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Huh-za! The great pizza adventure begins...

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It's a tough job, but somebody has to do it. It took two weeks, but Billy Ball, David Ross, Grayson Currin, Lisa Sorg and Vernal Coleman ate their weight in pizza. We're now on a juice fast. Here are our experiences with some of the good, mediocre and dreadful pies in the Triangle.


CARY


Bella Mia

Crust 8
Cheese 10
Sauce 10
Meat toppings 9
Vegetable toppings 9
Grease factor 10
Average 9.3

The News & Observer's 2011 restaurant of the year, Bella Mia is the conscience of local pizza, a tireless exemplar of rigor and integrity (cf. Lou Gehrig, Mercedes-Benz, etc.). It meticulously crafts its pies in the authentic Neapolitan tradition, using finely milled, low-gluten "00" flour and the most restrained daubs of fresh mozzarella. Meat and vegetable toppings are applied with equal restraint. Each pie is a visually lovely study in principled minimalism. Blasted at 900 degrees in a coal-burning oven, the crust has a wonderful fragrance of char, but the use of "00" flour means its essence is delicately bready rather than chewy or crisp. Zealots of the New York crust—which amounts in most cases to a steamrolled bagel—will have to adjust their expectations; zealots of Chicago deep dish will have to roam in bewilderment an entirely reverse universe. —DR

(2025 Renaissance Park Place, 919-677-3999, www.bellamiacoalfire.com)


RALEIGH


Amedeo's

Crust 6
Cheese 7
Sauce 8
Meat toppings 6
Vegetable toppings 5
Grease factor 5
Average 6.2

Next year would have marked the 50th anniversary for Amedeo's on Raleigh's Western Boulevard. Founded by Amedeo "Dick" DeAngelis, the son of Italian grocers in Pennsylvania who came to Raleigh in 1954 to play football for N.C. State, the longtime haunt of the Wolfpack faithful remained a family-run business until last year, when another set of local restaurateurs took control.

Still, with the décor and the menu largely unchanged, Amedeo's is something of a time capsule and museum. Beneath decades of photos, illustrations and assorted memorabilia of Wolfpack sports hung above tiny booths and on bright red walls, pizza and pasta remain the staples. Though it needs to sit in the oven a spell, the thick crust pizza—doughy and pillowy toward the top, firm and brown at the bottom—is typically worth the wait, especially when paired with the standard pepperoni topping. That's symptomatic for Amedeo's at large: While the choices are adequate, including a pesto pizza with roasted red peppers and chicken and a piled-high veggie option, you'll do best by keeping it standard.

In fact, the best pizza on the menu might be the most basic, the Wolfgang White. Though it combines the staples (mozzarella, ricotta and Pecorino Romano) with a few fresh spices, the generous dose of extra virgin olive oil divines the pizza with a surprising mix of salty and savory. Sure, it's a common—pedestrian, even?—touch, but Amedeo's is a family restaurant of imported Italian traditions and excessive Pack paraphernalia. Don't expect anything fancy, and their delicious simplicity might send you home whistling an old tune: "Where the winds of Dixie softly blow o'er the fields of Caroline/ There stands ever cherished, N.C. State, as thy honored shrine." —GC

(3905 Western Blvd., 919-851-0473, www.amedeosrestaurant.com)


Frank's Pizza and Restaurant

Crust 7
Cheese 8
Sauce 8
Meat toppings 7
Vegetable toppings 5
Grease factor 7
Average 7

Hidden in a half-operational shopping center off of Raleigh's New Bern Avenue, Frank's admittedly isn't much to see. Outside, its long row of windows is sealed mostly from view by metallic blinds, and the logo on the door is weathered and crowded by stickers that broadcast a security system and welcome credit-card holders.

But if you need something nice to see, you'll be encouraged by the hulking, time-stained Bari pizza oven nearly as soon as you walk inside. Standing just before it, Frank Lachichi and Mike Iskandar will almost certainly be cooking, eyes staring down at unseen circles of dough and buckets of toppings like surgeons at work. They've been doing this for more than 30 years, and they're the experts behind downtown Raleigh's absolute best no-frills pizza.

They're a little generous with everything at Frank's. A small pizza, for instance, measures 12 inches in diameter, as opposed to the more common 8-inch or 10-inch varieties. And each pie is slathered in mozzarella, running over the salty sauce until the surface suggests that of the moon. The toppings, like the restaurant's design, are simple enough—peppers and pineapple, pepperoni and onions, ham and meatballs. But the jalapeños sting perfectly with a little extra vinegar, and the eggplant is savory to the point that it seems sweet. And yes, it's greasy, but it works, doesn't it? Maybe it all sounds normal, but experience, not ostentatiousness, is the hallmark of this dimly lit dive.

Frank's also offers a Sicilian (this thing is thick, so call ahead) and a pie covered in Sirloin steak. I can't vouch for either, but I can say that Frank's has never steered me wrong, even if the view might make you want to steer on past. Don't make that mistake. —GC

(2030 New Bern Ave., 919-231-8990, www.frankspizzainraleigh.com)


Moonlight Pizza Company

Crust 8
Cheese 7
Sauce 6
Meat toppings 9
Vegetable toppings 9
Grease factor 8
Average 7.8

Though people tend to extol the view a block down the street at Boylan Bridge Brewpub, it's hard to spend a better seasonally appropriate night than on the patio of Moonlight. Compared to Lilly's, the other gourmet pizza spot across downtown with outdoor seating, Moonlight is situated on a relatively quiet corner between Glenwood South and the Warehouse District. With a large brew selection, soft outdoor lightning and a staff that knows when to give its customer space and time for a slow dinner, Moonlight, outside, is one of Raleigh's longstanding eating treasures.

Actually, it's pretty good inside, especially because pizza selections are varied, intriguing and generally good to excellent. The knotted crust isn't very thick, but it is plenty flavorful; and if you're a bread dipper like me, peel the strands apart and go with the ranch or creamy parmesan. Moonlight offers a horde of toppings, from varied cheeses (chevre and fontina, for starters) and next-level meats (shrimp and prosciutto) to great vegetables (fresh avocado and a pepper medley) and the unexpected or strange (mandarin oranges and capers). To that end, I suggest the Otto's Five Phases, a lunar reference that lets you pile as many as five toppings on one pie for a bit less than that'd generally cost. Want to experiment with avocado and pineapple on an olive pesto base, with pepper jack and some complimentary lemon zest and rosemary over the top? Hey, it's your Otto's Five Phases—maybe the best exploratory circular dining option in town—and not mine.

If you want to keep things plainer, Moonlight tends not to disappoint, though it doesn't delight with the basics like Frank's. I recently opted for jalapeños and gorgonzola on top of their modest mozzarella and simple red sauce, and I found myself wondering where that idea had been all my life. —GC

(615 W. Morgan St., 919-755-9133, www.moonlightpizza.com)


Bella Monica

Crust 5
Cheese 5
Sauce 3
Meat toppings 7
Vegetable toppings 7
Grease factor 6
Average 5.1

I made two recent trips to Bella Monica, located in a massive strip mall just north of Rex Hospital's matrix of medical buildings. On my maiden voyage during a gorgeous late-summer evening, crowds gathered around every indoor and outdoor table greeted me, as well as a waitress offering word of a 90-minute wait. I opted out and prepared to return the next week with a reservation. Good thing, too: While I called before noon, only two tables remained open for a party of two on a Wednesday night. Popularity noted, I prepared for excellence.

But much to my dismay, Bella Monica's fare recalled days of youth spent reaching skyward for the last piece of thin-crust pepperoni on the Pizza Hut buffet line. Flatbreads are Bella Monica's bailiwick (they even sell them frozen; I shudder at the thought), with toppings piled thick on a firm but miniscule crust. You can order from a list of a dozen pre-prepared flatbreads or build your own Neapolitan, so I elected to do both. The options are certainly impressive, ranging from the Vongole with clams and pancetta to a Melanzane of roasted eggplant, red peppers and pine nuts.

Perhaps if the sauce had any detectable zing or if the cheese had any perceptible character, the pies would have delivered on the menu's promise. But as it was, I couldn't help but wonder if the place was so popular because visitors had heard about the delectables at Bella Mia, and Siri had simply sent them the wrong way. —GC

(3121-103 Edwards Mill Road, 919-881-9778, www.bellamonica.com)


Capital Creations

Crust 4
Cheese 4
Sauce 4
Meat toppings 8
Vegetable toppings 5
Grease factor 6
Average 5.1

You'll find Capital Creations tucked away in a nondescript strip mall just outside downtown Raleigh. The sign near the road won't alert you to pizza, and it's an impossibly convoluted traffic zone—so take your time, or turning around will take it for you.

Though Capital Creations has been at work for two decades now, and though their menu of specialty pies is impressively monstrous, their pizza is an open invitation to disappointment. I recently chose three of their vegetarian pies, selecting a different base of tomato sauce, pesto or olive oil for each. Aside from the over-the-cheese additions, the pizzas were indistinguishable. What's more, the toppings weren't fresh ("Hey, my tomato slice tastes like laundry."), but they were sometimes flavorless ("Is this yesterday's basil?"). Perhaps you'll have better luck with the meats given that they also serve baby-back ribs, but the chief contribution of Capital Creations to my life was to render leftovers that remain uneaten.

Capital Creations doesn't offer a dining room, meaning you have to pick up your pies or have them delivered. It's a smart move, considering their aggressive refund policy: "If we get something wrong, we will replace that item immediately, credit you for a future order or refund your money," their website reads. Sending folks home to eat bad pizza at least puts them at a safe distance for reparations. —GC

(1842 Wake Forest Road, 919-836-8000, www.capitalcreations.com)


Piccola Italia

Crust 6
Cheese 7
Sauce 7
Meat toppings 7
Vegetable toppings 5
Grease factor 7
Average 6.5

In 1949, Cameron Village became the first shopping center built between Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. Piccola Italia, the area's requisite Italian restaurant, didn't open for another three decades, but it provides the same easy atmosphere and culinary comforts you'd expect from a much older Italian eatery—salads and sauces, manicotti and ravioli, spaghetti and scampi. That approach can be attributed to owner Frank Amato, a Sicilian immigrant who worked in Pennsylvania before heading south.

Appropriately, the pizza keeps it simple and works. Though the white pizza is a bit of a disappointment, lunchtime slices of New York-style cheese pizza are the staple worth the stop. Slathered in cheese, with a pungent and peppery sauce beneath, the pizza sports a small pond of grease on top that not only affords it geographical verisimilitude but also just makes it shamelessly, indulgently terrific.

Piccola Italia also offers a Sicilian and a few specialties (the regional Palermo style sounds intriguing with its mix of vegetables and meat), but start simple. They've been here a while, and there's always more pizza to eat. —GC

(423 Woodburn Road, 919-833-6888, www.piccolaitalianc.com)


Klausie's Pizza

Crust 9
Cheese 8
Sauce 9
Meat toppings 9
Vegetable toppings 7
Grease factor 8
Average 8.3

Klausie's doesn't look like much. It's just a silver food truck. Most of the prep is handled someplace far away from where you, the consumer, will end up ingesting your square of pan pizza. By necessity, the crust is pre-baked. And like that of every pizza-monger that employs that method, the end product feels disjointed for it.

But what emerges from the window in that sliver, four-wheeled monstrosity overcomes all that. It's a warmed-to-order triumph of crust and cheese, puffy and crisp at the margins and forgivingly chewy at the center. The red sauce base has a deep tang. And the pepperoni and sausage both taste fresh enough to be homemade. There is a case to be made for staying in your own lane. But when you eat a slice from Klausie's, it's difficult not to imagine what the braintrust behind it could accomplish culinary-wise if they had a permanent home. —VC

(919-880-1087, @klausiespizza, www.klausies.com)


DURHAM


Pie Pushers

Crust 7
Cheese 7
Sauce 7
Meat toppings n/a
Vegetable toppings 10
Grease factor 6
Average 7.4

Since I missed Pie Pushers at Fullsteam the previous evening, I trekked out to RTP for lunch to catch the famed food truck, which had parked in the lot of Copernicus IRB. (There wasn't an astronomer in sight; the company conducts institutional reviews of health studies.)

For four bucks, an oven-hot slice of grilled veggie—local eggplant, fresh basil, grilled red onions, tomato sauce, parmesan and mozzarella—appeared within five minutes of my ordering it. The thin, crunchy crust—which I prefer over too much dough—was carpeted in a layer of cheeses that glistened in the noonday sun: no globules or pools of cheese, just a nice sheen.

I was quite pleased the cook left on the rind of the eggplant (that's where the vitamins are), and it imparted no bitterness to the meaty texture. The basil tasted alive, like it had been plucked from the garden just moments before. Red onions presented a zesty departure from their yellow kin.

Yeah, there was some grease that affixed itself to the roof of my mouth afterward, but that was not a dealbreaker for what essentially tasted like a fresh garden on crisp dough. —LS

(919-901-0743, @piepushers, www.piepushers.com)


Tomato Jake's

Crust 2
Cheese 3
Sauce n/a
Meat toppings 5
Vegetable toppings 5
Grease factor 3
Average 3.6

The suburban pizzeria has certain hallmarks, which are easy to spot. Menus are of the laminated variety and often brightened with drawings of anthropomorphized toppings. Hanging banners scream out college and professional football schedules along with attendant beer specials. Between customers, bored teenage employees tap messages on their smartphones, while others try unconvincingly to not look high as balls. The sight of any of these might cause a certain type of pizza aficionado to balk in favor of the nearest eatery with a woodfire oven and locally sourced hoo-ha. But great and memorable pizza can indeed be found at the average family-friendly pizza joint.

Sadly, Tomato Jake's in Southpoint is not one of them. Which is not to say that the brains behind their pizza aren't trying. The menu is filled with New York-style specialty pies more ambitious in their construction than what you might find at a mall-based Sbarro. The Mobster Mushroom, for instance, is an earthy mishmash of mushroom, sausage, whole garlic and olive oil-soaked mozzarella. It arrives from the oven scalding and soggy with toppings, a buttery mass atop a slice of crusty dough. In other words, it's New York-style. Unfortunately, the crust isn't sturdy enough to compensate. Nor does it add much flavor to the equation. It's not that the bread base is terrible; it just lacks personality, like the eatery's location. —VC

(8202 Renaissance Parkway, Durham, 919-572-7722; 163 E. Franklin St., Chapel Hill, 919-933-5277; www.tomatojakes.com)


Devil's Pizzeria

Crust 7
Cheese 7
Sauce 6
Meat toppings 6
Vegetable toppings 8
Grease factor 8
Average 7

The pies at Devil's aren't easily classified. They're too thick and not nearly crispy enough to be Neapolitan. And they're much too thin to satisfy a worshipper of Chicago-style deep dish. But one characteristic shows through the murk: They're heavy. Dead-reckon the weight of one of the slices from the more adventurous side of Devil's menu, and you'll probably find that it weighs in at more than a pound. Blame the toppings, spread without restraint from one tip of the triangle to the other in one thick layer—a mark of the slightly inflated price. There are no off-notes here, just a lot of very solid ones—wedges of juicy Roma tomatoes, well-spiced cubes of chicken and a forgiving and chewy base of crust. Whether a quick lunch or a late, post-fete meal, Devil's is the Sir Thomas More of Triangle pizza. —VC

(742 Ninth St., 919-286-3090, www.devilspizzeria.com)


Enzo's Pizza Co.

Crust 8
Cheese 9
Sauce 8
Meat toppings n/a
Vegetable toppings 8
Grease factor 9
Average 8.4

First, it took Enzo's only 15 minutes to lovingly bake my personal pizza, but it took me 25 minutes to find a parking place in the clusterfuck that is the lot and deck that supposedly can accommodate several restaurants, medical facilities and dozens of upscale lofts on Erwin Road near Duke University Medical Center. I'm all for mixed-use, but I cast a pox on the civil "engineer" who "designed" so few parking spaces and a bizarre and ill-placed traffic circle for such a busy area.

However, the parking snafu is no fault of Enzo's, and to unfairly penalize the eatery for the parking mess is like failing to tip a waiter when the cook screws up your dish.

Onto the food: In my aggravation I had worked up quite an appetite. So when I opened the white box and saw the visage of a gorgeous Veg Out pie—sauce, cheese, black olives, yellow onions, green peppers and tomatoes with fresh baby spinach sprinkled on top like rose petals—my rage evaporated.

The doughy crust served as a mattress for a blanket of sauce and an ideal amount of cheese—neither skimpy nor gloppy. The veggies intermingled well, their contrasting textures distinguished the ingredients, which kept each bite interesting. With virtually no grease, this was a damn good pie. A pie I would eat regularly as long as I didn't have to drive.

Fortunately, Enzo's delivers within certain areas (check the website), so you can leave your car at home. If you must drive, it's worth it (and healthy) to park in a garage near the Duke Medical Center and walk the half-mile, along with the doctors in white coats and techs in scrubs who are headed that way. The free Bull City Connector gets you almost as close; the free Duke bus and No. 11 DATA (one measly buck) even closer. —LS

(2608 Erwin Road, 919-309-3696, www.enzospizzaco.com)


Pop's Backdoor South

Crust 6
Cheese 6
Sauce 5
Meat toppings n/a
Vegetable toppings 5
Grease factor 7
Average 5.8

Before I discovered Lilly's and Pie Pushers, I ate a lot of Pop's pizza. And in the beginning, I liked it a fair bit: Nothing fancy, but serviceable and reliable, it was the Sears of pizzas. Over time, though, the pizzas lost their reliability, and I often got a pizza with a tasteless crust, uninspired sauce and toppings that were consistently overcooked. That eliminated the grease factor, a good thing, but after a while I realized I could probably bake a pizza of this caliber at home. —LS

(3710 Shannon Road, 919-493-0169, www.popsbackdoorsouth.com)


CARRBORO


Panzanella

Crust 10
Cheese 10
Sauce n/a
Meat toppings 5
Vegetable toppings 6
Grease factor 10
Average 8.2

Panzanella's margherita may be the Triangle's premier pizza. The crust is prepared by the master bakers of Weaver Street Market, Panzanella's noncorporate parent. Chewy, crispy, slightly sour and appropriately charred (ask for it "on the well-done side" just to make sure), it has the subtlety of the finest artisanal bread. It's topped with oddly thick tomato wedges full of steaming juice, a 50-50 mixture of fresh and low-moisture mozzarella and a scattering of fresh basil. The center tends to go slightly soft from the weeping of the fresh mozzarella, but otherwise this pie is a model of sound simplicity. Like drummer Charlie Watts or a dominating offensive line, the crust provides a dependable basis for all manner of experiment, but the artier pies on the menu—chorizo and artichoke, caponata and caper, sausage, caramelized onion and fontina—attempt too much and sink into cross-purpose and confusion. The briefest return to the drawing board would solve the problem. I, for one, don't mind being spared the anguish of choice, the faint embarrassment of last-minute indecision. It's a luxury to sail in and order the margherita every time. —DR

(200 N. Greenboro St., 919-929-6626, www.panzanella.coop)


Anna Maria's Pizzeria

Crust 8
Cheese 8
Sauce 7
Meat toppings 7
Vegetable toppings n/a
Grease factor 5
Average 7

Seriously, you might not know that Anna Maria's exists. It's tucked away in a nook of Carrboro Plaza, but the search is worth it. Anna Maria's serves up pizza I Love NY Pizza-style. That means the pizza-by-the-slice is pre-made and heated after you order. You can order an entire pizza, but most buy by the slice. Don't let the pre-made disclaimer bother you. The finished product is gooey deliciousness. The crust is light and crunchy, without the burned bottom that dooms so many pizza slices. The sauce has generous hints of oregano loaded with what might be mature cheese. The cheese pizza is simple and excellent. The results can be muddled in some of the more weighty offerings, like the Rio Ranch pizza. Here you find an abundance of bacon and fresh tomatoes that, alas, are drowned in ranch dressing. If you love ranch dressing—no, I mean really love ranch dressing—this is the pizza for you. If you're not a ranch extremist, you might find this slice too much. Either way, the grease and ranch overload can make the slice a goopy mess. Still, Anna Maria's deserves an audience. —BB

(104 N.C. 54, Carrboro Plaza, Carrboro, 919-929-1877; 670 N. Churton St., Hillsborough, 919-245-1900)


CHAPEL HILL


Pepper's

Crust 9
Cheese 9
Sauce 8
Meat toppings 8
Vegetable toppings 8
Grease factor 7
Average 8.1

Pepper's is a Franklin Street institution in Chapel Hill, and not just because of the mega-awesome, shirtless Al Green poster from the 1970s lording over the pizzeria's kitchen. (If I were rating that poster, I would rate it a 20.) Any discussion of Pepper's charms has to revolve around the choice of toppings and that delicious, soft crust. Can you call a crust buttery if there's no butter in it? It's not flaky but creamy somehow, like a fabulous homemade loaf of bread. Then, the toppings: Pork barbecue? Hot dogs? Pesto sauce with the hot dogs? Pepper's will put nearly anything on this pizza you want. The restaurant wisely ditches any overload on grease too, which means you won't feel miserable after eating. Let's stay together, Pepper's. —BB

(107 E. Franklin St., 919-967-7766)


Italian Pizzeria III

Crust 7
Cheese 7
Sauce 4
Meat toppings n/a
Vegetable toppings n/a
Grease factor 8
Average 6.5

What does Italian Pizzeria III—better known as IP3 to the initiated—bring? Loads of charm. The Italian brothers who run this Franklin Street pizzeria are friendly, funny and excited about what they're doing. What don't they bring? Loads of sauce, at least in the case of their Sicilian pizza. IP3 goes heavy on the cheese, and it's much appreciated. The crust has a heavy focaccia taste that threatens to dominate the slice. You can't really complain about an overly bready slice of Sicilian. Don't sweat it too much. IP3 is a prime sports mecca, and you can load up on hedonistic, crowd-pleasing meatball subs, chicken parmigiana and pizza while you watch international soccer or UNC athletics. It's very affordable too, which makes one mediocre slice every now and then worth it. —BB

(508 W. Franklin St., 919-968-4671, www.italianpizzeria3.com)


PITTSBORO


Capp's Apizza

Crust 7
Cheese 5
Sauce 9
Meat toppings 10
Vegetable toppings 7
Grease factor 10
Average 8

The word "apizza"—evoking the volcanic maws of the ancient brick ovens of New Haven—is always a good omen. Capp's Apizza is an itinerant apostle of the Neapolitan-cum-New Haven pie. In the physical sense, Capp's consists of a bright red trailer outfitted with a beehive of wood-burning masonry; in the spiritual sense, it consists of a perhaps unattainable ideal. The oven, nicknamed "Vesuvio," doesn't look like much, but it fires up to nearly a thousand degrees and cooks a pizza in 60–90 seconds. The pie emerges from this inferno pleasantly charred and smoke infused. The crust has an unobtrusive low-gluten chew, while the rim is well puffed and airy. The quick swirl of tomato sauce is vivid and fresh. The homemade Italian sausage is spectacular—possibly the best pizza protein in the Triangle. The only off note is the cheese, which lacks the texture and hint of tensile strength that mozzarella should possess even at its runniest. Capp's is assured of one accolade: Its pies have no local rival for sheer gorgeousness. They belong on the cover of Saveur just as certain 6-foot girls with cut-glass cheekbones belong on the cover of Vogue. —DR

(919-669-8582, @cappsapizza, www.cappsapizza.com)


For a list of even more pizza shops, click through to the next page...

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