Duel of the Massachusetts Sweet Sauce Pizza

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Sweet sauce pizza at Luigi's [Photographs: Meredith Smith]

At Slice, we're very much into regional pizza styles and the subtle variations that define them. In the case of sweet sauce pizza, however, all subtlety goes out the window.

That's because sweet sauce, as found in the seaside town of Beverly, Massachusetts, is actually what it sounds like: a very unsubtle sugar-sweet version of a standard-issue pizza shop sauce. Looking at one of these sweet sauce pies, you'd never know you were about to get something unusual; maybe it's a bit deeper in color than a normal pizza sauce might be, especially on the crust, where the heat noticeably browns the sauce's sugar. (Sweet sauce pizza is also found beyond Massachusetts: in Cincinnati and Chicago, for example.)

In Beverly, the sweet sauce debate has framed pizza conversations for years: you either want sweet sauce tonight, or you really, really don't. It breaks up families, this sauce. Friendships have ended. Who knew a pizza sauce could have this dark power? And this sauce's divisiveness, at least in Beverly, stretches back to a family with a secret recipe.

Hey, Slice'rs! Please welcome Meredith Smith, who'll be checking out the pizza scene in Massachusetts.—The Management

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Sweet sauce pizza at Little Italy

Some background: in the not-that-distant past (that is, sometime after whaling became illegal), an Italian couple named Mama Tina and Luigi Francavilla opened a pizza shop called Little Italy on Beverly's main drag, Cabot Street. They were famous for two things: amazing public displays of anger toward each other (and their customers), and sweet, sweet pizza sauce. In 2000 they sold Little Italy to a new owner, and the secret sweet sauce recipe with it. Then a couple of years later, their son Enzo opened another sweet sauce pizza place, Luigi's, less than a mile away. Enzo Francavilla sold Luigi's a few months ago, but the rivalry between the two pizzerias persists to this day. Go into Little Italy and talk about the "competition," and you will be met with expressions of contempt. Go into Luigi's and the same thing happens.

We recently put these pizzas to the test: in a head-to-head pizza standoff, which sweet-ass pizza is more sweet-ass? At both establishments, there is agreement on one issue: the sweet sauce does significantly alter the taste of even the most familiar toppings for the better, and it's probably worth a try just for that experience. A spicy topping and a shower of chili pepper flakes is recommended: the heat pulls out out the sweetness, adding depth and complexity.

Both places do a credible hand-stretched crust. Luigi's crust is superior: it has fuller flavor and better and more consistent structure, maintaining its elasticity while still being crispy. Little Italy's crust reminded us of matzoh, a comparison which might bother the owners.

Luigi's sauce was herb-laced and noticeably sweeter; it was impossible not to suspect some corn syrup—it had a bottled-barbecue-sauce sort of sweetness. Little Italy's sauce was less sweet tasting on the pizza, but it simultaneously tasted somehow more artificial, as if one sauce ingredient were tomato-flavored Jolly Ranchers. Luigi's was much more generous with their thicker sauce; Little Italy's pie had a loose, thin sauce, which may have cut the perceived sweetness somewhat.

Both pizza shops use standard-issue shredded mozzarella; meats at both places were sliced by hand. Little Italy used what seemed to be a jarred minced garlic as a topping.

While certainly worth a visit, both establishments both rely a bit too much on the novelty of the sauce and don't pay enough attention to some of the other basics. Of the two, Luigi's, the upstart, comes out ahead: it has a better—and sweeter—pie.

Little Italy
294 Cabot Street, Beverly MA 01915 (map) 978-922-4704; littleitalybeverly.com
Luigi's
38 Rantoul, Beverly, MA 01915 (map) 978-922-2828 ‎

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