When it comes to pizza, we’re not going to argue that Richmond’s on a level with Chicago and New York. But after weeks of scarfing down slices in nearly 50 restaurants from Mechanicsville to Short Pump, from Ashland to the South Side suburbs, Richmond magazine writers have found some pies worth leaving your neighborhood to taste. (We also discovered a little thickness around the waistline.)
Suggestions came from readers’ Best and Worst votes and a wide-ranging panel of experts, including our food reviewers. Our tasters made their judgments on taste, topping quality and distribution, pizza temperature and restaurant service.
Note to many, many local pizzerias: If you had gone with fresh mushrooms, you might have made it on our list of the 16 best, in no particular order.
We also give you the scoop on white pizza, places that deliver into the wee hours, pies sold by the slice and the slightly frightening desserts sold by the major chains. Domino’s Oreo pizza, anyone?
Our Supreme 16 Pizza Places
401 Strawberry St., 358-8505
Along with partner Brad Wein and crew, local Italian-food legend Ed Vasaio of Mamma ‘Zu and Edo’s Squid fame puts out a mean, 12-inch-ish thin pie. It’s a recipe Vasaio learned from his father, and if you ever visited Washington, D.C.’s late, lamented AV Ristorante Italiano, you may have tried 8 ½’s pizza prototype. Red pizza displays a wonderful balance of crust, garlic-laden sauce, browned mozzarella and flavor-oozing pepperoni and sausage. White fontina-cheese versions, breakfast pizza (available all day, with pancetta, mortadella or sausage, plus fontina, onion and eggs baked on top) and calzones are also offered and all start at only $8.
The Pizza Place
1731 E. Main St., 343-1300
You may have found yourself there at 2 a.m., waiting impatiently at the end of a line of hungry partiers. But have you been to The Pizza Place in the daylight? You might be surprised to know that what satisfies late night pulls its weight during the day too. The crust is impossibly thin, the cheese and sauce appropriately minimal, and toppings were seasoned and tasty. Owner Tony Chater is from Manhattan and used to have a pizza place in the Bronx. Dough is made each morning, and Chater says how you layer the toppings makes a big difference in the result. After midnight, he sells strictly by the slice and makes a 21-inch pie so his slices are extra big: “That’s a real New York slice,” he says.
Bottoms Up Pizza
1700 Dock St., 644-1400; 11389 Nuckols Road, 249-2000
If a more “Richmond” pizza experience exists than dining downtown urban-al-fresco-style as passing trains and interstate traffic whiz overhead, we can’t think of it. Thin-crust pizzas are offered, but their signature thick crust — crafted also to be light and airy, according to general manager Charlie Lichter — is what has made them a true local favorite. Come hungry because a medium 12-inch Karen Combo (weighs 4 to 5 pounds) stuffed two hungry adults with its heaping helpings of delicious fresh spinach, ricotta, Italian sausage and onions. There’s a second, separately owned West End location on Nuckols Road.
4602 Millridge Parkway, 744-2545
If you prefer a gourmet pie, look no further than this popular white-tablecloth restaurant tucked away in Brandermill. Beyond spectacular views, optional outside seating and nautical chic décor, the Neapolitan-style “wood stone” oven pizzas are worth the trip. The challenge is deciding which to order. The pies topped with crabmeat and herbed cheese, and barbecue chicken are patron favorites, but there are other tempting combos: pear-and-gorgonzola, the Greco (Greek pizza) and chicken Romana. Servers beeline pies to their tables as they come out of the oven for that glorious first hot bite.
1319 W. Main St., 475-7272
At Alley Katz during shows, 10 Walnut Alley, 433-5910
With a PlayStation 2, a pool table, tabletop foosball and a spread of reading material that includes a healthy selection of comic books, Crusty’s, located beneath the legendary Lost Sock laundromat on Main Street, is a cozy spot to relax while your pizza’s being prepared. Owner Russ “Crusty” Duerr and manager Mark “Crispy” Wampler work their magic using a wood-fired brick oven fueled by hickory and oak. Crusty’s features plenty of specialty pizzas named for music legends, such as the Johnny Cash — ricotta, spinach, onion and sausage. But even when we stripped away the flash and went for basic pies, the crispy crust and tangy red sauce had us at hello. A word to the wise: Crusty’s is cash only, so hit the ATM before you swing by.
3054 Stony Point Road, 560-1613
Frank’s West Pizzeria Italian
11238 Patterson Ave., 754-8380
Frank Carollo is from Sicily, but he credits Brooklyn with the origins and secrets to his pizza making. “This is New York pizza. I don’t like Italy pizza,” he says. Carollo opened Frank’s Pizzeria in Bon Air in ’91 and Frank’s West in ’99, and he still gets his ingredients delivered weekly from Brooklyn. While his crust is New York-thin and the cheese-to-sauce ratio is a perfect balance, there are elements Carollo can’t account for like Virginia water, which causes small differences in the product. Carollo says Richmonders like more toppings than New Yorkers, but an enduring favorite is a white pizza with ricotta, mozzarella, provolone and garlic. Also, don’t miss the prosciutto, basil and Parmesan combination. Frank’s sells 12- and 16-inch pizzas, and the Stony Point location has a brick oven that’s used only in the winter, because in the warm weather “it takes all our air conditioning out.”
7052 Commons Plaza, 425-1003
The ambiance at this establishment is reminiscent of a 1970s school lunchroom, complete with rectangular pizzas served on cafeteria-style trays. The unconventional shape can be traced back to the 1950s, when the first Ledo opened in College Park, Md. Circular trays, which had just hit the market, were too expensive. Chesterfield location owner Jerry Coyle and his former partner were thinking of starting a pizzeria, when his partner’s neighbor, a University of Maryland grad, suggested they try Ledo, and that’s all she wrote. Fresh toppings are evenly dispersed over homemade sauce and a bubbly layer of smoked provolone cheese on a cracker-thin, grease-free crust (the result of the chef shaping it by hand instead of tossing it).
Candela’s Pizzeria & Ristorante Italiano
2021 Huguenot Road, 560-1678
14235 Midlothian Turnpike, 379-0910
Candela’s is an unqualified pleasure. A slice of New York-style pizza covered with thick rounds of sausage and mushrooms can only be described — at risk of alerting the cliché police — as heaven. Crisp crust, tangy sauce and a proper amount of cheese (not so much that it takes away from the other ingredients), plus a charming staff and a large-screen TV make the Huguenot Road location a great neighborhood pizzeria. And West Enders, heed our call: The pies are good enough to warrant a drive across the river.
6221 River Road, 282-1509
When a restaurant has invested in a brick oven you know something good is coming your way. Azzurro prides itself on its Neapolitan-style pizza, but owner David Both is tight-lipped about revealing more details, except that the dough’s ingredients are important to its success. Azzurro’s 10-inch pizzas get points for the unusual topping combinations — like the Medditerraneo’s pesto base with spinach, fresh tomato, mozzarella, goat cheese, Parmesan, onion and kalamata olives. Both says the classic Margherita pizza with fresh tomato, mozzarella and basil is probably their most popular.
Papa Lou Pizza
8191-B Brook Road, 262-1221
Owner Steve Farag hails from Cairo, Egypt, but claims half-Italian and half-Greek ancestry, a heritage that comes with a winning family recipe for pizza. Forget dining by the slice here — each pie is made to order. Papa Lou’s crust, perfectly browned on the bottom, is liberally covered in a spice-tinged tomato sauce. The pie’s not exactly loaded with toppings — we chose pepperoni and mushrooms — but they are evenly distributed between the slightly browned cheese layer and the sauce, with savory results. Papa Lou’s business is primarily takeout and delivery; the mouth-watering smell of the pie cajoled us into eating our first slice in the parking lot.
11400 W. Huguenot Road, 379-9899
We won’t mince words: Bottega Bistro is not your everyday pizza joint. It’s a fine restaurant with romantic lighting, so you won’t want to wear your tired blue jeans there. That said, its brick-oven pie (fueled only with hickory wood) would make any pizza connoisseur happy with its crisp crust. Chef Travis Milton notes the dough is “very yeasty,” but the most work went into the combination of cheeses: fresh mozzarella and provolone, plus low-sodium mozzarella to keep the pizza from becoming too weighed down. The flavorful tomato sauce is close to liquid when your pizza emerges from the oven, so keep your napkin handy. The service is thoughtful, splitting up a pie on two plates unasked when customers decide to share.
4809 Forest Hill Ave., 230-9055
The sauce could stand to be punched up, but fresh mushrooms and spicy sausage slices make Maldini’s pie a winner. The crust is crisp and a little chewy inside, and the pickup pizza’s temperature was just right, even after arriving home. Cheese, says general manager Marcello Armetta, is the most important ingredient on a pizza, so the restaurant imports it from Italy. Maldini’s is part of the family dynasty that owns Mary Angela’s, Piccola and now Arianna’s Grill. Armetta says all of the businesses use the same pizza recipe, but often with different results, depending on the cook. For example, Mary Angela’s slices (see next) are thinner and floppier than those at Maldini’s.
Mary Angela’s Pizza and Subs
3345 W. Cary St., 353-2333
Two decades a Carytown institution, Mary Angela’s has you covered whether you crave their more-popular New York-style pizza or thicker Sicilian-pan version. Co-owner Mario Lopresti claims their success has much to do with using the same great recipe since day one. Loaded with pepperoni, sausage, onion, mushroom and green pepper, Mary Angela’s Special is a good bet. Even better it would be, however, with smaller chunks of bell pepper and crust that’s just a tad crispier. By-the-slice, calzone and stromboli are available and there are tons of topping choices.
7 N. 23rd St., 788-7077
Head down to Shockoe Bottom’s Sette for a fire-roasted pizza that will leave your taste buds sizzling. The menu features personal-sized 10-inch thin-crust pizzas bathed in white or red sauce and toasted to perfection in the brick fire oven. The dough and sauces are made in-house and topped with generous amounts of whole-milk mozzarella cheese. We ordered the Wild Mushroom Pizza, which comes loaded with sun-dried tomatoes, fresh Portobello mushrooms and just enough Shiitake mushrooms to give the pie a distinctly tangy flavor.
12420 Gayton Road, 740-6593
Brothers Joaquin and Alfredo Alvarado came here from El Salvador, not exactly a pizza Mecca, but that doesn’t stop them from making great pies. They opened Sal Cataldo’s about 10 years ago and have been dishing up Italian ever since. The crust’s texture is the perfect mix of thick and thin with a delectably crunchy bottom and tangy sauce. The restaurant’s interior is pretty bare bones, but the service is friendly and there are kid-friendly placemats with pizza word-finds and Italian-themed games to keep little ones occupied while the food cooks. Stop in on Wednesday nights, when a large cheese pizza is only $6.99 and a medium is only $5.99.
Southern Railway Deli
100 S. 14th St., 343-1770
Try just a slice of the Southern Railway Deli’s stone-oven gourmet pizza, and you’ll end up taking home a whole 16-inch pie. One of Shockoe Bottom’s newest establishments, the deli features cafeteria-style food stations. Pizza pilgrims can select their choice of toppings from more than 16 fresh vegetables, cheeses and meats enticingly displayed in countertop bowls. Pizzas are cooked to order in the Old World-style oven and then served with a smile. Our favorite: the House Special Pizza, which features the deli’s secret yogurt sauce, mozzarella and spinach. (Oh, and check out the “beer-and-a-slice” specials Friday night.)
By Chad Anderson, Kate Andrews, Carrie Belt, Jack Cooksey, Carrie Nieman Culpepper, Martin Gravely, Megan Marconyak, Sarah K. McDonald and Ashley Nichols