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[Photographs: Casey Barber]

Luigi's Pizza Fresca

529 Old Marlton Pike, Marlton NJ 08053 (map); 856-810-8888; luigispizzafresca.com
The skinny: A crazy number of fresh toppings offers something for the whole family
Price: Slices $2.50; whole pies $11-$17

I'm not one to watch a movie just because it won an Oscar or to read a book because Oprah told me to, but when a pizza joint gets voted as South Jersey's Best Over the Top Toppings and Best Sicilian pizzeria, I'm going to make a point to stop in and see if they're right. Just to be contrary, you know.

Luigi's Pizza Fresca, the much-lauded pizzeria in question, has evolved from a single strip mall location into a mini-empire with three outposts in south Jersey and two across the river in Philadelphia. Its flagship in Marlton is an unassuming, though rigorously clean, counter service setup with gaudy neon accents for a little boardwalk flavor. The "fresh ideas in pizza," as the storefront advertises, are most definitely coming from the food and not the decor.

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Despite an impressive list of specialty pies—the Caruso, with rosemary potatoes and red onions, sounded like a fever dream marrying Pizzeria Bianco with good old Jersey—the wall of pizzas available by the slice, with toppings stretching down the line, proved too irresistible. Both picky and indecisive pizza eaters will have a field day gazing through the glass at Luigi's, and those who wanted those crispy potatoes or a plate of broccoli rabe slicked with olive oil can get it on the side anyway.

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It would likely have been lost in the carnivorously crowded meat lovers' pizza, but on its own, the house-made sausage shines (and glistens). Browned in its own fat, then shredded instead of being broken into large chunks, the fennel-flecked sausage covers each slice in copious, meltingly crisp piles. On another thin-crust slice, spoonfuls of fresh ricotta are downright indulgent when eaten by the mouthful but equally extravagant when smeared messily across the slice (with fingers, not forks, right?) to blend the creamy curds with fresh tomato sauce. The same ricotta comes on the baked ziti pizza as well as the Godfather, where it's compounded by prosciutto, pesto, mozzarella, and Parmesan. Lordy.

As for the Sicilian, further research is required to determine whether or not this particular version truly stands above the rest—first world problems, eh?—but those who think Philadelphia tomato pies are too thick and focaccia-like but grandma slices are just right will fare pretty well at Luigi's. With a buttery crunch from its time in the pan, the crispy undercarriage holds onto the simple, chunky tomato sauce and basic mozzarella admirably. Even non-corner slices carry a hefty swath of crust: the guys who stretch out the dough clearly have the ratio down pat.

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The pizzas themselves proved the critics right, but the multi-generational family commandeering a whole section of tables for a banquet-style feast on a Friday afternoon was the unintentional best testimonial to Luigi's local fame. Everyone from the grandmother who stopped to say hi to a local doctor ("Remember? You fixed my daughter's wrist, and now I've got two grandkids' bar mitzvahs coming up. Bless you!") to the kids who'll presumably be bar mitzvah-ed soon, had their preferred order at the ready. ("Old fashioned!" "Ziti!")

They asked if they could borrow one of my chairs for the oversize brood—I should have volunteered my entire table so they'd join me and share a few more slices.

About the author: Casey Barber is the editor of Good. Food. Stories., a freelance food writer, and a transplanted Pittsburgher making the most of the Garden State. Find her on Twitter: @GoodFoodStories

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