The United States of Pizza: Alabama
Note: This post marks the first in a 50-entry series of—you guessed it—pizza state by state. We asked Slice–Serious Eats correspondent Jenn Sit to poll the local experts, troll the various culinary boards, and basically get the lowdown on the pizza chowdown in all corners of the country. We'll be dishing these slices alphabetically, starting with Alabama. Have at it, Jenn! —The Mgmt.
When I was six years old, I drew myself holding a slice of pizza, with a side ponytail, under the words, "I like pizza becauce is it good" [sic] (topped with canned mushrooms, one of my favorite toppings then and now—a love which likely kills my pizza cred, but, whatever, I’m true to my stomach). I had my birthday parties at Pizza Hut and read books voraciously to earn my Personal Pan Pizzas through the Book It! Program (I probably owe my English degree to pizza). When I visited my late great-aunt in Brooklyn, there was always a slice of mushroom pizza waiting for me—even though she spoke not a word of English and must have somehow pantomimed her way through the ordering process.
Years later, in his guide on the subject, pizza poobah Ed Levine would put this kind of adoration in a much more eloquent way:
Pizza is a perfect food. It is always some combination of sweet, creamy, salty, hot, crisp, chewy, tangy, and crunchy. You can eat it standing up or sitting down or even walking.... The appeal of pizza crosses all ethnic, racial, and class lines. Everybody, from working class families to college kids to multibillionaires, loves pizza.
As a New Yorker, these words ring absolutely true to me. New York City, after all, is filled not only with pizza lovers but the pizza-obsessed—as is the rest of the Pizza Belt and Chicago. But what about regions that don't have a pizza history as obvious or as lengthy?
With the pizza boom that's been sweeping the country (serious pizzerias with dedicated pie-makers are opening in every corner of the U.S.), we thought we'd take a survey of the slicescape. Is there more than just chain pizza in Nebraska? Is there a serious slice to be had in Alaska? Starting with Alabama and ending in Wyoming, state by state, pie by pie, The United States of Pizza will answer just that.
The Best Pizza in Alabama: A Preliminary Survey
Bettola: 2901 2nd Avenue South, Birmingham AL 35233 (map); 205-731-6497
Alabama and Italy may have more in common that you think: a love of simple fresh food that’s enjoyed with no matter to class, warmth and hospitality expressed through soulful home-cooked meals, and perhaps most of all, reverence and pride for the perfect tomato in summer.
With this primal connection to the purity and simplicity of ingredients in mind, renown Alabama chef Frank Stitt opened Bottega and Bottega Café in Birmingham, where pizzas are served from the huge brick wood-fired oven that sits at the heart of the more casual café (2240 Highland Avenue South, Birmingham AL 35205; 205-933-2001). There you can get pies topped with roasted sweet peppers and Alecia’s Tomato Chutney (a Stitt favorite produced in Leeds) or grilled chicken, pesto, aged provolone, and mozzarella.
But when asked where he gets his favorite pie outside of Bottega, Stitt doesn't even hesitate: Bettola (2901 2nd Avenue South, Birmingham AL 35233; 205-731-6497). As another wood-fired oven pizzeria in Birmingham, Bettola joins Bottega in serving up serious Neapolitan pies.
Although these two are certainly producing beautifully crafted delicious pizzas, I was left wondering if there was a much-loved pizza of a different pedigree (though not necessarily lesser)—the pizza you get with the whole team after a baseball game, the slice you get the moment you drive home from a long trip away. We’re not talking fancy-pants pizza here—we’re talking the pizza you were raised on, the pizza that tastes like home. In Mountain Brook, depending on whom you talk to of course, that pizza is Davenport’s (2837 Cahaba Road, Mountain Brook, AL 35223; 205-879-8603).
Alabama Pizza Map
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Davenport’s, named after Jim Davenport of the San Francisco Giants, has been serving thin, crisp round pies cut into small squares for more than 40 years, donning the tagline, “Nothing compares to the square!” Love of Davenport’s clearly spans generations—now with its own Facebook group, “I Love Jim Davenport’s Pizza” (with more than 800 members), Alabamians who grew up on these tiny squares recall when the vintage arcade game weren’t so “vintage,” the vintage movie star photos, the classic red delivery truck, the annual family gatherings. Though some may say that only locals think Davenport’s is “good pizza”—those who love it most know it’s more than just the pizza that makes it a hometown legend.
On various food-related message boards, other old-school joints like Corsino’s in Montgomery and Carnaggio’s in Birmingham, are noted but the consensus seems to be that they're perhaps not what they used to be.
Chicago-Style Deep Dish
If you’re looking for Chicago-style deep dish down South, locals point to Tortuga's Homemade Pizza in Hoover (2801 John Hawkins Parkway, Hoover AL 35244; 205-403-9800). A few years back, Alabama Tourism created an incredibly popular list (and an epic road-trip just waiting to happen), 100 Dishes to Eat in Alabama Before You Die. Along with Tortuga’s deep-dish stuffed pizza, there were three other pizza offerings: Cosmo’s Pizza in Birmingham, grilled chicken pizza at the Lumpkin House in Albertville, and Tony’s Pizza & Steak Restaurant in Montgomery.
If that’s not enough—here’s something to look forward to: Stitt tells me that Brian Somershield, his former chef de cuisine at Chez Fonfon, is now opening a Roman-style joint called Za Za Trattoria in downtown Birmingham.
So pizza eaters, any Alabamians out there? Did we miss anything? Who serves your favorite slice or pie?
[Next installment: Alaska. Bring on the reindeer sausage!]