Pizza Capital of the World: Tasting Our Way Through Old Forge, PA

Editor's Note: Journalists Michael and Larissa Milne are serious about their pizza. When they told us they'd paid a recent visit to Old Forge, PA as part of a worldwide pizza tour, we wanted to know more. Here's what they had to say about the town that calls itself "Pizza Capital of the World."

[Photographs: Michael Milne]

Is a coal mining town in northeastern Pennsylvania the pizza capital of the world?

When we think of the best places for pizza, our thoughts normally drift to New York or Italy. But the town of Old Forge, Pennsylvania claims to be the "Pizza Capital of the World." Pizza is almost a religious experience in Old Forge, particularly on Friday nights during Lent, when you'll find lines out the door.

Old Forge is located in northeastern Pennsylvania, just 5 miles from Scranton. With a population of only 8,300 supporting over a dozen pizzerias, it may rank high when it comes to pizza per capita, but pizza capital? Those seemed like big words for such a small town, so we decided to take a trip to Old Forge to see, and taste, for ourselves.

Old Forge is a close-knit former mining town, with sizeable Italian- and Polish-American communities. This blend of cultures finds its way into the town's pizzerias, which also offer pan-fried pierogis and the likes. Along Main Street, you'll be hard-pressed to find businesses that aren't pizzerias; there are none of the diners, sandwich shops, or Chinese restaurants that typically dot rural East Coast towns.

The namesake style of pizza is baked in rectangular metal trays, not unlike Sicilian pizza. But that's where the similarities end—with its pale white crust, it looks at first glance like a frozen pie. The sauce consistently has a sizable portion of onions; whether they're chopped chunky or sliced thin is up to the individual chef. Some pizzerias make their crust fresh daily, while others buy it directly from Agostini's, a commercial bakery on the edge of town.

But what really seems to distinguish Old Forge pizza is a penchant for unusual cheese blends. Though different at each establishment, combinations range from classics like mozzarella, Parmesan, and Pecorino Romano to less common pizza cheeses like American and cheddar.

Our pilgrimage started at Arcaro & Genell, which proudly advertises their ranking as a "Top 10 pizza in America," a rating which comes by way of USA TODAY circa 1983. We sunk into black vinyl booths that were as thick as the back seat of a '57 Chevy. With Frank Sinatra playing on the radio, we felt like we were making a cameo appearance in the 1950s-era restaurant from the movie Big Night.

Since we were newbies, our cheery waitress Amanda guided us through the ways of Old Forge-style pizza. For starters, a whole pizza is not called a pie but a tray, and individual slices are cuts—call it anything else and you'll be instantly identified as an out-of-towner. Trays come in a traditional red and a white; at most places, the latter is actually a double-crust pizza similar to a calzone, made by folding the dough over the toppings.

We selected cuts of the classic red pizza with "original" crust (not the thinner variation), the double-crust pizza with spinach, and a half tray of the single-crust white topped with fresh tomato, garlic, and onion. The sauce on the red tray had the classic Old Forge taste, oniony and a bit sweet. The pans are brushed with olive oil, giving the crust a crispy bottom that gives way to a chewy layer beneath the sauce. The cheese was a blend that we guessed was mozzarella, American, and cheddar, but Amanda refused to reveal state secrets.

The single-crust white was garnished with fresh tomatoes, raw onions, and a pesto-style blend of freshly minced garlic and dried basil. Both pizzas met with our immediate approval. The cheese blend may not be traditional, but these guys made it work.

Thinking of the day ahead, we tried not to fill up and moved on to Mary Lou's, tucked into a residential neighborhood in a nondescript tan stucco building. As we approached, we breathed in the garlic-scented aromas filling the spring air. The charming Mary Lou, a spry grandmother of eight, is ably assisted by her grandson, Joe. Her pizza education started early in life when her mother passed along a prized family recipe; the steady stream of customers picking up pre-ordered trays was a testament to her pizza's popularity.

Mary Lou carefully checked the crusts on the pies baking in her Universal oven. When told that some pizzerias are now using conveyor belts, she made a face and said, "I'm too old-fashioned for that." The crisp crust is lighter and airier than the others we encountered in Old Forge, while the sauce—the best of the day—was a perfect blend of onions and sweet tomato.

We were pretty full at this point, but as we were driving out of town, we made one last stop at Elio G's to watch Elio and Tom work through the dinner rush. Elio mentioned that his grandmother, Nonni Ghigiarelli, invented Old Forge-style pizza in 1926 as a snack for card players at the bar she and her husband owned. According to Elio, it was an immediate hit and Old Forge culinary history was made.

We snatched up one of Elio's most popular pies, Nonni's Italian Classic, topped with chili flakes, anchovy paste, and olive oil. The precise components of his cheese blend are heavily guarded, but it appears that Elio uses a combination of mozzarella and sharp provolone.

To locals, their hometown pizza is a comfort food that's eaten to both celebrate life and mark its passing. At Elio G's, a vivacious silver-haired woman stopped in to pick up five trays for a surprise 40th birthday party for her daughter. At Mary Lou's, a New Hampshire doctor who grew up in the area was picking up several trays to share with his family, gathered together in support of his father, currently in hospice care. He told us, "I was raised on this pizza. It tastes like home to me."