If anyone thought judging the best doughnut in Houston was hard, he or she would be sorely mistaken. Attempting to uncover the best pizza in Houston was a monstrous task to tackle when considering the vast pizza landscape in conjunction with the wide, wide range of opinions held by the judging panel.
However, on one fateful Saturday, ten pizza lovers assembled to do a side-by-side taste test of 24 pizzas from inside the Loop to crown the best New York-style and best Neapolitan pizzas in Houston. There were many surprises for the judging panel after the scores were aggregated, so take these results as more of a baseline than a be-all, end-all of Houston pizza judgment.
Consider: Are you a lover of crunchy crust? A doughy-based, sauce-laden aficionado? A spare-sauced, heavy-cheese fan? Read on for guidelines to help you find your ideal pizza nirvana amid the lively Houston pizza scene.
Pizzas were selected according to personal nominations, Yelp ratings and online research. Only places that seemed like promising candidates for the title of "Best Pizza in Houston" were selected (with some neighborhood-favorite joints as a control). One glaring omission from the list of contenders is the newly opened Pi Pizza — the shop had been so slammed by the grand opening the day before that it had run out of ingredients and wasn't opening until 4 p.m. the day of our tasting.
Ultimately, 24 pizzas were judged, with 12 Neapolitan pizzas and 12 New York-style pizzas (categorized based on each shop's self-defined label). Slices of each pizza were reheated for five minutes in a 475-degree oven before tasting (reheating was a key issue that will be addressed later in the article).
New York-style pizzas were judged based on plain cheese pizzas. An ideal New York-style pizza is characterized by a crisp yet pliable crust: sturdy on the bottom, chewy and tender in the middle, and slick and nearly doughy on top. It should be topped with a light layer of tomato sauce and an even layer of mozzarella cheese, and it should stand up to being folded with a slightly raised crust cooked to an even golden brown. It is typically cooked in a coal or gas oven.
Neapolitan pizzas were based on each shop's margherita offering (the most popular Neapolitan style). An ideal Neapolitan pizza is characterized by a charred, puffy crust with a moist, poofy, chewy interior and a scant amount of toppings (dabs of cheese rather than an even layer) on a thin, non-stiff crust. It is typically cooked in a wood-fired oven at a scorching temperature for a very short period of time.
Each pizza was rated in a blind taste test on a scale of 1-5 for crust, sauce and cheese. Each pizza also received an overall rating on a scale of 1-10.
Results: New-York Style
Least popular: Pepperoni's, Romano's, Brother's Pizzeria, Luigi's
Pepperoni's was my personal least favorite pizza: The crust housed smears of generic tomato sauce and a topping of waxy, blistered cheese. A comment by one taster that it was "college pizza" seems the most accurate way to describe it.
Romano's crust bore the strongest resemblance to cardboard, but not entirely in a bad way: It had an almost machine-like evenness with consistent air bubbling. While it lacked the textural contrast and flavor crucial to a great New York slice, the bottom retained a nice crunch, and there was an airy lightness to the crust. The almost flavorless crust was balanced by a similarly even layer of strong-tasting cheese.
Brother's Pizzeria had one of the doughiest crusts with a thick layer of cheese. Though the crust had a buttery, herby flavor, most judges couldn't overcome the bready crust and greasiness of the overall slice.
I was saddened to see Luigi's take last place since its proximity to Axelrad makes it one of the most convenient pizza spots for beer lovers. Comments about Luigi's overwhelmingly noted a strong "beer" or "yeasty" flavor to the puffy, bready crust. The sauce erred on the sweet side, and the cheese (a combination of mozzarella and shredded parmesan) was notably salty. All I can say is, one time I was fed a slice of the mushroom pizza while drunk, and it tasted like manna from the gods.
Middle of the road: Frank's, Pizza L'Vino, Pink's
Frank's was one of the most polarizing New York-style pizzas: While it was aesthetically pleasing, with a vivid grease-shine to its cheese even hours after ordering, I deducted many points for a chemical taste to the bubbled crust and greasy cheese. Several judges gave Frank's nearly full points for an excellent ratio of cheese to sauce to crust. Overall it's okay pizza; Frank's has already found its sweet spot in Houston: It's a hot spot for drunken downtowners.
Pizza L'Vino was marked down for having a cardboard-like, bready crust with an overabundance of flavorless cheese and a generic sauce. Not holding anything against L'Vino for convenient takeout or delivery, but I wouldn't go out of my way to come here.
Pink's was marked down by one taster for a "synthetic" taste to its cheese, while others lauded its herby, balanced cheese flavor with a chewy but not too starchy crust. I doubt anything I say will change your mind about Pink's: If you grew up with it, you likely love it. If you didn't, it's a solid middle-of-the-road slice.
Notables: Luna Pizzeria, Star Pizza
Luna Pizzeria had one of the thinner crusts and received the second-highest crust rating. The Luna team describe their pizzas as not strictly New York, but rather as a "San Francisco-style" pizza thanks to its sourdough base. A six-minute bake at 475 degrees puts it out of the Neapolitan category, yet the thinness of the pizza lent it certain Neapolitan-related characteristics. The mild, gooey cheese had an overall addictive quality that complemented the puffy, chewy crust well.
Third place: Russo's Pizzeria (5.9/10)
Home to party pizzas (behemoths composed of four different types of pizza that can feed small countries), Russo's had an aggressively buttery and herb-infused flavor to its crust that's almost reminiscent of...well, Domino's. It was one of the greasier pizzas, with salty highlights in the cheese and a satisfying crunch to the crust. The cheese had a waxier, tougher chew to it — in a good way, if possible. It's a crowd-pleasing pizza for sure.
Second place: Love Buzz (6.2/10)
The recently opened Love Buzz on Westheimer offers a free slice with any drink ordered from 9 p.m. until 2 a.m. daily — this is a great deal to take advantage of considering its whole pizzas are among the priciest we tried ($20+). The cheese pizza stood out for tiny specks of ricotta that accented the thin, pale crust and proportional but tasty layer of cheese, which was particularly salty and buttery tasting. The sauce stood out for its garlicky kick, and the very thin crust makes for dangerously easy eating.
First place: Grimaldi's (6.3/10)
If you've heard rumors that Grimaldi's imports water from New York to make its crust, you're partly right — the shop only uses water that undergoes a process that strips a bunch of the harsher minerals from Houston's water to make the chain's dough, rinse produce, etc. This attention to detail shows in its bright, fresh tomato sauce, lightly blistered pockets of high-quality cheese, and a bubbled, well-done crust. I personally marked this pizza down for its lack of cravability (I prefer a doughier crust over a very thin, almost cracker-like one), but there's no denying the high quality of ingredients and execution in this pizza.
Results: Neapolitan Style
Least popular: Coltivare, Coppa Osteria, Provisions, Barry's Pizza
Coltivare excels in nearly everything it does, and I don't think its pizza is an exception despite its low scores. The crust has an excellent crunch with yeasty, puffy innards that are reminiscent of focaccia. In contrast to the strictly traditional definition of Neapolitan, however, Coltivare may have suffered given its unusual crust and the generous ratio of fresh tomato sauce to spare bubbles of cheese that didn't lend themselves well to the small samples of pizza consumed during the tasting.
Barry's Pizza specifically calls out its two styles of pizza on its menu: "Neapolitan (hand-tossed) & Sicilian (deep dish)." After tasting the Neapolitan Margherita, the judges were nearly unanimously of the opinion that Barry's was in the wrong camp — it belongs in the New York-style camp with its barely raised, golden crust and flat layer of cheese. This pizza was marked down by a majority of tasters for its apparent lack of sauce (in fact, it's a garlicky white sauce that was virtually indistinguishable from either the crust or the cheese). Acceptable for a neighborhood pizza joint, but Barry's pizza was not one most tasters would seek out again.
Many tasters had had phenomenal pizza experiences at Provisions, but apparently Margherita is not the way to go. The pizza arrived with a mass of orange-tinted cheese, with basil leaves awkwardly splayed in the center. Certain crusts revived better in the oven than others; the airily crusted Provisions was not one of them. Some judges enjoyed the funky, oily mix of cheeses; others didn't. Our recommendation: Go and enjoy any of the other well-executed pizzas.
I've enjoyed a number of pizzas at Coppa Osteria, but this enjoyment did not translate in the flat-crusted, uninspired margherita that we sampled. The crust was nearly unanimously pronounced too thin, chewy and flavorless, with a sauce that leaned acidic, and was lacking in cheese — this was probably one of the pizzas that suffered most from reheating. There was also a distinct lack of char on the crust, so go elsewhere if you crave those delicious burnt edges.
Middle of the road: Cane Rosso, Pizzeria Solario, Weights + Measures
One of my personal favorites, Cane Rosso had an especially flat and delicate pizza crust that would absolutely be best enjoyed fresh out of the oven. Even so, the excellent char on the crust translated through reheating, and the restrained amount of toppings complement, rather than overwhelm, the crust. While the crust wasn't as flavorful as that at Pizaro's, it had more character than many others. A worthy contender.
Another personal favorite, Pizzeria Solario had a great charred, chewy crust that housed a delightful crowding of little dollops of melty mozzarella with just enough sauce peeking through the crevices of cheese. It was marked down for a sauce that tilted too sweet; some tasters wished for more sauce and cheese. Still, Pizzeria Solario is worth a trip — try its Margherita during the restaurant's weekday lunch special ($10 for a classic pizza and small house salad) and judge for yourself.
Weights + Measures
The Slow Dough-crafted pizza at this bar/restaurant/bake shop institution is "aged for 24 hours before rising, then hand stretched and baked in our wood fired oven...with a charred outside crust and chewy center similar in style to the time honored pizzas of Naples, Italy," according to the website. Unfortunately, we found the crust rather dry and excessively crunchy, a too-thin layer of tomato sauce, and not enough of the delicious melty cheese to capture most judges' hearts.
Notables: Dolce Vita, Bollo Woodfired Pizza
Dolce Vita received the highest overall score in the crust category, which seems only appropriate for such an accolade-rich pizza. The crust had an almost powdery element to it, accented by charred edges. Topped by a thin, consistent layer of barely chunky tomato sauce and thin rounds of high-quality cheese, this pizza was dragged down by its low cheese scores (most tasters homed in on a lack of cheese), which may speak to the nature of tasting just a fraction of the pizza rather than the whole.
Bollo Woodfired Pizza presented some of the most aesthetically pleasing toppings, which were also vibrant in flavor. The large, milky puddles of mozzarella accented by juicy slices of tomato tasted extremely fresh. The dough was overall solid, if slightly bland, with nice irregular charring. This was a great pizza that seemed to rely on integrity of ingredients rather than leaning on salt and grease.
Third place: North Italia (6.1/10)
With a simultaneously crispy and chewy crust, North Italia rose to victory with a widely appealing bright flavor to its cheese and sauce. Overall, it was a greasier pizza, but the ratio of a bright sauce to generous cheese and just enough crust satisfied many of the judges.
Second place: Piola (6.4/10)
The flat layer of cheese and pale crust on Piola's Margherita set it apart from a typical Neapolitan-style pizza (though the shop describes it as such). Yet it still rose to the top thanks to a salty punch to its cheese and a powdery, fluffy, airy crust that managed to avoid breadiness. Although most judges were not blown away by this pizza, scoring proved it to be a solid crowd-pleaser.
First place: Pizaro's (6.6/10)
With the highest overall ratings, Pizaro’s exemplifies the ideal Neapolitan pizza. The crust is beautifully bubbled and charred with a chewy, moist, sour interior. The balance between generous, gooey mozzarella dollops, torn fresh basil and fresh, slightly chunky sauce was harmonious enough to please even the pickiest of judges.
It goes without saying that reheated pizza is a creature different from freshly baked pizza. However, reheating was a crucial sacrifice that had to be made in order to conduct a blind tasting of such a wide variety of pizzas.
Virtually all the judges were surprised by the end results since a lot of colloquial crowd favorites hadn't been recognized in the top three. This can be attributed to several factors. First, some pizzas reheated more favorably than others. Second, judging was based on a sample of each pizza (including both crust and non-crust) rather than a whole slice. Third, the subjective nature of a pizza tasting led to wide variances in scoring.
Last, the lower ratings as a whole can be attributed to the fact that judging pizzas side-by-side made us much harsher critics than any rational person would be when eating a slice of pizza.
My personal recommendation? For solid Neapolitan, you can't go wrong with Pizaro's, Dolce Vita, Pizzeria Solario or Bollo Woodfired Pizza. I also really liked Cane Rosso, though I understand its thin, floppy crust style isn't for everyone, and Coltivare is always a winner even if it doesn't fit in the dictionary definition of Neapolitan.
For quality New York pizza, Love Buzz and Luna had my personal favorite execution, although I still have a soft spot for cheap, greasy pizza fixes at Luigi's. And let's all make a pact to go visit Pi Pizza once the crowds die down because I think we've all heard the rumors of how unreasonably delicious its pizza is.
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