2013 Pizza Challenge
Grand Rapids Magazine seeks the best slice in the city.
By Jeremy Johnson | Photography by Johnny Quirin
Few foods ignite more passion and discussion than the humble pizza. Everyone seems to have an opinion on what matters most — the sauce, the cheese, the dough or the toppings.
And as we recently discovered, there are many versions to be found right here in Grand Rapids.
A bit of history: Although pizza was introduced to the U.S. by Italian immigrants in the late 19th century, it didn’t gain mass appeal until after World War II when soldiers returned from overseas with a newfound taste for this simple food.
The East and West coasts first saw demand rise before the boom spread to the country’s interior. Eventually, it crept into Chicago, then finally to Michigan.
Fricano’s Pizza Tavern in Grand Haven is widely considered to be the first pizzeria in Michigan (circa 1949), although G.B. Russo began serving pizza in the Roma Hall on S. Division in Grand Rapids as early as 1940.
Wealthy Street Bakery's Veggie pizza
Since then, pizza places have settled into nearly every neighborhood, regularly serving up pies to hungry patrons who quickly align with their favorites and defend them with unbridled loyalty.
Favorites can be subjective, however. If these pizzas were put to a panel of discerning judges, which would emerge victorious?
We posted an open invitation to any pizzeria in the area to compete in the first Grand Rapids Magazine pizza challenge. Many legendary local joints immediately responded, eager to test their recipes against other establishments.
Nearly 50 different pizzas were submitted from 26 restaurants.
Five judges were selected for their knowledge of food and familiarity with the Grand Rapids area: Amy Ruis (Art of the Table); Molly Clauhs (The Silver Spork); Shelley Irwin (WGVU); John Russo (Carrettino Italian Market & Wine); and Jeremy Johnson (HeFedSheFed.com).
All assembled at UpTown Kitchen, where competing pizzas were delivered by the competitors at allotted times for each category.
The challenge was split into three main styles: Traditional, Thin Crust and Specialty. (Deep Dish/ Sicilian was also a category, but only one pizzeria entered.)
Traditional and thin crust pizzas were judged on crust, sauce and cheese, with no additional toppings allowed. Specialty pizzas were judged on crust, sauce, toppings and creativity. Each category (crust, sauce, etc.) was rated from one to 10, with 10 being best, and an average was taken to determine the overall winner. Additionally, specialty pizzas were judged in the categories of Best Veggie, Best Meat, Most Unusual and Prettiest Pie.
Here are the results. It is important to note that the difference between average scores was extremely tight. In many cases, less than half a point separated the winner from the nearest competitor. Now that’s close!GR
Peppino's winner of Traditional and Thin Crust pizza.
Judges’ notes: “Sweet, succulent sauce that marries well with a chewy crust and perfect blend of cheese to achieve synchronicity.”
From the pizzeria: “The crust is made from an unbleached and unbromated patent flour that requires several steps to stage and proof. It is lightly oiled and cooked in a pan through a convection oven. We topped it with Peppino’s pizza sauce and block mozzarella. There have been no variations to the original pizza sauce recipe from 1976.”
Runners-up: Brick Road Pizza, Russo’s Pizza, Wealthy Street Bakery
Best Crust: Fred’s Pizza
Best Sauce: DiPiazza’s Pizzeria, Peppino’s
Best Cheese: Brick Road Pizza, Peppino’s, Wealthy Street Bakery
Judges’ notes: “Beautiful basil bang on top of fresh, sweet sauce and crust with a touch of garlic. Gorgeous presentation.”
From the pizzeria: “The thin crust entry was cooked directly on a stone and topped with marinara sauce (instead of pizza sauce), fresh mozzarella (instead of traditional block), fresh basil and marinated Roma tomatoes.”
Runners-up: Fricano’s, Nantucket Bakery
Best Crust: Nantucket Bakery
Best Sauce: Peppino’s
Best Cheese: Fricano’s
Winner: Wealthy Street Bakery — Veggie
Judges’ notes: “Fresh riot of artichoke hearts, red onion and roasted peppers topped with melt-in-your mouth goat cheese. Love it!”
From the pizzeria: “Our pizzas always include the freshest of ingredients. The Veggie Pizza included sliced red onions, roasted red and yellow peppers, artichoke hearts, and fresh goat cheese served over homemade tomato sauce, and topped off with fresh herbs and spices. Our pizzas are baked to perfection in a classic hearth oven.”
Runners-up: Crooked Goose, Fratelli’s
Best Crust: Fratelli’s
Best Sauce: Fratelli’s
Best Toppings: Wealthy Street Bakery: Veggie
Most Creative: Gus’s Original: Original (Chili Dog Pizza)
Best Veggie: Wealthy Street Bakery: Veggie
Best Meat: Crooked Goose: Grand Valley Pie
Prettiest: Rose’s Express: Bruschetta Chicken
Most Unusual: Licari’s: Signature Schiacciata