For the next 20 weeks, we'll be rounding up the runners-up to our 2011 Best of Houston® winners. In many categories, picking each year's winner is no easy task. We'll be spotlighting 20 of those categories, in which the winner had hefty competition from other Houston bars and restaurants.
Note: Many entries are excerpted from previous Best of Houston® entries, as many previous award winners have maintained the same standards of quality that garnered them awards in the first place. Go pizza.
Coppa has been drawing rave reviews for its thin crust pizzas, including the clever ham and eggs pizza above. Each slice contains dusky slices of coppa -- its signature cured pork product -- and a perfectly poached quail egg that douses the pizza with its buttery yolk when punctured. The pizzas are a little pricey, so those on a budget will do well to visit during the daily happy hour that runs until 7 p.m. Pizzas like the the traditional margherita or the fingerling potato with melted leeks and truffle vinaigrette are only $5 at the bar.
If you find yourself craving a plain, old-fashioned cheese pie, it's time to go to Antonio's Flying Pizza. Antonio Rosa really throws his crusts. Normally, he caters to Houstonians, loading the pies with too much cheese and too much meat. But if you are smart enough to ask for an "extra crispy, light cheese" pizza with just a little garlic or peppers, you will get a sensational pie that will remind you of the ones served at little red-checkered tablecloth joints on the East Coast. The sausage-and-pepper sandwiches, spaghetti and meatballs, and calzones taste a lot like the East Coast versions, too. That's because Sicilian-born Antonio Rosa is a veteran of the East Coast Italian-American circuit. He owned a pizzeria in Fairfield, Connecticut, and another in Morristown, New Jersey, before moving to Houston and starting Antonio's Flying Pizza in 1971.
At the original Russo's near the intersection of the Northwest Freeway and Highway 6, Anthony Russo re-created the old-fashioned coal-fired pizzeria experience in a suburban strip center. But the superhot oven is only part of what Russo does right. You don't get a pizza crust with this kind of fabulous texture unless you can turn out a high-rising yeasty dough every day. And the only way to keep such a great pizza from getting gloppy is to teach every apprentice pizza maker in the place that you aren't doing your customers any favors when you pile too many toppings on the pie. And then there's the quality of the toppings themselves. Russo's has proven itself since opening that first little pizza joint and now has locations all over the city.
If you believe that pizza should have a crispy crust rolled out as thin as possible with a spare amount of toppings, then the Sugar Land outpost of this Hoboken native might well be your place of worship. Ask the chef to leave the pizza in the coal-fired brick oven a minute or two longer than normal, and you may get to experience the burnt, black and blistered bottom so prized by the pizza connoisseur. Not only does this pizza just taste better than all others, but the crisp crust won't droop under the weight of too much topping. Whether you like traditional flavors like anchovies, olives and garlic or more newfangled ones like pesto, sun-dried tomatoes, chicken or sweet peppers, they are all here.
One of the few Brazilian pizza joints in town, Friends offers both standard "American" pizzas with traditional toppings like pepperoni and delivery. But if you decide to eat in, go all the way and order a Brazilian mixta pizza that comes on a naturally low-gluten crust with a pleasantly soft, non-chewy texture that tastes more like pita. The mixta pizza's fresh vegetables -- tomatoes, onions, black olives, corn and green peppers among them -- are sweetly snappy, an ideal counterbalance to the plump drops of salty, creamy catupiry cheese that are scattered throughout.
At Luigi's, the owner works in the kitchen, the wife takes your order and the daughter brings you your food. In a fast-food culture, this kind of business is few and far between. Luigi's just has plain good food and service. The pizza is thin-crust, with mounds of toppings and piping-hot cheese. The menu is written on a dry-erase board and is kept simple, with salads, hot wings, calzones and gelato. Specials range from lamb to spaghetti. The honest, hardworking family that runs Luigi's will keep you coming back for the great pizza, while the amazing gelato will keep you there a little longer.
4. Dolce Vita
Marco Wiles's pizza joint is, to some, a blatant rip-off of Mario Batali's Otto in New York City -- but who cares? The fact of the matter is that it brought better pizza to Houston and showed the city that there's more to pizza than just the oversauced, overcheesed pies served at sleepovers and Little League games. These Italian-style pizzas feature thin crusts and high-end ingredients, like the breathtaking pear-and-taleggio pizza. Appetizers are wonderful too, from the roasted beets with horseradish to a buttery egg toast topped with shaved black truffle.
What could be more Houston than an amalgamation of Italian, American and Indian concepts into one fantastic dish? At Bombay Pizza, located on the ground floor of the Commerce Towers downtown, owner Viral Patel has combined his Indian background with an affinity for making great pies, and the result is dazzling. The Saag Paneer is exactly what it sounds like: a pizza topped with spicy greens and paneer (Indian cheese) along with goat cheese and mozzarella on a delicately crispy crust. Think of a spinach pizza, but with a South Asian twist. And don't fret about missing breadsticks with your order. Bombay Pizza has something even better: a Kati Roll, fresh naan filled with cilantro-mint chutney and a choice of fillings.
This brand-new pizza place has only been open for three weeks. So why is it at the No. 2 spot? Because it's already head and shoulders above every other pizzeria in town. Owner Bill Hutchinson and his wife Gloria have the coveted Verace Pizza Napoletana certification for their pies, which come in one size only -- 12 inches -- and are made with authentic "00" Italian pizza flour and San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy. The result is a magnificently authentic Napoletana-style pizza the likes of which you can't find anywhere else in Houston. The Hutchinsons even make their own mozzarella for the pizzas and caprese salads daily. Give this little pizza joint a few more months, and no other place in town will be able to touch it.
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1. Pink's Pizza
The specialty pies at Pink's Pizza include such interesting concoctions as Deuce (goat cheese, mozzarella, spinach, portobello mushroom, roma tomatoes, and garlic with pesto sauce); Double Down (rosemary chicken, bacon, mozzarella, spinach, tomato, and roasted garlic with alfredo sauce); and Santa Monica (gorgonzola, mozzarella, prosciutto, eggplant, artichoke, sun-dried tomato, and cranberry with a garlic-infused olive oil). These unpretentious, gourmet fresh pizzas are already a Houston institution. But perhaps the best item to order is the simple pizza by the slice. The slices are huge -- they require two paper plates each -- and seasoned with plentiful Italian herbs. Pink's recommends ordering only one topping or just plain cheese for their pizza by the slice -- any more weight, and the thin crust may fall apart. The pizzeria is small, with only a few bar tables, so delivery and pick-up orders are preferred.