I recently spent 24 hours in Baltimore while in town for an awesome book event at Atomic Books. I hit 6 different pizzerias ranging from hometown classics to late-night fallbacks and a couple in-between. Here’s my road report…
Stop #1 was Matthew’s, a Baltimore landmark that claims to be the oldest in town. They started serving thick pan pizzas in 1943 and continue to this day in a space that looks more like a place senior citizens go for the early bird than it does a pizzeria. Still, there’s a TON of charm in here and Baltimore IS the Charm City, so everything seems to be in order.
I developed a serious hunger during my three-hour drive from Brooklyn and may have had a case of pizza goggles. I ordered two whole pies: one they call the Traditional Tomato Pie and one crab pizza. The Traditional Tomato Pie is listed on the menu as having sauce and hand-grated Reggianito cheese. At first I thought this was a typo meaning Parmigiano Reggiano, but it turns out to be a slightly different cheese. It’s a smaller, less aged Parmigiano found mostly in Argentina. It’s not a huge surprise since massive amount of Neapolitans fled to Argentina in the late 19th century. Perhaps the founders of Matthew’s stopped in Argentina before landing in Baltimore.
I wish I could think of a better way to describe the pizza than interesting. That word usually means something isn’t enjoyable but still has academic value. In the case of Matthew’s, interesting means “I’ve never tasted a pizza quite like this and even though I don’t love it I’m really glad I’m trying it.” First of all, the crust is puffy yet heavy. They use lard in the dough and it has a seriously unique effect that really defines this pizza. The next thing I noticed was the cheese. I expected a dusting but it’s more like a full load of Reggianito, so thick it resembled a hard piece of funky low-moisture mozzarella. Pretty odd, but definitely enjoyable. It’s a good pie, but nothing I could eat every day.
The crab pizza was something I just had to order since I was in Maryland and crab is the thing to get. I always feel guilty for being in a city and ignoring the local cuisine in favor of sampling pizza, so this seemed like a good compromise. The crab was mighty tasty, but I found myself picking it off the slice rather than eating it as-is. I’m not against seafood + cheese, it just didn’t work for me in this case. Still, I’m glad I gave it a try.
Next up was Ledo Pizza, another Maryland tradition. Unlike Matthew’s, Ledo has multiple locations around the area and it’s the pizza everyone grew up eating. I really enjoyed it in that it brought me back to the pizza flavor of my youth, but with a twist. This is a square pizza that’s thin and chewy, unlike thick and puffy Sicilian pizza. It’s so thin and the slices are so small you feel like you’re really pigging out when you’re probably just eating the equivalent of 1-2 slices.
The room itself was less than exciting, but I could see myself getting Ledo for take-out if I lived in the hood. It’s a real go-to pizza but nothing worth a special trip.
Stop #3 was a relative newcomer to the scene: Iggie’s Pizza. My sources tell me this place is PACKED at night so it was good we got there early in the evening before things got nutty. Speaking of nutty, we ordered a pizza with pistachios! It’s sort of like the Rosa at Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, AV, which has thinly sliced red onion, Parmigiano Reggiano, rosemary and crushed local pistachios. It’s a great flavor combination and I really dug it! The crust was pretty tame, but I wonder if that changes as the night gets busier and the room gets warmer. Check it out and let me know!
The fourth pizzeria I hit was Joe Squared. These guys installed an Earthstone coal-burning oven that bakes the pizzas in just over a minute. It’s insane. The resulting crust was a bit soft, but suuuuuuper tasty!
We ordered two pies, one Margherita and my second attempt at a Maryland crab pizza. The crab pie at Joe Squared was definitely better than the one at Matthew’s. It had a roasted garlic cream, crab, cilantro, zucchini, red onion, egg, mozzarella, provolone and cheddar. There are three cheeses on this one, but they’re applied perfectly so the crab could sing. I do remember the crab itself tasting better at Matthew’s, but we’re talking about the entire pizza here, not just one component.
The Margherita pizza was really nice and balanced as well. Lovely gobs of fresh mozzarella and a post-oven shredded basil that gave every bite a hint of sweet herby goodness. The only trouble was that since the crust was so soft you really had to grab a corner slice for stability. I bet if I go back when they’re busier and the oven floor is a bit cooler I’ll get some more crunch.
After Joe Squared, we ventured to a newer place called Homeslyce. I was instantly annoyed by the spelling because my searched for a Homeslice in Baltimore kept coming up with no results. I thought the GPS was busted but it turns out they just use a crazy spelling. Our relationship started out on the wrong foot, so I shook it off an went inside. It’s a sports bar with a couple Skeeball machines in the back. The menu looked pretty good but there was a bizarre item on the menu called a Slyce. I figured this was a single slice, but that’s almost nonexistent in Baltimore. It turned out to be a weird boat-shaped pizza that’s pretty much like a calzone that didn’t get sealed on top. Fair enough.
We ordered a small pizza they called the Homeslyce Classic. But this isn’t just a cheese pizza, it has goat and mozzarella cheese, walnuts, eggplant, spinach, caramelized onions, roasted peppers and HomeSlyce sauce. The toppings were fine, although a bit on the salty side. But what caught me was the super heavy greasiness of the crust. Every slice (or is it slyce?) removed from the pie left behind an oily trail. I’m all about the grease, but I prefer it to drip off the top of my slice and not ooze out of the crust.
The final stop on this whirlwind journey was the strangest, which is why I’m giving you three photos…
That’s my friend Phil about to go into a place called Charles Carryout. I’m jut as surprised as you are that they even have a website. It’s a totally weird take-out Indian fast food joint with a conveyor oven and a Chicken Tikka Masala pizza several people recommended to me. But more about the pizza in a bit, now you must take in the grandeur that is Charles Carryout…
Yup. That’s it. Pretty dumpy place, but it’s not like they’re trying to be anything else. After all, the place is called CARRYOUT, so they’re not expecting anyone to stick around. But if you do, there’s a weird secret bar attached to the place and an extremely baron side room with a few table for those who defy the restaurant’s name and dine in.
We chose to defy the name and had our chicken tikka masala pizza right there out of the box. I guess I understand why people talk about this pizza. It’s super weird and unlike anything I’ve ever tried before. But it’s not even close to being something I’d ever tell a sober person they had to try. It’s a late night pie and one that requires several lapses in judgement to attempt and/or enjoy. I know that sounds mean and I do fully support you eating this pizza if it makes you feel good, but I think I’ll just hang out on the sidelines and watch next time.
Baltimore, you truly are one strange pizza town. Next time I’m there I’ll go back to Joe Squared and round out the trip with a visit to the one place I meant to go but didn’t: Verde PIzzeria. It’s a beautiful Neapolitan joint in a lovely part of town. I showed up a couple hours before they opened but had to haul out to Philadelphia so was unable to hang around. Oh well, I’ve already expressed my desire to give some of these spots another try so it looks like I’ll be back soon.
I’m ashamed for calling myself a pizza fanatic yet never visiting Chicago in the past 10 years. It’s a good thing that shame has ended, thanks to a couple days I spent in the Windy City this past November while touring in support of my new book. I hit TONS of pizzerias and the vast majority were facilitated by a true pizza hero names Jon Porter. I first met Jon years ago, just as he was starting a company called Chicago Pizza Tours. Our companies are not related, but I consider him a real pizza brother. Since he started the company, we’ve met several times and even spent some quality time at the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas a few years ago! But after all that, I’m proud to say I have FINALLY experienced the fruits of Jon’s labor and the tour was awesome. Here’s the scoop.
Tour tour met at Pizano’s Pizza and Pasta, a pizzeria that belongs to one of the most important families in Chicago pizza history. It’s located at a super central location, so very easy to find for an out-of-towner such as myself. It was there that we met Jon, who owns the company and runs lots of the tours, and a tour guide who works for him named Jonathan (I know that’s going to be complicated, but I’ll stick with those name variations). Jon took a back seat and let Jonathan run most of the tour and he was awesome. Super relaxed and informal enough that you didn’t feel like you were receiving a lecture.
Jonathan gave us some info about Chicago pizza history before bringing out not one, but TWO tastings. Chicago has a reputation as a deep dish pizza town, but there is a native thin crust style thats at least as important. Pizano’s makes both so we tried a slice of each. Both were really good! But the tour has four pizzeria stops so we hit the road as soon as everyone finished because there was no time or stomach room to waste.
The tour rides all over Chicago and stops change all the time, so we cruised around in Dough Force One, a swanky mini coach that fits around 16 people. While driving, Jonathan (and sometimes Jon) gave us some great Chicago history. I loved the tour because it was so much more than just pizza, so you could learn a ton about the city while also hitting some serious pizzerias.
My favorite stop of the day might have been our second pizzeria. It’s a little walk-up spot called Italian Fiesta. It’s famous for being the favorite pizzeria of the Obama family, but there’s not a single sign bragging about it. Very cool little place with a killer thin crust pizza.
But as much as I loved Italian Fiesta, I was most interested in deep dish. I knew about the big nationally-known places like Uno and Gino’s East and Giordano’s, but one name kept popping up when I asked serious pizza freaks for advice: Pequod’s. It’s a cool spot with a perfectly casual atmosphere and gnarly pizza. There’s one in Morton Grove but we hit the Chicago location.
Check out this slice, overflowing with big chunky sausage and framed with a crunchy caramelized crust. It’s beautiful. I’m writing this as it’s snowing outside my window and all I want to do is crawl inside it and take a nap.
But the tour is not just about pizza that’s indigenous to Chicago, it also covers pizza styles that are not native to the city. Neapolitan pizza is exploding around the country and Chicago has a few solid spots for it. We stopped at Nella’s, where we had the pizza Margherita. This was a nice comfort slice because it wasn’t loaded with toppings, as the other Chicago pizza has been on the tour. That made it the perfect palate cleanser!
After those four stops, just every single person on the bus full and ready to hibernate. I loved it, not just for the pizza but also for the super well-rounded education about the city. I can see it being just as interesting for locals as it was for me as a tourist. In fact, there were at least two locals on the tour when I took it and they LOVED it! Good pizza, good info, great tour guide(s)… thanks to Jon and Jonathan and William the bus driver!
Check out the Chicago Pizza Tours website!!!
I’ve been saying it for a while now: New York needs a deep dish pizzeria. The mark of a good pizza city is variety and while NYC has a good amount, we’re missing a very large piece of the pizza style pie. Yes, I’ve seen the various Daily Show pieces about how deep dish isn’t even pizza and I do feel strange being forced to eat my slice with a knife and fork, but every slice has its place and I truly believe deep dish pizza is an acceptable format.
Chicago has its fair share of New York style pizzerias, but most New Yorkers have never experienced deep dish pizza because we just don’t have access to it. Sure, there are a bunch of Pizzeria Uno (oops… I mean Uno Chicago Grill) locations around the city but they are only in pizza deserts where you have no other option. But all of that has changed. In the midst of all the Chicago-NYC pizza hubbub on The Daily Show, a tiny bar/restaurant opened in the Soho/South Village nook on Macdougal just south of Houston Street. Emmett’s has about six tables and a bar, not too dissimilar to the original Uno in Chicago. But there’s one major difference: Emmett’s makes a great pizza.
The space is adorable, complete with a rad green glider bench out front. But there’s no loud proclamations boasting about deep dish pizza, it’s much more subtle. Two brothers run the place and they’re all about Chicago pride. It’s probably wise to keep the place understated. Tensions could produce a dangerous situation.
I went with a crew of serious pizza enthusiasts. Jeff Orlick, creator of the Real Pizza of NYC app, “Famous Fat” Dave Freedenberg (sporting a brand new beard we all love but got pretty clogged with cheese), and Steph Mantis of Forever Pizza and Animal Butt Magnet fame. We ordered a traditional Chicago deep dish pizza with sausage, mushrooms, onions and peppers. It was the right choice.
Most wanna-be deep dish pizzas just have a thick crust, but that’s garbage. Emmett’s is the real deal, with a dense biscuity crust covered with stringy cheese, loads of toppings and a highly seasoned plum tomato sauce. I really enjoyed the robustness and zing of this sauce, it’s a great counterpoint to the usual laid back tomato of most New York pizza sauces.
I loved the chunky sausage. It was perfect for the pie and totally reminded me of the sausage I ate on Chicago pies in November. It balances the dense crust in a way thin crumbly sausage cannot. But the crust was the real telltale sign that whoever is back there making these pizzas has done some serious Chicago pizza homework. The owners are a pair of brothers from the Windy City and they clearly have their pizza act together in a way I really respect.
The rest of the team agreed and the four of us took down an entire large pie. That’s not a big deal for a NY style pizza, but more than one slice of this stuff creates a seriously different experience. But as you can see from the photo above, people in New York just cannot be restrained by the tyranny of a knife and fork. I think all of us went for the open-face hand-hold method for at least a portion of each slice.
This is the perfect place to hole up on a cold night. It’s tiny, so get there early. Deep dish pies take a while to bake, but there’s a good beer selection to keep you company. If you get annoyed at the 45 minutes it takes to make your pizza, just remember it’s wayyyy shorter than the flight to Chicago.