Our Restaurant Critic’s Full-Throated Defense of Wawa Pizza
There's a lot of people out there right now saying that Wawa pizza is the worst. Here's why they're wrong.
See that? That’s a Wawa pizza. That’s my Wawa pizza — 16-inch, half-pepperoni, garlic crust, second one in five days, third in two weeks. I ate it (most of it) with my kid and my wife after we all got our flu shots a couple days ago. No one felt like going anywhere else. None of us wanted to cook. So we got a pizza (and a Gobbler, natch) and ate it on the couch while watching cartoons.
This is the way a Wawa pizza is meant to be consumed, and it’s important to understand that going in. It’s one of those food items (like chicken wings, like cheap sushi, like pie) where the intent matters almost as much as the taste; where environment and expectation are on equal footing with flavor.
And my pizza was perfect. Not good, mind you. Not artful or special in any measurable way. But perfect because it was precisely what Wawa promised to me. It was a pizza. Looked like a pizza, smelled like a pizza, tasted like a pizza. Not the best pizza I’ve ever had, but it never claimed to be. And it was a long goddamn way from the worst. One time, the crust was a little burnt. The others were fine. The pepperoni is weirdly spicy. The sauce not at all sweet. The cheese, at least, has always been overly generous, and I appreciate that.
There’s a lot of people out there right now dunking on Wawa pizzas. They’re dusting off the ol’ thesaurus and trying to come up with the cleverest way to say dull. They’re comparing them to cardboard, to doormats covered in cheese, and that’s cool. Lazy, but cool. Because everyone is entitled to their opinions. And as a long-time restaurant critic who’s spent years saying mean things about food for money, it would be unbelievably hypocritical of me to say that all those people were wrong.
So I’ll say this instead …
Where did you think you were? What did you think you were going to get? Because before you go getting all high and mighty about it, let’s not forget: You’re eating pizza from a gas station.
Okay, convenience store if you want to be persnicketty about it. But this ain’t Beddia. Or Angelo’s. Or any one of a hundred competent local pizzerias. It’s Wawa. And let’s be honest here: We all love Wawa’s hoagies, but there isn’t one of them (except the Gobbler) that can hold a candle to anything made by any of the dozens of killer delis and sandwich shops in the region. The basic Italian is a good sandwich, but it’s good situationally. It’s good if you’re in a rush. It’s good if you’re kinda broke and it’s Hoagiefest season. The meatball parm can feel like a miracle if it’s 11:30 at night and all your local sandwich shops are closed but you feel like you’re just going to die if you don’t get a meatball sandwich in you immediately.
It’s also good if you’re drunk. Actually, it’s really good if you’re drunk.
And Wawa’s pizza is exactly the same way in that the environment and your expectations matter a LOT. You know what this reminds me of? One of the greatest SNL sketches that never made it on the air — a Weekend Update segment that’s an interview with Guy Fieri (played by Bobby Moynihan) right after the New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells savaged Fieri’s Times Square restaurant. In the sketch, Seth Meyers asks Fieri if he thought the New York Times would like his restaurant, and Moynihan’s Fieri says, “No. But did THEY think they would like it?”
So yeah, if you walk in here with your nose in the air, expecting some kind of artisan pie cooked by reclusive genius pizzaiolos, topped with the rarest of mozzarellas and sauce made by blind Italian nuns, you’re gonna be disappointed. And you should be. Because you’re an asshole. But if you come to this pizza with some humility, and some understanding of its specific utility, then you’ll be pleased. Maybe even happy.
Do you deserve better? No! None of us do. And Wawa gets that. It understands the kind of baseline self-loathing that comes automatically as a side dish when you’re picking up gas station pizza for one on a Tuesday at 1 a.m. When you’ve got the kids in the back seat at 4:15 and one of them has a science project due tomorrow and the other one just bit his science teacher. When you need 15 bucks and some sofa cushion change to stretch far enough to cover a hot dinner tonight, a cold breakfast tomorrow, and maybe lunch, too. Wawa understands what is being asked of it, and it delivers something that is just a little bit better than you expected, nearly every time.
Comparisons to big chain pizzas like Pizza Hut or Domino’s or Little Caesar’s are somewhat more fair. But memory and time can skew those comparisons. Back in the day, Pizza Hut pizzas were great — WAY better than Wawa’s pizzas, but made by a restaurant that focused only on pizza. And today, who knows? I mean, when’s the last time you went to an actual Pizza Hut? Little Caesar’s has always been the pizza of choice for high school kids stoned on ditch weed and paying with pocket change. And I’d say that Domino’s is the worst pizza of all time—because it is—but I have a personal vendetta against Domino’s that goes back decades, so my opinion on it shouldn’t necessarily be trusted.
But I can promise you that there are places in this fractious nation where a Wawa pizza would be the best by a MILE. I’ve lived in some of them — places where sandwich shops sell “Philly cheesesteaks” covered with bell peppers — and here, we have become spoiled by choice and a pizza-rich environment. Yes, there are better pizzas in your neighborhood. There are higher-quality pizzas. There are more thoughtful pizzas being served by people who take their pizza-making very seriously.
But you aren’t at any of those places, are you? No, you are not. You’re at Wawa. And whether you’re doing it for the snark, just for funsies, or because you’re hungry and don’t give even half-a-damn about what Eater or me or the Washington Post have to say about it, you’re making a choice. Own it. I do.