Baltimore: Pizza John's

Editor's note: And our roving pizza correspondent, Philip G., checks in from the Old Line State, good ol' Maryland. Buon appetito, ladies and gents! —Kuban


20080501-pizzajohns.jpgAsk any Baltimorean about what makes the Baltimore food scene special, and there is sure to be one answer: Crabs.

Crap. This is a pizza site.

When I thought about doing a series on Baltimore pizza, I knew exactly where I had to start: Pizza John's. I have been reading about Pizza John's for a few years now. It always seems to break into the top 5 of AOL Cityguide's Best Pizza in Baltimore, and it comes up from time to time on Chowhound, but up until recently I had never made the trip to visit.

Pizza John's has been a Baltimore area staple since 1966. It was a carryout-only operation up until 1981, when it added a seating area. The space was renovated and expanded in 2004. It is now a giant, mustard-colored building with a highly stylized exterior—almost reminiscent of a full-service chain restaurant. Oh, and it has a 12-foot-tall pizza guy statue standing out front. Confused? Me too. But he's been standing on that street since 1977, so leave him alone.

Walking in to the building, you will more than likely behave one of two ways.

1. Either you're a local, in which case you'll order and confidently take your seat

2. You're from Pennsylvania, writing a review for a pizza blog, and are totally baffled by the whole set-up.

Thankfully, they have some pretty well-designed signage telling you exactly what it is you're supposed to do.

The process is basically as follows:

1. You tell cashier (who is in full uniform, complete with nurse's scrubs and 1950s soda-jerk hat) what you want.

2. You pay cashier.

3. Cashier hands you drinks (your options include not just soda but wine and pitchers of beer the size of a small child).

4. You sit patiently in the large dining room (seriously folks, there are like 250 seats here), waiting for your number to be called.

While I waited for my pizza (half cheese/half pepperoni) I stood in awe of the guys working the oven. The house-made dough is run through a sheeter, prepped on a dual pizza peel, and stuck two at a time into a giant rotisserie-like rotating oven. Looking through the window at the identically dressed workers at the magical oven, matched with the massive size of the dining room, and the giant pizza dude in front of the building, I came to the following realization: This is the Willy Wonka Factory of pizza places.

Shortly after receiving a funny look from pieman number one, my order was called. I could see the pizza steaming from the counter and quickly rushed it back to the table. The first thing I noticed about it was the rather odd decoration (of sorts)—ridges pressed on the outside of the crust just before baking.

The pepperoni on this pizza is a thing of beauty. Each individual piece cooks into a nice little cup of grease with a satisfying crunch—very delicious. The crust is crisp with almost no foldability; a result of the dough being run through a sheeter. This doesn't matter much, as it mainly acts as a solid base for the clear centerpiece of a Pizza John's pizza—the sauce. It is slightly sweet and goes nicely with the spicy taste of the pepperoni and the milky taste of the mozzarella.

At some point during my quest for pizza nirvana, I realized it was silly to attempt to classify a pizza into one specific style. Pizza is either tasty and enjoyable to eat or it isn't. It comes in about 20 different varieties, each one more unique than the last. So while Pizza John's doesn't conform to any New York or Neapolitan standards, it's good pizza. Past that, Pizza John's is a testament to entrepreneurial spirit and a family's dedication to its craft. Instead of taking the road to world domination like the pizza chain with a similar name, the owners of Pizza John's decided to stay local, taking their small carryout joint and turning it into a fun experience for the entire neighborhood. If I lived in Baltimore, I would be proud to call Pizza John's my hometown joint.

Pizza John's

113 Back River Neck Road, Essex MD 21221 410-687-7733