America's Best Cities for Pizza 2011
Is it the crust, the toppings, or just the attitude? Travel + Leisure readers vote on America’s best cities for pizza.
Thick or thin? It’s a polarizing topic for many Americans.
It ranks right up there with the debate over which city has the coolest live music scene or the best-looking locals. People can get downright riled up over which city has the best pizza—and whether that pizza should be thin like New York’s or thick like Chicago’s.
“Chicago-style pizza beats New York pizza any day,” says John Vakidis, a Dallas-area sales consultant who grew up eating Chicago-style in his father’s pizzeria. “The crust has more flavor, and people would drive 50 miles to eat it. Most New York–style pizza tastes like cardboard, and I wouldn’t drive five minutes for it.”
Them’s fighting words to millions of New Yorkers and other folks who prefer their pizza East Coast–style. “Both styles have their merits,” concedes Seattle photographer Alex Hayden, who used to live in Manhattan. “But New York’s is obviously better.”
No surprise, New York and Chicago tangled for the Best Pizza award in this year’s America’s Favorite Cities survey, in which Travel + Leisure readers voted on the best qualities of 35 metropolitan areas across the U.S.
No doubt, everyone has an opinion on pizza. Americans spent $36 billion on it in 2009, according to the trade magazine PMQ Pizza, and the big pizza chains account for only about 40 percent of the business. That means there are still plenty of small chains and mom-and-pop pizzerias out there, offering local flavor and inspiring fierce loyalties.
Of course, some people swear by different styles, like the pizza squares found in Detroit, or the unique Neapolitan that originated in New Haven. (To be fair, in a strict contest over pizza, New Haven would likely have been a contender, but the Connecticut city wasn’t an option in our AFC survey.)
And one American region that has a pizza named after it—Hawaii—ranked at No. 33 out of 35 in the pizza survey, implying that the pineapple-and-Canadian-bacon pizza has lost its island magic. Faring even worse, however, were Santa Fe and Memphis—the latter, perhaps, channeling all its energies into that legendary barbecue.
But when we looked at the top 20 pizza cities, we didn’t find towns that merely picked sides in the New York–or–Chicago debate. Rather, we saw towns with a reputation for neighborhood restaurants, or a lot of college kids, or just a history that includes lots of Italian immigrants, who brought pizza to the U.S. back in the 19th century.
We also saw some cities on the cutting edge of the culinary scene. “Pizza is really changing, thanks to an artisan movement,” says Peter Reinhart, a cooking instructor who launched pizzaphile site PizzaQuest and wrote American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza. “The focus has really shifted to the crust, creative toppings, and local ingredients.” Providence (No. 3), for instance, is the birthplace of grilled pizza. And then there’s dark-horse Phoenix (No. 11), where artisan-style, thin-crusted Pizza Bianco regularly has lines out the door. “People go there and say, ‘Wow, I never knew pizza could be that good,’” Reinhart says. “It’s a new paradigm.”
But plenty of pizza lovers still go old school: those basic, foldable slices of New York style, or the rich, deep-dish Chicago pizzas. Reinhart refuses to take sides too much. “Some people say that deep-dish is more of a casserole than pizza,” says Reinhart. “But who cares? It’s still really good.”
No. 1 Chicago
Some pizza lovers might find the decadent, deep-dish Chicago pizza extreme—but most fans wouldn’t have it any other way. Even so, the Windy City offers plenty of thin-crusted and gourmet-style pizza places too. As some kind of proof, the city ranks in the top 5 for being diverse. And while its No. 5 ranking for bars in the survey solidifies its party-town cred, the idea of eating your way through all those many pizza places is just another version of a wild weekend.
No. 2 NewYork City
You can’t walk more than a block in the Big Apple without passing a pizzeria—and there are precious few chains (unless you count all those variations on Ray’s). These thin-crusted slices—fold yours lengthwise to look like a local—are probably the best bargain in the city, costing scarcely a couple bucks. That’s a plus, since AFC voters otherwise gave the city high-dollar marks for its luxury stores and upscale hotels, and declared it the most expensive city in the U.S.
No. 3 Providence
The birthplace of grilled pizza shot to nearly the top of the AFC pizza survey. But AFC voters have found a lot of authentic fare in this Rhode Island city: it also ranks No. 3 for ethnic food and No. 2 for neighborhood joints. Voters also gave it a thumbs-up for its culture: it ranks in the Top 10 for both live music and museums.
No. 4 Philadelphia
One of the classic East Coast thin-crust pizza cities, Philly seems to attract visitors who would rather eat than drink: its cocktail hour ranks a lowly No. 27. Locals, meanwhile, would perhaps rather eat than exercise or make chitchat. AFC voters ranked them a third-to-last for being either physically fit or friendly.
No. 5 Savannah
Must be all those fresh coastal breezes—to AFC voters, everything in this Georgia city tastes great. Its neighborhood cafés ranked No. 2 in the survey, and its burgers and barbecue join pizza in the Top 10. If there’s one thing voters liked here more than chowing down, though, it’s shopping: it ranks No. 1 for vintage shops, and it’s in the top 5 for indie boutiques, design stores, and antiques.
No. 6 Portland,OR
Expect a lot of organic toppings and a homegrown vibe. This Oregon city is on the culinary cutting edge on many fronts, for its focus on local ingredients, back-to-basics methods, and user-friendly food carts. As evidence, AFC voters named Portland No. 1 for farmers’ markets, being environmentally conscious, and having great transit. And while the locals get props for being plenty smart, they’re not stiff: Portland also ranks No. 1 for great beer.
No. 7 SaltLake City
No. 8 Boston
This city full of history boasts great neighborhoods, many with longtime Italian roots. That means plenty of old-school pizza options, such as legendary spots Regina and Santarpio’s. Certainly, this is a case to go with the region’s traditional local fare. AFC voters ranked Beantown’s burgers in the bottom 10, and its barbecue came in dead last.
No. 9 SanFrancisco
Being both the mother-ship city for American foodies and also having a fine Italian-neighborhood tradition, San Francisco is, no surprise, in the Top 10. It also ranks in the top 5 for ethnic food, farmers’ markets, and fine dining. If you need to walk it off after dinner, just take to those hilly streets: the city ranks No. 6 for being pedestrian-friendly.
No. 10 Denver
The super-active locals here work up a good appetite for pizza, and the area’s known for its artisan pizza options. But then, having something good to wash it down with may have also helped the city squeeze into the pizza Top 10—after all, Denver is the No. 2 town for microbrews.
As a getaway, Mile High City is one of the few cities in the AFC survey to offer an intersection between nice digs and good value: it ranked in the Top 10 for all-in-one resorts, B&Bs, and affordable places to stay.
No. 11 Phoenix/Scottsdale
For many serious pizza fans, this desert city has become worthy of pilgrimages: namely, to Pizza Bianco, whose nationally recognized brick-oven pizza regularly garners lines out the door. AFC voters also love Phoenix for its swank hotels and resorts, as well as its luxury stores and design shops. It ranks near the bottom, however, for cool neighborhoods.
No. 12 Minneapolis/St.Paul
No one would accuse these Minnesotans of being a wild bunch—the area came in at No. 27 for wild weekends and in last place for spring break. But for this brainy crowd, a hot pizza must warm the soul during the long winters, along with the good theater and classical music, which both ranked in the AFC’s Top 10.
No. 13 Nashville
To most Americans, pizza doesn’t really count as ethnic food anymore. Good thing, since in Nashville, international fare ranks near the bottom in the AFC survey. But who cares? This all-American town also landed in the Top 10 for burgers, beers, and live music. And you won’t be paying top dollar for any of it: Nashville ranked first in the survey for affordability.
No. 14 SanDiego
If you manage to venture outside the theme parks or your all-in-one resort—AFC voters ranked the big hotels here at No. 6— you can find plenty of good, cheap eats. The No. 4 city for summer visits is better known for its fish tacos than its pizza, but all those surfers clearly need some variety in their diet. And go ahead and order it with extra cheese: you can jog it off in this top 5 town for public parks.
No. 15 Austin
The Texas capital is a foodie town that also likes to stay up late: the city ranks near the top in the AFC for its live music, bar scene, and its wild weekend charisma. You’ll find plenty of inventive, indie pizza places and even pizza food carts, such as Spartan Pizza. The city filled with college kids and hipsters also ranked in the Top 10 for neighborhood joints and people-watching.
No. 16 KansasCity
No. 17 Portland,ME
Pizza night may be a big evening out here—the after-hours scene ranked in the bottom five of the AFC survey. But no matter—people don’t come here to whoop it up. AFC voters ranked Portland near the top for relaxing vacations and No. 10 for family trips. And yes, lobster does count as a pizza topping.
No. 18 Seattle
Folks in the Emerald City are both physically fit and environmentally conscious, so the pizza here tends to have thinner crusts and plenty of veggie options. But AFC voters were otherwise hot and cold on whether they wanted to come try it. The city ranks at No. 2 for summertime visits and a soggy last place for winter.
No. 19 Houston
No. 20 Charleston
Travelers are more likely to come to this genteel city for its charming neighborhoods, cool boutique hotels, and historic vibe, all of which rank high in the AFC survey. But the southern city may have edged into the pizza top 20 thanks to the distinctly pizza-loving clientele coming to the area every year—nearby Myrtle Beach. Charleston’s also the No. 2 city for spring break.