The first year that we published Southern Arizona Guide, we posted the Top 3 Mexican Restaurants in Tucson. It has remained one of our most popular features. The next year, we posted the Top Ten Burgers In Tucson. That too has remained incredibly popular with our visitors & newsletter subscribers. Based on our friends’ and website visitors’ comments, we sometimes revisit our original opinions.
Recently, I, along with friends, have been checking out Tucson’s pizza scene to determine which is the Best Pizza In Tucson. I personally sampled 18 that seemed to be the most popular and had the highest so-called “honest customer reviews” on TripAdvisor, Yelp, and Urban Spoon. Most often, I had the good experience I expected, but not always. Some highly rated pizzerias were seriously disappointing.
We enjoyed many styles of pizza, including Chicago Deep-Dish, New York, and Neapolitan. In rating each pizza place, we considered the crust, sauce, cheeses, and toppings. Generally, the fresher the ingredients, the better the taste. The top pizza chefs go to extraordinary effort to get the finest, freshest ingredients. For this, they charge a little more, but it is well worth it.
While our rankings of the Best Mexican Restaurant and The Best Burger were unanimous, our ranking of the Best Pizza was not. Of all the American comfort foods, the humble pizza pie is perhaps most subject to individual preference. Chances are, you will rank them somewhat differently. Regarding the Top 10 however, if you dine there I am confident you will have a good experience.
Here you will find my prejudices and preferences. I thank all my friends who accompanied me on the search for the Best Pizza and all our website visitors who sent us their comments as each review was published.
I do not like my pizza crust overly thick, oily, and heavily ladened with cheeses. I don’t want to end my pizza meal feeling like I just downed a brick. I want my crust thin, but not wafer-thin, crispy on the outside, slightly chewy in the middle, bubbly around the edges, and flavorful. I particularly dislike a crust with the distinctive taste and texture of wet cardboard. I experienced the latter at both Brooklyn and 1702. YUCK!
If the chef poured a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil on the crust prior to applying the sauce, all the better.
As to tomato sauce, I prefer it fairly thick, and slightly salty with a hint of garlic and other herbs, rather than sweet. Some chefs add small portions of oregano, thyme, basil, rosemary, kosher or sea salt or freshly ground pepper to suit their palate. Usually, the addition of herbs and spices add immeasurably to my enjoyment of pizza.
You cannot have a great pizza without fresh mozzarella cheese. However, mozzarella alone is stringy and not terribly interesting. It’s used on pizza as much for texture as flavor. For more cheesy flavor, I prefer one or two additional cheeses, such as Italian provolone and Pecorino Romano, a hard, salty cheese made from sheep’s milk.
Gouda, Gruyere, and Goat Cheese are good with certain toppings. Goat cheese is particularly good with veggie toppings, but should be sprinkled on after the pizza is baked.
If you want grated parmesan cheese for a little extra flavor, it should be added after the pizza is baked. The best is Parmigiano Reggiano from Parma, Italy that has been aged more than 12 months.
Crumbled Blue Cheese added after the pizza is baked goes well with fresh vegetable toppings, such as tomatoes (sun-dried or cherry) and arugula.
No more than three toppings for me, thank you. In an attempt to compare “apples to apples”, for our rankings, I always ordered half pepperoni and half sausage and mushrooms. Because I often dined with several others, I got to sample their toppings as well. So, this past year I have sampled dozens of different Tucson pizzas … and only gained 30 pounds.
Each pizza chef added a little something to reflect their own palate and sensibilities. Some use canola oil in their pizza dough. One that we know of uses olive oil, not blended into the dough, but drizzled over the crust before applying the sauce. Some added a little garlic to their tomato sauce. Most offered a wide variety of toppings. One had an excellent gluten-free pizza.
There must be a hundred or more Tucson establishments that offer pizza. Here is how I ranked the Top Ten based on my experience and the experience of those I dined with. This year, none earned a 5-Saguaro rating: Best of the Best of Southern Arizona. I have only discovered one 5-Saguaro pizza in Southern Arizona and it is not in Tucson. Numbers 1 through 10 received 4-Saguaros or 4 and a half saguaros: Very Good, and thus highly recommended. On any given day, I might have ranked them differently, but only slightly.
True, a good dining experience involves more than just the quality of the food, although that’s usually primary. Some establishments listed below specialize in beer generally, and local brews in particular. Some have an extensive wine list. At peak hours, some are loud and others are extremely loud. I will add that in every case of the Top 10, our service varied from very good to excellent.
In this list, you will find links to those for which I have written a full dining review.
1. CLOSED! Pizzeria Bianco: Short-lived in Tucson, Bianco is still a favorite in Phoenix. Please come back to Tucson. A surprise and delight. A surprise because I didn’t think any pizzeria could be as good as the hype. A delight because it did. Bianco lives up to its Phoenix/Scottsdale reputation. All hail pizza maestro Chris Bianco! Pizzeria Bianco is sufficient reason to get off your sofa and explore the newly revitalized Downtown Tucson. With the advent of the modern streetcar, Downtown has experienced a truly amazing transformation, and more good things to come.
Ms. Rosemary makes her case for Bianco.
“If I was going to take friends for pizza, I’d go to Bianco’s. The crust was thin but not soggy. The sauce was spicy not sweet. And the topics were different but tasty and plentiful.”
That said, Bianco may not be the Best Pizza in all of Southern Arizona. To find out why you will have to go to Patagonia and dine at the Velvet Elvis. Owner, Cecilia San Miguel’s story is amazing, as are her pizzas and other dishes.
2. North Italia: La Encantada Mall. I’ve dined at North many times over the past decade. It’s much better now than years ago. Last summer I enjoyed a pizza there with friend Dr. Gil and we both thought ours bordered on perfection. The crust was tasty, crisp on the outside, a little chewy in the center. The freshness of the ingredients is evident. To me, their sauce is what pizza sauce ought to taste like; a perfect blend of herbs and spices.
As an added bonus, North serves an excellent margarita cocktail, as good as Wisdom’s regular margarita (just south of Tubac) and El Charro’s custom margarita (Downtown on Court Street).
3. Renee’s Organic Oven: on Tanque Verde at Sabino Canyon Road. As good as their regular pizzas are, their gluten-free pizza is even better. I have no explanation for this strange phenomenon.
NOTE: You will notice that there are two number 4’s. That’s because, while both have their own character, pizzas at both Zona 78 and Scardato’s are very good. I would hate to have to live on the difference. Try them both and see which one you think is the better pizza. Either way, I am certain you will have a delightful pizza experience.
4. Zona 78 Italian Kitchen: 78 W. River Road. Zona’s marguerita pizza is about as classic a pizza as you can get this side of Italy: fresh mozzarella, locally-grown organic tomatoes, basil & olive oil. Yum! But my favorite is Zona’s Tuscany: sausage, mozzarella, kalamata, garlic, fennel, portobello mushrooms, & fresh basil.
4. Scordato’s Pizzeria: Now Stone and River; formerly Vivace Pizzeria (same owner). Daniel Scordato owns Vivace Restaurant at Skyline & Campbell where Anthony’s In The Catalinas used to be. Aside from a great city view, we long ago named Vivace the best Italian restaurant in Southern Arizona. Thus, it should not be a surprise that Daniel’s Scordato’s Pizzeria is rated very highly. As an aside, for lunch, Scordato’s offers pizzetta’s: 6″ pizzas with a side of mixed greens for $8.50 to $10.50. I ranked Scordato’s ahead of Tavolino’s & Grimaldi’s because, based on my personal experience, Scordato’s is more consistently excellent. Never disappoints, although Ms. Karen was not impressed after their move to Stone and River.
6. Tavolino Ristorante Italiano: Skyline & Campbell. Based on Ms. Sue’s and my first pizza experience here, Tavolino’s would have ranked in or near the top three. But the 2nd pizza lunch here disappointed, thus dropping them several notches.
7. CLOSED in TUCSON. Several in Phoenix. Grimaldi’s Pizzeria: Campbell & 6th Street. Grimaldi’s also has locations in Texas, Colorado, Florida, and a few other places, but their pizza is vastly superior to any national chain that I am aware of. New York-style baked for about 4 minutes in a very hot coal-burning brick oven. I’ve had pizza here twice. Like my second Tavolino pizza, my 2nd pizza at Grimaldi’s was not as good as the first.
8. Rocco’s Little Chicago Pizza: 2707 E. Broadway. Most Tucsonans have never experienced a Chicago-Style deep-dish Pizza. This is a good place to do just that. But their regular thin-crust is also very good. Neighbor Roy & I enjoyed both.
9. Magpies Gourmet Pizza: 4th Avenue. Old-school pizza. In your face classic New York-style pizza: thin crust, richly flavored red sauce, heavy on the cheese, somewhat oily & gooey. Lots of topping options as well alternate crusts and sauces. If you are a UA guy overdosing on testosterone & beer, this is the place for you. For the faint of heart, Magpies does offer more refined options (which I have not experienced).
10. CLOSED. La Mia Toscana: 7332 N. Oracle. An accidental surprise. Didn’t know they existed, but happened across them at lunchtime one day. Very good crust, sauce, and toppings, and nothing to complain about.
“Our fresh pizza dough is delicately hand pressed and then wood fired in the 800+ degree wood burning pizza oven. Rich pizza sauce is made exclusively from San Marzano tomatoes grown on the volcanic plains near Mount Vesuvius. Like our dough and sauce, Mozzarella is made fresh every day and our pizza toppings are the best available.”
I wish this is what we experienced. However, the 2 Neapolitan pizzas my friend & I had were not as interesting as the new contemporary interior. Neither the crust nor the sauce had much flavor. Disappointing.
Reilly Craft Pizza & Drink: Downtown on Pennington. Reilly’s could be the best. But so far they have not lived up to their potential. Love what they have done with this old funeral home building’s interior, but the result, while eye-pleasing, is extremely noisy. If you actually want to have a pleasant conversation with your dining companions here, go at an off-off hour.
On a related note, Barbara, one of our e-newsletter subscribers, wrote the following in response to our recent Reilly and Bianco reviews.
I am used to being able to buy a slice of pizza with whatever topping I wanted, cooked in a brick-oven, in my Italian neighborhood (Carroll Gardens) in Brooklyn. I thought Bianco Pizzeria’s crust was better, but I thought that there was a wider selection of toppings and a better presentation at Reilly Craft Pizza. Plus, I am a single retired lady, and paying $18.00 for one person for a pizza makes a dent in my budget, whereas, I can get a 4-piece panna, truffle cheese mushroom mini-pizza during happy hour at Reilly’s for $6 (regular size is $15).
Frog & Firkin: University at Tyndall. A typical UA pub. Lots of carbs. Not much discriminating taste here. But definitely filling.
Bianchi’s Pizza: Speedway & Silverbell. Anthony, who owns Swade Barbershop at Ruthrauff & La Cholla, is my barber and a very good barber he is. While getting a haircut and beard trim one day, we got on the subject of the best pizza. He claimed that Bianchi’s is the best. He and his family have been going there for years and love their pizza. But when I questioned him about the others on this list, he had never been to any of them. Anthony needs to diversify his dining experiences.
Los Olivos Pizzeria: Menlo Park neighborhood on Congress west of the freeway. Decidedly uninteresting, despite the positive review in the Arizona Daily Star. Neighbor Roy & I rendered a decidedly negative review.
1702 Pizza & Beer: 1702 E. Speedway. Caters to a University crowd that apparently lacks discriminating taste. However, 1702 has a superior selection of … what else? BEER! Go for the beer, not the pizza.
Brooklyn Pizza Company on 4th Avenue. As bad as Los Olivos and 1702 were, Brooklyn was even worse. A 1-Saguaro rating means “not quite as good as prison food”. I would have been ashamed to serve the Brooklyn Pizza that I paid for to inmates. For particulars, please read my review.
Honorable Mention. One delightful surprise was the pizza in the Ironwood Terraces at our Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. It was particularly memorable for its excellent crust. Even if the pizza is very good, I never eat all of the crust. Of those listed above, the Desert Museum pizza was the only one with a crust that was so good that I devoured it all. They say it’s the cornflour that makes it so exceptional, but I still think they add a little something else, probably olive oil. Try it and let me know what you think. Next year it could be a contender.
Empire Pizza is a relatively new kid in downtown. Still kicking during this pandemic. Our Canadian friends say it is great New York Style pizza. We will have to try it soon.
Another New One we will have to explore. FIRED pie at 350 E. Congress #150. Plenty of these all over Phoenix.
Charred Pie in the Marketplace in Oro Valley is also good.