The Five Best Regional Pizzas In America

“Goddamn it AFFotD, now I REALLY want pizza for dinner.”


more pizza

We here at AFFotD have a hard time shutting up about pizza, probably because it’s delicious and incredible and if you don’t like pizza you’re a bad person and you should feel bad.  However, in our rush to point out things like “Pizza with toppings put in the crust” or “Goddamn it Japan you’re doing it wrong” we’ve overlooked one of the most important aspects of pizza’s culinary life—its European beginnings, and America’s impressive ability to adapt it for its own heart-clogging purposes.  Pizza as a dish originated in Naples, Italy, much more recently than you would assume—while variations of bread baked with cheese have been around since the ancient Greeks, and Italians were eating some combination of baked bread, cheese, and tomato called “pizza” since the 17th century, the “modern” pizza likely wasn’t invented until 1889, using red tomato, green basil, and white mozzarella so as to cover the pie in the three colors of the Italian flag.  It’s basically the same logic that America applied when inventing red, white, and blue jello shots.

Despite being such a famously “Italian” food staple, America wasn’t particularly far behind the curve in the pizza department.  The first American pizza establishment opened up in the Little Italy neighborhood of New York by 1905.  Once pizza reached our shores, we went to work on perfecting it, and we’ve since gone on to develop countless regional forms of the dish, some of them barely resembling the original Italian creation.  Usually that’s for the best.  Sometimes, not so much.

But we are a land of experimentation, and we’re here to embrace that quality, so join us for the first part of a two part pizza spectacular where we show you the best and worst of America’s regional pizzas, starting with the best because we know you’re hungry right now and we do so love to torture you.

The Five Best Regional Pizzas In America

 america flag pizza

America isn’t the only country to put their own unique twist on the deliciousness that is pizza.  Brazil uses less tomato sauce, occasionally removing the sauce entirely and using sliced tomatoes instead.  Israeli pizza, not surprisingly, doesn’t use meat as a topping.  Japan is, as always, terrifying.  Yes, pizza is a universal food, but we all know that America does it better than anyone else.  America embraced pizza with such passion that we didn’t settle on just one single national pizza style—there are arguably more regional American styles of pizza than you can find in all of Europe combined.

Not all of these are particularly tasty (we’ll get to that tomorrow) but when they work, man, do they work.  Here are, in our biased opinion, the five best regional pizza styles in America.  As you surely know, New York and Chicago are going to be the first and second slot, but we’re not sure which way it’s going to go yet (we put a “New York” and “Chicago” shirt on two of our interns and are having them fight to the death while we cheer them on like that one scene in Django, which admittedly seems like a weird criteria to judge pizza, but that’s just how we do things around these parts, and we suspect that New Yorkers would feel better about losing out if they found out someone died in the process).

Well let’s get started, shall we?

5:  Providence-Style Grilled Pizza

providence style grilled pizza

In 1980, the Al Forno restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island made the first Providence-style grilled pizza after owners Johanne Killeen and George Germon basically failed to realize the difference between “wood-burning ovens” and “wood-fired grills”.  As a general rule, whenever the words “surprised” and “invented” are used as modifiers in the same sentence you’re expecting something useful but gross, like Penicillin or Jose Canseco.  That wasn’t the case with grilled pizza, as instead of falling through the grate as expected,  the crust’s dough immediately hardened when exposed to the heat of the grill’s open flame, resulting in delicious and unique style of thin-crust pizza.

Grilled pizza is cooked relatively quickly, since the speed at which the thin crust hardens means it also can be easy to overcook.  The dough is placed directly over the fire of a grill, and turned over once the bottom has baked (which normally takes about a minute) at which point the toppings are placed in a very thin layer on the recently-baked side.  Since the pizza is cooked for such a short period of time, the thinness of the toppings ensure that they will heat throughout.  Topping such as peppers or sausage are usually precooked and placed on the pizza later, as they wouldn’t have enough time to cook fully, and as much as we like pizza, people apparently get their panties in a knot about salmonella being introduced to their stomach.  We know, weird.

Garlic and herbs can be added to the crust for flavor, because if someone ever turns down the addition of garlic and herbs to pizza that’s pretty much irrefutable evidence that you’re dealing with a vampire. We’re honestly surprised that it took until 1980 for us to start putting pizzas on the grill, since as much as we as a nation love pizza, we love grilling even more, and it was just a matter of time before we had a Reese’s moment like this.

4:  New Haven-Style Pizza

new haven pizza

In New Haven, Connecticut, they call pizza “Apizza” because the fuck if we know.  Maybe they’re bored and the extra syllable helps the time go by?  Whatever.  Either way, the Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana was the first to make this unique take on Neapolitan pizza that now can be found throughout the area.  New Haven-style pizza is known for its unusually thin crust, cooked in high temperature ovens to ensure a crispy shell, often resulting in burnt black spots called “the char”, with a chewy and soft inside.  The main difference between normal pizza and a-beets (no, seriously, they pronounce “apizza” as “a-beets” because they failed to realize we’re trying to compliment them in this article but that naming their pizza stupid things does not help us do that) is that a “plain” New Haven pizza consists of a crust, oregano, tomato sauce, and a small amount of grated pecorino romano cheese sprinkled on top.  Mozzarella is not a core part of the pizza as it is elsewhere, but instead is a topping, which is locally referred to as “mootz” because we went through a good fifty year period in the first half of the century where Italian immigrants weren’t allowed to nickname things without them sounding like they came from one of the mobster characters in The Simpsons.

Of course, there’s more to New Haven pizzas (we’re not calling them apizzas, you’re not going to make us do that) than “a deliciously thin crust where you have to pay extra for mozzarella”.  For any Americans finding themselves on the East Coast with a desire to trek down to Bar or Sally’s Apizza (your best two options) you’re also left with a regional-specific, and delicious sounding white clam pie, a white pizza that combines the famous New Haven crust with olive oil, oregano, grated cheese, chopped garlic, and freshly shucked littleneck clams.  People who order this particular pizza are generally politely discouraged from adding mozzarella to it, because that sounds horrible, you just paid $12 for clams why would you not want to taste them, what the hell is wrong with you, you goddamn tourist.  No, stop it.  You’re embarrassing us.

Anyway, this approach to pizza apparently has built up a little bit of a following, and you can even find New Haven pizza out in Oregon, because trust us that little plug is the only time the West Coast is going to make our list of good pizzas.

3:  Detroit-Style Pizza

 detroit style pizza

Detroit has given us (the motherfucking) Robocop, a alternatively impressive and depressing auto industry, and a state of decline that literally remains the only thing Cleveland has left to hold onto, so it’s fitting that they’d be responsible for the first entry that says, “Hey, pizza’s supposed to be greasy as sex and twice as dirty, none of this dainty fancy-oven-crispy-thin-crust shit.”  Yeah!  You tell them, hypothetical Detroiter who either is doing sex wrong or is someone we’d never want to accept a slice of pizza from!

Enter the Detroit-style pizza.  If you’re thinking that pizza looks incredibly unhealthy and delicious, you’d be correct.  You might also say, “Heh, but if it’s from Detroit, they probably cook it in something super-stereotypical like automotive manufacturing parts trays or holy shit, I’m right aren’t I, you’re using me as the hypothetical reader because they actually bake them in leftover parts trays?  Seriously?”

This more-common-than-you-might-think style of pizza is cooked square because of the previously mentioned well-oiled square tray the pizza has been baked in ever since its inception at Buddy’s Rendezvous (which started off as a “blind pig” tavern, which is a fancy way of saying “speakeasy”) in the 1930s.  Wet dough makes a thick crust that is airy on the inside, yet crispy on the outside.  Originally, pepperoni would be layered directly on the dough, covered by cheese (typically Wisconsin Brick) that touches all sides of the pan in order to caramelize at the corners, because there are few more beautiful combinations of words than “caramelized cheese crust.”  Additional toppings, and a thick Sicilian tomato sauce are added to the top.  The end result is greasy, without any crust that’s not covered in either cheese, sauce, or toppings, because we all know that the crust at the end of the pizza is the most boring part, so why not just get rid of it.

This type of pizza has been made widely available through various Michigan based national pizza chains (such as Domino’s, Jet’s, and Little Caesars), and if you’ve ever had a thick crust pizza in a square you’ve likely had it without realizing, as these chains tend to put the sauce underneath the cheese to slightly differentiate it from the original style.

Of course, as good as Detroit pizza might be, it can’t compete with the two pizza heavyweights of a nation full of, well, heavy-weighing-people.  That leads us to…

2:  New York-Style Pizza

new york pizza

Anarchy!  Fight!  Fight!  Every New Yorker right now is ignoring the fact that they’re being listed as the second-best pizza in America (and thus, in the world) and are probably instead talking about how New York City tap water has minerals that make their pizza crust the best in the world, and hey, you’d be a sucker if you didn’t spend hundreds of dollars on New York tap water for when you make your own pizza!  In the time it took for us to write that sentence, our tires were already slashed and someone wrote “Chicago doesn’t make pizza they make casseroles” in shaving cream on our windows.

New York versus Chicago is a debate that will never be resolved, and ultimately goes down to either personal preference, your upbringing, or the fact that our intern gladiator representing the Chicago style was just a step faster and wanted it more.  We’re not going to get into that murky debate.  Instead, let’s extol the virtues of the often mimicked, but never duplicated, New York pizza pie.

Pizza in America started in New York, of course, when Gennaro Lombardi started the first pizzeria, simply called Lombardi’s Pizza (which still operates today).  Originally a small grocery store in Little Italy, Lombardi’s employee, Antonio Totonno Pero, started making pizza to sell, using mozzarella fior di latte (we  think that’s Italian for “cow cheese”) as opposed to the more expensive buffalo’s milk mozzarella used in Italy.

The first pizza pies in New York cost five cents, which many people could not afford, since five cents in 1900s money was probably, we don’t know, ten bucks?  Maybe?  Oh God, really, it was just a buck and change?  God, people were poor back then.  Anyway, they would offer to pay what they could, and would get a slice of pizza corresponding to the amount they paid.  More than anything else, this would prove to be the true legacy of New York pizzas, as the floppy thin crust New York slice grabbed on the go was culturally iconic even before Louis C.K. had a successful TV show.

There are over 400 pizza joints in New York, and while many restaurants make high end, delicious New York style-pizzas, we best know New York pizza as a 1/8 slice of an 18-inch pie that ends up being a little bit more food than you’d need as a snack, but not quite enough for a meal.  Basically, the New York-style pizza is the perfect amount of food for anyone drunk at two in the morning.  And delicious drunk food it must be, as New Yorkers and former New Yorkers alike swear that no finer pizza has ever been conceived.  They did it first, they did it best.  That might be their opinion, but as the twitching body of our New-York-shirt-clad intern might attest, we’ve gone a different route with…

1:  Chicago Style-Pizza

chicago style pizza

This is no mere drunken snack eaten over a white paper plate soaked through with delicious grease and giving you the fuel to stumble to the nearest subway stop.  No, Chicago pizza takes “obesity” and turns it into an art form.  This pizza you’re trying to lick up there is the true champion of American pizza, the Chicago-style deep-dish pizza.  We’ve covered the virtues of this pizza before, so we can save you some of the jargon on who invented it, and where you can eat it, and why this pizza looks so good you’ve become hungry enough to gnaw at your own arm.

Chicago-style pizza comes in three forms.  There’s thin crust, which differs from the New York slice in that it’s cut into squares as opposed to wedges, the crust is crispy instead of floppy, and as much as die-hard Chicago pizza fans might try to trick you otherwise, it’s not nearly as good.  Sorry, Chicago, if we wanted to see your impression of something New York is known for we’d watch a Broadway musical a year and a half after it’s opened without all the famous actors in the cast.

No, deep-dish and stuffed pizzas are where it’s at in Chicago, two delicious and radical takes on the pizza pie where a slice is enough for a whole meal and someone wearing a Frank Thomas jersey will call you a pussy if you don’t eat three.  This is a dozen pizzas crammed into one, something that the inventors of the medium would shudder to even contemplate.  New Yorkers might get jealous and call this a soggy bowl of cheese and sauce.  The rest of America likes to call it…perfection.

Stay tuned for tomorrow when we write about the worst pizza styles in America.  While reading this article likely made you want to pick up your phone and order a pie, tomorrow’s will probably make you want to pick up a bottle of bourbon and drink until pizza looks good again.  Enjoy.


20 responses to “The Five Best Regional Pizzas In America

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  5. I love your site and agree with almost everything you say except for the Chicago, grid cut pizza which some people call “tavern style”. It’s not an imitation in ANY way of a New York style pizza. New York pizza is rolled and stretched while Chicago thin is rolled and either not stretched or stretched very little. There is a textural difference and also, as a Chicagoan, we love the grid cut because it also gives you options for different textures in one pizza. I’m not saying that NY style isn’t better, in fact I think NY style is slightly better all around, only that Chicago style really is a different take and not an imitation.

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  8. Please remember that tomato were introduced in Italy by Hispanics/Spaniards. Mediterranean folks were eating flat breads for a long time. It is safe to say that the first to add tomatoes were Hispanics/Spaniards.

    • Brinsley Schwarz

      Uh, last I checked, Italy was a Mediterranean country. LOL. Even better is that you ignore the Conquistadores destroying civilizations… but hey! No gold… but hey! Look at these tomatoes!

  9. Chicago style pizza is revolting. My friends there say no one they know eats it. Only tourists. And apparently blog writers.

  10. A non-pizza as the best regional pizza style

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  12. I’ve eaten my weight in Chicago-style pizza, and it’s just an inferior product. If you want a thick crust and delicious cheese, go with Detroit pizza.

    Start with the crust – it sucks. It’s crumbly, there’s no chew to it.

    The cheese is a thick layer of mozzarella that cools into an impenetrable, lukewarm mat while the sauce is still nuclear-hot.

    The sauce. It’s bland, not enough salt or oregano. And why do they put it on top? We all know the best part of a pizza is crispy cheese – putting the cheese UNDER the sauce is like having sex through a sheet.

    There are too many amazing neapolitan pizzerias in Chicago for deep dish to be more than a novelty. Every one of my Chicago friends only eats deep dish pizza when out-of-towners come to visit – just like none of my California friends give two shits about Disneyland.

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  15. This is a completely useless site that will immediately be blocked from my feed as soon as I post this message.

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