Pizza was my first food love, and it’s never abandoned me.
Pizza is comfort. It’s nostalgia. It’s beautiful in its simplicity, and it can dazzle when used as a clean slate for culinary creativity.
Memories of pizza serve as mile markers in my personal history.
I remember eating 14 slices at Shakey’s as a kid while my babysitter looked on, dumbstruck. (That number grew, of course, with each retelling of the story.) I remember crispy pies at Panjo’s while navigating Ms. Pac-Man with one hand and a pepperoni slice with the other. I remember slamming sheets of Little Caesars and bottles of Jack Daniels in the back of a van on the way to see Lynyrd Skynyrd in high school. I remember mediocre, gummy slices from the food court at my University of Southern California dormitory. (Love ain’t always pretty.) I remember reconvening with childhood friends over weighed, cheesy slices at Fuzzy’s while home on holiday breaks. I remember my life in Washington, D.C., changing when a friend introduced me to the pizza from the Italian Store in Arlington, Va. I remember finding salvation from a dreary Brooklyn day with a bubbling pie from Roberta’s. I remember the first pizza I had in Naples and the last slice I ate in Rome.
Austin will never be New York City, but in recent years it has grown to prove a worthy home for a man with a pizza addiction. People talk about the barbecue renaissance in Austin, but the pizza scene has experienced a similar, if not greater, explosion. From New York to Naples, Detroit to New Haven, Austin now celebrates all manner of pizza stylings. And with about a half-dozen Italian restaurants slated to open in the next year, the pizza phenomenon will not be slowing any time soon.
In honor of Valentine’s Day and my first food love, I’ve compiled my 13 favorite places to eat pizza in Austin. Why 13? Why not?
1. Home Slice
(1415 S. Congress Ave. 512-444-7437, homeslicepizza.com)
For all its seeming simplicity, making excellent pizza on a consistent basis is tough work. Bad pizza is easy. Nobody wants bad pizza.
I asked Home Slice co-owner Jen Strickland what the key is to great pizza.
“The most important aspect of getting a pizza right is balance: not too many toppings, just the right amount of cheese, balanced with the perfect cook,” Strickland said. “A pizza can be ruined by too many wet toppings, too much sauce, not enough cheese, not spinning the pie to cook evenly, and pulling it out of the oven too early or too late … balance.”
The story: Jen and her husband, Joseph Strickland, opened Home Slice on a still-emerging South Congress in November 2005 with Jen Strickland’s New York University roommate, Terri Hannifin. The owners take their employees on annual pilgrimages to New York to tour and study the greats.
The pie: Classic New York. Firm and tawny with a crunchy edge. Perfect for folding. Aged provolone lends a sharp bite to the cheese mix.
With meat: A creation of my own: The salty tang of pepperoni with the vibrant snap of green peppers is a classic that reminds me of childhood.
Vegetarian: The #4: The verdant iron brace of spinach, topped with the briny expressiveness of green olives and sweetness of roasted red pepper and onions.
Passing on pizza? Try … One of the best Italian grinders in the city: ham, dry salami, capicola, Genoa salami and provolone cheese stuffed in a toasted sesame seed roll and dressed with lettuce, tomato, oil, vinegar and mayonnaise. Yes, mayonnaise. Trust.
(1519 East Cesar Chavez St. 512-524-2523, bufalinapizza.com)
The story: University of Texas graduate Steven Dilley left the corporate world in New York City and spent time training in Italy before opening his sparse but attractive restaurant in the summer of 2013.
The pie: Neapolitan with a bubbled crust and supple throughout.
With meat: The Fresca might be the lightest porky pizza you’ll ever try. Velvety ribbons of prosciutto picante are draped across the pie when it comes from the oven. A tangle of bitter arugula and slabs of Parmesan are piled high on top, then drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil. Maybe the single best pizza in town.
Vegetarian: Simplicity at its finest. The acidic zip of tomatoes is mellowed by basil’s herbal breeze and amorphous pools of creamy mozzarella.
Passing on pizza? Try … Art and architecture meet in a layered bibb salad dressed in mustard vinaigrette and decorated with radishes.
3. Via 313
(111 E. Sixth St. 512-939-1927; 61 Rainey St. 512-609-9405; via313.com)
The story: Brothers Zane and Brandon Hunt brought a taste of the Motor City to East Austin when they opened their first pizza trailer outside the Violet Crown Social Club in December 2011. They now have a second trailer at beer-haven Craft Pride and will open a brick-and-mortar in Oak Hill later this year.
The pie: Detroit Style. That means thick, fluffy, buttery squares blanketed edge-to-edge with cheese and riven with a volcanic splash of bright tomato sauce.
With meat: The Detroiter: Curled cups of traditional and smoked pepperoni hide under a blend of cheeses.
Vegetarian: Herbivore is emboldened with earthy crimini mushrooms and punched with the salt-and-sour flavors of black olives. The crunch of green peppers adds dimension to the pizza’s soft texture.
Passing on pizza? Try … Getting a drink at one of the adjacent bars. These guys stick to pizza.
4. Second Bar + Kitchen
(200 Congress Ave. 512-827-2750, congressaustin.com/second)
The story: The airy bistro with the patio made for Second Street District people-watching opened as part of a triumvirate of spaces from elite chef David Bull and his team in 2010.
The pie: Bull’s Italian roots are on display with his pasta dishes at neighboring Congress and his exceptional pizzas at the more casual Second Bar + Kitchen. Puffed, mottled edges descend gradually into a soft center.
With meat: The Black and Bleu is served at both Second and Bar Congress. Thankfully. It is one of the city’s best — an umami blast of decadence, with black truffle, blue cheese, crisp pork belly confit and candy-like medjool dates all finding perfect harmony.
Vegetarian: Pizza bianco: Creamy ricotta, grana padano and the subtle citrus of goat cheese form the base of this white pizza topped with a flurry of peppery wild arugula.
Passing on pizza? Try … Seared salmon given a Thai accent from pork belly fried rice, nam pla and refreshing mint. If you want to be “bad” (whatever that means), get the fried pickles tossed in Buffalo sauce and served with blue cheese sauce.
5. Little Deli
(7101 Woodrow Ave. 512-467-7402, littledeliandpizza.com)
The story: Tony Villani bought this, well, little deli in 2006 and rolled out pizza inspired by his native New Jersey in 2008.
The pie: These New Jersey pies have a slightly puffier edge than a New York style, and the red sauce whispers sweetness through a cheese mix that includes mozzarella and provolone piccante.
With meat: The meat combo loads coarse homemade meatballs, savory sausage and pepperoni on a cheesy pie that oils at the surface. They sell slices here, but nothing beats a whole fresh pie straight out of the oven. The #7, with garlic and pepperoni, is also a winner.
Vegetarian: Roasted eggplant, dusted with pecorino Romano, gives depth to the Rollatini that is pierced with fierce garlic and cooled with creamy dollops of ricotta.
Passing on pizza? Try … Harry’s Perfect Pastrami: a half-pound of pastrami the size of a softball served on grilled rye and slathered with Thousand Island dressing. If the lunch rush has died, maybe you can take a nap on one of the picnic tables.
6. House Pizzeria
(5111 Airport Blvd. 512-600-4999, housepizzeria.com)
The story: Scott and Sarah Talkington opened their pizzeria in a former Kentucky Fried Chicken in 2009, helping spur the rejuvenation of Airport Boulevard.
The pie: The charred and knobby crust pops, releasing its steamy breath across the pie’s gentle surface.
With meat: A piquant tomato sauce kicked up with garlic covered a recent arrabiata special topped with pepperoni, Jack cheese and parsley’s bitter-cool blow.
Vegetarian: One of the boldest vegetarian pies in town, the Bleu leans on the funky bass notes of Stilton cheese that lays the foundation for the boozy sweetness of drizzled port reduction.
Passing on pizza? Try … The freshness of a mixed green salad tossed with walnuts, strawberries and goat cheese.
7. East Side Pies
(1401 Rosewood Ave. 512- 524-0933; 5312 Airport Blvd. 512-454-7437; 1809 W. Anderson Lane. 512-467-8900; eastsidepies.com)
The story: Longtime barman Noah Polk and Culinary Institute of America alumnus Michael Freid opened the first location of ESP in 2006 in an old fried fish joint, proving themselves East Austin visionaries, given the growth of the neighborhood in the decade since.
The pie: It’s not New York style. It’s not New Jersey style. It’s not Neapolitan style. It’s not like any other pizza in town. Farm-fresh toppings load a thin pie that extends to a cracker crust. ESP also offers alternate base sauces, like spinach-curry, black bean and hummus, but I stick to the traditional mild red sauce.
With meat: The Italian sausage, roasted red peppers and onions of the Chicago harken to sandwiches from Freid’s old stomping grounds, but my favorite may be the pungent, sweet and fatty Girther (gorgonzola, avocado and onions) with bacon added.
Vegetarian: Huge cloves of roasted garlic abound on the Mundi, which also delivers twirling roasted red and green peppers and translucent onions.
Passing on pizza? Try … Chewy garlic knots.
8. 40 North. (NOTE: Since this was originally published, 40 North has closed)
(1502 S. First St. 512-566-8321, 40northpizza.com)
The story: Clint Elmore had the chutzpah and vision to leave his legal career in New York and tackle pizza making. He studied in Naples and worked at Paulie Gee’s in Brooklyn before moving to Austin about three years ago with his partner, Pearl Schenkel. The couple opened their pizza trailer in December.
Style: Somehow Elmore turns out classic Neapolitan-style pies from a small trailer loaded with a wood-fired oven. The bottoms of the puffy, pliant pies proudly wear the black scars from their time near the flame.
With meat: Two New York imports star on the Hot Honey pie, with Mike’s Hot Honey (a viscous and spicy chili-infused honey) lending its fragrant glaze to delicate waves of paprika-popped hot coppa from Salumeria Biellese that bridge mounds of creamy ricotta.
Vegetarian: The Funghi: Thyme and sage give an herbaceous glow to the loamy depth of a gang of mushrooms.
Passing on pizza? Try … A farro salad packed with arugula, cucumbers and onions and dressed with balsamic vinaigrette.
(12005 U.S. 290 W. 512-394-7041, facebook.com/pieous)
The story: Joshua and Page Kaner this month celebrate the second anniversary of their restaurant at the edge of the Hill Country.
The pie: When the Kaners moved here from California in 2005, they brought a sourdough starter with them. It’s used to create the dough for the Neapolitan-style pies at the family-friendly restaurant. A slight crunch on the char-pocked airy edges gives way to pie that puts up the slightest resistance. When I first ate there in 2013, I wasn’t quite a believer. I am now. I’m not sure if I changed or the pizzas did. I think it was a little bit of both.
With meat: The Smoky Italian features crumbly sausage and roasted onions liberally spread across pools of mozzarella.
Vegetarian: The classic Margherita sings with the clarity of crushed tomatoes beneath undulations of cloud-like mozzarella.
Passing on pizza? Try … The restaurant, housed in the former Cartwright’s BBQ, smokes its own pastrami. The meat is peppery, tender and falls apart like an accordion.
(1610 S. Congress Ave. 512-441-7672, austinvespaio.com/enoteca)
The story: Vespaio’s charming little sister turns 10 this summer, a lifetime in restaurant years.
The pie: A lightly oiled, bronzed crust like a Mediterranean sun-bather. Stiffer through the middle than traditional Neapolitan pies.
With meat: The Salsiccia is imbued with the fragrant tingle of fennel on a pie marked with sweet red slashes of roasted peppers and melting moons of mozzarella.
Vegetarian: A subtly sweet tomato sauce covers a Margherita that seamlessly blends the colors of sun (golden crust), land (scattered shreds of bright basil) and sky (mozzarella).
Passing on pizza? Try … Handmade ravioli filled with confit chicken and haricots verts in a sumptuous gorgonzola cream sauce.
(507 San Jacinto Blvd. 512-474-9899, thebackspace-austin.com)
The story: Chef Shawn Cirkiel’s intimate and rustic spot behind Parkside turns 5 later this year.
The pie: Large, charred crusts are bubbled and chewy on these pies with sloppy centers.
With meat: The perfumed breath of fennel sausage sweeps across a pie jeweled with roasted red peppers and delicate orbs of mozzarella.
Vegetarian: Woodsy mushrooms, the herbaceous hum of thyme and the briny pop of capers create a striking complexity of flavors gentled by milky ricotta.
Passing on pizza? Try … Roasted butternut squash with ricotta and sage gremolata from a thoughtful antipasti list.
12. Austin Beer Garden Brewing Co.
(1305 W. Oltorf St. 512-298-2242, theabgb.com)
The story: A group of five friends opened this brewpub specializing in pizza in summer 2013.
The pie: With a buffed crust full of crackle and chew and topped with quality ingredients, this pie isn’t just for soaking up beer.
With meat: The specialty pies vary depending on seasonality and availability of ingredients, but I love the salty sweetness of a pancetta pie with baked-in apple and fennel.
Vegetarian: The grape tomatoes on the Margherita burst at the touch, splashing across the ripples of torn basil and the modest amounts of melted mozzarella cheese.
Passing on pizza? Try … Beer. Duh. My favorite is the Superliner India Pale Ale. Also worth a try: the avocado caprese salad with walnuts and cherries.
13. Salvation Pizza
(624 W. 34th St. 512-535-0076; 51 Rainey St. 512-499-0105; salvationpizza.com)
The story: Michael Dinsmore co-founded the restaurant in the old Starlite in 2006. He opened his second location, on Rainey Street, last month.
The pie: New Haven, Conn., one of the first homes of pizza in the United States, provides the inspiration for the pies at Salvation. The dough is pounded, not tossed, and the result is a pie slightly thinner than most New York-style pizzas with a light snap to the bite.
With meat: I’m not afraid to indulge in the nontraditional gimmick of salt-and-sweet that comes from baked Canadian bacon with chunks of fresh pineapple. For a taste of a New Haven original, get a waft of the seaside with a white clam pie enlivened by lemon and studded with bacon.
Vegetarian: #3: Artichokes, sundried tomatoes and eggplant make for a bittersweet pie with hints of earthiness.
Passing on pizza? Try … The crumble and gooey ooze of fried mozzarella.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled East Side Pies co-founder Michael Freid’s last name.