A life without bready goodness would make mine an empty existence.
Like so many who make their own pizzas at home, I am plum-tomato proud of my sauce and my dough, the latter the result of years of tinkering and tasting. Both hand-tossed or pan, I have pizza dough ‘recipes’ in my head that I would put up against any Ray’s, Original Ray’s or Famous Original Ray’s.
I still love going out for pizza and saving myself from proofing dough on a weekend morning. I headed into this piece knowing that some people are more devoted to their personal pizza preferences than they are to their political parties. Still and all, I wanted to eat this burden.
In order to level the playing peel, I decided that I would simplify and square the taste test: pizza Margherita. For the last two weeks, I sought out any pizzerias or Italian spots in town that featured this Neapolitan standard — a union of bread, sauce, mozzarella and basil. The red, white and green. And then my wife and I ate so much pizza.
Each pie we sampled was, by design, eaten on-site at a non-chain Savannah-proper pizza joint.
Two avvertenza or warnings to all Margherita makers, both concerning toppings: Primo, no fresh tomatoes. Why anyone ever thought that sliced vine tomatoes or chopped grapes belonged on this pie confounds me. They add unnecessary weight and little, if any, flavor, often detracting from homemade sauce. Secondo, there are only two choices for the basil: full leaf or razor-thin chiffonade; lumps of rough-chop green just look poor and taste worse.
By a shred of Parmesan, the most special Margherita we ate was at La Scala, a superb Neapolitan that is nearly hidden on the lavish menu, a six-slice pie for $12. I appreciate that not everyone is going to a fine ristorante to tuck into a pizza, but this is an affordable treat-yourself option. Sit in the cozy bar or on the patio and enjoy the truly professional service and stunning ambience as the final toppings on a near-perfect pie. The dough is proper bread, as it should be, made from a biga and put through a series of proofs, its rim lightly brushed with olive oil and dusted with Maldon sea salt flakes before baking on a stone. This is crust that would be phenomenal naked and deserves to be finished once the homemade sauce and house-shredded buffalo mozzarella are already in your belly. The only check-minus on this pizza was the absence of little pearly dollops of fresh mozzarella.
Since Russell Lee opened Green Fire in 2016, we have eaten more pizzas there than anywhere else in Savannah because the pies are great enough to offset the business’s heretofore inconsistent service and logistical growing pains. Thanks to the research Lee did prior to tossing Green Fire’s first Margherita, as well as the super-cool Italian-made brick oven, he has been able to serve up the most authentic Neapolitans in the city. The 10-inch for $10 cannot be bested for a combination of quality and price, though my wife and I often giddily talk ourselves up to devour the 16-inch ($14). Like that at La Scala, the homemade slow-proofed dough is a tasty bread that bubbles and chars nicely in that brick oven, topped with a sweet red sauce (on occasion a little too much) and thin ovals of mozzarella. Che forza!
Bocci’s Italian Bistro
At Bocci’s, the 14-inch Margherita is $14 and makes it into the top flight in town, and it should, seeing that owner-chef Walter Salmi is from Naples. The homemade dough bakes to form a crust crisper and thinner than most we tried, thanks to a baking stone, not thick enough to be bready but also sturdy enough to handle its cheese heft: thick slices of fresh mozzarella atop more shredded mozz. The sauce is also homemade, full of sweetness and light and aptly apportioned. The Bocci Margherita is the only pizza whose basil was more delicate chiffonade than coarse-chop, which I prefer. If anything might count against this pie, it was the size of the mozzarella slices, certainly generous, but too much so, in that those milky white pools stiffened as the pizza cooled and made for a mouthful that was a bit too chewy. Even that minor ‘issue’ paled in the face of this Margherita’s tastiness.
Leoci’s Mercato Italiano
Other than Green Fire, Roberto Leoci’s homecoming home offered the only other wood-fired pizza Margherita we tried, and the Marra Forni baked up one nearly as good as the previous three. A genuine rendition of the red-white-and-green, both the dough and sauce are made in-house, though they lacked saltiness and piquancy in equal measures. Aside from wanting a complete flavor, this pizza, like the one at Bocci’s, was too heavy on the fresh mozzarella (Southern Dairies), which meant that the thin crust could not support the weight of the toppings enough to be held as a slice. Even if we found the Leoci’s pizza a relative runner-up, what made the $14 pie well worth it was the attentive and polished service. Like La Scala, Leoci’s Mercato Italiano is a place where you treat yourself to a pizza.
Bella's, Screamin' Mimi's, Vinnie Van Go-Go's
This is the part where people get mad at me, the part in which I discount Savannah pizzeria institutions. For the sake of due diligence, the other three pizza Margheritas we ate were ones at Bella’s Italian Cafe, Screamin’ Mimi’s, and Vinnie Van Go-Go’s. While I told myself that I would not straight-up rank the pizzas and the respective establishments, I would be lying if I wrote that there was anything special about these remaining pies.
I knew that I had to include Vinnie’s in this article because it is Vinnie’s, though a true Margherita is not even on this most beloved pizzeria’s menu. To be entirely fair, the only one of these three that actually offers a Margherita is Bella’s - but that’s because Screamin’ Mimi’s is a ‘Margarita’, evidently the Mexican cousin of the Neapolitan pie.
The best thing I can write about Mimi’s ‘Margarita’ is that it is 18” big - but that means you feel beholden to eat it all because it ran you $20. The dough and the tasty sauce are made in-house, but the sheer size of the ‘Jersey style’ pizza made the slices too big and too limp for their weight, including large slices (obviously cut for subs) of unripe tomato. The garlic oil was a unique addition but resulted in clumps of diced garlic dotted around the pie’s surface. And they were out of basil.
Though the homepage on Vinnie’s website touts “thin hearty crust pizza called ‘Neapolitan’,” the menus online and in-house accurately offer ‘New York style’ pizza. In truth, what we got there was not an actual Margherita. Homemade dough, homemade sauce, shredded mozzarella, no basil.
We were given a cheese pizza that could have come from anyplace making deck-oven pizza. The sauce was fine, but the crust, lacking both texture and taste, was mere conveyance for familiar toppings. A 14-inch pie for $12 - certainly fair but just as certainly nothing special. Funny: on one of our scouting trips before we moved to Savannah, we got a Vinnie’s pizza and loved it. Maybe this is a pie that needs toppings to be what it should be. Whatever the reason, the pizza we had last week was not the same pizza we had five years ago.
Because Bella’s is closest to our house, we have eaten a couple dozen of their pizzas in the last four years, though I will be lowering this Italian flag of convenience henceforth. Quite reasonably, Bella’s does not make its own dough because it is an Italian restaurant that also happens to make pizza, which means that the homemade sauce is very good. Unfortunately, the last pizza Margherita I ordered tasted like grape tomatoes and basil, both of which were too liberally chunked all over the pie along with too much shredded mozz. This kinda Neapolitana was just pizza.
Again, perhaps it was unjust to put Bella’s, Mimi’s, and Vinnie’s non-Neapolitan pies up against the other four true pizza Margheritas, but had I not, we all know that I would have been flayed for failing to include them. Damned if I did…
The bottom layer is that a Margherita is a special pizza, one not every pizzaiolo can toss up, whereas a ‘New York style’ pizza, by definition, is what every deck oven pizza joint in every strip mall in America cranks out.
Savannahians should just know that they have options — and a few really nice ones — if they want to turn pizza time into something exceptional. If you want a traditional Margherita, go to the places that are going to stick to its basics: bread, sauce, cheese and basil. If the mozzarella is fresh, even better. If the pie is charred in a wood-fired brick oven, bellissimo!
And if you’re going to spend $15 any way you slice it, you might as well go to a restaurant that is attractive and inviting and whose customer service equals or even surpasses the quality of the product — and not a place that treats you like you are lucky to wait a half-hour for a mediocre pie.
We all love pizza too much not to enjoy every piece.
• I would be remiss not to mention Big Bon Pizza. Since its launch in 2016 by the Heritage family, this pop-up pizza parlor has become a must-eat love affair with Savannahians and for great reason. Their pizza Margherita is legit in every way, both looking and tasting the part, but if you want a pizza on a random Wednesday night, you have to luck into Big Bon’s being set up at an event someplace in town — and then you have to wait in line. A long, long line.
• In a couple months, I may well have to amend this article, which I will do happily because it means eating more pizza. By early summer, Chris Dickerson hopes to have Squirrel’s Pizza open in the Starland District, where his wood-fired pies will feature a high-protein dough to create a saltine-cracker-like crust that is more Roman and Neapolitan. Dickerson plans that his take, utilizing in-house fresh mozzarella, California tomatoes, and locally sourced produce, will rather defy convention and not conform to a set style of pizza.
• Not too far afield but still a few months away from serving its first slices is the yet-to-be-named pizza joint being built by Green Truck Pub’s Josh Yates. Though ongoing site-prep delays have made it difficult for Yates to predict an opening, he, like Dickerson, knows that his concept will not emulate a particular style or “chase any of the latest pizza fashions.” He wants to feature the area's best local ingredients in unpretentious ways at an everyday price point in order to create a “Savannah-style” pizza.