Obviously, New York has the pizza market mostly cornered, and Chicago lays its own special claim—regardless of what you think of their "style"—but damn if Atlanta didn't go and turn itself into a bona fide pie town when no one was looking. From Neapolitan masters kicking it Old World to next-gen chefs unafraid to get a little out there with toppings, all the way to strip mall joints and college hangouts—hell, even pizzas off a tow-behind trailer. Let's just say pie fanatics could do a lot worse than booking a flight to Hartsfield-Jackson International and immersing themselves in our city's pizzascape for a few days. You won't have time to hit all the raveworthy pies in town, but here's a fully representative list of the best Atlanta has to offer.
Jeff Varasano is no stranger to Serious Eaters, having graced our corner of cyberspace for some time, sharing intel and weighing in on the State of Pizza in this country with a regularity you might not immediately expect from someone so universally lauded in piedom. But Jeff isn't just one of the top pizza ambassadors out there right now, he's also making some of the very best pizzas out there right now, too.
His restaurant in Buckhead has turned five, and although many flashier newcomers have popped up (and some have already folded, too) in the years since, Jeff is still more often than not personally cranking out the pizzas that have garnered him a true cult following. (And often wandering the dining room doing Rubik's Cube tricks for the kiddos!)
His world-famous recipe is right there on his website for anyone with an ISP to hack, but odds are you won't get the same results that he pulls out of his PizzaMaster electric ovens with such astonishing consistency. Though he's currently revamping his menu, you can never go wrong with the house special. Nana's puts a noticeably herby San Marzano sauce atop a crisp and gorgeously-spotted crust that shatters on the tooth, and then adds delightfully gooey puddles of mozz. And when Jeff Varasano recommends that you add pancetta and garlic to one of his pizzas...Do. It.
Don Antonio by Starita
Naples. New York City. Atlanta. Don Antonio by Starita launched A-town into that upper tier of the pizzasphere by selecting a hidden gem of a kitchen on West Paces Ferry to house only their third global location. Chef and owner Roberto Caporuscio (and his daughter Giorgia) put out a dizzying menu of over 60 pizza varieties, from 11 different takes on the classic Margherita to wild creations featuring pistachio pesto, cream of walnut, and butternut squash and zucchini.
Whatever pie you choose, order the Montanara Starita (above) as your first bite. This deep-fried dough round dressed with tomato sauce, smoked buffalo mozzarella, and basil is the way Roberto grew up eating pizza, and it may just redefine your idea of the entire food category.
The dough is stretched by hand (but never tossed) and the mozz (from Green Bay, WI curd) is made in a glass room as a form of dinner theater. Suffice it to say that Caporuscio's crew takes every extra step to do every little thing the exact right way. If it weren't already a town that didn't already have Jeff Varasano and the hype machine that is Antico, Don Antonio by Starita might be the undisputed king of the city's traditional pizza scene. Capruscio's already the US president of the APN, after all.
Vingenzo's Pasta & Pizzeria
The quaint historic town of Woodstock might not be where you'd expect to find some of the best pizza you'll ever put in your mouth, but diners in the know on the northwest side have been packing Vingenzo's for years. Chef Michael Bologna serves up "what they eat in Italy," not your idea of what they eat in Italy. So forget chicken parm and spaghetti and meatballs; this is true Southern Italian fare.
The pizzas in particular show incredible attention to detail and quality. The Regina (pictured above) features wild mushrooms grown at a local startup farm that Bologna has partnered with, and sausage that's hand-cranked on-site by Bologna himself, from a recipe handed down from his father, an Italy-born butcher.
Every Vingenzo's pie I've tried offers an interesting study in texture, with a liquefied center and a yeasty chew at the outer rim (deeply-scorched from its ride in the oak-fueled oven, where a last splash of wood chips blaze brightly to create the textbook leopard spots). Prepare to roll up your sleeves, though, because the pies don't come pre-sliced. But pizza this amazing is worth a little knife work, as well as the drive to the suburbs to get it.
Antico Pizza Napoletana
Die-hard food fans (and even our own review from July 2012) will say that Antico has lost some of its shine. But try telling that to the long lines that still form every single afternoon and evening (save for Sunday) at this Westside hotspot, or to anybody in the 404, who, whenever a new pizza place opens, immediately asks with a smirk, "Yeah, but how is it compared to Antico?"
Owner (and mini-empire-builder) Giovanni Di Palma hit an over-the-stadium-wall-and-into-the-parking-lot (which this place needs, BTW) grand-slam home run with Antico, a bare-bones cinderblock building that features three imported Acuntos in the back room turning and burning pies that are sometimes ready before you've even found your seat at one of the communal tables. For all the deafening hype, though, Antico is (perhaps surprisingly for the first-timer) unpretentiously Spartan through and through; pies are served on parchment-lined sheet pans amid tubs of plastic forks at the tables. Want some grated Parm or a few Calabrian chiles or a handful of fresh basil leaves? Step right up to the condiment station and help yourself.
The San Gennaro never disappoints, with sweetness and spiciness in equal measures from the sausage, red peppers, and caramelized Cipolline onions. Antico serves an especially chewy pie—the dough is seriously floppy and spongy all the way out to the cornicione. It's tasty as hell, sure, but perhaps not as structurally sound as other Neapolitans in town.
But if you're nitpicking over bready pizza bones, you're missing half the point (and most of the fun) of Antico. It's hot and loud and crowded and totally high-energy, and God help me, you still actually feel a little cooler just for being there. In a town where so many people want to take all food so damn seriously (especially pizza, it seems), Antico still has that something that is becoming increasingly rare: people who look genuinely happy to be eating there.
Campania Pizzeria Napoletana
The outside says strip mall, but the pizzas inside Campania Pizzeria Napoletana tell a mighty different tale. Owners Jennifer Simmons and Stewart Muller fell in love with Naples-style pies in Seattle, but couldn't settle for having to commute to the city when they relocated to the Atlanta suburbs. So they imported a Stefano Ferrara oven and started slinging real Neapolitans for the OTP crowd on the north end.
The staff keeps the oven churning at 1000°F, but a cook time of as little as 70 seconds (fast by any standard) results in pretty wet pies that the menu suggests you attack with a knife and fork. The dough is outstanding at Campania, with a sauce that's concentrated and tangy, all the better to spotlight the toppings.
The Salumi Mista shown here is decked out with Italian sausage, Calabrese salami, Fior-di-Latte mozzarella, fontina, under-everything-else basil, and a spicy pepperoni from California that was hand-picked by Simmons for the right amount of charring, cupping, and kick. Meat lovers, this is so your jam.
Alpharetta locals who may not be familiar with this style of pizza still get a briefing from servers on the ins and outs of things like blistered crusts, but real pie connoisseurs will recognize a mom-and-pop shop doing it right. And everyone can agree that this is some truly killer pizza, suburban strip mall or not.
S&J's Woodfired Pizza
Who needs an actual restaurant? The real star of the show when it comes to wood-fired pie is that 4-foot (or so) domed oven. So that's about all that Jonathan Seyfred and his wife Sarah have. Mounted on a 6x12-foot tow-behind trailer, the Forno Bravo owned by S&J's Woodfired Pizza is a staple of the city's farmer's market scene and gives larger food trucks (and even brick-and-mortar shops) a serious run for their money.
Because the entire operation is mobile, S&J's usually rolls up to an event with a very finite rundown of toppings.* Most are locally sourced—some of the herbs come right off plants on Jonathan's yard.
* Not to mention just X number of balls of dough. When they're out, it's time to pack the truck and go home. Event's over.
The usual-suspect pizzas (cheese, pepperoni, veggie) are excellent, but I really love it when they get funky with more unorthodox toppings. I've had the Applicious pictured above more than once; goat feta cheese, applewood smoked bacon, apple chunks and a bright swirl of pesto. They do a boss summer pie with bacon, jalapenos, and peaches, too. And the last time I found the trailer, Jonathan treated me to his newest experiment— a burrata-topped pizza that was decadently creamy and just-toss-that-shirt messy, but so worth it.
Ron Eyester is something of a local celebrichef, but Timone's wants nothing more than to be just a neighborhood pizza joint. Don't let the Big Apple-inspired decor fool you into thinking it's just a schtick; Eyester takes his own NYC heritage seriously, going so far as to use a carbon filtration system on the house plumbing that he swears re-creates New York City tap water for use in his dough. Then again, the dough also uses "a hint of Savannah Bee orange blossom honey," so he's not totally a by-the-book guy.
Actually, Timone's didn't even originally offer a top-your-own pie, and supposedly only deigned to do a pepperoni pizza after a local food critic badgered him into doing so (it's named after him now). Eyester would much rather get kooky-creative with an ever-changing roster of pizzas that makes use of whatever's in season and some WTF? options (duck confit, pickled pineapples, fried capers, etc.)
I fell hard for an autumnal pie that showcased fine sausage crumbles, sun-dried tomato, sage, shallots, and a drizzle of balsamic, all atop a chunky base paste of mashed white beans. Yeah, it's so far from "by-the-book" that it gets its own volume, but almost a year later, I still think about that hearty pizza in long, slow, possibly-inappropriate detail.
Jack's Pizza & Wings
There are lots of places in town that treat pizza with a capital P. And that's unquestionably a good thing. But sometimes you just want to cram a pie in that makes you feel good, without a lesson in where the tomatoes came from or having to do the math on the hydration ratio of the dough. Jack's Pizza & Wings is that kind of place.
They take pizza seriously in that it's snarfworthy late-night soak-up-that-last-round kind of grub, but that's pretty much where the seriousness ends. I mean, they host Jell-O wrestling nights. As for the pies, I've seen a Beanie Weenie variety, a chili cheese pizza, and one topped with mac and cheese and bacon named after Jason from the Friday the 13th movies.
The sausage pizza, however, may take you right back to when you were 14, pulling a frozen Totino's out of your mom's oven. The sausage is abundant, and scattered across the surface in tight, fine crumbles. The dough is puffy and chewy with massive air bubbles here and there, a definite upgrade from those slumber-party pies you remember. And it's served with a side of garlic-parm butter for dipping that is, as my server promised, "as delicious as it is bad for you." Try getting that kind of honesty from a fancypants pizza shrine.
Sometimes the best pizza of all is the one you eat on your own couch in front of the TV. No shame in a carryout pie from that place down the street. Just make sure you're ordering from the right street. Native Long Islander Rick Sorrentino started LaBella's in the middle of East Cobb County (you know, where all the swim/tennis communities have sprung up around all the outstanding schools and boutique shopping centers) after running a shop in NYC for almost two decades. So he knows pizza.
His crust has a crackly sheen that shatters when you try to fold a slice in half and gives way to a fluffy-yet-satisfyingly-dense interior. His sausage-mushroom-pepperoni is my favorite in town, mainly because of the spicy sausage that's sliced superthin so it curls into cups after baking. (Rick passes on the local vendors and trucks this stuff in from Jersey every week.)
It's greasy and sloppy and gooey and objectively-speaking, probably shouldn't be anything special. (Although Jeff Varasano did call LaBella's cheese pie one of his absolute faves before starting his own place.) But when the fam is looking to chill at home in front of some Disney princesses on a Friday night, LaBella's is my first phone call.
The name translates to "amazing," and while that's a lot for pizza to live up to, there's plenty to keep foodies making the trek to the Old Fourth Ward to Ammazza. Started by two brothers with ties to Antico, the place has a similar high-energy vibe. You're encouraged to watch the pizzaioli do their thing behind the glassed-off kitchen while hanging at one of the long communal tables and rock out to the in-house DJ.
The pies are wet and messy, but with a lovely slightly-sourdoughy crust and some genuinely nice surprises sprinkled throughout the menu. (Roasted black cherries, anyone? Spectacular cured meats from The Spotted Trotter. Or anything topped with the meatballs.) If by this point in your pizza crawl, you're tired of round and flat, go for the Pizza Fritta, a deep-fried calzone topped with the kitchen's excellent chunky tomato sauce.
The Glitter Pizza may have been all the buzz when the place first opened, but it's just the kids' cheese pie with edible confetti-sprinkles that don't taste like anything. But if that's what it takes to get your kids in the door, so be it, 'cause the rest of the menu at Ammazza is enough to satisfy the pizza-snobbiest mom and dad.