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[Photographs: Hawk Krall]

Uncle Oogies

2119 W. Oregon Avenue, Philadelphia PA 19145; (map); 215-335-PIZZa;
Pizza style: Philly
Oven type: Gas
The skinny: Come for the cheesesteak pizza, stay for the Old Italian
Notes: Slices available, also great sandwiches and "belly buster fries"
Price: Old Italian, $12.99; tomato pie, $7.99; cheesesteak pizza, $12.99

Tucked way down at the Southwestern edge of Philadelphia (in a strip mall across the street from some sort of semi-abandoned military complex) lives one of the city's best kept pizza secrets. Since I moved to South Philly a few months ago, I've been exploring the exotic world of only-in-Philly pizza variations and Uncle Oogie's seems to make them all, and then some.

Most South Philly neighborhood pizza joints are little more than a takeout counter and maybe a table or two, but down here where the city starts to morph into suburbs there's a lot more space for a full dining room packed with cops and workers at lunchtime. The back is teeming with cooks cranking pizzas out of a huge multi-tiered oven that looks like the engine of the Starship Enterprise.

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Uncle Oogie's roster of pies is practically a museum of lesser known Philadelphia pizza variations. There's pizzaz (American cheese, pickled peppers, and tomato slices), upside-down pizza, tomato pie, breakfast pizza, buffalo chicken cheesesteak stromboli and the mysterious Old Italian, which is "quite possibly the best pizza on the planet" according to their menu.

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Almost every Philadelphia neighborhood pizzeria has their own version of a cheesesteak pizza. I've seen giant fold-over slices dripping with Cheese Whiz and strange concoctions like "cheesesteak hoagie pizza" topped with lettuce. Oogie's is a fairly restrained version: a round white pie piled with thinly sliced ribeye cheesesteak meat (the same they use for their sandwiches), American cheese and fried onions, on a slightly crackery crust. It was less greasy than I expected, but it pretty much tasted exactly like a cheesesteak in triangle form.

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Uncle Oogie's also does really well in the breakfast pizza category. In Philly, breakfast pizza isn't just a regular pie topped with eggs and bacon. Eggs and American cheese are poured onto pizza dough, usually with tomatoes. The cheese and eggs combine to create an almost custard-like texture. And it's often really eaten for breakfast, ordered the night before with dinner and reheated the next day.

Oogie's has several versions here including the "Junk Yard Dog" that's piled with ham, sausage, and pork roll. But the spinach breakfast slice we ordered was amazingly subtle; more like a South Philly quiche than the grease-fest you might expect from a place that also serves bacon cheesesteak cheese fries.

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But Uncle Oogie's Old Italian pizza is the best of all. It's a big, 16"-square pie with a thin, crispy crust, crushed fresh plum tomatoes (not sauce), and mozzarella cheese. It's scattered with fresh basil and grated parm when it comes out of the oven.

I've never really seen anything like it in Philadelphia, it's similar at some level to what some know as a "grandma slice" but much thinner. We tried half with crumbled sausage but plain and simple is really the way to go. Cheesesteak pizza and bacon buffalo fries are great for a thrill, but the Old Italian is something I'll come back for.

Pizza like this gives me hope for Philadelphia holding its own in the pizza world. When you look past the chicken-bacon-ranch-whiz concoctions, almost every neighborhood has some sort of old-school hidden pizza gem that's still cranking out pies the same way they did 30 years ago. And with Philly becoming more and more of a food destination, it's great to see these places thriving rather than struggling to survive.

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