Sure, it’s surprising that Portland, a city best known for timber, grunge rock and Antifa protests, is being hailed as the ‘Za capital. But it’s been a quirky, cool destination for years, a place with the battle cry, “Keep Portland Weird.”
Pizza Rat won the hearts of America struggling to bring this piece of New York pizza down the subway stairs. (YouTube)
Granted, “best of” lists are a dime a dozen and often created to draw eyeballs online. And pizza has long been a fervent debate topic.
For research, I clicked on the Food Network’s “Top 5 Pizzas in America” list and had to avert my eyes and close the website after reading #4: White clam pie from New Haven, Connecticut. Everybody knows seafood has no business being near a pizza. And neither do leafy vegetables.
Just about everyone has an opinion about the best pizzeria or style of pizza, and few people are willing to suffer the opinions of idiots — as in those who disagree.
The difference here is that the Portland choice is not just some desk-bound internet troll winging it to spur argument. The authors visited 12 cities, including usual suspects like New York and Chicago (no trip to Atlanta), before compiling the three-volume, 35-pound (really!) “Modernist Pizza.”
Atlanta is not necessarily known as a pizza town, although that has been changing, largely with the advent of Antico in 2009 near Georgia Tech.
Antico’s owner, Giovanni Di Palma, is a New York guy but let’s not hold that against him. He spent time learning the craft in Naples and adapted Neapolitan pizza for American tastes, meaning it’s bigger, more formidable and crispier than that from the Old Country. Soon, lines were out Antico’s door and have led to spinoffs in Alpharetta’s Avalon complex and at the Braves’ Battery.
“Antico became its own style of pizza,” he said, and has helped spring a wave of so-called “artisan” pizza kitchens across the city. Those are the type of pizzas wowing critics and young urban professionals and pushing places like Portland to pizza renown. There’s even a Brazilian pizza place opening up in Atlanta, showing that gourmet and niche are creeping into the market.
Giovanni Di Palma gave Conan O’Brien a tour of the kitchen when the late-night host dined at Antico in 2013.
Statistically, pizza is America’s favorite meal. A 2018 Harris Poll asked people if you could only eat just one food for the rest of your lives, what would it be? Pizza topped the list at 21%, besting steak (16%), hamburgers (13%), tacos (11%) and pasta (11%). Some 93% of Americans had eaten pizza in the past month in a 2015 survey, and the numbers likely haven’t changed much since then.
There are 70,000 pizzerias in America, although a quarter of those are Pizza Hut, Domino’s and Atlanta-headquartered Papa John’s. (Another little-known fact: Papa John’s started in the back of a broom closet. Somehow that is not surprising.) And 3 billion pies are sold in the U.S. each year for a whopping total of $38 billion.
“People are passionate about finding the best pizza place,” Di Palma said. “Everyone has his go-to place. You debate them — ‘No, you’re wrong. This is the best place.’ ”
Di Palma said his pizza, which tastes like it came from a bakery, is healthy fare, although quickly adding, “You cannot say ‘healthy, organic pizza’ or you’ll go outta business. When we were kids, we’d say, ‘Let’s get a greasy slice.’ "
He’s right on that. I like to say I’m a pizza traditionalist, meaning I like what I grew up eating. I’m from Chicago’s South Side, where pizza has long been an ordinary thing of beauty. Now, you’re probably thinking, “He’s one of those weird deep dish guys.” And I must say real Chicagoans prefer thin-sliced, square-cut tavern-style pizza, preferably with Italian sausage and onions.
Chicagoans usually eat deep dish when a cousin visits from out of town. Oh yeah, Cub fans like deep dish, with basil.
I called Vic Comastro, a Chicago expatriate who runs the Chicago Pizza & Sports Grille in Smyrna, a place to get something as close to what I grew up devouring. (He has owned four restaurants and says 80% of the pizza he’s sold has been thin crust.)
I told him about Portland and, though we were on the phone, I could almost hear his hands waving in revulsion: “Ah, they’re crazy! What are they talking about? They don’t have Italians in Portland.”
Actually, they had a Little Italy there a century ago, but who’d know that?
“It came from Italy but Americans changed it,” he said. “And they keep changing it. The younger kids like the California style. It’s very thin and the sauce is thin. They’re changing the old-school favorites. And if they decide to do it different in Portland, it still tastes good.”
Vic is a big-tent kind of guy.
Rich Torpy, the author's cousin, and owner of Obbie's pizza in Chicago, sits with TV host Elliot Bambrough. Obbie's earned a "Chicago's Best" award from the station in 2018. (WGN)
Obviously, the Italians know their stuff. But I had to call an Irishman who’s got game: Rich Torpy, my cousin.
Rich was 22 in 1977 when he opened Obbie’s Pizza in a blue-collar South Side Chicago neighborhood. It has been a standard for those who want the traditional thin-sliced, square-cut, tavern-style pizza. His is nothing fancy but has kept them lined up for 44 years, cooked in a six-shelf, revolving 1947 Middleby Marshall oven and has earned a “Chicago’s Best” from WGN-TV, no small feat in a city with a zillion corner joints.
You can’t eat in his shop; you have to pick it up there or get it delivered. It’s best wolfed down in the car on the way home or in the tavern across the street, washed down with an ice-cold Old Style.
It’s a tough business, with competitors (both pizzerias and other types of eateries) coming and going. “Everyone’s trying to get a piece of my pie,” said Rich, who tries not to overthink it. Mind you, this is not rocket science. “I try to keep the recipe the same. You have something that works, you stay with it.”
Rich’s business has stood the test of time, including the neighborhood’s changing demographics, as the population is now about half Hispanic. The favorite ingredients have slowly shifted from Italian sausage and onions to pepperoni and jalapenos.
Even after two-thirds of his life peddling pizzas, Rich gets pizza elsewhere a couple times a week, still, I suppose, in search of the best pizza.
It’s a quest we all have embarked upon, one that Antico’s Di Palma summed up well: “The best pizza is the one you love. Period.”