If you eat, you probably like pizza. Oh, sure, there are people out there who don’t enjoy the tantalizing taste experience of a slice, but I’ve never met one. I mean, it is only, like, the most perfect food. All the meat, dairy, and veggie product you need in a single meal served up on a convenient dough vessel that can (hypothetically) be eaten with one hand.
Though pizza originated in Naples, nowadays you can get any number of different styles ranging from thin-crusted Neapolitan to thick Sicilian to pan-cooked Greek to deep-dish Chicago-style to the ever-famous New York pie. Embarrassingly, my pizza journey began when I was a young girl hitting the local Pizza Hut in Georgetown, South Carolina, after cheering the occasional home game. For years, I favored that specific Pizza Hut location because it is one of the only ones I’ve found (still) that has pickles on the salad bar. But alas, pickles on the salad bar do not a fine pizza parlor make.
When I first moved to New York at 19, I lived off the two food groups that sustain every struggling actor in the city: 99-cent boxes of Little Debbie Cakes and buck-a-slice Ray’s Pizza. Most people who experience New York pizza for the first time experience it here, or at one of its other incarnations and rip-offs, like Ray’s Famous Pizza, Original Ray’s Famous Pizza, Famous Ray’s Pizza, etc. Grabbing a slice, folding it in half and wolfing it on the go while a thin line of orange grease makes its way down your arm and into your sleeve is a rite of passage for every New York newcomer. Traditional New York-style pizza is an American variation of Neapolitan, and for the first five years I lived there, I thought I was truly experiencing pizza at its finest. Then my soon-to-be husband took me to New Haven, Connecticut, to The Original Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana.
Saturday nights at 83-year-old Pepe’s means standing in a long, winding line or opting for a downgrade to Pepe’s-owned The Spot or close competitor, Sally’s — all on one street that can be called the “Little Italy” of New Haven. My first (and sadly only) trip to Pepe’s was like falling instantly into an unrequited passion. Pepe’s is the kind of place that overpowers you the moment you walk in the door. The large coal-fired ovens create an amazing warm-bread smell that whets your appetite. This is the sort of place that does not use mozzarella unless you ask for it. The slices are perfect, with large blisters that have blackened to a crisp from the heat. Though Pepe’s is famous for its White Clam Pizza, I fell for the White Pizza with Bacon and Onions. But, unfortunately, unless I gave up my life in New York to either date a Yalie or become one, me and Pepe’s were not to be.
Back on the island, I found there were a slew of like-minded places, such as John’s Pizzeria and Lombardi’s and Grimaldi’s, but because my home base was in Chelsea, Patsy’s on West 23rd Street became my hangout of choice, and the Margherita (cheese, fresh tomato, and basil) was my signature pie. About that same time, I took a job with a high-end cook-book publisher, and began delving deeply into making pizza at home. My husband and I started by buying pizza dough from a parlor around the corner, but we eventually upgraded to making our own.
When we moved to San Antonio, the lack of the sort of pizza we loved on the East Coast made making homemade pies even more vital. We struggled. We experimented. And as gratifying as the end result always was, the process was time-consuming and essentially a pain in the ass. One night, when my husband was home alone with nothing in the fridge except leftover pizza toppings, he threw them on to a piece of pita bread from Ali Baba’s and our prayers were answered.
Those familiar with the fresh-baked-daily pita from Ali Baba International Food Market on Wurzbach know that there is none better in San Antonio, and as far as I’m concerned, none better pretty much anywhere I’ve lived. Amazingly, it is the perfect platform for home-cooked pizza. When topped and cooked the same day for about five minutes, Ali Baba’s pita makes a great pizza crust. It is thin and crispy, yet yields with a slight chew in the middle. It is easy, accessible, and inexpensive: my favorite kind of gourmet treat. You will never look into my freezer without seeing a stack of both the wheat and white varieties, stockpiled there for no other reason than to act as a surrogate mother to my pizza sauce, cheese, olives, sausage, the works.
Now, I’m no pizza expert, per se, but I’ve literally eaten my way around the world in search of the perfect slice. I’ve had very “happy” pizza (wink, wink) in Cambodia, spent a stomach-sick week in Bombay on nothing but Domino’s, and traveled to Washington D.C. just to sample certified Neapolitan pies at Two Amy’s. But until I get to Italy (the pizza motherland herself), Pepe’s will always be my Mecca, and Patsy’s will forever own my heart. However, when not in Rome … I had to get out to see what San Antonio has to offer.
As I couldn’t possibly hit all the pizza joints in town, I selected these 12 to rate based on word-of-mouth recommendations. At each restaurant, I ordered simply a cheese pizza or a cheese slice and rated them on my personal preferences, considering the crust/dough, sauce, and cheese, as well as the overall combination. I’m not the final word, but I know good pizza. This is merely a pool from which you can pick your own favorites. •
Dough Pizzeria Napoletana
6989 Blanco Road (210) 979-6363
A few of my more trustworthy food friends had been talking this new place up for a while, so I knew I had to check it out. From the very first bite, my search for great pizza in SA was over. This was the restaurant I’d been looking for when I conceived this article. Proprietors Doug and Lori Horn tout on their website that Dough is the only authentic Neapolitan pizzeria in town. The oven, ingredients, and cooking methods are all certified by the Italian government, making them the only San Antonio member of the Verace Pizza Napoletana Association. This is truly the real thing, and its upscale nature and impeccable service place it in a league of its own. Those not familiar with this type of pizza might be put off by the fresh mozzarella, as it does have a higher moisture content than the cheese Americans are used to. But what happens when the milkiness of the cheese meets with the sweet and tart bite of the sauce is heaven. And the crust … so crispy and savory, geez, I could bring it home with me and tuck it into bed at night — it was that addictive. I only had the margherita pizza on my inaugural visit, but make no mistake, I will be returning time and time again to obsess over the salami, veggie, and rapini versions. Seriously, I died and went to Dough.
14602 Huebner Road (210) 479-2670
Related to Naples Pizza of New Haven, this place offers up what I like to think of as the very best of New York-style pizza. It has a crisp crust with a nice olive-oil flavor and really excellent blisters on top. Good cheese, too — not too much but still enough to form that beautiful thin layer of yummy oil. Having perused the menu, I plan to next try Mario’s Pizza — white pizza made with fresh tomato, bacon, and garlic. Yes, I will definitely be going back to this spot. YUM.
Sorrento Ristorante and Pizza
5146 Broadway (210) 824-0055
This was the one place I had been underestimating. So sure was I that there was no great pizza in my ’hood, I’d pretty much given up. But Sorrento proved me wrong. Offering up a tasty slice, the thin-crust pizza was blistered and not doughy at all. There was just a hint of cheese spread over a sauce that was yummy and a tad sweet. The crust was somewhat soggy, but I’m gonna blame that on the takeout factor. This will be my delivery place of choice henceforth.
5999 De Zavala Drive (210) 691-2070
I love the fact that this place has an entire White Pizza section on the menu. I sampled the personal pizza, and though the crust was a little too thick for my liking, that might have been because of the size. Rome’s loses a little in translation and slips into a more Americanized style, but overall the flavor was good, and the texture chewy but crisp on the bottom. Love the Mediterranean specialties they offer on the side, like dolmas and hummus.
7214 Blanco Road (210) 348-9090
An Italian-American from Buffalo, New York, owner Rick Perno promises real New York-style pies, and he doesn’t disappoint. Goomba’s is an itsy bit different from what I usually like, as the crust was more chewy than crispy. Still delicious though, with just a light sprinkling of cheese and huge blisters with a thin coating of the sauce cooked in. My takeout order held up well for the 20-minute ride to my house; that might account for the texture.
Grant St. Pizza & Subs
4310 Vance Jackson Road (210) 342-1230
I ordered a slice at lunchtime that had to be reheated, but they sprinkled a light layer of cheese on top before putting it in the oven, which was nice. The crust was crispy, even though I found the dough to be a little thick. The sauce and cheese were rather plain, but that might not be that important if I went back and ordered the fully loaded Grant St. Supreme. This place serves good, reliable pizza in what seemed like it would be a fun setting come nightfall.
4508 West Ave (210) 342-5700
Very similar in taste to nearby Grant St., my personal-sized pizza arrived steaming with a nice crispy crust, very little cheese, and bubbly blisters. The overall flavor was on the bland side, but it still stands up as a competent choice if you live in the neighborhood. Its hole-in-the-wall ambiance was endearing, and the small tables were packed with smiling faces at lunchtime.
7701 Broadway (210) 805-8646
Florio’s offers up good, honest, New York-street-corner pizza (by way of New Jersey). The ambiance is definitely authentic, including the office set-up on a dining table just to the right of the door, really giving it that “family-run” feel. The pizza is good, though the cheese here overwhelms. Popularity can sometimes be a curse, so expect to get there by 11:30 to beat the lunchtime lines. Friday nights? FUGETABOUTIT.
Big Lou’s Pizza
2048 S WW White Road (210) 337-0707
A different sort of pizza, I am gonna call this the greasiest of the joints I tried out. The crust was a little too buttery and bread-like, but the cheese was good — laid on in slices, not shredded and sprinkled — though still too much of it for my taste. Any place that offers a 47-inch pizza is definitely playing to mainstream-American taste, and the bar-like atmosphere just confirms that.
Capparelli’s Pizza & Italian
8503 Broadway (210) 824-7600
I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that their buttery crust reminds me a lot of Pizza Hut. Not that anything’s wrong with that. Lots of San Antonians love the stuff, but Capparelli’s seems to me an upscale version. Again, too much cheese here and the sauce was way too salty for my taste. I’m not crazy about their pizza, but a lot of locals swear by it.
14218 Nacogdoches (210) 946-8666
I have to give this place an “A” for effort. Where else in San Antonio can you sit down to an Italian meal at a restaurant that allows your kids to run free while also offering up live piano music? The sauce was filled with lots of good spice, and the cheese was dry but tolerable. The crust, for me, was the real downside. I wouldn’t even really call it a crust, because it wasn’t crusty — it had more of a pillow-like texture. Kids will love it.
Volare’s Gourmet Pizza and Pasta
5054 Broadway (210) 828-3354
A beloved Alamo Heights food landmark, on my second trip, I still find this pizza to be less than exciting. The crust is doughy, bland, and far from crisp. While the sauce does have a nice oregano flavor, it is smothered in mounds of cheese. The aforementioned cheese is tasty, smooth, and not very greasy, but my pizza was absolutely soaked in it.
Ali Baba Bacon and Onion Pita Pizza
This can be made with any combination of toppings you like, but here’s one of my favorite concoctions — my version of Pepe’s bacon and onion.
1 large Ali Baba pita (white or wheat)
1/4 c shredded mozzarella
2 t extra virgin olive oil
Crushed garlic to taste
4 slices cooked bacon (not too crisp) chopped
Chopped onions to taste
Grated Romano cheese to taste
Preheat the oven to 550 degrees. Lightly coat one whole pita with olive oil and sprinkle with crushed garlic and grated Romano cheese. Sprinkle on mozzarella, onions and bacon. Cook for five minutes or to desired crispness.