Why Isn’t Philly a Pizza-Slice Kinda Town?
Philly's pizza scene is full of remarkable options — as long as you want a full pie.
During a recent pizza pilgrimage, I ran into a problem.
I’d decided to spend a Saturday afternoon introducing myself to the great pizzerias that had opened in the years between when I grew up in Philly and when I moved back home after a professional stint in NYC. My goals were simple: Stop by, pace myself during a marathon afternoon of eating, and avoid carrying multiple cardboard boxes home with me. I started the day by waltzing into Angelo’s and Pizzata, respectively, and asking for a slice of cheese to go at each.
In response to my request, the teams at Angelo’s and Pizzata looked at me like my nose had been replaced by a parakeet. “We don’t do slices, hon,” the woman behind the counter at Angelo’s said, with half politeness and half South Philly “fuck off” sizzle.
“Okay,” I capitulated. “I guess I’ll take a full pie.”
The large cheese pizza at Angelo’s was unquestionably delicious — thin-crusted, with a crispy-fluffy perimeter. It’s the sort of pizza that goes down easy, with salt content that transports you to first-year college dorm functions or childhood parties in the park. But a whole cheese pie wasn’t what I’d bargained for. What I really wanted was a triangle of hot mozzarella and oregano-spiked tomato sauce. I wanted to stand on the sidewalk and shove a single flop of carbohydrates into my piehole while neon orange droplets plunged onto a paper plate below (and probably my t-shirt, too).
It was in this moment, resting a stack of pizza boxes against my barely existent biceps on a sidewalk on South 9th Street, that I realized something confusing about the city I was raised in — the city where I was now being paid to eat, to write, and possibly to overthink the culture of dining out. Why was it so hard to find a spectacular slice on a hot afternoon?
To spend 90 seconds with a slice of pizza is like taking the express train when the local will require 45 minutes to get to the same destination. A good slice can transform a dumb day into a better one in a matter of chomps, and for just a few bucks. It’s the cosmopolitan answer to a quick hunger spell: lunch or dinner in a jiff, democratic in concept, still pretty tasty even when it’s gross.
Philly is a remarkably good pizza town. But Philly isn’t a slice town.
Before you open a new tab to write me a sassy email, I’m aware there are a couple dozen slice shops peppered throughout the city. You’ve got your Roman-style spots in Center City (like Rione and Alice) and various neighborhood joints called Uncle Tomy’s or Little Sicily 2 or NYPD Pizza that you might only know about if you live or work close by. There’s Lorenzo’s, the touristy classic serving ginormous tarps of pizza on South Street, and vegan-friendly 20th Street Pizza. And, of course, there’s Pizza Shackamaxon in Fishtown and Pizza Jawn in Manayunk.
Ask strangers on the street about their favorite Philadelphia pizza, though, and I’ll venture their first, second and third picks don’t serve slices. Instead, they probably specialize in wood-fired Neapolitans, crispy thin-crust versions, quintessentially tepid tomato pies, or cheese-webbed Sicilian squares — all in whole-pie form. So in a city where there are roughly a million and a half mouths to feed, why haven’t slices slid into the dominant conversation about Philly pizza culture? Why aren’t more of the great pizzerias selling them?
“I would love to sell slices,” Danny DiGiampietro tells me. Before DiGiampietro opened Angelo’s in South Philly, he spent years visiting slice shops in South Jersey. He’s not shy about how much he loves The Slice as a species of pizza (though if you try to put garlic powder on his, he’ll have some words to share about the superior nature of granulated garlic). DiGiampietro credits the early success of his 9th Street pizzeria to Barstool’s One Bite, a YouTube series wherein known misogynist Dave Portnoy assesses a pie’s worth with the confidence of someone who believes he embodies all nine Supreme Court justices. But the Angelo’s that Philly knows today isn’t the one that DiGiampietro had in mind when he opened in 2019 — a dissonance that still shocks him nearly three years later. “Nobody’s more surprised about what’s going on in this place,” he says, “than me.”
When DiGiampietro initially conceptualized his pizzeria, he had every intention of offering pies by the slice. He wanted the shop to feel old-school — to be a simple, reliable place serving his South Philly neighbors delicious pizza and sandwiches whenever they craved the goods. He installed a little slice oven in the front, ready to reheat orders. He plopped a cash register dating back to 1925 on the counter (a holdover from his bakery business). The staff wrote orders by hand and rang up customers via calculator. There wasn’t even an installed phone in the joint until COVID hit.
Angelo’s design may have ticked the boxes of a quintessential neighborhood slice shop, but DiGiampietro says his original operation couldn’t meet the realities of demand: “From the first minute we opened, it was, for lack of a better word, a shitshow, to be frank with you. There was no way to keep up.” And serving slices complicated the flow of service.
“It was just madness, and there was no way to know who was here to order and who was waiting to pick up. It was just chaos,” DiGiampietro says. “Once we get busy, we can’t make everybody wait while we throw in slice pies and have slice pies going in and out of the little oven to heat ’em up for people and have them wait. Which one is for an order, and which one is for slices?”
DiGiampietro decided to omit slices from the menu entirely. If you’ve been to Angelo’s for a cheesesteak or a pie, you know that even without slices in the equation, when you pick up an order, you always feel like you’re in someone’s way. It’s easy to see how slices would clog the process even more. Angelo’s had the demand for slices, but the operational logistics were too daunting.
“Just the way things are here for us,” DiGiampietro says, “we don’t have the room, and it doesn’t make sense for us to do it. I think about it from time to time, like, ‘Ah, we should try slices again.’ But I’m quickly reminded that it’s just not possible.” Here’s a little-known tip from him: Angelo’s often bakes off two or three test pizzas right before they open at 11 a.m. and cuts up slices to give out (for free!) to people who are waiting outside or walking by on the sidewalk. If you want a slice from Angelo’s, that might be your only chance.
Pizza Shackamaxon wanted to sell slices from the get-go, too. Unlike at Angelo’s, though, Shackamaxon’s slice was always set to be the headliner. Whole pies were just an afterthought.
Shackamaxon’s current manager, Josh Phillips — who can usually be found nabbing slices out of the warming oven with the fervor of a golden retriever — says the shop didn’t serve whole pies until eight months after opening: “I walked in for my interview and was like, ‘Oh, what’s the idea here?’ And the original manager was like, ‘We’re going to sell slices.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, okay, and what else?’ And he was like: ‘Just slices.’” Phillips grew up in Drexel Hill and worked at Pizza Odyssey before starting at Shackamaxon in October of 2018. “It was a culture shock to me, because in the suburbs, you just can’t get a slice of pizza,” he says. “It doesn’t exist.”
Today, Phillips romanticizes slices like he’s thinking of asking one for its hand in marriage. “Selling a slice from a pie that is perfect is like tearing apart part of your soul,” he explains. “Whereas if you intend on your soul being pulled apart, it doesn’t hurt as much.” For him and the team at Shackamaxon, slices are built into everything they do: “None of these shops were built to sell slices, and we were. You have to start with that concept, especially with every shop in Philly being as tiny as they are.” The team at Shackamaxon, Phillips tells me, wants to serve as many people as possible while being as proud of its pizza as possible: “We built the entire shop around being able to make a fresh pie and being able to sell every slice from that pie in a matter of minutes.”
That concept, regardless of how thoroughly planned, requires foot traffic to pull off, says Phillips: “Where the classic pizza places are — where their shops are — there isn’t that foot traffic. There isn’t that sense of like, ‘Hey, I’m hungry, this place is right up the street. Let’s go grab slices.’”
Shackamaxon’s corner location on Girard Avenue is in the belly of Fishtown, plopped in the part of the neighborhood that mimics a sort of perma-Disneyland for adults who own Phish t-shirts and Peloton bikes. On weekends, Phillips says, the shop serves about 175 customers a day, most of whom order multiple slices. If you hang out on the sidewalk in front of Shackamaxon for 20 minutes, you’ll see a steady flow of people grabbing a quick solo slice or meeting up here with a friend. Shackamaxon doesn’t cater to a late-night crowd, though. Despite the surplus of bars in the area, Phillips hasn’t seen much demand for drunken convenience slices. “Philly just doesn’t have that, period,” he says. “There just isn’t that late-night rush that New York might have. There was a period in 2019 where we stayed open until midnight, and after 9 p.m., we would have, like, four customers.”
Shackamaxon’s decision to prioritize slices despite the relative lack of slice shops in our town was also informed by the space’s former tenant. Prior to Shackamaxon showing up in 2018 with its colossal charred slices, its spot at 115 East Girard housed a teensy one-man show called Pizzeria Beddia. (Heard of it?) Of course, Beddia would eventually grow into a pizza goliath — in part thanks to a Bon Appétit write-up in 2015 that called it the best pizza in America, and in part because Beddia’s pizza would stand out even in New York City, New Haven, maybe even Italy.
Owner Joe Beddia’s success proved the demand for fussy (no half-toppings allowed, sorry!), artisanal sit-down-with-a-glass-of-wine pizza in Philly. And Beddia’s status as a no-slices operation influenced Shackamaxon’s business model: They could either follow in Beddia’s footsteps and serve 40-ish whole pies a day, or they could chart their own path. Pizza Shackamaxon took the latter approach. Phillips says, “I feel like the owners stared down this barrel and said, ‘Okay, we can do what Joe did, or we can make a similar number of pies per day but sell them by the slice and be open for seven, eight, nine hours a day.’ Whereas if we made a similar amount of pizza and sold it by the whole pie, we’d have to more or less copy his model. And that wasn’t going to happen.”
When Joe Beddia opened Pizzeria Beddia in 2013, Philly was (and still is) primarily a sandwich town. “I feel like for some reason New Haven is kind of an excellent pizza town. New York and Brooklyn and the boroughs are all pretty excellent,” Beddia says. “But Philadelphia? I’m not sure what happened there. It’s definitely more of an Italian bakery town — tomato pies, the hoagie thing, the cheesesteak thing.” Philly’s pizza paucity made room for Beddia to occupy a unique space without any existing pressure to cater to slice-expectant customers.
“There was like Tacconelli’s — that was the place,” Beddia says of Philly’s pizza scene at the time. “And then in the Northeast there are places, institutions that have been around for so long. But it wasn’t what you would say is kind of a serious pizza town. Now, of course, there’s tons of great pizza.”
Except for offering squares of room-temp tomato pie on the appetizer menu, Pizzeria Beddia (now located on North Lee Street in Fishtown) never has sold and never will sell slices of pizza. You can tell just by the way its chef discusses the subject, referring to “slices” and “pizza” as two distinct things. To him, “pizza” only means pies. Slices are a whole different ballgame. “It’s so much more work to do it that way,” he says, “to take slices and reheat them. It’s also two different textures. Like, when I cook a pizza, I cook it all the way.”
His anti-slice stance is partly operational. If Pizzeria Beddia were to offer slices, the team would have to use a separate oven that’s empty and dedicated exclusively to reheating them. “Which means,” he reasons, “you’re not making pizza, or you’re making pizza and making slices together. Opening the door of the oven to cook a pizza and to heat up a slice isn’t really efficient in terms of energy. When you make a pizza, you want to keep the oven closed for however many minutes while it’s baking. You’d need a larger kind of facility.”
Just as clear, though, is that Beddia has no interest in the culture of serving slices despite the foot traffic of his original spot: “It’s like, do I want to serve drunk people late at night? No. The answer is always going to be no. I mean, just the logistics of it. It’s not my scene. Lorenzo’s has a cop there with a gun, sitting inside. I don’t want that energy. I don’t want to bring that to Philadelphia.”
Beddia says he rarely seeks out slices himself and adamantly declares, “None of the best places in New York offer a slice.” I contest this by naming L’Industrie, Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop, Leo, F&F Pizzeria. “But even in Naples,” he counters, “you ask for a slice of pizza and they’d be like, ‘What are you talking about?’ In Naples, the pizzas are specifically meant to be eaten and digested by one person with a knife and a fork.” When he’s in New York, Beddia says, he likes to go to Ops, Lucali, and Una Pizza Napoletana, none of which serve slices. He craves a sit-down pizza experience with good wine and a nice salad. “There’s totally room for it,” he says of the slice. “It just never appealed to me.”
At first, slices didn’t appeal to David Lee, either.
His business, Pizza Jawn, started after he became fundamentally obsessed with dough and spent some time shadowing pizza makers around town — including Joe Beddia, thanks to a connection from one of the regulars at Lee’s (now-closed) CrossFit Manayunk gym, and Daniel Gutter of Pizza Gutt. Before the pandemic, Lee hosted his first pizza pop-up at a friend’s house, then served his pies in a church and eventually at Philly Brewing Company. He bought a few portable ovens and kept experimenting.
Then COVID hit, and Lee and his wife, Ana, saw their respective careers as gym owner and real estate professional screech to a halt. After sitting on the couch for a while, Lee began baking pizzas at home for friends and family. Word spread about his at-home project, he says: “People started calling and emailing, asking, ‘Hey, is there any way we could come by the house and pick up pizza?’” The Lees set up a no-contact pickup area in their driveway and called it Pizza Jawn, serving 300 to 400 pies a week out of their home. “Long story short,” he says, “we got in trouble.” Lee received a letter from his township warning that he wasn’t approved to sell food out of his home and would have to cease operations immediately. Womp, womp.
In August of 2020, Lee moved his business into a brick-and-mortar space in Manayunk, a block from where he and Ana first met. The shop began serving whole pies in thin-crust, Detroit and grandma varieties for customers who placed takeout orders a week in advance online. Eventually, life on once-busy Main Street picked back up: “We were having a lot of people walking by the shop saying, ‘Hey, can I get a slice?’” Lee tinkered with his process, trying to figure out: How could he put out a slice as delicious as a whole pie? How could he handle people from Main Street walking in and asking for slices? The answer suddenly became obvious: Pizza Jawn would only sell slices in the two-inch-thick grandma style.
“The way we do the grandma, it lends itself to heating back up,” he explains. “We can track them a little bit better. We can leave them in the pan.” Lee and his team found a way to par-bake the square grandma pies ahead of time so sliced pies can sit out until reheating. Round pies, he says, don’t work the same way: “We only do the round-pie slices when there’s a street event or for a pop-up collab or when we know it’s going to be busy that day.” Pizza Jawn’s sesame-seed-crusted squares are only available via walk-up order, in plain, pepperoni, or the occasional specialty topping — no customizing, no exceptions. Lee’s whole pies can sell out hours before Pizza Jawn closes every day, so walking in and asking for a slice can be a surer way to try his pies.
In Pizza Jawn’s case, Lee admits slices have a clear financial benefit: “Let’s say we’re talking about our grandma pie, which has nine slices. A grandma cheese costs $26, but if we sell $5 slices, we get $45 out of that.” Still, he’s adamant that money isn’t his primary driver. He wanted to meet customer demand, he says.
Lee knows his slice shop doesn’t match the Philly norm; he grew up near Malvern and went to Drexel before moving to Manayunk and now raises his kids just outside the city. “If somebody asked me where to go to get a good slice in Philly,” he tells me, “the only place that comes to mind besides us is Shackamaxon. Everywhere else pretty much is whole pies.”
In June, a pizzeria opened in Washington Square West that’s potentially pushing Philly’s slice-shy pizza scene into new territory: Paulie Gee’s Soul City Slice Shop. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, don’t worry. “It’s a nice fresh slate,” owner Derek Giannone says. “I think some people know us, but overall in Philly, I don’t think we have, like, a huge reputation or anything like that.” Since age 18, Giannone has been helping in his parents’ successful pizza shops in Greenpoint, Brooklyn: Paulie Gee’s and Paulie Gee’s Slice Shop.
Giannone designed the new Philly shop as a destination for slices — a restaurant that’s not meant for just the neighborhood or tourists or late-night drunks (though those groups are welcome, especially since the place doesn’t close till 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays). “We always envisioned that we’d offer slices,” he says. “We like a slice-shop concept because it’s the old-school pizza that we used to eat before we even knew what Neapolitan pizza was, before we even knew what Roman-style was. And we want to kind of embody that a little bit with our slice shop, like we do in Brooklyn.”
The menu at Paulie Gee’s Soul City Slice Shop shows off the family’s famed thin-crusted round pies as well as thick Sicilian squares, all available by the slice or the full pie. There’s a takeout area for to-go customers as well as tables where you can play pool, hang out, and listen to throwback music from the ’60s and ’70s. “It’s a place where people like to go for takeout but also a place where people like to come hang out and do things,” Giannone explains. “I think we envision it maybe more as a bar hangout than the slice shop in Brooklyn is.”
Giannone isn’t new to Philly; he and his brother have lived here for years. “We love this city,” he tells me, “and I definitely want to be here for hopefully the rest of my life. You know, it feels like my home.” Even before opening the shop, Giannone says, he was getting online messages from strangers saying, “Don’t leave Brooklyn” and “Why do we have to have something like Brooklyn in Philadelphia?” He takes it all in stride.
“We don’t want to step on anybody’s turf,” he insists. “My dad always says there are no competitors, only colleagues.” Giannone’s colleagues, or at least the people I talked to for this slice de résistance, seem open to changes in Philadelphia’s dynamic pizza scene, too.
This city may not have a storied history of pizza, the way it does with sandwiches or Federal architecture or decaying parchment documents. But Philly also has a legacy of finding its own wacky way. Shackamaxon’s Josh Phillips sums it up best, perhaps: “Philly is kind of always the city to break the rules, the city to kind of go against convention.”
A pizza scene sans rules — a scene that reoriented to transportable foods in 2020 and still spins to keep pace with fluctuating dining patterns, inflation and COVID case counts — invites the unexpected. Philly favors the radical: in slices, in restaurants and otherwise. And that’s exactly the dining scene I’d like to spend my money on.
I may have to accept a reality where slices never catch on — where tradition squashes novelty and a pizza love language imported from arch-rival New York. Or maybe the rest of you will have to accept that those egalitarian triangles are already on their way. That they might encourage folks to wander down a sidewalk they’ve never seen before and stand next to a stranger who’s also got grease on her shirt and four dollars to spare on a quick meal. Whether we’ll line up here to celebrate The Slice as its own genre remains to be seen. I’ll certainly be there, though, ordering two cheese to go.
Published as “Slices of Life” in the August 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.