The Best Damn Pizza in Rochester
Despite this publication’s title, I’m not entirely nomadic, I do have an apartment in a low cost of living place—Rochester, New York. With Omicron still high, I bunkered down this January, and decided to write something about my hometown. Occasionally, I struggle to find a topic for these posts, but there was never any question of what this one would be about.
Here’s an insider-y pizza tour of Rochester.
While more upscale options have hit the local pizza scene in recent years, what Rochester is known for is very bread-y, doughy pizza. As someone raised in Penfield, a suburb of Rochester, it’s the only type of pizza I had growing up and I still love it. I don’t care if pizza snobs thumb their nose at it. Personally, I think there's something a little too dignified about the classic New York style-slice, with it’s thin, lean crust. Pizza should be a comforting cloud, a gentle friend.
Mr. Shoes, Salvatore’s, and Pontillo’s (more on Pontillo’s later) are three local chains that understand this concept, but there’s no place that exemplifies this style of fluffy pizza more than Mark’s Pizzeria. It’s the best of the best, either as a sheet party pizza or a single slice. I have fond teenage memories of grabbing a gigantic Mark’s slice and a can soda for $3 after school. Single slices were so large they could barely fit in the styrofoam shells they came in.
A few years ago, I got weirdly obsessed with this VICE interview with a man who had survived on nothing but pizza for the last 25 years. I imagine most people were horrified by this story. But as someone who will often eat the same food over and over, sometimes for days on end, I guess I saw something of myself in this guy. Like, damn, this could have been me if I took things too far, or whatever. Still, I balked when I got to this part in the interview:
What's your go-to pizza?
My absolute favorite pizza is from Pontillo's in Upstate New York. [Author's note: It's a chain based in Rochester with 20 locations in that area.] I haven't had it in over ten years, so I can't speak to whether it's still good, but the last time I had it, it was far above any pizza I'd ever had.
Pontillo’s?! Pontillo’s isn’t even the best pizza in Rochester, how was it his absolute favorite of all time?
But then I realized, I’d never actually had Pontillo’s, so what the hell did I know. Maybe it does beat Mark’s, so I decided to order Pontillo’s for the first time for this newsletter. I also ordered a Mark’s pizza, to compare, and also because I’ll never pass up on an opportunity to order Mark’s.
While I can’t ignore the fact that I’m hugely biased, I still think Mark’s Pizzeria wins here. While Pontillo’s upholds the doughy upstate New York pizza tradition, and probably photographs better, for the most part, it taste like any other slice. Mark’s, I’d recognize in an instant. There’s a certain flavor to the red sauce, the cheese, it has the perfect guilty amount of oil and grease. And crucially, there’s a certain chewiness to the crust, which maybe doesn’t sound like something to rave about, but it’s really satisfying. There’s this light dusting of flour that’s still always on the crust too.
I also love biting into that chewy crust the next day. That’s the other reason Mark’s Pizzeria wins. A truly great pizza should make great leftovers. And Mark’s is excellent day-after cold breakfast pizza. Yes, you can reheat it, but I prefer it straight from the fridge.
Fiorella and Vern’s
Okay, so while I never came around to the crisp, thin-crust New York slice, I did live in Bushwick for over ten years and I do love an artisanal, wood-fired pizza. I mean, I was a five minute walk away from Roberta’s. Rochester has two superb choices for wood-fired pizzas: Fiorella and Vern’s.
At Fiorella’s, the dough is leavened over several days using a naturally occurring process. It’s made of organic flour, water, and sea salt. Nothing else, no added commercial yeast. That makes it easier to digest, but the simplicity also makes it really, really good. Recently, I went for lunch and got a classic Margherita pizza. Lunch at Fiorella is a no-frills affair, my preferred kind of dining. You place you order at the counter and your personal pizza is brought to your seat.
I won’t always get pizza at Vern’s, which, if you haven’t already picked up on my pizza fixation, is a testament to how good the food is overall. My last trip, I did get the orange pizza, which had garlic curry cream, kale, ricotta, red onion, calabrian chilies and a butter crust. Mmm-hmmm. Vern’s is also known for its tomato pie, a thick, rectangular individual slice with red sauce, olive oil, oregano, salt, no cheese. It’s not one of those things that might stand out when you read it listed on the menu. Instead, you’ll see the person next to you having it and you’ll immediately need to know what it is and order it. And you’d be correct. It’s a staple at what is one of the hands down, best restaurants in Rochester.
Radio Social is a huge, 42,000-square-foot facility that’s got 34 bowling lanes, excellent cocktails, Middle Eastern food, and some brick oven pizzas named after thoughtfully-chosen Radiohead songs. I’ve always appreciated that detail, since Radiohead brings up as much teenage nostalgia for me as Mark’s Pizzeria.
“Just” remains one of the best music videos ever, and every Radiohead fan knows that “Lift” is a deep cut favorite (I prefer this early version to the more recent recording made for the 20th anniversary reissue of OK Computer). “Morning Bell” is great too, both the Kid A version and the Amnesiac version and this Radio Social pizza. The caesar salad on top is inspired and unique, if somewhat messy to eat. This can be a stressful situation if you’re someone like me who occasionally has social anxiety about eating in a group. I seriously hate being the type of person who oh-so-delicately eats their pizza with a fork and knife, but I’ll admit I have done that with the Morning Bell.
Pizza Wizard is the newest kid in town, specializing in Detroit-style pizza—a very thick, square-cut pizza. Heaps of sauce and cheese go all the way to the edge. It has no crust, in the traditional sense. My last visit there I ordered a plain square with banana peppers (my favorite pizza topping) and a Diet Coke (my favorite beverage to pair with pizza, especially in can form).
The retro aesthetics in Pizza Wizard are strong, from the logo to their fun to-go boxes. There’s an old school TMNT arcade game and an X-Files “I WANT TO BELIEVE” poster. Even their website is pizzawizard.pizza and I appreciate a place that goes the extra mile in their domain name.
They also have the best gluten free pizza in Rochester, no contest. My boo has celiac, so while that’s a tragedy of Romeo and Juliet proportions for this bread-loving pizza head, I’m always looking out for ways to bridge this painful gap in our relationship.
That’s only the tip of the iceberg, there’s more than half a dozen pizza places I didn’t even cover. When it comes to cultural options or other types of cuisine, Rochester doesn’t always have a wealth of choices, and that’s what makes its pizza diversity all the more meaningful. This is an area where the city truly shines and excels. From highbrow to lowbrow, from Pizza Wizard to Pizza Hut, we have it all.
By the way, do you know what Rochester’s nickname is? The Flour City. You might see that written as Flower City in some places and I’m sorry, that’s trash. I get that it’s referencing the area’s Lilac Festival, which is a nice event, but flowers will always be a little basic. A city named in honor of wheat, however, now that is something truly strange and beautiful.