I admit it. I am a pizza snob. Mediocre pizza simply doesn’t cut it for me. Thankfully, San Diego is actually a wonderful pizza town and I have many great places to choose from. The beauty of San Diego is people come here from around the world, so you have all types of cuisines. This applies to pizza, which comes in many diverse styles. In our introduction to our review of the best pizza in San Diego, I want to introduce you to my classification of four main pizza types, or our “Pizza Taxonomy.”
NOTE: This article is long on detail. To jump ahead to the San Diego pizza places we are reviewing go here
In many cases, people only know pizza from their specific region or neighborhood. Even worse, many people only know pizza from the big chain restaurants. Of course, New York people claim they have the best pizza in the world. Chicago is known for their deep-dish, which is despised by many purists as not even pizza. Then, of course, there is the issue of authentic pizza like you would find in Italy.
There are many styles of pizza and they all have their standouts. What type of pizza I pick depends on my mood. Sometimes, I crave a deep dish, despite the purists. Several sites have posted taxonomies of pizza types. For example, First We Feast lists, I think, 24 different types of pizza. This similar list from Serious East has even more.
When I am rating San Diego pizza places I significantly simplify matters into four categories:
- New York style/thin crust
- Deep dish/thick crust
- Fancy Italian/California pizza
- Good old America pizza parlor
First We Feast refers to Peter Reinhart, author of two of my favorite books, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice and his pizza book, American Pie. Reinhart also has many different styles, but I think all his styles can be put into my categories. I can say the first pizza he introduces in American Pie is Focaccia col Formaggio di Recco (boy my spell checker hates that). This is an obscure pizza from Recco, Italy, outside Genoa. In 2013 the Fun Diego Family made a point to stop in Recco and try this pizza at the restaurant Reinhart described in his book, Da O’ Vittorio.
Most Americans, I bet have never heard of, much less tried Focaccia col Formaggio di Recco. I only found out about it from Reinhart’s book. Basically, it is a focaccia bread style crust topped with stracchino cheese. On a sidenote, I made it at home (recipe to be posted) and it came out very close to what we had in Italy. In my classification system it goes into category number 3, Fancy Italian/California pizza.
Of course, an obscure pizza from Recco, Italy is something you could never find in America, right? Actually, I have found it in San Diego. Focaccio di Recco is on the menu at Davanti Enotecca, an upscale Italian place which has two locations in San Diego. One of the owners of the restaurant happened to be from near Recco and decided to introduce it. That is a perfect example of why San Diego may be not just America’s Finest City, but America’s Finest Pizza City. People have moved to San Diego from all over and in many cases brought their local pizza.
San Diego: Best Place for Pizza in the U.S.?
I have been to New York and Italy many times and had deep dish at Chicago’s Giordano’s, as well as pizza in some lesser known regions like Boston, New Haven and St. Louis. So, I feel I speak with some authority when I say San Diego is blessed to have solid facsimiles of many of the great pizzas around the world. This is probably one reason that in 2013 TripAdvisor voted San Diego the best pizza city in America. Obviously, this did not go down well with people from New York and Chicago. Chicago, which didn’t even make the top 10, was particularly incensed.
The TripAdvisor survey, of course, should be subject to debate. Sites like Slate and Eater immediately claimed it as ridiculous, especially as Las Vegas was the number two city. But having tried many pizza places in Las Vegas I tend to agree. Like San Diego, Vegas has attracted fancy chefs from all over. This includes opening many Vegas versions of famous restaurants (including pizza places). Pizza Rock in Las Vegas is a prime example of a place that serves multiple pizza styles.
New York style pizza is probably my favorite and New York has some great pizza places. However, there is a fairly high ratio of lousy places to good places, even in Manhattan. My two favorites are Joe’s Pizza and Prince Street Pizza. Both are small, and usually, very crowded places where you grab a slice and eat it standing up wherever you can find a spot.
San Diego has quite a few New York style pizza places that serve pizza whole or by the slice. Most of these places are also low on ambiance but they tend to be better than their NYC counterparts when it comes to convenience and finding a place to sit. The pizza may not be quite as good as the premier New York places, but many San Diego places serve a great New York style pizza. And generally, you don’t have to stand in a long line in the rain to enjoy it.
New York Style/Thin Crust
I agree with New Yorkers that say they make some of the best pizza in the world. The New York style I refer to is a thin crust pizza with a crisp, chewy crust. Usually, this pizza is available by the slice and 2 slices and a drink for $6 to $8 is one of my go-to lunches. However, pizza will almost always taste better as a whole pie versus a reheated slice. If ordering for a crowd I will always get a whole pie.
Where I disagree with New Yorkers, is in their claim that good New York pizza cannot be made outside of the city because the NYC water is what makes it unique. I have had some great New York pizza in many places, including San Diego. San Diego chain Flippin’ Pizza does a great take on this pizza style using a reverse osmosis process to replicate New York water. But Flippin is only one of several San Diego places that serve a great New York style pizza. In other words, I tend to think the NYC water argument is BS.
There are other regional pizza styles that I throw into this category, including St. Louis, Chicago thin crust, Boston Beach pizza and Rome style thin crust. These all can make a good pizza, but I prefer the New York style. If I want Chicago style pizza, I go for deep dish. So yes, my personal bias is a factor.
Deep Dish/Thick Crust
Thick or thin? That is a big decision when it comes to pizza. To me, it is not an either or category. Sometimes I crave a thick crust pizza, although, 80% of the time, I am a thin crust guy. The problem with thick crust is partly around dietary concerns, but also the fact that a bad thick crust pizza can be really bad. Thick crust pizza is an indulgence and it better be good. Luckily, I have plenty of places I crave for thick crust, or in Pizza Hut language, deep dish pizza.
I am not a pizza historian, but I am pretty sure my first encounter with deep dish goes back to the 1970s with Pizza Hut and what I think they called pan pizza. In 1983 I went off to school at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. My first day I was introduced to a cool new pizza place, Obie’s that had the latest style from Chicago, this thing called deep dish. I remember that first day very well because I went with some people from Chicago who claimed this style was new them!
I went to Obie’s multiple times but quickly learned that Chicago deep dish is its own experience (note: looks like Obie’s is still there but no longer is Chicago style). At the time my buddies and me liked to go to the all you can eat pizza places where we could easily scarf down 15 to 20 slices each. That just doesn’t happen with Chicago deep dish. Two slices will be enough for most people. In my old age, one slice is all I can take.
I soured on Chicago pizza with the Pizzeria Uno chain that was popular for several years. I also had some bad experiences with Sicilian thick crust pizza, many right in New York City. Like American Pie author Peter Reinhart, I determined I just wasn’t a thick crust guy. But also, like Reinhart, I get this craving for deep dish every once in a while. Furthermore, I have learned that thick crust pizza if done properly can be amazing and there are many different types of thick crust pizzas.
One key difference in Chicago is plain deep dish versus stuffed pizza. A deep-dish pizza is a thick pizza cooked in a special pan, but a stuffed crust is even thicker, with two layers of crust and toppings stuffed in between. For Chicago pizza, I think the stuffed crust is the way to go. If I want a more deep-dish pizza I go towards Detroit or Sicilian style pizza.
Yes, Detroit has its own style of pizza and it is one of my favorites. I have even developed my own recipe. Of course, with Square Pizza, San Diego has its own awesome Detroit pizza (I admit never having been to Detroit to try the real thing). San Diego has also helped introduce me to thick crust style Sicilian pizza. Growing up in Philadelphia this was one of my least favorite pizza types, and that includes versions I tried in NYC.
Sicilian style pizza, like Detroit style, usually comes in squares. I will say I still find Detroit pizza better, but in San Diego, I have finally found some very good Sicilian style places. My wife Erin loves Sicilian pizza more than any other type and I am going to defer to her judgment on those places. Overall the number of quality thick crusts places in San Diego is much lower than other styles, but I believe the best places shine. And, on a cost per serving ratio, they are much cheaper than my third category of “fancy pizza”.
Fancy Italian/California pizza
California is a well known, and much maligned, pizza capital because they invented their own style of pizza. Back in the 1980s, renowned California chefs like Wolfgang Puck started creating individual pizzas with all kinds of fancy toppings. While it seems like a chef-driven gimmick, the reality was it was an attempt to get back to the days of the master pizza chef or pizzaiolo, a person who views pizza as an art form.
While Wolfgang Puck popularized California pizza, it was really his great pizzaiolo, the late Ed LaDou, who ran the show. LaDou went on to help start the California Pizza Kitchen chain before dying tragically young in 2007 (cancer). Though little remembered, LaDou goes down as one of the true pioneers of pizza.
Many people will argue that the California pizza craze is an abomination that bastardizes real pizza. To those people I say, you probably have never been to Italy. Pizza in Italy is a far different creature from what you find in America. Whether it is better is a different story. However, I can say California pizza is closest to what I think of generally as Italian pizza.
Pizza in this category generally includes smaller pizzas designed for a single person. In many cases, these have fancy toppings, but the best judgment for this style is how well the basic margherita (ie cheese) holds up. Good sauce and a crispy crust are crucial, and many pizzas try to hide their mediocrity with fancy toppings.
Fancy Italian-style pizza is known as Neapolitan. It seems that in San Diego every block has at least one place with its own wood-burning pizza oven cooking up Neapolitan pizza. Having tried true Neapolitan pizza in Naples and other parts of Italy, I can say that many places do a solid job. However, the big shock when I went to Italy was finding that I prefer the basic NY-style thin crust pizza.
A bad pizza in this category can be a very expensive mistake. San Diego has tons of fancy pizza places and frankly with many of them I would rather have Pizza Hut. As mentioned, there a trend towards having fancy wood-fired pizza ovens which only increases the mediocrity ratio. Frankly, this is a category we will be hard-pressed to cover in the full detail we would like. Spending up to $20 for a mediocre one person pie is simply a research task I do not look forward to.
Good old American Pizza Parlor
The Serious Eats pizza classification is overwhelmed with BS. I like this site a lot, but they are way better at recipes than regional food. They pull all kinds of pizza types from their editorial base to form what they feel is a comprehensive list. Basically, a place has a new pizza it becomes its own regional style. In my mind, a taxonomy simply doesn’t start that way. Pizza is bread with sauce and toppings, 4, maybe 5 core categories are all you need.
This goes to my broad fourth category which is actually one I think Serious Eats nails on the head, good old American style pizza. This is how most people are introduced to pizza. My first pizza experience was at the Shakey’s chain in Virginia in the late 1960s/1970s. Watching them through the window making this delicious food my mom never made at home was a rare treat.
Shakey’s is still around, on a much-reduced scale, but I have not been back. My taste buds have changed, and I imagine it would be a huge disappointment to my memories. Peter Reinhart gives this style the name Pizza Americana as in “say what you will about generic pizza franchise, but they represent the single largest category of fresh pizza sales. In other words, they work for a lot of people” (From his book American Pie).
This is exactly how I feel. As a pizza snob, I tend to look down on these places. However, there are a ton of them out there and some deliver very good pizza. In most cases, these are places about meeting friends to watch a game or celebrate a birthday or the end of soccer season. These are fun places where all family and friends can go to have a great time. Pizza as communal celebration may be pizza at its best!
Serious Eats sort of gets it right with this description of pizza parlor pizza:
“This one is not so much regional as it is contextual, circumstantial, or philosophical. It’s not striving for sustain organica toppings or Neapartisanal perfection. These places are just making pizza the way they’ve always done it—passed on from generation to generation.”
Of course, pizza is a pretty new food so the last sentence sort of loses me. It really hasn’t been passed on from generation to generation. The pizza parlor, outside the biggest American cities, did not pop up until the 1960s. It has only been in the 21st century that the availability of pizza styles on a national basis has become the norm. So hyperbole aside, Serious Eats gets it close. This is a category of pizza that just feels good. It is truly contextual, circumstantial or philosophical. And at its best, it leaves your taste buds ringing for more.
Time to Explore San Diego Pizza!
Well, I tried to organize my pizza philosophy into something coherent. This is right up there with quantum physics, so I may have confused some readers. But hold tight, the fun part starts. We are going to test out theories in the real world by trying some of San Diego’s top pizza places. This will be a long process as we need to try each place at least two times. Sit back and enjoy. Launch in starting here with our hit list of about 50 contenders. If you know of a place we need to check out let us know!