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Ask 100 New Orleanians what their favorite local pizza place is, and you’ll get a lot of different answers. But here’s where it gets tricky:
Ask 100 New Orleanians what they think of the people who disagree with them about the best local pizza place, and they’re likely to say things like, “If you don’t think ‘x’ is the best pizza place in the city, then you don’t know a damn thing about pizza!”
Or, “If you don’t like ‘y’ pizza then you might as well just eat Little Caesars because whatever you like sucks just as bad as you do.”
Or — my favorite personal favorite — “You should be ashamed of yourself.”
I know this is what people will say because this is what people actually did say on social media when I asked them to offer their opinion on this most important question: What are the Top 5 Pizza Spots in the 504?
That’s the question I’m trying to answer. To do it, I ate pizza from 35 different local businesses in a single week (should I be ashamed of myself?), plus dozens of other spots over the past several years.
And before you ask…yes, I’m from New York. I’ve been a proud New Orleanian for nearly 12 years, but legend has it, I’ve been eating pizza before I had my first baby bottle (and that my first baby bottle just had blended-up pizza in it). I spent the first 18 years of my life eating pizza on Long Island as well as a few years after that eating it in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
But, listen, I’m no snob. When people say, “New Orleans isn’t a good pizza town,” I want to grab them by the seersucker suit and shout some sense at them. New York-style pizza is great (and if that’s your style, give Tower of Pizza in Metairie a try!), but New York isn’t the only place in the world that figured out how to make dough, cheese, sauce and toppings taste good.
It’s hard to screw up!
Of course, there’s a wide gap between “screwing up” and being excellent. But there are some excellent places around town with a huge local following.
Mo’s Pizza with its sweet sauce and old-school storefront out in Westwego was a revelation. Zee’s Pizzeria set up at Zony Mash Beer Project a few days a week also has some very passionate fans. Same with Nola Mia Gelato Cafe on St. Claude Avenue, Ancora Pizzeria on Freret Street and Pepperoni Ray’s in Gentilly.
We’ve got Chicago-style, Detroit-style, Neapolitan-style, gluten-free, vegan-free, fat-free (just kidding) and so much more — including a members-only pizza club! If you can’t find pizza you like in the Greater New Orleans area, I challenge you to try harder.
That’s what I did last week, and I was rewarded with a lot of delicious pizza. Armed with new knowledge of the New Orleans-area pizza scene, I’m ready to announce who I think has the Top 5 Pizzas in the 504. But first…a little history!
New Orleans Comes Late to the Pizza Party
If we’re going to determine who has the top pizza, I think we ought to first know something about pizza, right? Like where’d it originate?
The Greeks of the 13th century B.C. topped a baked bread that was flat and round with herbs, onions and cheese. The Trojans of 19 B.C. baked a pita-like cake atop their shields during battle and adorned it with veggies. And Roman soldiers put cheese and olive oil on Jewish matzah.
But can any of this actually be considered pizza?
The word “pizza” first showed up in 16th-century Naples (in what is now Italy). A flatbread “pizza” was a cheap street food sold to the city’s poorer residents.
This is about the same time European empires established regular contact with the Americas and began bringing home crops they had never encountered before.
That included tomatoes. In Naples, those tomatoes, as well as oil and fish, became a common topping on early pizzas.
But how did pizza grow from the street food of a single Italian city to the ubiquity it now enjoys across all of America?
As we New Orleanians well know, the United States experienced a surge of immigration from Italy between the late-19th and early-20th centuries. That immigration came from southern Italy due to political hardship and terrible poverty.
The Italians that made it to New Orleans were primarily Sicilian, and — sadly for us — the Sicilians hadn’t invented pizza. (Fortunately for us, they invented a lot of other amazing food we still enjoy in NOLA today.)
While the Neapolitans from Naples didn’t make it to the Big Easy, they took their pizza to American cities like Trenton, New Haven, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis and — most notably — New York City.
At first, there weren’t pizzerias like we see in New York (and elsewhere) today. Peddlers would walk up and down the streets of Italian-American neighborhoods, selling pizzas from the washbasins they carried on their heads. A pie might cost five cents, but if you didn’t have that much money, you could give the vendor what you had and they’d cut you off a slice that was proportional to what you paid.
As the early 20th century progressed, pizza shops did pop up, but we didn’t know anything about that down here in New Orleans.
A walk through local newspaper archives between 1935 and 1949 reveals the now-hilarious story of a city slowly discovering pizza.
The first time the cuisine is named in the Times-Picayune is in an article from January 1935 titled, “Pizza Neapolitan Recipe Detailed.” Seems simple enough, except the recipe is curiously for a pastry filled with roast beef, potatoes, mushrooms, onions and tomatoes. It looks tasty enough, but no one would recognize this as “Pizza Neapolitan.”
In 1943, a Times-Picayune article about the appeal of modern Uruguay waxes poetic about how “you may find yourself eating ‘pizza’ and drinking some heavy red wine on…the waterfront” taking care to secure the exotic snack in quotations.
Slowly, but surely, one can see pizza popping up more frequently in the news, as well as in pop culture.
Segments of romance novel “Rival to My Heart” by Ann Pinchot ran in the Times-Picayune in 1943 and ‘44, and protagonist Gail Benton — young, cosmopolitan and idealistic — could never seem to get her fill of pizza and wine.
In October 1945, a New Orleans States article begins, “Pizza (pronounced peet-za) is an Italian pie with a savory filling usually made of sausage or anchovies and cheese. It’s the after-the-movie-snack favorite of teenagers.” But this was an article about Chicago, written by a writer from New York. New Orleans still didn’t have pizza of its own.
That ended in April 8, 1946 when Segreto’s — an old French Quarter restaurant at 809 St. Louis Street (right beside today’s Starlight Lounge) — used a Times-Picayune ad to introduce its “After the Show” menu that included “fine steaks, chicken cacciatore, pizza antipasto, spaghetti, [and] raviola.”
What in the world is “pizza antipasto”? Fortunately, the same ad on April 27 in the New Orleans Item included a comma between pizza and antipasto. The original ad must have been a typo. New Orleanians had their first pizza!
Two years later, A New Orleans States ad on April 16, 1948, for “The Domino Pizzaria” — located at 505 St. Louis Street, where a French Quarter PJ’s Coffee now stands — boasts (incorrectly as Segreto’s might point out) “First time offered in New Orleans: ITALIAN PIZZA PIES made with imported sausage or imported cheese or anchovies, tomatoes, mushrooms, etc. In a specially built oven baked at 500 degrees. Reasonable prices.”
Just like we argue about the right and wrong way to make pizza in modern times, those early pizza pioneers of New Orleans did the same. When, four days later, an article in the New Orleans States about The Domino Pizzaria asserted that “It’s called the Italian tomato pie, but it doesn’t have any tomatoes in it,” a soldier in New Orleans stationed at Lake Pontchartrain wrote a letter to the editor to disagree:
“I’ve been making pizza since I was 17 years old. It is a pie and it does have tomatoes in it, but they are not the principal ingredient, just a seasoning.”
Passion for pizza was rising, and at the end of June that year, the classified section included — for the first time — a “Help Wanted” posting for a “MAN with experience to make Italian Pizza pies…”
New Orleans was hooked.
THE TOP 5
In the 70 years since, the New Orleans area has become jam-packed full of hundreds of pizza spots. Surely it’s impossible to choose the best, right?
That’s what I set out to do, and that’s what I was able to accomplish. So, without further ado, here are my Top 5 Pizza Spots in the 504!
#5: Tavolino Pizza & Lounge
Our top five list begins on the “Best Bank” in Algiers Point. Tavolino is a neighborhood favorite, featuring a cracker-thin crust and a creative slate of specialty pizzas.
“I think people really appreciate our approach outside of the true classics, with delicious and inventive toppings,” said Tavolino’s owner, Suzanne Accorsi.
I know that I do! My favorite among them is the Behrman Highway Pizza, which is topped with citrus-braised pork belly, Vietnamese caramel, jalapenos, nuoc cham marinated carrots & radish, as well as fresh herbs. It’s like banh mi on a pizza, and it’s fresh, savory and delicious!
One of the most frequent comments I got during my week of pizza-eating was, “You should only be eating cheese pizzas so you can better compare one to another.”
I actually disagree. I’m not trying to determine the top five cheese pizzas. I’m trying to determine who has the top five pizzas. Why shouldn’t toppings be a part of that?
To me, it’s the creative toppings that carry the Behrman Highway, and they should be rewarded for their creativity! Also — as we just learned in the history section, above — pizza had toppings from the very start.
Finally, if I had to eat 35 cheese pizzas in a week, I would have thrown myself into a pizza oven. So give me a break, and then hop on the ferry and head to charming Algiers Point for some Tavolino pizza!
#4: Paladar 511
Online ordering: Paladar 511 website
Paladar 511 has been open for six years and I still don’t feel like enough people recognize its greatness.
At first glance, one might think they’re looking at Neapolitan-style pizza. The individual-sized pies (get two for sharing) are thrown at high heat in a wood-burning oven.
But the San Francisco owners have called it “California” or “fancy” pizza rather than giving it the more traditional “Neapolitan” moniker. Part of the difference is in the crust — it’s thin, but not quite as crispy as one would expect. And that’s okay with me. As a Long Islander, I prefer to be able to fold over my pizza.
And when you do that here, you’re folding it onto some extraordinary toppings. My personal favorite is the Lamb Merguez Sausage with garlic confit, roasted pepper, pine nut and the perfect amount of tzatziki. But the Spicy San Marzano Tomato Sauce pizza, and the Farm Egg pizza are both incredible in their own rights.
Paladar is also a beautiful place to enjoy a meal. Go for brunch or dinner and take in the chic ambiance, the sounds of the open kitchen, and — of course — the excellence that can be found up and down their menu.
#3: Pizza Delicious
Since they opened in 2010 (first as a pop-up, and later, as the pizzeria we know today), Pizza Delicious has been the North Star of pizza for New Orleanians starving for a New York-style slice.
“We started Pizza D because we couldn’t find the pizza we grew up with in Queens and on Long Island,” explained Mike Friedman, who owns the shop along with business partner (and former college roommate) Greg Augarten.
Pizza D is known for its big, foldable, thin-crust slices, and Friedman said they are obsessive about the ingredients they use.
“I think people can tell we care about making really good pizza.”
There’s no doubt about it, which helps explain the massive following they’ve earned that extends far beyond the Bywater neighborhood in which they exist.
One way in which the pizza culture in New Orleans still differs from New York is that it’s not a guarantee you’ll be able to grab a slice at your favorite pizza spot. Oftentimes, you need to buy a whole pie.
At Pizza D, however, they make sure to always have slices available. To me, there’s little better than walking toward a bar like Markey’s with a pepperoni slice from Pizza D’s folded in my hand.
#2: NOLA Pizza
Online ordering: NOLA Pizza Co. website
Doug Walner is the owner of both, and he says it all starts with the water. Of course, “New York’s water” has been the reason given for decades about why great chefs in other cities can’t seem to replicate New York-style pizza. Rather than just talk about it, however, Walner and his team took action.
“Our water’s meant to replicate New York City tap water,” he explained. It gives us the right pH level and what we consider to be the perfect ppm (parts per million) of the essential minerals we’re after. That gives us what’s considered a softer water.”
That soft water produces a cold-fermented dough ball that Walner says is remarkably consistent. But that’s not all that makes their pizza unique.
“Sourdough isn’t a common component of New York-style pizza,” he admitted, “but over the last several years, some very notable pizza spots around NYC are trending to a sourdough crust.”
The reason, he says, is because it doesn’t fill you up quite as much, but also because it produces a more uniform crust flavor and consistency.
NOLA Pizza opened last year and they sport 10 different pizza options — some with red sauce, some with white sauce, and a pair of square pizzas. I’ve tried them a few times and I’ve yet to eat pizza there I didn’t love! They also have pizza by the slice, and — of course — some great craft beer to enjoy alongside your meal.
#1: Katie’s Restaurant
Online ordering: Katie’s website
Nobody should say “What?!” until you get your butt over to Katie’s in Mid-City to try out their pizza. I stand proudly and confidently by this decision!
They have nearly a dozen specialty pizzas, but let me make it easy for you: get The Boudreaux. It has slow-smoked pulled pork, roasted garlic, spinach, red onions, scallions, parmesan cheese and a garlic butter sauce.
I was already full when I started eating it and I still couldn’t get enough!
But what makes Katie’s pizza so special? Marketing director Billy Healy said it has a lot to do with where they get their inspiration from.
“Our pizza has a heavy St. Louis influence,” he said, noting they use a family dough recipe from owner Scott Craig’s in-laws who have roots in St. Louis. “We also ship in Provel cheese from St. Louis to blend in with our mozzarella.”
Head to Mid-City with a friend and grab a pie or two — they’re each on the generous end of what one person can eat in a single sitting — and maybe even something else from their comprehensive menu. Throw in a couple of cocktails while you’re at it. Katie’s is an experience!
There you have it. Another Top 5-04 in the books. I’m sure you have your own ideas on who should be in the Top 5, so feel free to trash talk away (or agree!) on my Instagram, Blog, Facebook or Twitter.
Just remember: “if you don’t agree with me, then you might as well just eat Little Caesars because whatever you like sucks just as bad as you do!”
I’m kidding. (I think?) Thanks for reading!