And there is no other area of eating out that engenders such fierce opinions. Be so bold as to express a fondness for a certain style, and someone will conclude you are mentally, or morally, deficient in some way. If that someone is from New York or New Jersey or Connecticut, they will not believe that you even know what pizza is.
But the pizzas I am naming to my personal Hall of Fame are not all of one sort: I am not giving thin crust primacy over thick, spicy sauce over sweet. These are the pizzas that deserve a trophy for being delicious one way or another, and for bringing something unique to Cincinnati pizza-eaters.
This first edition of the Hall of Fame is a little heavy, I admit, on hearth-baked or stone-oven baked pizzas, mostly because as I made an attempt to fill in my pizza-eating experience, that's the category I started with. Perhaps in future inductions, we'll add more in the category of Sicilian and delivery and dessert pizzas.
Classic Neapolitan and near-Neapolitan
Polly says: A perfect crust, brown all over, blackened in parts, with a moderately puffy rim, crinkly-crisp on the bottom, but foldable. Lightly covered in tomato sauce so that it dries out a little on the edges but stays liquid in the middle; with rounds of mozzarella and a few leaves of basil placed so there's one per slice. In a restaurant setting, an excellent lunch.
Betta's Italian Oven
Polly says: This is also wood-fired pizza, cooked in minutes and pulled out puffy, thin-crusted and lightly topped. They do a margherita, also a four-seasons pizza, the quadrants separated by bread sticks.
Polly says: Great little pizza place with a very thin crust and lots of herbs in the sauce.
Polly says: Many people stand in line for salad at this lunch place in the Westin, but the pizzas are also excellent: thin crust, baked in a hearth oven (i.e. a brick oven with live flame; they get very hot, which is the ticket for thin-crust pizzas) with minimal toppings. Small enough for lunch. I just wish you could get the salad in a "small" to go with it.
Polly says: The granddaddy of gourmet wood-fired pizza in town. They were the only place doing it for a long time. It's still good and their bianco with artichoke hearts is a classic.
Polly says: The heart of the restaurant is a monster blue-tiled oven, which produces buzz-worthy pizzas with a thin crust, puffed up and a little thicker on the edges, the taste of fire embodied in a few burst, blackened bubbles in the crust and roasted edges on the toppings. Delicious.
Fireside Pizza Wagon
Polly says: Fireside is a mobile wood-burning oven (though they don't start the fire until they're parked!). The quickly baked pizza is similar in style and holds its own with the above pizzas, but you only find it by serendipity, or by booking the whole set-up for a party. Hint: You can now visit the permanent location in Walnut Hills!
New York style
An Easterner recently described to me what a New York pizza should be like: "A big old slice, folded up, with the grease running down your arm to the elbow." New York pizza should have a bready crust, well-blistered, with not too much sauce, and full-fat cheese that also blisters and browns, often sliding off the crust all together. In this case, I also went with "if you call it New York pizza, that's your category."
Polly says: Big, floppy slices. Yeasty, puffy dough. Judicious on the sauce. Donald Trump might eat it with a knife and fork, but you should fold it, hold it up high, and aim for your mouth. This is a fancy combination involving cheddar cheese they had by the slice, but it's draped over half a slice of regular cheese pizza, which is all you'd want in a New York pizza. And it's owned by a non-profit.
Brooklyn Pizza & Pasta
Polly says: Noce's Pizza started originally in Westwood, then opened in Northern Kentucky and Montgomery, but each location is now separately owned and named. Brooklyn, the branch in Montgomery, assures me that the pizza hasn't changed. It has the trademark spotted crust and full-fat cheese.
Polly says: Up north, they like pizza with a crust so thin it's like a cracker, cut into small squares. It's a little odd for people who didn't grow up with the style but it doesn't take long to appreciate it: There's something irresistibly snacky about the thin bite-size pieces. Cassano's is the best: the crust is salted on the bottom; more heavily than is good for anyone with high blood pressure, but it's absolutely addictive. This is so much better eaten in the store (or the car) than taken to-go: you want to eat it while it's still good and crispy. I'm not from Dayton, but sometimes I think this is my favorite pizza, and no New Yorker is going to talk me out of it.
Just plain pizza
Pasquale's (Note: There is a Pasquale's in Bellevue that is different.)
Polly says: We've been eating pizza in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky for about 60 years. Like all Italian-American food, pizza was adapted to its new environment, and a lot of American pizza has abundant, smooth tomato sauce, and a crust made with oil that's crisp, not bready. No hearth wood-burning ovens here. This style has made many people happy, and still does.
Pasquale's in Newport was founded in 1957, at the very beginning of the pizza craze. Maybe it's because I sat outside at a table in the sun and ate a pizza fresh out of the oven, but I kind of loved Pasquale's.
Polly says: I'd been ordering my favorite pizza, a mushroom and sausage, everywhere, when I decided the photos would look better if I had a little variety. So in this wedge of a strip mall pizzeria, I got the Greek pizza, named Levassor Park Garden, named for a Covington neighborhood, as is the Wallace Woods and the Helentown Hottie. A very light, crispy crust, nice fresh toppings and great service.
Newport Pizza Company
Polly says: This pizza could maybe go in the New York style category for their crust, but they don't make a big deal out of it. My party of four ate a pizza at Pasquale's then went half-way down the block and ordered another sausage and mushroom pizza here. The sausage was quite spicy, the crust breadier, but less cheesy and drippy.
Polly says: Adriatico's has been keeping UC students and Pill Hill doctors and nurses on the late shift well-fed for years. Now they have a spiffy sports-bar setting on Calhoun. Their pizza is cheesy, the mushroom pizza loaded with fresh mushrooms, and they do a thick crust.
Mac's Pizza Pub
Polly says: Is it pizza if it has gyro meat and tzatziki sauce on top of it? Sure, why not? That combination from Mac's Pizza Pub is two of your favorite ethnic foods wrapped into one. It doesn't hurt that their basic pizza is very good, with a slightly puffy crust and good ingredients. They also do a Philly cheesesteak version, a breakfast lovers', and one with French fries.
A class of its own
Polly says: 513-347-1111 is kind of a magic number: Call it and you can have not only pizza at your door, but lasagna, hoagies, fish sandwiches and Graeter's ice cream. LaRosa's is pizza to the majority of people who grew up in Cincinnati. I like their thick-crusted pan pizza particularly.
As Cincinnati as you can get
Polly says: Surely Trotta's on Werk Road is the only pizzeria on the planet that makes a goetta pizza you pick up in a pony keg drive-through. I'm not sure goetta belongs on a pizza, but if you like it, there's plenty of it. They do more conventional toppings, too, and on a pretty good crust.
Written by Polly Campbell, Food & Dining writer at Cincinnati Enquirer.