In Defense of Philly Pizza

Why did we eat 1,000 slices of pizza for the July issue? BY TREY POPP

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.


In the July issue of Philadelphia magazine, we set out to find the best pizza in Philly—and in doing so, we ate at more than 500 pizza places in more neighborhoods than we even knew existed. We’ve organized the results in an easy, searchable way so that you can find the best (and worst) pizza near you.