Where to Eat Pizza in Philadelphia Right Now
In late January, ten months into a global pandemic, I went on one of the weirdest dates of my life. My husband, Eric, dropped me off on a corner in South Philly, and I walked alone down a narrow street lined with stout red brick row houses, headed to an address that had been texted to me a few hours before. As I approached, a man in black sweatpants and sneakers swung open a storm door and handed me an unmarked brown box in exchange for my crisp twenty.
I took the box back to my husband, who was idling in our black minivan. Inside was a pizza, dappled with fresh mozzarella and torn basil, circled by a crust so perfectly charred that it looked like it came out of a 25,000 dollar pizza oven instead of someone's home kitchen. We ate it in the car without speaking, at 4:25 on a Thursday afternoon. The pizza, from an offbeat operation called ParmaJawn, is transformative. It's so good, in fact, you'd stalk Instagram for a chance to claim a slot on a form they release a couple of times a week, and then stalk around a side street in South Philly looking for the right door.
It's part of the flood of excellent pies in the city that's making Philadelphia one of America's best pizza cities.
Though we've seen a boom in recent years, Philly has always been home to good pizza. Thanks to a long history of Italian immigration, dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries, we have the second largest Italian-American population in the U.S., according to census data. We claim the oldest Italian restaurant in America: Ralph's, opened in 1900. Red gravy runs through our veins. And long before slice joints were as ubiquitous as Eagles jerseys, there was Tacconelli's. Fans can still call a day before to reserve the dough at the fifth-generation shop, cranking out brick oven-baked pies since before World War II. Santucci's started serving its famed square pies, sauce on top, in 1959, and nearly 40 years in, La Rosa still slings its thick, pan-baked slices from a modest spot on Broad Street.
Around 2013, Philly started to see what local pizzaiolo Daniel Gutter calls the "new age of pizza." Pizza Brain launched in Fishtown the year prior, chef Marc Vetri opened his eponymous shop making Neapolitan-style pies near the Art Museum, and Joe Beddia started making 40 pies a day from a 300-square-foot space in Fishtown, garnering loyal fans and national acclaim, and leaving an indelible mark on the city's culinary scene writ large. (You can order one of his famed pies now—along with salads and natural wine—from a table at the new incarnation, Pizzeria Beddia.)
Back then, Gutter was making pizzas at the Drexel Hill outpost of local chain Cocco's, where he spent nearly a decade learning and laying the groundwork for his pizza dreams. After working for some of the city's best pizza makers, and doing pop-ups, selling pizzas he made from the wood-fired oven in his parents' backyard, Gutter now runs Circles+Squares with business partner Alex Carbonell, along with Pizza Plus, Bourbon and Branch, and The Commodore. Their collection of spots is just part of Philly's pizza explosion over the last few years. "Right now, we have a lot of people who are dedicated to using high-quality ingredients," says Joe Beddia. "In 2013, you couldn't put that many great pizzas on one hand."
Nowadays, you'd need way more hands to count Philly's outstanding pizzas. And it's not just one type of pizza, either. Even with dozens of new pizza shops (and restaurants, pop-ups, and questionably legal South Philly operations) converging to make Philly a truly great pizza town, no one I talked to thinks we're close to saturation. "There's so much room, there could be a pizza shop on every corner making delicious pies and they would all be busy," says Gutter. Beddia agrees. "It's a good time to eat pizza in Philadelphia."
Below, find just a small slice of Philly's best pies.
In 2019, Danny DiGiampietro relocated his popular Haddonfield pizza and sandwich shop, Angelo's, to 9th Street in South Philly, where he churns out some of the most coveted pies in the city. Order the massive, pan-style Upside Down Jawn, and you and your entire family can happily feast for days. angelospizzeriasouthphiladelphia.com
Down North, Circles+Squares
Daniel Gutter's "squares" are crispy frico-crusted Detroit-style pies, which are having their own moment here, with the addition of NYC import Emmy Squared in the fall of 2019, and, more recently, chef Kurt Evans' Down North. The North Philly shop Evans opened with business partner Muhammed Abdul-Hadi is mission-driven, employing formerly incarcerated men and women (paying a fair wage and, in some cases, offering housing) with the goal of reducing recidivism in Black communities. Meanwhile, Down North pizzas, including inventive pies like the Flip Side, with BBQ beef bacon, caramelized pineapples, and jalapeños, have been selling out daily since they officially opened their doors last month. pizzawhat.com; downnorthpizza.com
Pizzata, Gigi Pizza
Neapolitan shops, making pies with dramatic ovens and simple, stellar ingredients are proliferating. Gigi opened in the fall of 2019 in Queen Village, and Pizzata opened in Rittenhouse just last October. Davide Lubrano trained at the Roman Pizza Academy and hails from Naples, where his father runs a pizzeria, and Vinny Gallagher won the USA Caputo Cup in 2019. The dream team is crafting beautiful Neapolitan pies with burrata, soppressata, and other classic toppings. pizzatapizzeria.com; gigipizzaphilly.com
"The Philly pizza industry is so beautiful, because we all have a different product, and we all talk to each other," says Pizzata's Davide Lubrano. Philly pizza makers share info and learn from each other. "There's so many different ways that you can make your dough, or bake your dough, and there are so many things to learn. It's never-ending."
Earth to Pizza
Pete Merzbacher's eponymous bread bakery just launched Earth to Pizza, where Beddia-alum Dan Britt is making bakery-style pies. Collaboration pushes creative boundaries here and makes the pizzas that much better. "We use pizza as a really fun platform for playing with our friends," says Merzbacher. In this case, fun is defined as the raclette pizza recently on their menu, made using Toma cheese from Cherry Grove Farm in New Jersey, or a recent partnership with local Mycopolitan Mushrooms. "We've built a lot of good relationships with people over the years, and pizza is just a great vehicle for cultivating those relationships," he says. merzbachers.com
Creme Brûlée, Fiore, Stina
In a quintessentially Philly way, you can find shockingly delicious pizza here in places you might not expect. Namely, that South Philly row house, Pennsport bakery Creme Brûlée, regional Italian restaurant Fiore, but only during their delightful pop-up pizza parties (order a pint of Justine MacNeil's stellar gelato while you're there). The list also includes Stina, a Mediterranean restaurant that's best known for wood-fired Turkish pide and flaky borek, that sells pizzas including an eggplant pie with barrel-aged feta, lemon, and za'atar. instagram.com/creme_brulee_bistro, fiore-finefoods.com; stinapizzeria.com
Following the thin-crust, New York/American-style pies from Beddia and Pizza Brain, and Vetri's Neapolitan, in 2018, Alice (pronounced ah-lee-chay) and Rione, two Roman al taglio shops (i.e. by the cut) opened in Center City. Choose from among toppings like thinly sliced prosciutto or rosemary-scented potatoes, and they'll slice off exactly how much you want. alicephilly.com; rionepizza.com