On Tuesday, we asked for your help in deciding who the contenders would be for this week's Food Fight: Battle Pizza. Nearly 150 comments later, the choice was made. It would be an unusual triple battle between Star Pizza (which garnered the most votes from commenters), Pink's Pizza and Romano's (both of which were tied for the second highest amount of votes). Many other contenders were mentioned in the comments section, from popular places like Dolce Vita, Russo's, Brother's and Candelari to dark horses like Frank's, Verona and NY Pizzeria. And although it was mentioned in the original post that pepperoni pizzas would be used for judging purposes, many people were appalled that we didn't specify between thin crust New York-style and deep-dish Chicago-style pizza. For that reason, the pizzas we ordered for the Food Fight were plain old, regular crust pizzas -- "Houston" style, if you will. If a regular crust and average Joe pepperoni topping doesn't level the playing field, nothing will, right?
Wrong. The taste testers at the Houston Press office -- who range from born-and-raised Houstonians and Midwesterners to Long Islanders and Jersey Boys -- were all looking for entirely different things in their pizzas, as you'll see below.
The pepperoni pies were placed in unmarked boxes, after which we set a newsroom full of hungry writers upon them like rabid dogs. They weren't shy with their tasting notes.
With the highest number of votes in the comments section, it seemed like Star Pizza would easily cruise ahead in the taste test. Not so. Rich Connelly, a Jersey Boy, noted that "it was covered by a puddle of grease I had to soak off with a napkin," while Olivia Flores Alvarez conceded that it was the kind of pizza she'd eat "when I wanted to get drunk and watch the playoffs." John Lomax admitted that it "lacked excitement" and that he was "bored with it towards the end." However, Craig Hlavaty enjoyed the grease, saying that it tasted "the way Megan Fox makes me feel. Wrong, full, and filthy. I loved every minute of it."
The allure of Star Pizza seems to come primarily from its Norfolk location in an old house, with its creaky floors and wraparound porch, its whimsically painted booths and its close proximity to Rice University. While an average pepperoni isn't a typical order here (most folks go for deep-dish Joe's or Starburst pizzas), it was still skillfully made with a whole wheat crust and a sauce that tasted more like marinara sauce than canned pizza sauce. However, the excess of cheese and grease either completely turned people on or off from Star's. This is a love-it-or-hate-it pizza.
This entry was a bit of a surprise, tying Pink's for the most votes. And since Romano's Pizza doesn't deliver at all, its popularity was even more surprising. Staffers seemed to be equally nonplussed. Chris Vogel remarked that it seemed like food court pizza, on par with Sbarro's, while Olivia Flores Alvarez noted something similar: "It looked the most neat, too neat almost, looked assembly line made." Mike Giglio agreed: "Thumbs down. Way down. Let's not be afraid of a little grease, now. Or a little cheese. This is pizza for people who don't want to eat pizza." Despite this, it garnered good reviews from Cathy Matusow -- her number one choice.
The Romano's pie had a deceptively light-colored crust, looking as though it hadn't been thoroughly cooked. But seeing it come straight from the pizza oven trumped that idea. The very friendly staff were excited to be serving their first pizza of the day (it was an early pizza run), and the restaurant seemed charming if a little strip mall-ish inside. The crust was the thinnest of all three and slightly tough, but the rich sauce was by far the best. The only drawback is that there should have been more of it.
The pizza from Pink's Pizza also had a distinctive look about it: a slightly charred crust and lots of herbs and black pepper dusting the toppings. Monica Fuentes noticed this but wasn't swayed by it, saying that "though I like seeing the dried herbs on the pizza, the crust was a bit chewy for me." Despite this, it proved to be the staff favorite, with John Lomax concluding that he "wasn't wowed by it at first, but fell in love with it towards the end. This is the kind of pizza you take home to Mom." It left our Long Islander, Mike Giglio, raving: "Now that's a slice of pizza. Nice addition of the spices on top, making the pepperoni especially delicious. Real-live tomato sauce detected between the cheese and crust... Just enough cheese, just enough crust, just enough grease. Nicely done all around."
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Pink's is most fondly known for its unusual topping choices, like goat cheese, cranberries and prosciutto. Perhaps its pizza would have stood out more with these ingredients, but the pepperoni wasn't too shabby on its own. The character of the Pink's pizza seems to have been the decisive factor in its popularity, with a not-too-thick crust and sauce that was slightly sweet. Although it could have used more cheese and less black pepper, this was a pie that held your interest over the long run and proved simply enjoyable to eat.
Pink's Pizza. Second place went to Star Pizza, with Romano's pulling up the rear. Each was separated by only one vote, proving how difficult it is to truly pick a favorite pizza -- even in a non-pizza city like Houston. Although we may not have a monopoly on nationally-recognized pizza places (and even though we've been mostly spared from the obnoxiously trendy artisinal pizza trend), our citizens are every bit as vociferous about their pizza -- and every bit as unique in their opinions -- as any New Yorker or Chicagoan.
Will the pizza battle ever truly be decided in Houston? It's about as likely as the city suddenly adopting zoning. It's a patchwork quilt of crazy, and that's how we like it.