Travel

Touring the Pizza Belt, Where America's Best Pies Live

July 25, 2018

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If your curiosity and passion for pizza go a little beyond loving the occasional slice, chances are you’ve sought out a few iconic pit-stops along the Pizza Belt. Part theory, part geographical region, the Pizza Belt provides an essential checklist of pies that should form the backbone of a pizza passionista’s authority.

For the uninitiated, this has nothing to do with notching famous places on your own belt. As pizza academics know, the theory was first put forth by Serious Eats’ founder Ed Levine in his 2005 book, Pizza: A Slice of Heaven, which describes the Pizza Belt as stretching along Interstate 95, from Philadelphia up through Trenton and New Jersey, through New York and New Haven to Boston, with a little detour east, to Long Island.

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It’s along this route, it’s posited, that you’ll find places that opened in the early- to mid-20th century within about 30 to 40 years of each other, 17 of the oldest, best, and most influential pizzerias in America.

Extra cheese was added to the theory in 2013, with a bit of a tongue-in-cheek by Gawker, which called the Pizza Belt the area of the United States where the chance of finding an adequate-to-good slice from a random pizzeria is greater than 50 percent. Maybe. Maybe there’s a little Northeast bias and inherent superiority to that flourish. Maybe there’s just more population density, more pizza, and so, more good pizza.

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Top Comment:
“Very nice article.....however being on the West Coast our favorite pizza places are far from the East Coast puzza belt. APizza Scholls and Sizzle Pie my two Portland, Oregon favorites! Suburban favorites Nonna Amelias, Papa Murphy's (chain take and bake), Bellagios. ”
— BerryBaby
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Either way, there’s a lot of truly fantastic old-school pizza in this region worth seeking out, places with pedigree that you’ve probably seen on best-of lists both national and local to the five states that make up the Pizza Belt, and that’s worthy of constructing a pizza road trip around.

The pizzerias on this tour expand the original date range, stretching from 1912 (Papa’s) to 1965 (Umberto’s and Di Fara), and stray a little from Interstate 95, but are generally no more than a half-hour away. You’ll find a variety of styles within the Pizza Belt—Trenton tomato pies, grandma pizza, New York Neapolitan, New Haven–style, and bar pies among them, but none of the Naples Neapolitan that’s taken over the U.S. This is strictly a selection of old-school regional slices that have long been the backbone of America’s original pizza invasion—my highlights, the notches I've nicked on my belt over the years, driving along 95.


Tacconelli's Pizzeria, Philadelphia

The backstory: An early icon, Tacconelli’s was founded in 1946. For reference, America’s first pizzeria, Lombardi’s, was established in 1905, and pizza didn’t take off until after American GIs got a taste for it in Italy after World War II. (At least, that’s accepted pizza canon.)

Founder Giovanni Tacconelli repurposed the 20-foot by 20-foot brick bread oven at his Port Richmond bakery to make tomato pies. Like Frank Pepe’s (14-by-14 feet) and Santillo’s (10-by-16 feet) ovens, it requires considerable talent to manage (and had to be rebuilt in 1992 after the original cracked). What’s interesting is that Tacconelli’s cooks with residual heat, where after warming it for five hours they turn it off and bake a limited number of pies. That’s why you’re encouraged to reserve your dough in advance and go knowing wait times may vary.

Pizza Friyayyyyy 🔥🍕🍕

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A pain? In that I-just-posted-on-Instagram-where-are-my-likes kind of way, maybe. But the old-school, artisanal touch results in a wide cornicione (that fancy word for crust) and a thin, nearly crackery undercarriage with enough integrity to achieve the rare horizontal pizza hang (where you hold the slice horizontal and it stays on the level).

What to get: There are only four pies on the offer, a tomato pie (sauce, no cheese), and a white pie (salt, black pepper, cheese, and garlic) along with a few simple toppings you can personalize with mostly standard toppings. But it’s the spinach and tomato, and the regular cheese and sauce pies that are the signatures.


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Papa's Tomato Pies, Robbinsville, NJ

The backstory: Lombardi's has the name recognition for being America’s first pizzeria, but it actually closed for 10 years in the 80s, only reopening in 1994. If you’re looking for the oldest, continuously owned pizzeria, you’re heading to Central Jersey—Robbinsville, where Papa’s relocated to from Trenton in 2013. They’ve been doing their thing since 1912.

Part of the reason to tour the Pizza Belt is to check out its variety of styles, the Trenton tomato pie included. It’s a pizza that’s built “backward,” with the cheese and toppings going on first, followed by a drizzle of crushed tomato sauce with personality, aka texture. Pies at Papa’s arrive super thin and saucy, with a tomato and cheese swirl, a thick red coastline, and a crust that's more like a grissini.

What to get: Order one of the Azzaro family’s tomato pies, large or small, which you can trick out with classic toppings. Don’t overdo it though: Remember, this isn’t a pie that holds up without extra weight. And if you’re the try-anything-once type, consider something you may have not seen before: Papa’s mustard pie. That’s right, mustard. They paint the dough with a layer of mustard first, then do their tomato pie thing. It makes for an extra tangy slice.


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Santillo’s, Elizabeth, NJ

The backstory: You could almost walk to Santillo’s from Newark Liberty International Airport (it’s less than five miles away), and you wouldn’t be crazy to make it your first stop after landing. But trying to understand the place without visiting is a bit like stepping into a crease in the fabric of time and space.

It’s a takeout-only spot where the kitchen, which you enter from an alley on the side of the house, is in what’s essentially its living room. The business makes the claim of going back to 1918, but its owner, Al Santillo, says his grandfather, who started out by baking focaccia, started making pizza in the '50s.

The centerpiece of the room behind the counter is a huge, deep, low-arch, retrofitted gas oven whose every brick, Santillo claims, was cut by hand. It’s a beast to handle as Al will be happy to explain as he works, using a long peel to move and check his pies. Al is a character and a treasure, though one who likes to burn his pies more than the average person might be used to.

But it’s the menu that will set your heading spinning. This pizza Möbius features about 10 pies with specific dates in their names, pizzas made according to the style of 1940, ‘48, ‘57, ‘59, ‘60, ‘64, ‘67, and 1990. That’s right, you can step back in time—through pizza. You already knew it was magic, though.

What to get: The "1957 Style Pizza Extra Thin 14 Inch Round," and the Sicilian. Tell Al to cook one for you however long he would for himself and then, for context, make sure you tell him to go easy with the second.


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Patsy’s, Harlem, NY

The backstory: Founder Pasquale "Patsy" Lancieri was said to have worked with Gotham’s pizza pioneer, Gennaro Lombardi (of Lombardi’s) before opening his own spot in Harlem in 1933, making this New York City, and national, pizza royalty.

The restaurant is fun, an old-school red sauce joint that serves lasagna, pizzaiola, and all the pastas you'd expect. But it’s an attached shoebox of a slice shop near the corner of 118th Street. In a city of pizza obsessives, it’s hard to argue with anyone who lives nearby and calls this shop (just a few times bigger than an airplane bathroom) the city’s best local slice shop. It churns out cheap, fantastic slices from a coal oven. That’s right, coal-oven sold by the slice. That’s pretty much unheard of.

Slices are unlike the conventional triangles you’re used to—they’re nearly equilateral—and the pizza is very thin, so it doesn’t sit well. That just means you want to eat it hot and fresh, which you can almost always do there. And when you do, standing there inside at the counter by the large picture window facing First Avenue, it’s a paradigm shift: lightly-sauced, a scattering of cheese, and a crust with a dry char. A perfect city moment whose flavor almost allows you to live inside a New York minute longer than its fast seconds should.

What to get: A plain cheese slice.


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Di Fara, Midwood, NY

The backstory: Di Fara was not one of the 17 spots included in the original list of stops along the Pizza Belt. And sure, it wasn’t founded until 1965, about 30 years after many of the others. But its lore and perch atop Brooklyn’s pizza hierarchy position it somewhere near the belt’s buckle.

Dom DeMarco has been the famous face of the restaurant, quietly shuffling from the back counter to the oven to the front counter, drizzling olive oil over pies and clipping fresh basil leaves with scissors for decades, garnering accolades and praise, and drawing pizza pilgrims of all ages. He’s in his 80s, and family members have been helping for years, so Di Fara’s authenticity and traditions should be safe. But his reputation and its special place in the tomato pie pantheon should make it a default destination for any pizza tour of the Northeast.

This is a classic New York City pie, one that some would argue, never sold out. There’s a three-cheese blend, including imported mozzarella from Dom's hometown province Caserta, in Italy, a balanced sauce, and a distinct crunch. It’s a messy, imperfect looking pizza, and one worth trying to have made by the maestro’s own hands. And while all indications are that the new Williamsburg offshoot is a fair replica, that still means heading to Midwood and Avenue J.

What to get: Regular and square slices.


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John’s of Bleecker Street, New York, NY

The backstory: No slices. No reservations. That’s the mantra at John’s of Bleecker Street, which owns the predicament of being one of New York City’s oldest pizzerias, one of its most famous, and thus, one of its most touristed. The truth is, John’s, a coal-oven, pie-only spot may currently be one of the more underrated historic pizzas in the city. John’s was founded by John Sasso in 1929 on Sullivan Street and moved to its present location in 1934, where the wood panels and rickety booths have been so scratched by visitors, there’s virtually no veneer left to key.

John’s is New York–Neapolitan: wider and thinner than the Naples original with a crust that actually crunches. That said—and saying this could start a fight that'd get you cut—the amount of crushed tomato on top of the cheese is almost reminiscent of a Trenton tomato pie. Ponder that as a travel through-thread on this Pizza Belt road trip as much as you like. Just maybe don’t share it with anybody who isn’t bridge-and-tunnel.

What to get: A large plain pie (though the option of adding roasted tomatoes, a rare topping, may necessitate a second pizza).


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Original Umberto's, New Hyde Park, NY

The backstory: These days, most pizza lovers know what a grandma pie is. It's so well-known, in fact, that it's often used to describe the recent national pizza darling, Detroit-style. But not everyone does grandma-style right. That’s not something to worry about an hour east of Manhattan at the Original Umberto’s in New Hyde Park, where it was invented sometime after being founded in 1965.

Umberto Corteo and his brother Joe used to make the pizza "mama made" for themselves, but it didn't make the menu until they sold a satellite shop they opened to two of its employees. Still, the Original Umberto’s is grandma mecca. What is "grandma-style" anyway? The original was a square, 12-slice, 16-by-16-inch thin crust pie topped with mozzarella and plum tomato marinara (though these days, grandma-style is often a rectangular pie). It’s crunchy, with an oil-crusted undercarriage, plenty of cheese and sauce, but not too much dough.

What to get: Either of Umberto’s classics: the grandma or the grandma with broccoli rabe and sausage.


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Frank Pepe, New Haven, CT

The backstory: Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana now has locations in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and even Yonkers, New York, but it’s still managed to maintain the aura around the New Haven original founded in Wooster Square in 1925. It’s a pizzeria that holds a special place in the heart of the Pizza Belt and is considered by many to be America’s best.

New Haven–style pizza (“apizza”) has a super thin and crunchy coal-fired, rigid crust that’s charred and chewy. It’s all about balance—it’s moderately cheesed and sauced—and mozzarella (“muzz”) is considered a topping (the original tomato pie is just crushed Italian tomatoes, olive oil, and grated cheese). In fact, mozzarella has no place on Frank Pepe’s signature pizza: the white clam pie, which is topped with fresh clams, grated cheese, olive oil, fresh garlic, and oregano.

Is it even a pizza if there isn’t mozzarella? Eh, don’t overthink things so much. If you need something serious to ponder, consider New Haven as a longer pit-stop on any tour of the Belt. With Sally’s just down the street (its founder Salvatore Consiglio was Pepe's nephew) and Modern and Zuppardi’s nearby, you could rightly stay here for hours. Now, go ahead and eat.

What to get: The white clam pie (“no muzz!”).


Colony Grill, Stamford, CT

The backstory: "The Colony" was the nickname of Stamford’s Irish neighborhood where the bar was founded by Irish owners in 1935. It’s said that their signature cracker-thin pizza was introduced somewhere along the way by Italian and Eastern-European cooks who wanted to share their pizza heritage, but had to do it in a way to fit a pizza tray on Colony’s narrow bar top. The resulting style is the bar pie, a paper plate–thin pizza about the same diameter as a Neapolitan style pie (12 inches), with about just as much sauce and cheese as crust.

Colony’s bar pizzas may have been invented independently here, but this extremely thin crust is thought by most to have first entered America’s culinary scene at Eddie’s in New Hyde Park. Regardless, Colony is an icon, and a standard-bearer of the style, a pizza that, if there ever were one, was literally invented for eating with beer. Its cheese forms little craters, tiny pockets of flavorful grease you should never dream of patting away, made even more delicious by bites of zippy hot peppers draped over its six slices, and a drizzle of the bar’s signature chile pepper–infused oil.

What to get: A hot oil bar pie with “stinger” peppers.


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Santarpio’s, East Boston, MA

The backstory: With all the gravitas and authority of a place founded in 1903, Santarpio's was actually a bakery until Frank Santarpio started serving pizza in 1933. The original location (a second opened 30 minutes north in Peabody in 2010) is in East Boston, in the shadow of Route 1A about a dozen blocks from Boston Logan International Airport. You could walk there after landing (and you have to be sure that it’s been done).

Santarpio’s serves what’s called New York–style pizza, but it’s really only Gotham-esque in diameter. The crust is thicker than New York–style, and significantly crunchier and crustier (like Santillo’s, Santarpio’s defaults to well-done). If you were to lift and look under the hood, you’d see a cornmeal-dusted crust that often resembles bed-sheet folds. Furthermore, they layer toppings first, then cheese, and finally, their chunky, salty sauce. It all makes for a rustic, hearty, and usually pretty messy slice.

What to get: The most popular pie is mozzarella, sausage, and garlic, but you have to also get an appetizer: the charcoal-grilled skewers of lamb, steak tips, or homemade sausage served with a hunk of bread and pickled hot cherry peppers.

Do you have a favorite pizza joint? Is it on the Pizza Belt? Tell us in the comments below.


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22 Comments

Cory B. August 2, 2018
(PS have you been to L&B Spumoni Gardens in Gravesend BK? I went for the first time recently and can't stop talking about it. I think it's one of my favorite pies in New York.)
 
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Arthur B. August 3, 2018
I've been. Sadly, I've never had a good slice there. Good spumoni though.
 
Cory B. August 3, 2018
The slices are terrible, but the sicilian pie is really good!
 
Cory B. August 2, 2018
I LOVE Pepe's (enough that a couple of weeks ago, I made a few Food52 staffers stop there on our way up to Maine at like 10:30 AM...) but for anyone planning a trip to New Haven, I have to shout out Sally's and Modern too!! There's a bit of a pizza rivalry in town, but honestly all three are amazing. I went to school in central CT and every time we'd take the train into the city we'd get pizza at one of these three joints first. Yum!
 
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Arthur B. August 3, 2018
And Zuppardi's, and Bru, and, and, and!
 
scott July 27, 2018
Went to robbinsville papas 🍅 pies<br />It is no pizzeria di Michelle in naples but definitely are great pie<br />
 
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Arthur B. August 3, 2018
Different styles! Agree!
 
QwertyJuan July 26, 2018
Regina's??<br /><br />https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regina_Pizzeria<br /><br />Started in 1926
 
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Arthur B. August 3, 2018
Yup. Could only include so many places. You saying you think it deserves to be featured over Santarpio's?
 
Herb_D July 26, 2018
I’m an NYC pizza lover living in Florida. When I moved here I thought I’d never again have a good pizza. Then I discovered Pizza Time off Camino Real in Boca Raton. Owner Bobby (Umberto) is originally from the Bronx and makes the best New York style pizza in the whole country.
 
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Arthur B. August 3, 2018
Thanks for the tip. Will try to check it out next time I'm in Florida. <br />
 
Eric K. July 25, 2018
Arthur, thanks for sharing this w/ us. Can't wait to plan a road trip along the Pizza Belt and try the "stinger pie," especially...
 
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Arthur B. July 26, 2018
Thanks for having me. Stinger is one of my favorites. Dying to get back.
 
TAC July 25, 2018
Moose's Tooth in Anchorage, AK, check it out...
 
Eric K. July 25, 2018
Thanks for the rec!
 
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Arthur B. July 26, 2018
Has been on my to-do list for five years now. I'm determined to get there. But if I'm that far north... I'm going to the northernmost pizzerias in America: Arctic Pizza and East Coast Pizzeria in Utqiagvik, AK.
 
TAC July 26, 2018
I think that used to be Barrow... that's on my list too.. :)<br />
 
Kimba September 21, 2018
There is no pizza in Texas. I dare you to find me a place in north Dallas.
 
BerryBaby July 25, 2018
Very nice article.....however being on the West Coast our favorite pizza places are far from the East Coast puzza belt.<br />APizza Scholls and Sizzle Pie my two Portland, Oregon favorites! Suburban favorites Nonna Amelias, Papa Murphy's (chain take and bake), Bellagios.
 
Eric K. July 25, 2018
Delicious. Thank you, BerryBaby!
 
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Arthur B. July 26, 2018
Apizza Scholls and Sizzle Pies are well-regarded spots to be sure.
 
BerryBaby July 26, 2018
Apizza Scholls moved from Scholls a number of years ago. It was located in a funky, old house and closer to home. Now, it's in Southeast so going there is a real treat.<br />Forgot to mention Escape From New York on NW 23rd. Really great thin crust pizza. They won't put more than 2 toppings on any pizza. It's a little hole in the wall and well worth the visit if you ever get out this way.