Love pizza? Here’s how to score the best slice

The inside scoop on scoring great pizza—in all of its many shapes and forms.

Pizza can be found almost everywhere in the U.S. Whether you’re attending a sporting event or social gathering, or enjoying a night out on the town, the odds are high that pizza’s somewhere on the menu.

But the style—and quality—of pizza can vary widely. Great pizza can be an art form. And it can even be healthy.

So here’s a quick guide to help you scout out the best pizza near you.

Explore the many styles

You can’t talk about pizza without mentioning New York’s famously large slices of thin crust pizza and Chicago’s deep dish variety. But these—and most pizzas Americans are eating today—originated in Naples.

Want to try an authentic Neapolitan slice? Look for shops certified by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana.

The Naples-based group holds its members to strict standards and claims there are just 2 official varieties of the dish: marinara pizza, made with tomatoes, oil, oregano, and garlic—and Margherita pizza, which adds cheese and basil.

Once you’ve covered the basics, start branching out. There’s endless variety when it comes to flatbread-style dishes—and it’s worth trying them all. Detroit, neo-Neapolitan, grandma and bar are 4 popular pizza styles to look for.

And if you ask Chuck Sillari of Mortadella Head, an Italian-American restaurant outside Boston, he’ll tell you he’s most enthusiastic about the rise in popularity of the Roman-style “pizza al taglio” (Italian for “pizza by the slice”).

“It’s really exciting to walk into a place that makes Roman pizza and see all of the beautiful colors and ingredients that top the rectangular trays,” he says. “The fact that you can buy it by the slice and enjoy a variety at one sitting makes Roman al taglio my favorite pizza in the U.S. right now.”

Sillari’s also a fan of what he calls a New England-style pie.

“The best way to describe it is a Neapolitan/New York-style hybrid with a nice, thin crust that has a lot of flavor,” he says. “It’s what I ate as a kid growing up just outside of Boston, so there is some nostalgia when I bite into a nice, folded slice and that little bit of oil drips out.”

Focus on great ingredients

Overwhelmed by the number of pizza options out there? Here’s a tip: The secret to great pizza is great ingredients.

“Sauce, cheese, and toppings should be of the highest quality and applied with moderation,” says Tony Scardino of Chicago’s Dough Bros.

“Many people fixate on imported ingredients from Italy—and that’s a big misconception,” he says. “I’ve had great pizza with local ingredients, and I’ve had mediocre pizza with imported ingredients. The pizzerias that maintain the best relationships with their purveyors are the ones you want to stick to.”

Of all the ingredients that go into a pizza, the dough is the 1 thing craft pizza makers seem to obsess over. And for good reason: Great bread can transform a meal.

“Nothing is more important than the dough,” Scardino says. “While your toppings should be fresh, your dough should be aged. The best dough, depending on the style, should have a maturation of 2 to 5 days before it’s baked.”

He and Sillari are on the same page about this one.

“The key is the 2-step fermentation process,” Sillari explains. “After 72 hours, you get a tasty, light and airy crust that is built for lots of delicious toppings.”

Sillari’s dough is made from simple ingredients: flour, water, yeast, salt and olive oil. And it’s not just about the flavor—fresh, high-quality ingredients are also better for you. While we often think of pizza as a “fun food” or an indulgence, it doesn’t have to be unhealthy.

“If you make it with clean, fresh ingredients, you are going to get a product that is not only delicious, but very nourishing,” Sillari says.

Know your water

If you ask a New Yorker what makes great pizza, you’ll likely hear about their water.

“New York City has the best bread-making water in the U.S.,” says Kenny Colvin of Giant Squid Creative, a hospitality design and food and drink consulting agency.

Colvin’s not alone in his belief. New Yorkers swear by their water, which comes primarily from the Catskills. And some food critics even say they can taste the difference.

So how does a pizzeria in Florida make authentic New York-style pizzas? Only with New York water, some claim.

“Outside of New York, bagel makers and pizzerias import water or employ machines that create water that’s identical to New York City’s,” Colvin says.

Scardino—who makes New York-style pizza in Chicago—acknowledges this trend is catching on, but he thinks the quality of the ingredients and the handling practices are more important.

Meanwhile, Sillari says he’s even heard of people importing water from Naples in order to make authentic Neapolitan-style pizzas.

“It’s great to see people being so passionate about their product that they would import water,” he says. “But in my opinion, if you have great ingredients and make your pizza with love, the water won’t matter much.”

Bring the heat

Pizza makers will obsess over their ovens, but there are just two things you need to know: First, specific styles of pizza call for specific ovens. And second, you ought to eat your pizza hot and fresh out of the oven.  

“If you’re doing Neapolitan, you better have a wood-fired oven operating at 900 degrees Fahrenheit,” says Scardino. “If you are doing coal, it’s important that you’re burning bituminous coal. And if you’re like us at Dough Bros and your slangin’ out New York-style slices, you must have a gas deck oven!”

Roman pizza—the kind Sillari makes at Mortadella Head—is cooked in electric ovens, but he’s careful not to get too choosy about the kind he prefers.

“Great pizza can be made in any kind of oven if it’s done with passion and quality ingredients,” he says. “I’ve had pizza at some of the best places in Italy, New York and New England, but my favorite pizza of all time was made in a gas oven in my grandmother’s kitchen.”

And regardless of what oven your pizza emerged from, Scardino suggests you eat it hot. (Just make sure it’s cooled down enough that you don’t burn yourself.)

“Take the time to enjoy that pizza in the pizzeria moments after it has exited the oven,” he advises. “Like a flower, all pizzas die sooner or later. Get to yours before it does!”

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