triumph Brewing Company’s pizza was as good as its beer? More to the point, who would’ve guessed that it would be all about the toppings at this Old City beer hall? While the crust on these personal pizzas is solid, the truly fresh ingredients make it hard to choose among the four specialty pies on offer. Our suggestion? Just pull on those fat pants and eat ’em all.


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