The scene: Pizza is one of America’s favorite comfort foods, and there are thousands of pizzerias, good and bad, dotting the nation’s cities and highways. Great American Bites has been to a lot of the most famous and highly rated pizzerias from coast to coast, but I have proclaimed one single San Francisco establishment, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, to be the nation’s best pizzeria.
Tony Gemignani was the first American to win the title of world champion pizza maker at the World Pizza Cup in Naples, but he goes way beyond traditional Neapolitan pizza and creates delicious versions of the most popular global styles, all under one roof. His temple to pizza-making has seven different ovens – including coal, wood, gas and electric, at temperatures from 550 to 1,000 degrees – all so he can turn out authentic versions of nine distinctly different regional pizza styles.
There is nothing quite like Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, but second place in the pantheon of amazingly varied and delicious pizza in a single spot belongs to Pizza Rock, Gemignani’s more laid-back chain. Pizza Rock is a lot easier to get into than the perennially jammed Tony’s, with three locations and about a dozen of the streamlined Slice House versions. Layouts and menus vary slightly by location, but the Downtown Las Vegas flagship is representative, offering eight styles of pizza made in four different ovens.
The very accessible flagship is just a block off Fremont Street, the pedestrianized main drag in downtown, and is open for lunch, dinner and late night. There’s a Slice House in front where you can grab individual slices to go or sit at a few bar stools. A couple of large dining rooms lead back to a big circular bar with seats, and more tables beyond that. With lots of reconfigurable tables, it is set up to accommodate large groups, which is great because the many styles of pizza are best shared.
In keeping with the music theme, the soundtrack is classic rock and the menus are presented inside old LP album covers. A tractor-trailer cab parked in the middle of the space serves as DJ booth on weekend nights.
Besides Downtown Vegas, there are Pizza Rock locations at the Green Valley Ranch casino resort in suburban Henderson, Nevada, and in downtown Sacramento, California. Forthcoming locations are rumored to include another Vegas suburb and Arizona. There is also a Slice House in the Green Valley Ranch food court, as well as several locations throughout greater San Francisco and several within Oracle Park, where the Giants play. The Slice Houses all offer up a very wide variety of New York-style, Detroit-style and Sicilian pizza by the slice, and special slices of the day in eclectic styles.
Reason to visit: Any pizza, honey sausage, coccoli
The food: Whichever style you prefer, the pizzas are spectacular. Not only do the ovens vary from style to style, but so do key ingredients such as flour, with Caputo 00 from Italy for the Neapolitan. Cheeses are high quality and perfectly paired, sausages made in house, and the attention to detail is amazing.
As a result, the regional styles are not just good imitations, they are often best in class: The Detroit style is better than I’ve had at famous places in Detroit, and while what Gemignani calls Chicago cracker crust is more accurately St. Louis-style pizza, it’s better than what you will find in the Gateway to the West.
The menu is vast and overwhelming, especially since none of the pies are really suited for one person and several are quite large. Because there are so many good wood-fired Neapolitan pizzerias and New York-style pizzerias, I recommend trying the more offbeat styles. The rectangular Detroit Red Top is a showstopper, with maybe the best tomato sauce I have ever tasted. It is so thick and rich you really don’t need any toppings beyond what the basic model comes with: three types of cheese, garlic oil and oregano, all on an exquisitely crunchy crust that is light and fluffy inside.
Other highlights include the one-of-a-kind Sausage & Stout pie, which has a honey malted dough made with stout and is topped with homemade sausage, caramelized onions, fontina cheese, crushed red peppers and a special stout reduction sauce. Only 23 of these pies are made each day – and they go fast. Similarly, Pizza Rock’s take on the most classic and essential of all pizzas, the Neapolitan Margherita, is limited to 73 per day. Topped with San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella fior di latte, basil, extra-virgin olive oil and sea salt, this is the very pie that won Gemignani the title of world champion pizza maker in Naples.
There are other award-winning pies with no daily limits. These include the New Yorker, which won world’s best traditional pizza at the annual Las Vegas International Pizza Expo, the industry’s biggest U.S. event. It comes topped with sliced mozzarella, tomato sauce, house-made fennel sausage, pepperoni, garlic, extra-virgin olive oil, oregano, Romano and ricotta – but it is the oversized, fluffy-but-charred exterior crust, much more pronounced than traditional New York pizza, that wows. The Cal Italia was the gold medal winner at the Food Network’s Pizza Champions Challenge. It is cooked in a gas oven with dough made from a proprietary flour blend, and topped with Asiago, Gorgonzola, Parmigiano-Reggiano and mozzarella cheeses, fig preserve, prosciutto di Parma and a stunning balsamic vinegar reduction – and no other sauce.
The list of pizzas could go on all day, as the menu has about 40 choices in eight categories, plus a make-your-own option. But the most intriguing offering at Pizza Rock is the singular Pizza Romana, a rectangular strip 3 feet long and 10 inches wide. You can have this topped with all cheese, all pepperoni or all sausage, but the two house presentations, each with three discrete foot-long sections of toppings, are the way to go. One begins with tomato, olives and garlic as a starter, moves on to soppressata salami, arugula and cheese and finishes with a sweet and savory combo of figs, Gorgonzola, prosciutto di Parma and a balsamic vinegar reduction. The second version begins with pepperoni and sausage, segues into creamy pesto, sun-dried tomato, goat cheese and caramelized onions, then finishes with ricotta, basil, spicy linguica sausage and tasty South African Peppadew peppers.
The pizza here is stunning from start to finish, but if that’s not enough, there is a full slate of pastas, salads, calzones, subs and burgers. I think skipping the pizza for any of these is silly, but if you somehow find room there are some notable starters and desserts.
The ridiculously delicious honey calabrese sausage appetizer is spicy pork sausage that is seared, sliced, piled and drizzled with local honey. Even better is the coccoli, one of the few menu items I have seen in this country similar to Italy’s decadent Emilia-Romagna specialty of gnocco fritto. At Pizza Rock it is roll-sized balls of fried dough served with thin-sliced prosciutto di Parma and fresh burrata cheese. You rip open the hot dough balls and stuff them with the meat and cheese, and you will not be able to stop. If for some reason you skip the fried dough starter, you get another shot for dessert in the form of zeppole. These lighter squares of doughnut-style hot fried dough are tossed in powdered sugar and served with fresh whipped cream and chocolate and caramel sauces for dipping.
Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes – one of the world’s best arrays of great pizzas under one roof.
Rating: OMG! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)
Price: $$-$$$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)