As a long-time Top Chef fan, I've seen so many dishes presented by the cheftestants that they tend to blend together. But I'll never forget Atlanta chef Richard Blais's peach and sweet tea pizza from the Season Four premiere. Blais didn't go on to win the title, but his pie demonstrated Georgia's potential as a destination for great pizza.
Indeed, the state of pizza in Georgia is just peachy. (Sorry, Slice'rs, I tried to resist.) Visitors and locals can choose from many excellent pizza places, a number of which have opened in the last few years as part of the pizza renaissance sweeping the country at large. Though there isn't necessarily one "Georgia style" that can be easily pinpointed, New York style pizza, Neapolitan pizza, bar pizza, and funky homegrown favorites are all well-represented.
It should be no surprise that Atlanta, a top city for serious eats not only in the Southeast but nationwide, boasts a number of excellent pizzerias, several of which have already been visited by Slice.
Varasano's Pizzeria: 2171 Peachtree Rd., Northeast Atlanta, GA 30309 (map); (404)352-8216; www.varasanos.com
Antico Pizza Napoletana: 1093 Hemphill Ave., Atlanta, GA 30318 (map); (404)724-2333; www.anticopizza.it
Max's Coal Oven Pizzeria: 300 Marietta Street NW, Atlanta GA 30313 (map); (404)974-2941; www.maxsatl.com
Moto Bene: Peachtree Road Farmers Market, 2744 Peachtree Road, Northwest Atlanta, Georgia 30305 (map); (404)654-3282; motobenepizza.com
It's probably against the law to blog about pizza without mentioning Varasano's Pizzeria, the realization of New York transplant Jeff Varasano's pizza dreams that opened in spring 2009. A lover of classic NYC pizza joint Patsy's, Varasano obsessively reverse-engineered his favorite pie in his tricked-out home oven. His documentation of this process attracted so much attention that the opening of his brick and mortar pizza joint was awaited with baited breath by Slice'rs nationwide. According to Slice's Daniel Zemans, the pizzeria has managed to more than live up to the hype:
The first thought I had was that while I knew he based his recipe on Patsy's, the pizzas at Varasano's were so much better than Patsy's that comparing the two is an insult to the newcomer.... In developing his mastery of pizza-making, Varasano was so focused on developing his crust that he didn't bother putting toppings on his pies for six years. The result is the epitome of the crisp exterior/soft interior crust. And thanks to some salt and the use of a sourdough starter, the crust has a taste every bit as good as the texture.... Years of a very public quest for the perfect pizza have paid off handsomely for Varasano. He is justifiably very proud of his work and now ranks his pizza among the top ten in the country, a claim he was unwilling to make when he last updated his pizza rankings online last year. I avoid making such rankings myself, but I'm not going to argue that he's wrong.
Hotlanta residents seeking a more traditional Neapolitan pizza experience would do well to visit Antico Pizza Napoletana. According to food critic Jennifer Zyman of the Blissful Glutton, Antico's wood-burning oven, perhaps unaware that it was shipped out of Napoli after being built, churns out authentic and, even more important, delicious pizzas that would be right at home in the old country. San Marzano tomatoes, properly creamy mozzarella di bufala, a tangy crust, and truly insane cooking temperatures work in harmony to satisfy serious eaters' cravings, at least until the filled-to-order cannoli and free espresso hit the table for dessert.
Max's Coal Oven Pizzeria, opened, like Varasano's, in 2009, is a solid option for pizza in the formerly pizza-bereft downtown area. According to Zemans, Max's pies, though not extraordinary, really shine thanks to their toppings:
At Max's, I have no idea what kind of tomatoes are used, but the sauce is delicious and put on the pizza with more generosity than I remember seeing on a coal oven pie. Another pleasant surprise was the sausage, which was unlike any I've had before. In addition to the traditional fennel, the sausage was seasoned with a healthy dose of nutmeg and some cinnamon, creating a sweet savory pork combination that really worked well.... Is Max's going to blow your mind? Probably not. But if you find yourself in downtown Atlanta craving some pizza, you could do a whole lot worse.
Have you even been strolling around a beautiful farmer's market and thought to yourself, This is nice and all, but I sure could use a good slice right now? What, just me? In any case, pizza lovers should check out Moto Bene, a mobile wood-oven pizzeria run by Batali alum Dan Latham that sets up in Atlanta farmer's markets and turns out artisanal pies using toppings purchased from the surrounding stalls. According to Zemans, who sampled a spicy sausage pie:
The freshness and quality of the ingredients was undeniable. The cheese, which comes from a local family-owned dairy called Johnston Family Farm was creamy and generously applied. The sausage had terrific flavor with a moderate amount of fennel. It was not quite as fatty as I would have liked, but the cheese more than ably balanced out that very minor flaw. The sauce was made from San Marzano tomatoes and was delicious.... The crust, like the rest of the pie, is a winner that I think will only get better as Latham cooks more pies.
While Atlanta is a strong pizza city, Zyman feels that the outlying region ("outside the perimeter" or "OTP" in local parlance) has even better options, perhaps because of its large population of transplanted New Yorkers. (New Yorkers demanding good pizza? Who knew?) This area of the state is probably the best bet for Slice'rs looking for ambitious, well-executed pizza in Georgia.
Northern Georgia Pizza
Pizzeria Fortunato: 5350 United Dr SE, Smyrna, GA 30082 (map); (770)432-7454; www.pizzeriafortunato.com
Vingenzo's: 105 E. Main Street #105 Woodstock, GA 30188 (map); (770)924-9133; www.vingenzos.com
Verra-Zanno Pizzeria: 11600 Medlock Bridge Road Johns Creek, GA 30097 (map); (678)473-0209; www.verra-zanno.com
Alpine Bakery & Pizzeria: 295 Rucker Rd # 140 Alpharetta, GA 30004-6679 (map); (770)410-9883; alpinebakeryandpizza.com
Smyrna's Pizzeria Fortunato comes highly recommended by Zyman and Creative Loafing, which selected the restaurant as its favorite Atlanta pizzeria of 2008, despite it being about 20 miles outside the city. Fortunato serves up huge New York style pies with everything in balance: charred crust, tasty sauce, and stretchy cheese. No worries if you can't finish off one of the big slices; they're great for reheating.
Further north you'll find two pizzerias, each about 40 minutes from Atlanta, that serve delicious pizza mainly to local office workers. Woodstock's Vingenzo's is a full-blown Neapolitan restaurant that puts a premium on super-fresh ingredients; their mozzarella is made from scratch, as is their fresh pasta and—need I say it?—their pizza dough. Duluth's Verra-Zanno Pizzeria, which I suspect may have been named to confuse Georgia pizza nerds, has a totally different vibe, offering up huge, flavorful, New York slices with good aged mozzarella and tasty crusts.
If you're having trouble choosing between Vingenzo's and Verra-Zanno, drive to the town of Alpharetta, halfway between Woodstock and Duluth, and pay a visit to Alpine Bakery & Pizzeria, founded by two New Yorkers who met in military service. Alpine offers three varieties of pizza: regular New York style pizza, three-cheese white pizza, and Sicilian pizza, all with many possible toppings. While the pizza is undeniably tasty, the bakery's signature standouts are other pizzeria favorites, such as sausage rolls and giant stromboli so delicious that the mere memory of them practically incapacitated Zyman during our telephone interview. (Whatever you do, don't miss the Italian stromboli, filled with assorted salumi.) If this isn't healthy enough for you, you can load up on the bakery's wide variety of cakes, pies, cookies, and other pastry.
Vinnie Van Go-Go's: 317 W Bryan St Savannah, GA 31401 (map); (912)233-6394; www.vinnievangogo.com
Screamin Mimi's: 513 E Oglethorpe Ave # P Savannah, GA 31401 (map); (912)236-2744; www.screaminmimispizza.com
Huca Poo's: 1213 US Highway 80 Tybee Island, GA 31328 (map); (912)786-5900; hucapoos.com
If you haven't been, you owe it to yourself to visit Savannah, a city so beautiful General Sherman left it intact as a gift to President Lincoln. After a day of strolling under the city's canopy of Spanish moss, skip Paula Deen's place and grab a slice instead. Your best bet is to go for thin-crust pizza, invariably served in a family-owned restaurant with a ridiculous name. On the mainland, you can get a good slice at Vinnie Van Go-Go's, which serves New York style 'za, or at Screamin Mimi's, which serves more of a Jersey-style pizza with an almost cracker-thin crust. Both are frequently praised in local media and on Georgia food message boards. Offshore, Huca Poo's on Tybee Island serves up solid bar-style pizza and a long list of beers.
If it's an indigenous Georgia pizza style you want, look no further than the Mellow Mushroom chain of pizzerias. Boasting psychedelic decoration that lives up to both its name and its founding in 1974, Mellow Mushroom serves deliberately over-the-top pies with lots of toppings and distinctly garlicky, bready crusts. As Michelle Humes wrote of her "House Special" pie for Slice:
Mellow Mushroom Pizza Bakers: Various locations; www.mellowmushroom.com
Defying expectations, the alarming variety of toppings was handled with restraint. The tomato sauce was, to my palate, a bit heavy on the oregano, but everything tasted fresh, and there wasn't the tsunami of orange oil that I've come to expect from big-chain "Meat-Lover's" pies. The star of the show, though, was that garlicky, unctuous crust—thick enough to sink your teeth into, but still thin enough to eat with your hand. Yellow with butter and stuccoed with cornmeal, this is a crust to save for last, not discard.
So, Slice'rs, what did we miss? Tell us about your favorite Georgia pizza joints in the comments below.
About the author: When not eating or cooking, Aaron Mattis finds time to study economics. His recipe column, "Taking the Heat," runs biweekly in the Scarsdale Inquirer.