New Orleans Best Pizza
In search of the upper crust
JEFFERY JOHNSTON PHOTOGRAPHS
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Pizza paid my bills through college. Every evening after class I would slough over to a pizzeria just off campus and spin dough until the sun came up. After the first few months the work became meditative, almost medicinal; every three minutes (two when I was on fire), I would scrape up a spongy, sticky loaf, wax its diameter to 22 inches, slop the requisite ingredients on top and bake it until my classmates could find it palatable.
In our spare time, my coworkers and I would challenge each other to invent a pie more inventive than the last. We were limited by the ingredients our bosses would suffer to order, but we still managed to keep ourselves plump and amused.
But before pickled jalapeño peppers and canned pineapple became commonplace pizza toppings – or at least commonly accepted – the noble tomato pie made its doughy bones on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius and around Naples. In its centuries-old history, pizza has evolved from a sweet street food to a predominantly savory repast that spans all ranks of cuisine.
Rumors of pizza in New Orleans date back to the French Market of the 1930s. That first version was probably more closely related to the rustic baked pies of yesteryear, but the last decade has seen a groundswell in pizza joints around town. This is our best effort to let you know what to put on your list.
The Methodology. We nixed all ideas of what pizza “should” be. Everyone seems to have an opinion on this, so we opted for a simpler supposition: The pizzas we would sample must have crust, sauce, cheese and, in an effort to gage versatility, pepperoni – the most classic of accouterments.
All crust types were up for consideration, and we made no judgment as to what constituted “proper” cheese. At the end of the analyses, what really mattered was taste.
Roosevelt Hotel, 123 Baronne St.,
Co-owner and executive chef Alon Shaya’s Neapolitan-style pizza at Domenica earned the top spot in the pepperoni pizza showdown. The pizza itself is simple, but simply fantastic. The crust, sturdy enough to eat without folding – although you’ll want to power through more quickly – picks up just a hint of scorch from the oven, dusky in places but otherwise bright and inviting, wreathed in a simple, slightly tangy sauce and wrapped up in a consistent layer of mozzarella.
Domenica opts for broader, thinner pepperoni, which tends to retain its mobility during the brief baking period, but still charges the pie with zest, salt and smoke, hugging the cheese closely without becoming slick or greasy.
The pies are decidedly larger than what a single diner should eat in one sitting, but that didn’t stop me from devouring an entire pie and going back for more.
Domenica’s pizza represents the culmination of Shaya’s lifelong ambition to cook Italian food. Having worked in kitchens specializing in Italian cuisine on-and-off since he was a teenager, Shaya traveled to Northern and Central Italy and began cooking with families and professional chefs to perfect his technique before returning to New Orleans to open Domenica with chef John Besh. “I had made pizza before moving to Italy,” says Shaya, “but this was like going to church.”
Without knowing he would be cooking pizza so consistently and prolifically, Shaya had begun a sourdough starter – now the basis for Domenica’s pizza dough – in his home kitchen before even moving to Italy. “My wife would feed it daily while I was living in Italy,” he recalls. “When I got home and the starter was still alive, I knew she was the one and I asked her to marry me.”
The sauce is a simple mash of domestic tomatoes and salt, the cheese a whole-milk mozzarella from St. James Cheese Company (they also employ fontina from Valle d’Aosta and Parmigiano-Reggiano from Parma) and the pepperoni is a handmade scion of Domenica’s in-house charcuterie. The pies are blasted by 800 degrees of oak and pecan on a stone deck for only 90 seconds to two minutes, fusing the ingredients and marrying the flavors, but still allowing each component to stand apart.
Recommendation: Come for the pepperoni, stay for the Gorgonzola pizza with apples, speck and pecans; and enjoy half-priced pizzas during happy hour.
More Top Pizzas...
Ancora. (4508 Freret St., 324-1636, AncoraPizza.com) A herald of the revitalization of Freret Street’s pregnant midsection, Ancora turns out pizza in strict adherence to the tenets of Neapolitan pizza-making, from ingredients to oven type and temperature, to acceptable thickness and width.
Just crisp to the touch, the crust cools to a pleasing chewiness after leaving the 800-degree oven. As with Domenica, the sauce is simple, bright and delicious. The cheese, identified as fior di Latte, clings to the pie in moist dollops, porous with just a hint of sweetness.
The meat at play in this particular formula isn’t technically pepperoni, although it’s so close an analog that we had to include it; labeled simply a “Naples Salumi,” it’s spiced in the same manner as pepperoni, but consists only of pork (rather than pork and beef) and isn’t smoked. Coupled with chile peppers on the “Diavola” pizza and moistened by an aglianico from Campania, you won’t care what it’s called, only where you can find more of it.
Recommendation: Bring a date – but beware of the “Cheap Date” cocktail – and try more than one pizza. Be advised, their pizza is only available in-house, and only for dinner, although they have a rotating menu of sandwiches for midday repasts Fridays and Saturdays.
Tower of Pizza. (2104 Veterans Blvd., Metairie, 833-9373) Still operating out of a modest shopping center on Veterans Boulevard, Tower of Pizza is a back-to-basics style pizza that has stood the test of time.
The crust is crispy on the outside but chewy towards the inside, slightly dense but not so thick that it’s overwhelming. The sauce marries into the cheese while baking, adding a hint of sweetness and spice to the mozzarella.
In a twist characteristic of several Metairie pizzerias, Tower throws their pepperoni under the crust. While this can sometimes result in flaccid or undercooked pepperoni, the folks at Tower have found a combination of ingredients and temperature that puts just enough tooth on the pepperoni.
Tower is old-school and frill-free; it’s comfortable pizza for folks who want a solid, standard pie.
Recommendation: Go with your gut.
The Midway. (4725 Freret St., 322-2815, MidwayPizzaNOLA.com) Quick, name a flat city with humid summers, a nearby lake and questionable politics.
The Midway, which shares a name with Chicago’s “other” airport, is the first pizzeria on this side of Lake Pontchartrain to offer up true deep-dish pizza – that is to say, cooked in an actual deep dish and served thus.
The crust hugs the edge of the dense metal pans in which the pies are served, uniformly thick, gold flecked with brown, redolent with pockets of thick, deep-red sauce. Perhaps due to its roots in Virginia – owner Steve Watson brought his recipes from Alexandria – Midway steers clear of Chicago-style pizza’s characteristic pitfall, that of unpredictable, overcooked crust.
The cheese and pepperoni are utilitarian, but ride comfortably on the crust and sauce – the pizza’s real star players.
Recommendation: Outside of the usual suspects, The Midway has a kooky list of signature pies derived from a madman’s appetite that deliver sustenance in unusually gratifying ways. Recommendation: Try the Thunderbird, which combines roasted chicken and two kinds of pork with fresh and caramelized veggies, all under a drizzle of red pepper aioli. Make sure you bring backup.
Slice. (5538 Magazine St. 897-4800, 1513 St. Charles Ave. 525-PIES (7437), SlicePizzeria.com) When the gentlemen behind Juan’s Flying Burrito first opened Slice’s St. Charles Avenue location, they caught some flak for adapting the Juan’s aesthetic to pizza – but the formula worked, and then some. And just as the two Juan’s restaurants are drastically different from each other, the now-two locations of Slice are as far apart from each other as they are from their forbears.
Slice’s pepperoni pizza is food porn at its best, and a large is noticeably larger than the advertised 14 inches. Dusted with cornmeal, the crust is bare bones New York-style, forming floppy pennants that fold double and go down fast. The cheese is applied evenly throughout – not necessarily an easy feat with pies this size – and the pepperoni are plentiful, crispy and just spicy enough.
Recommendation: True to its name, Slice offers all of its specialty pies by the slice at both locations. Try the bacon, basil and garlic with a draft beer from a local brewery.
Pizza NOLA. (141 W. Harrison Ave., 872-0731, PizzaNOLA.com) This dark-horse pizzeria is as inventive as it is out of the way.
The crust is thick, rich and layered, more like croissant or puff pastry than conventional pizza crust, glowing golden and chewy throughout. The innovation is unusual, but effective.
The sauce is applied with a light touch, running in zesty rivulets through bubbles in the crust – a happenstance that is usually frustrating, but works with the richness of the dough. The cheese distributed with the same reservation, allowing the crust to take center stage, and the pepperoni are crispy, spicy and plentiful.
Although the restaurant’s space is small and remote, the menu is slightly more expansive, with curious signature pies on offer.
Recommendation: Try the Fleur de Lis, topped with tomatoes, blue cheese and bacon – as though pizza had a love child with a Cobb salad – and taper off with their selections of gelato.
Mondo. (900 Harrison Ave., 224-2633, MondoNewOrleans.com) Susan Spicer’s neighborhood experiment Mondo churns out 12-inch pizzas from an oak-burning oven behind a prominent counter in the dining room.
The crust is thin and browned but still pliable, but the real star of the show is the house-made sauce, which begins with a pan-roasted mixture of herbs and aromatic vegetables. The pies all feature fresh mozzarella, and occasionally smoked mozzarella makes an appearance on the rotating menu or specialty pizzas.
There is a strictly pepperoni pizza available on the kids’ menu, but it’s deceptively mature; on the main dinner menu, pepperoni joins fresh jalapeños, blanched onions and roasted garlic for a breath-bombing feast of epic flavor.
Recommendation: Knock back the mushroom, leek and pancetta pizza with cremini and white button mushrooms.
Ed. Note: Since the author of this piece bartends at Mondo we felt a need to 1.) acknowledge that and 2.) conduct our own investigation. A group of four from the office had lunch there. We shared two pizzas; the Tomato, Basil and Mushroom as well as the Bacon, Egg, Potato, Ricotta, Parmesan. We also had several side dishes. Both pizzas were extraordinary. We found nothing to make us disagree with the author’s assessment above. Our one caveat is that we found the classic wood-burning oven to be especially interesting (both visually and culinarily) and certainly worthy of more mention. It is clearly part of the pizzas’ success.
Reginelli’s Pizzeria. (741 State St., 899-1414; 3244 Magazine St., 895-7272; 930 Poydras St., 488-0133; 874 Harrison Ave., 488-0133; Additional locations in Harahan, Metairie, Kenner and Baton Rouge; Reginellis.com) Local boys Darryl Reginelli and Bruce Erhardt have expanded their pizza enterprise to a chain of locations throughout the city, which makes their consistency all the more impressive.
The distinctive crust at Reginelli’s is pillowy with just a touch of rigidity at the bottom. While the cheese isn’t remarkable on its own, the sauce is laden with oregano and pepper, chunky with tomatoes and moist without being wet. The pepperoni crisps around the edges, but is rich enough that, even well-done, they are juicy to the bite.
The touch that helps set Reginelli’s apart is the judicious application of fresh Parmesan – not a drastic departure from rote pizza baking, but a savvy addition to an otherwise delicious pizza.
Recommendation: Try the Nor’Easter, jacked up with caramelized onions, capers and sausage in a spicy red pepper sauce.
Pizza Delicious. (3334 N. Rampart St., 676-8482, PizzaDelicious.blogspot.com) Marigny pizza pop-up Pizza Delicious is true to its name.
The crust at Delicious is a super-thin New York version with a chewy outside, and would hold its own in the Big Apple as well as the Big Easy.
The sauce can tend towards sloppy wetness, but as the pie cools, it becomes much more approachable. The cheese is of high-quality and properly portioned; the pepperoni is thin, spicy and scrumptious.
While you’re waiting for the pie to cool off, try the pepperoni rolls, baseball-sized orbs of pepperoni and cheese rolled up into pizza dough.
The popup is currently only open on Thursdays and Sundays, and the wait times can get long enough to make Hero wince, so make sure your plans are flexible and call ahead. It is worth the wait, and the trip.
Recommendation: Stay tuned to their website, PizzaDelicious.blogspot.com, for weekly specials.
Colonna’s. (842 N. Collins Blvd., Covington, (985) 893-0910) Colonna’s brings pizza to the Northshore with style and class. The crust is thin, bordering on scorched across the bottom. It is chewy near the edges and a little too thin at the center when hot, but when the heat dissipates the slices firm into foldable vehicles not entirely unlike New York street pizza.
The sauce is tangy with hints of onion, a little sweet but not overly so. The cheese is greasy in the best way possible, salty in perfect contrast to the sauce, and the pepperoni packs a wicked dose of spice.
Recommendation: Keep it simple.
Tower of Pizza