If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard someone say they just can’t find good pizza in Atlanta, I could buy a lot of slices, all with extra cheese. Frankly, the comment never ceases to astonish me. That is, until I remember that it’s usually uttered by carpetbagging Yankee new-comers who likely haven’t found their way past the mall Pizza Huts yet. For better or worse, Atlanta hides its hole-in-the-wall gems well.
And so, offered as a public service, here are ten places (with two extra honorable mentions) to get amazing pizza right here amongst the maze of Peachtree Streets. By the way, these are listed in alphabetical order, not in order of quality or preference.
For the record, I am skipping some of the more popular chain type places, like Mellow Mushroom and Fellini’s, despite the fact that I am fond of both. But the simple fact is, you’ve probably already tried them, or at least know about them. And to be frank, yummy as they are, they simply didn’t make the top ten list.
This was the place that redefined what pizza can be for me. I made that comment to a friend of mine who is both a Yankee and of first or second-generation Italian descent, and she admitted that it had redefined it for her, too. You order at the counter, and then you hope for the best since seating is extremely limited. There are bench seats that surround long tables that you share with others, making you feel (rather delightfully) as though you’ve been invited into someone’s kitchen, where you can see these giant imported Italian ovens (which heat to more than 1000 degrees), bags of imported flour and cans of exotic imported extra virgin olive oil, fragrant fresh herbs, and stuff like that. It’s homey, warm, and wonderful.
I think I would have fallen in love with the place even if the pizza was only passable. Happily, it’s a lot better than that. It’s transcendent. The word Antico means ancient, and the techniques and recipes the master bakers employ here have stood the test of time for a reason. They are amazing. It’s a little hard to find (the west side, behind Georgia Tech in that nebulous area between downtown and midtown, is more maze-like than any other part of the city, and that’s saying a lot), but it’s worth it. I promise.
When searching for pizza, generally what you’re looking for is a pie baked by a Yankee with a last name that ends in a vowel. There are exceptions to that, albeit not many, and Athens is chief among them.
A few years ago, my wife offered to take me to any restaurant in the city for my birthday. She assumed I’d pick one of the pricier steak houses, like Bones, Rathbuns, or Parker’s on Ponce. I picked Athens, because, frankly, when the Athens craving is upon you, nothing else will do. Nothing.
The pizza is Greek style, meaning the crust is a little breadier, softer, and very so slightly sweeter than New York or Italian styles. It’s always astonishingly fresh, which matters more than I’d realized. It’s probably the best crust you can find in Atlanta, and it hold up will under a pile of ingredients without getting soggy, which is good, because Athens is generous with the toppings. The sauce is tangy, slightly salty, had has a hint of premium olive oil in it. It’s impossible to describe and impossible to forget. It’s comfort food at it’s most comforting, and if I had to pick a last meal, this might be it. (unless I could think of something that, like, takes several years to cook. Anyway.)
Some of my friends swear by the other Greek dishes, especially the Lemon Chicken Soup, and they may will be right for all I know. I’ve been ordering the same thing for years: a small pizza with pepperoni, Canadian bacon, and feta cheese, just the way the Lord and Mrs. Papadopoulos intended. Be sure to try it the feta.
Remember what I was saying about pizza baked by a Yankee with a last name that ends in a vowel? Maybe more than any other spot in the city, or the known universe, Avellino’s proves this rule. The recipes here come from New York, where Avellino family has been baking for generations. In fact, the family claims that the pizza here is better than what they can make up north, because they have access to better and fresher ingredients.
The pizza is some of the very best I’ve had anywhere. Everything tastes fresh, wonderfully spicy, and, for lack of a better word, hand-made. It ranks a solid A, but it gets a boost to A+ for atmosphere. It’s small, homey, charming, and friendly. It practically defines the term “neighborhood spot.” The staff is great, the crowd of regulars is welcoming, and the overall experience keeps me coming back again and again. Well, that and the fact that it’s walking distance from my house. But seriously, I’d drive to the ‘burbs for this.
One more thing: the beer is is terrific (it would have to be, since it shares space with beer heaven, Ale Yeah) and the deserts are to die for. I haven’t sampled the wine yet, but my wife is pleased. The list is small but solid and eclectic.
Of all the glorious pizza spots on this list, Bambinelli’s might be the one I’ve loved the longest. It opened in the early 1980s, and happened to be located right smack between my old high school and the mall where I worked at the B. Dalton Bookseller. I was there the day they opened and, although I don’t get to this charming little family-owned place as much as I used to, Bonnie Bambinelli still greets me by name.
Picture a cozy New York neighborhood spot in little Italy. Not one of the newer, trendier places. Think of a smaller, warmer, more comfortable corner that a single family has run for generations. Pull that image off the shelf of clichés in your brain, transport it to the Northlake area, and you’ve got Bambinelli’s. They’re only missing the red and white checkered table cloths.
Bambinell’s was the first authentic New York style pizza I ever tried, and although I’ve new visited New York itself dozens of times since, it’s still the standard by which I judge. It’s the A+. And it’s scores that A+ on all four of the main criteria: crust (crisp and favorable), sauce (tangy and ever so slightly sweet, with fresh herbs), cheese, and toppings. While I generally prefer the thin, the Sicilian style is also excellent, with that wonderful fresh-baked bread aroma. The other Italian dishes are first rate, especially the ones with cream sauce. But the pizza is what keeps bringing me back, decade after decade. Oh, and the garlic rolls? To die for. Seriously.
5.) Bella’s Pizzeria
If you were to describe Bella’s as Bambinelli’s west, you would not be far wrong. They’re not exactly sharing recipes, mind, each is unique, but there’s a certain neighborhood charm and cozy goodness that makes one remind me fondly of the other. Like Bambinelli’s, it’s family owned. That makes a difference. In fact, nostalgia aside, I’m hard pressed to think of something I’d say about Bambinell’s that I wouldn’t say about Bella’s, except that Bella’s won’t have that basket of hot garlic rolls on your table before you order, at least not at lunch. Bambinelli’s has an edge in taste, too, but it’s close. You’ve got to drive over to Bambinelli’s on the northeast side for that. But the slices are solid, with good crust and tangy sauce, and they’re always hot. A warning: I haven’t been there in a few years, but I assume it’s just as good as always. By the way, I was torn on whether to put Bella’s or the New York Pizza Exchange (see the honorable mentions, below) in this spot. It was a hard decision and might have gone either way.
Cappozi’s is one of the most versatile spots in all of Atlanta. I’ve been there for special occasions (an amazing Valentine’s dinner with my wife), family gatherings, and when I just want to grab a seat at the bar for a fast slice. It’s causally elegant, romantic, warm, and welcoming. Every time I visit, I leave knowing I’ll be back … and soon.
The slices are foldable (my Yankee friends assure me that this is a crucial test) and tasty, with home-made sauce that’s the star of the show (although they have the best pepperoni in town). Everything tastes fresh, and the high-quality of the ingredients is evident from bite one. You’re best to stick with the traditional, the pepperoni (seriously, the best in town) and the sausage. Stuff like that. I’ve ordered extra cheese a few times, but it’s not really because it needs it.
This list is about pizza and I don’t want to drift too far off topic, but I have to mention the rest of the Italian menu. It’s fantastic, creative, and always delicious. There’s even a chef who creates daily specials, and the wine list is exceptional. The staff is terrific. This is another place that gets a boost from solid A to A+ for ambience and welcome.
7.) Edgewood Pizza
Edgewood Pizza in Atlanta’s historic Old Forth Ward neighborhood pretty much defines the concept of urban “no frills.” As near as Google and I can tell, they don’t even have a Web site — I had to link to the Facebook page. There aren’t many tables (a problem if you want to go at night—the neighborhood hipsters will have already grabbed them) and parking is limited. Although to be fair, neither of those are an issue at lunch.
What you’re going to get in place of the charm and, uh, seats you might find elsewhere is a darn good, honest slice of pizza served hot and quickly by a friendly staff. Everything tastes fresh and homemade; the crust especially is delicious. When you lost past the counter, you see those machines they use to mix dough. Always a good sign. The herbs in the sauce are terrific. And even if you order the “King Slice,” (other places would call that “two slices”), you’re not going to pay a lot for it. Edgewood Pizza is one of intown Atlanta’s best lunch bargains. It might be the closest thing you’re going to find to a genuine Manhattan pizza slice south of the Sweet Tea Belt.
In my long-ago youth, one of the very best spots of pizza was the long-vanished Upper Crust. It closed (I think, back in the 1980s), and I’ve missed that three-inch pile of gooey goodness ever since. At the time, I thought Upper Crust was utterly unique. I thought I’d miss that decadent yumminess forever. Then, I found Gino’s East in Chicago, and realized I wasn’t just missing a restaurant, I’d been missing a whole genre: Chicago-style pizza. Happily, Nancy’s Pizza, a chain that originated in Chicago itself, is every bit as good as Upper Crust was, and nearly as good as mighty Gino’s itself. (Although they don’t have that flaming cheese appetizer that I could never pass up at Upper Crust. Seriously, it was cheese and bread, and it was on fire! What’s not to love?)
If you don’t know Chicago-style pizza, it’s not pizza in the traditional Italian/New York style. It’s like the too-delicious to exist love child of pizza and lasagna. You start with a thin and crispy lower crust that that’s deep … like a pie shell. A really deep pie shell. Then, it’s stuffed with enough cheese to fill a bucket, and topped with another crust. The sauce, thick and tomato-y, bubbles on top of that. There’s still plenty of room for toppings. It’s pricy, sure, but then you’re buying a whole cheese shop in every pie. And man, is it amazing.
There are two locations here in Atlanta. One is in Buckhead, where I am told they have lots of table seating and all the amenities. I’ve never been there. The Ponce de Leon location, close to my neighborhood, is carry-out only, and it’s next to impossible to park. (Think of that pie slowly cooling while you circle. Grrr.) But it’s worth all the trouble.
Varasano’s is probably the most upscale place on this list, tucked as it is in the high-rent district between Midtown and Buckhead. Don’t let that fool you. You can still get a good, honest pie here, with a nice, crispy Napoletana-style (not New York style, so set your expectations accordingly!) crust, tangy and favorable sauce (you can taste the fresh tomato and basil), and high-quality ingredients. Varasano’s adds a sourdough base to the crust, something (as far as I know) that’s unique. But eat it quickly, while it’s piping hot. Sure, that’s important everywhere. Especially here, though, because as all that bubbly deliciousness cools, the sour taste becomes more pronounced, and a little less pleasant, It’s still yummy, though. If you take some home (the pies are huge) the left overs will be disappointing, unless there is some arcane secret to reheating that I haven’t cracked yet.
Zucca has the rather dubious distinction of being the place I found because it’s the one place where you can usually find a table when all the other Decatur Spots are full. Thank heaven, because otherwise, I might have missed some mighty tasty pizza. It’s one of the best slices in a neighborhood that’s full of them, and while you can’t (alas!) get slices at night, the pies are always piled high with generous toppings and cheese, and the crust has a subtly sweet bready taste that’s terrific.
To be honest, the ambience seems a little out of place for Decatur, known mostly for charming, quaint pubs and casual but upscale dining. Entering the door is like crossing a portal that leads from the Square to a dive in any college town, anywhere in the USA. It can be a little loud, although in a fun rather than oppressive way, and the service can be a little on the slow slide. It’s friendly, though, and the pizza is worth the wait. The sauce is made fresh on-premises every day. That makes a difference. The bar is solid.
New York Pizza Exchange
As you’ve likely guessed from the name, New York Pizza Exchange is the closest thing you’re likely to find to New York street pie south of Jersey. It might be a little pricier than, say, Edgewood, but there are plenty of seats, an extensive bar, and an extensive non-pizza menu. You’re probably going to want to avoid it after 7 on Friday and Saturday night, when the crowd and live music makes conversation challenging.
The pizza, though, the pizza is down right yummy, made special by the subtle dash of oregano in the red sauce. The garlic sauce on the white pizza is terrific, too. In fact, while the crust and toppings are delicious, the sauce is the star of the show here.
The New York Pizza Exchange is as much a sports bar as a pizza place, a change from my college days, so it’s a good place to catch a game if you happen to be in the neighborhood. In Atlanta, longevity counts. The fact that this place has been around and thriving for more than three decades says something.
To be honest, I haven’t been to Uncle Vito’s in years. The location I used to know and love when I lived in the wilds of suburbia has long since closed, and the remaining ones just aren’t close to any place I ever go. So I am reviewing from memory, which is probably unfair. I am convinced that one of the reasons transplants can’t find pizza that compares to what they got back home is simply this: Atlanta pizza isn’t competing with any specific New York pizza, it’s competing with memory. Nostalgia always wins. But I remember Uncle Vito’s having generous slices, enough cheese that you never felt the need to order extra, good, foldable crust, and some of the very best Italian sausage I’ve ever tried. Here’s hoping they’re as good as I remember, and that I find myself passing one at lunch time some day soon.