I’ve been spending a good bit of time in Lancaster lately. An hour and a half west of Philly, it serves as a waystation on my way to a farflung work travel destination. I asked Andy, a recent Lancaster transplant for pizza suggestions, as my last pizza adventure in there didn’t turn up much.
“Slugger’s,” he told me. “It doesn’t look like much, but it’s the best I’ve had out here.”
My next trip to Lancaster, speeding along through the green farmland on the Amtrak train, was for pleasure rather than business. I met Andrea, Trish, and Alicia in the vast train station parking lot. Currently under construction, it’s a mess of one way signs and torn up piles of concrete. My pals sat in their Subaru station wagon, drinking lukewarm beers and awaiting my arrival.
“Where do you guys want to eat?” Andrea asked.
“I have an idea…”
Location: Lancaster, PA
Pepsi: Wild Cherry Pepsi, available in fountain format. This is the pinnacle of all pizza drink options.
Price: $11.12 for a large pizza, half plain/half mushroom ($10.49 for a plain pie, plus 63 cents for a half topping)
Setting: A small, no-frills pizza place with a huge oven, your standard counter, and a few tables for grabbing a slice.
The Pizza: This was absolutely a good pizza. Slugger’s pulled off what I find ideal in your basic plain pizza: a sauce, cheese, and crust combo that makes them virtually indistinguishable from each other. I know your classic fancy pizza fan would disagree, arguing that the quality of those San Marzano tomatoes or the sharpness of the aged parmesean really creates the ideal pizza experience. Fuck that. I want a coherent whole sliding down my throat, a slightly greasy, slightly sweet, slightly chewy bite sliding down my throat that tastes the same as all the other bites that came before and after. And that’s exactly what Slugger’s gave me. Hats off to them for making a good, cheap pie and serving it with Wild Cherry Pepsi. One bummer: their mushrooms were of the rubbery canned variety.
Notable: Nothing notable here! Except that this might be the first pizza I reviewed from a full-sized bed in a Days Inn. This is the second time I’ve shared beds with Alicia, and the second time we’ve enjoyed a delicious pizza beforehand.
Weird Menu Items: 100 pound pizza: this pie has 100 slices of pepperoni on top of a full pound of pepperoni. I may be missing something as a vegetarian, but I am 100% unclear why you would need all that.
"These fools! We keep conspiring to make the worst pizza imaginable, and they keep right on buying it." This is the conversation I envision occurring at the bi-monthly West Philly Pizzeria Owners meeting. "We take the mediocre and make it worse, we get cheap cheese and undercook it, we make shitty dough and burn it, we REFUSE to stock Pepsi, and these people just keep on ordering our pizza. They deserve what they get for being so damn stupid."
(“This may be the worst we can do. But we must keep trying harder.”)
They’re right, these members of the WPPO who are meeting in my brain. We do get what we deserve for daring to dream that, living just a few short miles from South Philly, we may ever be able to eat a palatable pizza in our own neighborhood. We are buffoons for believing that it could be possible for one intrepid explorer, one brave pizzeria-opening entrepreneur, to walk past the pizza-inhospitable streets of 19143, across the Grays Ferry Bridge, and down Washington Avenue into South Philly to ask any random Italian standing on the street how to make a decent pie. Any Italian, I tell you, of any age, could tell the WPPO how to make a better pie.
Any small child could tell you this about pizza: “You take cheese and tomato sauce and put it on some dough and bake it, but not for too long.” ANY SMALL CHILD COULD TELL YOU THIS. Would that child suggest, “Make a pesto pizza and then put a ladle full of red sauce on top of the cheese”? No. Would her preschool buddies think it made sense to “add lemon into the tomato sauce”? Obviously not. Would that child’s younger sibling think it a good idea to “make the sauce taste more like chemicals”? Doubtful. Would it kill a member of the WPPO to hire a small child as a consultant to walk them through how to make a decent pizza? YOU COULD PAY THEM IN CANDY BARS GODDAMMITT.
But I digress. Back in January, I realized that several new pizzerias had opened in West Philly. I invited friends over to try them out, along with an old pizzeria we’d never tried before., in a West Philly Pizza Off. To quote my invitation, “Please join me in ranking the pizza newbies in West Philly, to see if they can live up to their geographical predecessors in serving ‘Philly’s most unpalatable pizza.’” A group of intrepid pizza explorers braved the cold night to join me in the warm glow of pizza anticipation.
Where to even start? We spent 4 hours and over $100 trying out pizza. Pizza that was often inedible and was, at its best, “alright.” At its worst, the pizza felt as though it was ridiculing us for daring to consider ourselves worthy of eating a good slice of pizza.
It seems pointless to wander through a detailed rating system for each. I will instead present you with this, a brief rundown of what we saw. I can share with you that we wound up putting on the curb an assortment of slices totaling 2 1/2 uneaten pizzas. (Don’t worry, our less-discriminating intrepid pizza explorer friends picked them up after midnight and feasted on them). I NEVER have experienced having unwanted pizza in this manner. Never. Sigh.
Despite the poor quality of the eats, we managed to enjoy ourselves. My friend remarked before leaving, “I’ve never had so much fun eating bad food.”
Head Cook: After the votes were tabulated, Head Cook came in with the most votes for best pizza out of the four. Comments included such high praises as “Decent;” “Pretty ok;” “Not bad”. Sigh. West Philly, why can’t you get your pizza act together??
Penn Pizza: Penn Pizza came in a close second for the best pizza. I actually voted it number one. I would order from here again, which would make it the one and only pizzeria I’d order from in West Philly. My notes read “salty” and “cheesey as fuck” — both pluses in my book, but some folks thought it was overkill.
Wise Guys: Wise Guys was not voted the worst, but that’s more of a testament to how bad New Style’s pizza was rather than Wise Guys having a decent pie. Trust me, it was freaking terrible. We got a pesto pizza from here along with a plain. It had pesto sauce covered in cheese and then with red sauce smeared all over top of the whole thing. What? We figured there was a mistake and called, but were assured by the owner this is the way their pesto pie is made. He also told us the pesto is homemade; if that’s true, they are doing something really, really wrong. Comments on their plain pie included “Tastes like feet” “The crust is the worst and I just don’t understand it;” and “Go blow yourselves.”
(please note the world’s worst butter sauce accompanying the pizza.)
New Style: This place was far and away the loser. Dear lord. I am not lying when I say two people independently wrote on their scorecards about this place “Fuck you.” Other folks said the sauce tasted like “wiper fluid and lemons” and was “acidic as fuck and hurt my throat.” “Everything about this pizza is wrong.” “Grossest ever.”
*credit for this title goes to my sister Paulina.
My Vine pizza review of Antonio’s Pizzeria in Rosendale, NY
Posadas and I were on our way back from a quick roadtrip to Boston. In the car en route to Manhattan, we discussed whether we should get dinner in Manhattan or grab something quick along the way. “Yeah, I don’t know, I’m not really in the mood for crappy road food,” I said to her. “Maybe we can hold out the 4 hours until we get into the city.”
We cruised along Mass Pike talking and admiring the view before it hit me. “Oh my god!” I blurted out. “There’s a place halfway between Boston and New York that’s famous for pizza!” “Ok, let’s go!” Posadas immediately said. She is a very supportive friend for agreeing without knowing any details. I could have been proposing a trip to the very first Papa John’s takeout, or a hike to some hole-in-the-pizza-wall place 45 minutes in the wrong direction down winding and hard-to-see country roads. Fortunately, my idea was no such thing.
Place: Frank Pepe
Location: New Haven, CT
Pepsi: no. BUT they did have a lovely line of old fashioned drinks, including cream soda. If I can’t have a Pepsi, a cream soda is absolutely an acceptable alternative.
Price: $8.50 for a 12” plain pie
Setting: Ok, we went to “The Spot” rather than the original Frank Pepe. We were in the middle of a 4 hour drive, and waiting in line outside in the cold for an hour and a half felt amazingly unappealing. A little internetting led me to the conclusion that the small pizza place in the middle of Frank Pepe’s parking lot was also called Frank Pepe and served the same pizza. But it only had a 10 minute wait.
The Pizza: Huh. I’m still mulling over this one. I didn’t do any pre-research on New Haven pizza besides figuring out where to go. I didn’t want to go into this with any preconceived notions. It was chewy and crispy at the same time. Thick but it snapped when I bit into it. Maybe almost like a parantha? Is there a reason why pizza often reminds me of Indian breads?
It was decent. I wasn’t blown away, but it was interesting. I just kept chewing and saying, “Hmmm. I’m not sure what I think about this.” Based on numerous people I’ve spoken to since, I have two theories. Theory One: I shouldn’t have ordered a small pizza. With such a big crust, there was only a little bit of sauce and cheese on each slice. The other slices people where biting into looked a little more satisfying.
Theory Two: Although these two restaurants have the same owner, same recipe, same name, I think the smaller one may have been inferior. If the pizzas really were the same, I can’t imagine why so many people would be waiting in line for over an hour for the original. Which all leads me to theory three: I need to do a full-fledged New Haven investigation in order to truly create a verdict.
Notable: I ordered a “tomato pie with mozzarella” as that seemed to be the way a plain was listed on the menu. “A mozz pie,” the server said as she jotted it down on her pad. “Um, yes. A mozz pie.”
Weird Menu Items: Nothing too weird to see here.
West Philly has more than its fair share of huge old Victorian houses with high ceilings and tons of bedrooms. These houses are expensive to heat and far too big for a single family. Over the years they’ve been cut down into apartments or taken over by groups of friends willing to share refrigerators and mold-filled basements. The Lap House is a West Philly group house that’s been around forever, and has been having pizza parties for almost a decade.
(our works stations.)
The idea is simple and genius: They’ll provide the dough and you provide the toppings. A pizza party at it’s most well functioning. It also helps if you have, as The Lap House does, an enormous oven capable of cooking four pizzas at once. Courtney, one of the organizers of the original party, was kind enough to tell me a little bit about the first one.
"I wish that i could remember how/what motivated the party but I think that we were just wanting to get together with people in the wintertime, with an activity that had a low threshold for participation. People were creative with savory and sweet things, mostly vegan but some vegetarian, and always both gluten and gluten-free. We tried to name it different things, usually with a play on the word dough; one of my favorites was "Bavid Doughie."
(making the pizza political.)
During its most recent incarnation, I showed up on a Sunday night, exhausted from a series of transportation errors on my way back to Philly from Brooklyn. But my energy level perked right up as soon as I walked in the front door. A bevy of toppings laid scattered across counters and tables. Two work stations were running at once, where party attendees peeled a circle of pizza dough from its Trader Joe plastic bag, rolled it out on a floured wooden board, transferred it to a baking pan, and added all the sauce and toppings to create their very own pizza. Some photos are below.
(my creation had ricotta, pesto, tofurkey sausage, and fresh basil.)
(vegan veggie magic.)
It’s been a few years since I volunteered for a shift at Philly’s anarchist bookstore, the Wooden Shoe. Last Friday night I found myself hanging out behind the counter once again. This time I was not stuck talking to cranky old Communist customers who want to school me about archaic political theory. Instead my responsibilities were simply to order a pizza for myself and the two hungry volunteers. James quickly shot down my first suggestion of Genarro’s. According to him, Little Italy was the place to go. Matt seconded the idea. I never heard of the place. As an intrepid pizza explorer, I like to think I know all the decent pizza places in Philly. But with two strong votes of confidence for Little Italy, I was willing to take on an unknown quantity.
Place: Little Italy
Location: South Street, Philadelphia
Price: $16 for a 16” White Veggie Combo Pie, $2.45 for a plain slice
Setting: I got our pizza to go so we could eat while James and Matt were selling books. At 9pm on a Friday night, the place was dead. There’s no table service, just a bunch of tables in a dark room lit by the fluorescent lighting of soda refrigerators.
The Pizza: We ordered a white veggie combo pizza to split, and on my way out, I grabbed a plain slice just out of curiosity. Dear lord. Little Italy, who knew? You blew this shit out of the water. Sweet sauce that was virtually indistinguishable from plenty of stringy cheese, all of which was piled on top of a soft crust. Yes please.
The white pie was also good. Vegetables on a pizza can go very wrong very easily. All it takes is some cheap canned veggies and your pizza becomes worthless. But the broccoli and tomato tasted fine, and were supported by tons of garlic and olive oil. My only complaint is that I would’ve wanted more cheese and less vegetables, but that’s because I have the palate of a 4 year old child. I like to whine about wanting to eat dessert instead of carrot sticks.
(I’ve heard vegetables are good for you but I’m not convinced.)
Notable: The most notable thing was that the plain slice was crazy, crazy good.
Weird Menu Items: Stuffed pizza rolls. At $4.50 each, they’re certainly not the faux egg rolls that go by the same name.
I got a hot tip at the coffeeshop I obssessively frequented while in Austin, TX. It had amazingly strong iced coffee and a sign hanging up that said “Hoboken Pizza here.” Interest piqued, I asked the counterperson, “What’s Hoboken Pizza? I never heard of it.” “Oh, it’s a pizza place here. We sell their slices.” She lowered her voice and leaned in. “I wouldn’t bother. I’d go to Home Slice.”
Home Slice you say? We decided to grab a slice on our way to watch the bats arise from their slumber under the Congress Ave Bridge. Thousands of bats have chosen this bridge as their summer home. They emerge in a huge moving cloud every evening at sunset. Excited to see the spectacle, I felt certain we’d need sustenance in the form of pizza to get us through the viewing
Place: More Home Slice
Location: South Congress, Austin, TX
Price: $3 for a plain slice
Setting: More Home Slice is a takeout place next door to the original Home Slice on South Congress Street. Home Slice was closed the day we went, but we were only looking for slices anyways. There’s a couple tables out front and a couple seats inside, but it’s mainly set up for carryout. There’s a counter outside, so we ordered and found a couple chairs in the parking lot.
The Pizza: I don’t have a lot to say here except: if the majority of what you serve is slices, why the hell would you hand me an overcooked, crunchy, hardened cheese slice and charge me $3 for it? Even at an appropriate level of cooked-ness, this appears to be a very unremarkable slice of plain pizza.
Notable: There was some very appealing neon signage outside. If only they spent a little more time on pizza and a little less on graphic design.
Weird Menu Items: Who cares.
Is it true? I hear you’re coming back. Please know that there’s still a slice-shaped hole in my heart waiting for you. I could never replace you.
Wishing and hoping,