New Orleans Best Pizza
In search of the upper crust
JEFFERY JOHNSTON PHOTOGRAPHS
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
By the Slice
Garage Pizza (2828 Canal St., 214-5177, ChickieWahWah.com), located inside Chickie Wah Wah, serves up unusually delicious single slices. The slices are massive, slightly thicker than New York-style, beautifully floppy with a substantial outer crust for waving the slice around. The sauce is light, lingering under a healthy (or perhaps unhealthy) portion of cheese that packs plenty of punch.
The pepperoni I sampled was tightly curled, crisped at the edges and there was a lot of it.
Pizzicare (3001 Tulane Ave., 301-4823, Pizzicare.com) in Mid-City offers slices of each of its specialty pizzas for lunch and dinner, peppered with produce from NOLA Greenroots and Hollygrove Market & Farm. Try their white pie with pancetta and Brussels sprouts.
Cafe Nino (1510 South Carrollton Ave., 865-9200) in Riverbend cranks out no-frills slices in an old-school setting, along with plate lunches and addictive garlic knots rolled out from pizza dough.
Vieux Carré Pizzaria (733 St. Louis St., 529-1999, VieuxCarrePizza.com) in the French Quarter is a welcome respite from other Bourbon Street fare; the crust is thick and doughy without being spongy, and the dark-red sauce holds a beautiful mélange of cheese, toppings and spices. Perfect for soaking up a Hand Grenade or three.
Like Pizzicare, Slice (5538 Magazine St., 897-4800, 1513 St. Charles Ave., 525-PIES (7437), SlicePizzeria.com) distinguishes itself by offering its entire pizza menu on a by-the-slice basis.
Vieux Carré Pizzaria
Lazaro’s (483-8609) in Mid-City spins out pies the size of manhole covers with classic toppings. If you’re outside their delivery radius, stop by the Banks Street Bar for live music and cold drinks while you wait for your pie. They are open for dinner and late into the night, so keep your appetite into the evening.
Ciro’s Côté Sud (866-9551) is really distinguished in two categories – sit-down pizza and delivery – but what’s really impressive is that they deliver their entire Provençal menu along with their pies. The crust is crisp but foldable, and the pies have a light, airy consistency.
Reginelli’s (Reginellis.com) has enough locations that it can deliver to almost anywhere in the city. Grab one of their tasty salads to go with their pies – and don’t be scared by the capers, they work wonders on pizza. If only they could figure out a way to deliver their beer pitcher specials.
Magazine Pizza (548-0212) is wedged behind the Rusty Nail underneath Interstate-10, but they deliver all the way across town. Skip the ordinary incarnations and opt for the Philly cheese steak-style pizza, or the aptly named Hangover pie.
In addition to providing substantially tastier pies than most of its closest neighbors, Vieux Carré Pizza (529-1999) also offers late-night delivery, so if you live in the French Quarter you can indulge the midnight munchies from the comfort of your sofa.
Sit Down Pizza
Venezia Italian Food & Pizza Restaurant
Venezia Italian Food & Pizza Restaurant (134 North Carrollton Ave., 488-7991, VeneziaNewOrleans.com) hosts guests in a classic, Italian-style dining room. They have been spinning out pies for decades, through two owners and countless changes in the city, and they’re still standing on their classic recipe.
Ciro’s Côté Sud’s (7918 Maple St., 866-9551, CoteSudRestaurant.com) intimate dining room brings Provence to Maple Street, with wire-backed chairs and soft lighting, and plenty of New Orleans artwork. The feel is elegant but subdued, better for second dates than for large families. If you happen to live outside of Carrollton, make the trek and try it out.
Also on Maple, Figaro’s (7900 Maple St., 866-0100, FigarosRestaurant.com) is worth checking out for their white pizza alone – garlic, ricotta and mozzarella blend together in perfect harmony.
Mondo (900 Harrison Ave., 224-2633, MondoNewOrleans.com) seats guests in a rustic dining room, a tin-roofed barroom or at a counter right by the pizza oven. The dining room is malleable and can accommodate large parties – and reservations are only available for groups of five or more.
Domenica (inside the Roosevelt Hotel, 123 Baronne St. 648-6020, DomenicaRestaurant.com) serves its pizzas seven days a week, 12 hours a day in the Roosevelt Hotel. The space is open, airy and light, with picture windows and extensive decoration, and quite inviting for happy hour specials.
A Tale of Two Jeffs
There are a couple of Louisiana boys who now own pizzerias here in town, and the ways they got there are as different as the pies they serve.
Jeff Baron, a New Orleans native, first started selling pizza at the Dough Bowl, an alley-shaped pizza kitchen shoehorned between a bar and a liquor store, but has since joined forces with Bart Bell (formerly of Cuvée) and expanded his vision to Crescent Pie & Sausage Company and, most recently, Pizzicare.
“Going to Tulane I was very boastful about New Orleans’ culinary heritage,” says Baron, adding that he would get into heated debates about regional cuisine with his Northeastern classmates. “Then they brought me to New York, and I was blown away.” After eating his words – and lots of pizza – Baron set out to open a New York-style pizzeria in New Orleans. The Dough Bowl was the first step, and he honed his kitchen skills with Bell at Crescent Pie & Sausage before realizing his vision with Pizzicare – huge, hearty, New York-style pizza available by the slice or the pie. He has since hired Andy Mossbrook, a pizza man from Philadelphia, to keep the Yankee candle burning under the pizza stone.
But Baron isn’t one to spurn his home soil; whenever he needs fresh produce, he just runs out the back door and picks up veggies from the NOLA Greenroots project behind the pizzeria.
Further towards the river, Jeff Talbott, co-owner and pizza sensei of Ancora had a similar awakening when he left Lake Charles and began working in Italy. Although he admits that he wasn’t immediately “blown away,” as Baron had been, he had awoken to the new possibilities for pizza.
Talbott began experimenting with dough while a sous chef at Osiris in Northern California, baking pizzas at home on his days off; but he yearned for the land of his youth, returning to Louisiana in 2009 with what was then a 5-year-old dough starter – which now forms the basis for all of Ancora’s pizza dough. “What we do is bake bread,” Talbott says, demystifying the nature of pizza. “And we put toppings on it.” It is a modest claim with a delicious result, a combination of simple sauce – nothing but crushed San Marzano tomatoes and sea salt – and premium cheese, housemade charcuterie and local produce, each pie paired to a specific Italian wine.
Jeff Talbott, Ancora Pizzeria
Jeff Baron, Crescent Pie & Sausage and Pizzacare