Is there anyone who doesn’t love a good slice of pizza? You have to admit it was pretty ingenious of the Italians to turn baked dough, tomato sauce and cheese into a culinary phenomenon. In turn, it was Italian immigrants in New York and throughout the so-called “pizza belt” stretching from Boston to Philadelphia who introduced the meal to the U.S. in the early 20th century. Since then, though, Americans have put their own stamp on the dish and have concocted a wide variety of pizza recipes, some of which are only served in particular cities or regions.
In recognition of these home-grown recipes, this mouth-watering road trip will give you a chance to sample some of the many ways that pizza is tossed and baked in the United States. Since this journey doesn’t cover the entire continent, some pizza hot spots are sadly missing from the itinerary. But New York and Chicago are generally presumed to be the country’s best pizza cities and the region stretching from New England to the upper Midwest contains a remarkable diversity of styles and flavors – from New York’s foldable slices to Chicago’s deep dish pizzas, from Providence’s grilled pizza to Detroit’s square Sicilian style, and from the clam pizzas of New Haven to the tomato pies of Trenton.
So what are you waiting for? Pack those bags and get ready to exercise your taste buds. A delectable diversity of pizza awaits you.
Boston and Providence
We’ll start in Boston. The city frequently ranks in the top 10 of pizza-loving American cities and the Italian enclave of Boston’s North End is a great place to begin this journey. Close your eyes and imagine yourself in Italy as you wander the narrow streets or stop to savor a cappuccino and a cannoli. But leave plenty of room for pizza.
The place to begin in the North End is Regina Pizzeria, a local institution and the winner of a Food Network contest for best pizza in Boston. But don’t forget Santarpio’s in East Boston, which was the other finalist in the Food Network contest and has appeared on numerous lists of best pizza places in the country. These are the two oldest and most famous pizzerias in Boston, but a few other recommended stops include Galleria Umberto, Ernesto’s and Picco.
There isn’t really a Boston style of pizza, although there are numerous Greek style pizzerias throughout the region and this is the easiest place in the country to sample Greek pizza. It’s usually baked in a pan instead of on oven bricks, which gives it a thicker crust, and may include feta cheese or olives as toppings. None of the more prominent pizzerias specialize in Greek-style recipes, but it can be found at any number of “House of Pizza” restaurants throughout Boston and its suburbs.
From Boston, head an hour down I-95 to Providence. The capital of Rhode Island is known as the city that invented grilled pizza – a thin crust that is cooked directly on a grill, where it is then covered with sauce and toppings. The restaurant Al Forno is credited with introducing grilled pizza to America and competes with Bob & Timmy’s for the title of best Providence pizza. Both places, in fact, made a list of top 25 pizza restaurants in the country compiled by Alan Richman for GQ.
New Haven and New York
It’s two hours from Providence to New Haven and about another two hours to New York City. You should plan to sample plenty of slices in both cities. In fact, on your way down I-95 to New Haven, you may also want to stop in Mystic, Connecticut, to visit one of the country’s most famous pizza restaurants. This is due as much to the power of Hollywood as to food, since Mystic Pizza is both a pizzeria and the inspiration for a 1988 movie of the same name.
New Haven-style “apizza” is known for a thin, crisp crust. The city is also known for being the home of clam pizza. This is a white pizza, with a bit of cheese, spices and oil and spread with fresh littleneck clams that are harvested locally. Frank Pepe’s is regarded as the inventor of the clam pizza and is still the most recognized pizzeria in town. But there are many other contenders for title of New Haven’s best pizza, including Sally’s, Modern and Zuppardi’s.
Next you come to New York City, where you can sample anything from the foldable slice of thin crust pizza (also known as New York-style) to a handcrafted pie at one of the region’s more artisanal pizzerias. There are countless places to check out in every New York borough, but for a bit of history you can start at Lombardi’s, noted for becoming the country’s first licensed pizzeria in 1905. Then visit the local institution that is Famous Joe’s. Located in Greenwich Village, it’s consistently rated as among the best pizzerias in both New York and the U.S. Other longtime New York favorites include Una Pizza Napoletana, John’s of Bleecker Street and Patsy’s in Harlem.
Of course, a lot of pizza connoisseurs will tell you that the best local pizza is actually found in Brooklyn. Two of the more famous restaurants are Grimaldi’s, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, and Totonno’s by Coney Island, which opened in 1924. Others rave about Di Fara, Franny’s or Lucali.
If all of these New York options seem a bit overwhelming, perhaps you should book a pizza tour of the city and get a knowledgeable guide to go with your slices. Scott’s Pizza Tours are popular and well-reviewed and you have the option of doing a bus tour or a walking tour of some of the city’s best pizzerias. Or if you want to stick to the Brooklyn side of the bridge, check out A Slice of Brooklyn Pizza Tour.
Trenton and Philadelphia
I hope you’re also taking breaks to see some tourist sites along the way. Otherwise, you’re probably having pizza for breakfast, lunch and dinner in order to sample the glut of excellent pizzerias in this region of the country. But if you’re ready for more, then Trenton and Philadelphia are both within a two-hour drive of New York.
Trenton is worth a stop just to sample the tomato pies for which the city is famous. In this version of pizza, the cheese goes on the crust first, followed by toppings and then the sauce. The most famous Trenton venues are De Lorenzo’s and Papa’s.
Just across the border in Philadelphia, you can head to the Italian American neighborhood of South Philadelphia for a wide selection of traditional pizzerias. One place that often comes out atop the ‘best of Philadelphia’ lists is Tacconelli’s, which is not quite in South Philly but which GQ did rate as the 9th best pizza in the country. Or, if your taste buds need some variety and you want to try a different Philly favorite, grab a cheesesteak at the iconic South Philadelphia establishments Geno’s or Pat’s.
Old Forge and Youngstown
To continue our pizza road trip, we need to head west. Yes, it’s a bit of trek on I-80 across Pennsylvania and part of Ohio, but there are some pizza pleasures on the way.
First, just north of I-80 in northeastern Pennsylvania is the small town of Old Forge. It’s essentially a suburb of Scranton, but believe it or not there is actually an Old Forge-style of pizza and the community likes to call itself the “Pizza Capital of the World.” The pizzas here tend to be rectangular and are topped with a creamy cheese. They can be ordered “red” (tomato sauce and cheese) or “white” (double crusted with cheese, but no tomato sauce). Some of the more popular Old Forge pizzerias are Revello’s and Ghigiarelli’s. While you’re there, maybe you can imagine yourself grabbing a slice with Michael, Jim or Pam from The Office, which is set in Scranton. In any case, Old Forge is only about 30 miles off I-80 and is a worthy stop if you’re on a pizza mission.
From here, it’s a little over 500 miles and eight hours to Detroit. Just over halfway, though, is the city of Youngstown, Ohio, and that city’s original Italian neighborhood is known for its Brier Hill pizza. It’s made with a thick layer of tomato sauce, Romano cheese instead of mozzarella, and green peppers as a topping. One of the best versions of Brier Hill pizza is said to be served at Bruno Brothers.
Detroit and Chicago
Why Detroit? Well, not only is it often listed among the country’s top pizza cities but there is also a Detroit-style pizza that needs to be sampled. Known as Sicilian or pan pizza, this style has a square shape and a thick crust with the sauce put on last. The most well known of the Detroit style pizzerias is probably Buddy’s, but local pizza lovers also vouch for such restaurants as Niki’s, Loui’s, Shield’s and Cloverleaf.
Finally, five hours from Detroit, our pizza road trip ends in Chicago. It’s a fitting finale, for Chicago is the country’s most famous pizza capital outside of New York and is home to perhaps the most celebrated American contribution to pizza – the deep dish. This pizza is baked in a pan and has a very thick crust to go with hefty toppings and a brawny tomato sauce. A cousin of the deep dish is the stuffed pizza, which was also invented in Chicago and has a second crust layered on top. It’s no wonder these dishes have been likened to casseroles.
Credit for this new style of pizza goes to Pizzeria Uno, which first served it in the 1940s. Other extremely popular deep dish pizzerias include Giordano’s, Gino’s East and Lou Malnati’s. You can’t make it all the way to Chicago and not sample some of the city’s deep dish pizzas, but if you’re also in the mood for something less hearty and you don’t mind a long wait, then Great Lake has been called the best pizza not only in Chicago but in America.
As in New York, there are literally hundreds of pizzerias that you could check out in Chicago. So if you need help in making sense of it all, several enterprising companies have developed pizza tours of the Windy City. Some of the more prominent include Chicago Pizza Tours, Second City Pizza Tours, and Slice of Chicago Pizza Tours.
Map and directions
Congratulations, you’ve now covered about 1,300 miles and have sampled pizzas in at least 10 cities and dozens of pizzerias. You’ve folded your slices on the sidewalks of Manhattan, gorged on deep dish pies in Chicago, enjoyed grilled pizza in Providence, sampled clam pizza in New Haven, and eaten green peppers on your Brier Hill pizza in Youngstown. Below is a map of this road trip. If you click on the “pizza road trip” link, it will take you to a larger map.
View Pizza Road Trip in a larger map