Our 2013 Best of Houston® issue is here, and in many cases, picking the best item in many of the categories was no easy task. In order to show off all the culinary greatness Houston has to offer, we'll be rounding up the "rest of the best" in some of our favorite categories during the next several months. Bon appétit!
I don't want to make broad, sweeping statements here, but I don't think I know anyone who doesn't like pizza. As such, I'm going to go ahead and say everyone likes pizza.
Vegetarian? Pizza comes without meat. Vegan? Sure, get you some fake cheese and go to town. Gluten-free? Practically a prerequisite on pizza menus these days. Solid carnivore? Yeah, pizza's got you covered.
And though Houston isn't known for its pizza in the way New York or Chicago are, we make some damn good pies 'round these parts. From Pink's to Pi to Pizaro's, Houston is cooking up incredible pizza everywhere you look.
10. Pink's Pizza I remember getting delivery pizza back when I was younger, and it was always Little Caesars. And it was always edible. But I grew up in Corpus Christi, and the delivery pizza options there were limited (actually, the pizza options in Corpus in general are limited, but let's not get into that right now). Had I grown up with Pink's, I feel as if my life could have gone differently. Had I been raised on a Bada Bing pizza with prosciutto, bacon, pepperoni, mozzarella, mushrooms, spinach and tomato slices, I might have done better in school (thanks to the fortification) and realized sooner that it was my lot in life to eat and write about food. The three types of meat and a hefty serving of veggies on a thin but sturdy crust delivered right to my door whenever I needed it could have helped me through any number of teenage crises. But the past is the past. I'm just glad I discovered Pink's in my twenties. Pink's, the Bada Bing and I have many more wonderful years together.
9. Piola I'm a sucker for an egg-topped pizza, so I was surprised when I ordered the carbonara pizza at Piola and it didn't come with a sunny-side up egg in the center of it. I opened the to-go box just outside the storefront in Midtown, only to find what looked like a cheese pizza with a bit of prosciutto and a nice golden crisp from the open fire in Piola's brick oven. I took a bite, and lo and behold, it tasted like...carbonara. Traditionally, of course, carbonara is a pasta dish composed of eggs, Parmesan, pancetta and some cracked black pepper. But this pizza is carbonara you can eat with nothing but your hands! It's simple, and, contrary to Piola's claims of being authentically Italian, tastes exactly like a slice of pizza you'd grab at an above-average pizza counter in New York City. Fresh, crispy, greasy, delish.
8. Pizza L'Vino Like Pink's, Pizza L'Vino delivers. Unlike Pink's, Pizza L'Vino delivers booze. Were accessibility and availability of wine with my pizza the only criteria for this list, Pizza L'Vino would be higher. But it's not. That said, Pizza L'Vino makes a mean pie. The Greek Islander is arguably the best, because it's one of the few pizzas in town I've found with so many "premium" toppings for a reasonable price. The Greek Islander packs sautéed spinach, tomatoes, onions, roasted garlic, artichoke hearts, feta, kalamata olives and Wisconsin mozzarella, all on one round of dough topped with purportedly Greek oregano. It's like a Greek salad on a pizza, and I'm convinced that the melty mozzarella is the single component that all the Greek salads I've ever eaten in my life have been missing.
7. Boheme The pizzas at Boheme are not traditional in any sense of the word. They're all served on a Middle Eastern flatbread known as lavash, which is made of flour, water and salt -- no yeast. It's similar to a cracker crust, which some people might pooh-pooh, but you really shouldn't until you try it. Chef Rishi Singh's inventive toppings will have you reimagining all that pizza can be. Of all the wild, Asian-inspired pizzas, though, the Dutchie is the undisputed king. It was invented after a local PR maven and friend of Boheme, Dutch Small, asked his friends what kind of toppings he'd have if he were a pizza. It turns out the answer is sriracha tomato sauce (or sass), pancetta, mozzarella, ricotta, fresh basil and a touch of Turkish Aleppo pepper flakes. Just like its namesake, it's spicy, fresh and distinctive with each bite.
6. Coppa Osteria I've already written once about my love for Coppa Osteria's carnissima pizza. There's not much left to say except that I used to despise any version of the meat-lover's pizza. I think I had one too many bites of rubbery sausage or "hamburger topping" as a child, and that ruined it for me. Until recently. Until my tongue met the spicy pork sausage, the fat-marbled coppa, the smoky prosciutto and the creamy Parmesan drizzle that tops it all off. I honestly thought meat-lover's pizzas and I were never meant to be. Carnissima, I was so wrong. Forgive me.
5. Pi Pizza Few pizza joints in town approach the traditional Italian dish with the same amount of creativity as does Pi Pizza chef and owner Anthony Calleo. Mac and cheese on pizza? Why the hell not? With a little bit of added bacon and a sturdy crust, he makes it work. Frito pie? Done and done. If you ask Calleo, though, he'll tell you the pizza he's most proud of is the Outdoorsman. It's one of Pi's simplest creations, featuring only three toppings: venison sausage, cherries soaked in port wine syrup, and mozzarella. If it sounds improbable to you, you're not alone. I first ordered the Outdoorsman because Calleo suggested it, and I love a good food adventure. Now I understand that venison and port-soaked cherries are long-lost lovers finally reunited on a bed of gooey mozzarella and subtly tart tomato sauce. Reunited, and it feels so good.
4. Pizaro's Real talk: Initially, the idea of potatoes on my pizza was off-putting. Restaurants keep inventing dishes where they stuff french fries into anything and call it innovative. There are french fry-stuffed burgers and burritos, and soon there will be french fry-stuffed milkshakes. Just kidding (hopefully). So when the owner of Pizaro's, Bill Hutchinson, suggested I try the Patata e Funghi pizza topped with truffle oil, Yukon gold potatoes, oven-roasted mushrooms, mozzarella, rosemary and garlic, I was hesitant. Now I know to listen to Bill. The Verace Pizza Napoletana-certified restaurant that uses San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy and authentic "00" Italian pizza flour is one of the few places in town making legitimate Neapolitan pizzas -- and with interesting toppings, no less. Sure, Pizaro's does a margherita, but why bother when you can get a pizza that so artfully displays the genius of mixing truffle oil, potatoes and dough?
3. Provisions In my pizza memory, Grimaldi's in Brooklyn holds a cherished place. But I recently had a pie at Provisions that easily deserves a spot on my pizza love list. It's the Tuscan kale, spicy pork sausage, ricotta and fontina pie, and I liked it so much that I have ordered it twice since then. To begin, the crust is perfect. Quick cooking in a hot wood-fired oven makes it crisp, and the dough's ingredients impart a slightly sourdough-y taste that I like. (Too often, as with hamburgers and inferior buns, restaurants neglect their pizza dough, and the best toppings cannot make up for shoddy dough.) The kale is prepared carefully -- I envision a searing in the pan with garlic before it is put on the uncooked pizza -- and the house-made pork has the proper amount of fattiness and spice. Creamy, mild ricotta and sharp fontina (the Italian kind -- don't waste your time with Swiss fontina) combine to create a sauce that will make you shake your head in appreciation. And look forward to your next trip to Taft Street.
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SHOW ME HOW
2. Pizzeria Solario At this point in the round-up, I absolutely must mention crust. So often as a child, I ate my pizza with the toppings, then tossed the crust aside as if it was no longer worthy of my palate as soon as it was devoid of cheese and sauce. I have since learned that it's the crust that makes the pizza. I personally believe that the best pizzas come from an incredibly hot oven powered by burning wood. Gas fire is all well and good, and coal fire is wonderful but rare. The heat from a wood fire gives pizza crust a perfect char and slightly smoky flavor that cannot be achieved through any other means. At Solario, the pizza makers scoop up a pie on the wooden peel seconds before it's finished cooking and hold it up to the top of the domed oven, where the temperature and smoke are concentrated to provide an ideal crispy finish. For a prime example of this technique in action, order the Parma 600 pizza with white garlic crema sauce, fior di latte cheese, pecorino and prosciutto di Parma 600 (a.k.a. extra-special prosciutto). The final crisping brings out the richest flavors in the Italian meat and cheese, and then the pie is removed and quickly topped with fresh arugula and a touch of truffle oil. I like to think that the lifting of this pizza at the end of the baking adds a little bit of heaven to the toppings. It certainly tastes like it.
1. Dolce Vita There's this small restaurant in Florence called Trattoria 4 Leoni that I go to every time I'm fortunate enough to find myself within the historic Italian city. And every time I'm at 4 Leoni, I order the same thing: fiocchetti pasta stuffed with pear and taleggio. Here in Houston, Dolce Vita makes a pizza -- the pear and taleggio, drizzled with truffle oil -- that takes me back to Florence. It's acidic but sweet, earthy but crisp, funky but mellow. The pies have traditional Neapolitan-style crusts and a thin but fluffy body. They're crispy on the outside but still doughy and chewy on the inside. If there is such a thing -- among all of the thousands and thousands of iterations -- as the perfect pizza, I'd swear this is it.