Atlanta’s pizza wars

Knowing that we’d be passing through Atlanta on our way to meet up with 30-Day Pizza Dietguru Matt McClellan, who was biking his way up the East Coast last June, we started searchingthe Internet for the city’s most popular pizzerias, enlisting the help of sites such as CitySearch,Yahoo Local, Yelp and CityGuide. We also took suggestions from the staff at the AtlantaConvention & Visitors Bureau, as well as staff members at our home base in Atlanta, TheArtmore Hotel in Midtown—all in an effort to show you what it takes to be a hit with locals.

In this bustling Southern city, we quickly found that pizza has recently found its place in thespotlight as the well-publicized “pizza wars” rage on. While some pizzerias have been holdingdown the fort in the city for decades, a recent crop of newbies—many slinging pie styleswith which locals were previously unfamiliar—have definitely made the playing field moreinteresting. Meanwhile, the area’s foodie bloggers are quick to visit, judge and spread thegospel—leading to mobs, factions and a whole lotta healthy competition. We visited severalfavorites to see why each has earned its spot in the hearts of critics and customers alike.

​Fritti (sottosottorestaurant.com) opened in 2000as part of the U Restaurants group but attainedVPN certification, authenticating its Neapolitanstyle and heritage, in 2007. Owner Riccardo Ullio,an Italy native, ensures that the certificationis followed through with a wood-burning oven; aNaples-born chef, Massimo Andreozzi; and importedItalian ingredients, from flour to tomatosauce. But perhaps the casual environment andreadily available alfresco dining (the patio seatsmore than the main dining room), along witha few extra touches of hospitality,lend themselves more feel of Italy than any specific ingredient. all, Andreozzi passes from table to table as customers finish their meals, offeringcomplementary shots of limoncello that he makes himself—what could be more Mediterranean?

But Andreozzi points to the oven as a major factor in the true Neapolitan feel of the pizzeria; his unclebuilt the oven and is fashioning a smaller, more authentically Neapolitan oven for the second Fritti location,set to open this fall in the Buckhead neighborhood (the original location is set in the historic InmanPark district). “The oven is really important for the Neapolitan style,” emphasizes Andreozzi. “The ovenis small and very hot so that pizzas cook in one minute, and the finished pizza is soft—not soggy, not crispy.” Still, he admits, he tries to accommodate requests from customers to fashion customizedpies. “Everybody likes pizza a different way, so it’s hard to please everyone,” he laughs. “Some like soft, or crispy, or well-done. We just make sure the customer is happy when he leaves.”

Andreozzi notes that the Regina Margherita, with San Marzano tomato, bufala mozzarella and basil,is the most popular, catering to a variety of tastes. “The Regina is simple, so you can taste theflavor in the sauce, cheese and basil—it’s a good combination,” he says. After sampling the classicRegina and a deep-dish brunch pizza piled with egg, potatoes and mozzarella, Andreozzi convincedus that he can do simple and complex with equal ease.

When you walk through the doors at Max’s Coal Oven Pizzeria(maxsatl.com) in Atlanta’s bustling downtown district,the first thing that catches your eye are the flamesinside Georgia’s only coal-burning pizza oven as it pumpsout New York-style pies. General manager EustaceTompkins says that since the oven was found in the buildingduring the building remodel, it was allowed to stay.“As far as I know, you’re not allowed to install a coal-burningoven inside a pizzeria in Georgia anymore,” hesays. Max’s chef, Vee Reed, admits that having a coaloven is a definite bonus, as it helps to impart a crustthat’s crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside.“The back of the oven can reach temperatures of 1,500°,”says Reed. “And with a deck that hovers around 600° to700°, the pizzas cook in four to six minutes.”

While the most popular pizza at Max’s is the Margherita,topped with the pizzeria’s house-made mozzarella,other oft-ordered items include the Sausage Goat Cheese pizza and the Coal Oven Lemon PepperWings. (Tompkins admits to having a slice with pepperoni,green pepper and jalepeño every day.) Andyou won’t find any measuring cups in this kitchen—Tompkins says that they love to pile on the toppings!

Because Max’s is located downtown, creative marketingefforts are often required. “We market ourselvesas a group with others in the area and also practicewhat we call ‘four-walls marketing’—giving out pizza byhand,” says Tompkins. “Once per month, we scheduleoffice parties where we invite 20 to 30 office workersfrom the area into the restaurant and buy them pizza anddrinks.” Customers also enjoy a variety of lunch specials,including one that includes the slice of the day paired witha salad and soda for $7.50, as well as a family pack specialthat is paired with salad, pizza and dessert. Being downtownnear the stadium also has its perks, though: Duringthe fall football season, staff regularly set up a post outsideand sell pizzas by thebox to hungry SEC andACC fans.

Jeff Varasano, owner and operator of Varasano’s Pizzeria (varasanos.com), could easily be described as the mad scientist of pizza.He was burned out at a software engineering job, living in Atlantaand craving pizzas from his home in New York, when he decided tolearn the pizza making trade himself, setting him on a decade-longjourney that would eventually have him opening his own pizzeria.He experimented with plain cheese pies for more than six years—testing dough recipes, trying tomato brands, sampling dozens ofstrains of a single herb, adjusting his oven to reach higher temperatures—and published the journey on an exhaustive and hugelypopular website. Varasano undertook the challenge as perhaps onlywould—after all, at 14, he held the world record for the fastestmanipulation of the Rubik’s Cube, and he brought that scientificmind to the pizza industry. However, he was working with a set ofintangibles, too. “There’s a difference between making a pizza that’stechnically perfect and making one that’s memorable,” he explains.goal was to make a pizza that was memorable.”

Thanks to his Web success, Varasano garnered attention from TheYork Times before even opening his doors, so he had a mightybefore him, particularly considering his lack of restaurant experience.After honing his recipe at house parties, he opened in March 2009now confident in his methods as a pizza maker. “When I didn’t knowanything, I admitted it, but I know a lot more now,” he smiles. And, for a pizzaiolowho made nothing but Margherita pies for six years, he prides himselfspecialty pies. “I believe that our combinations are among the best,”says. “I strive not only to have balancewithin a single pie and withmixing of the dough, but in themenu as a whole.”

Accordingly, the pizzas at Varasano’sare unique but somehowfamiliar, offering a range oftastes: earthy, tangy, sweet. Wetried every pie on the menu—and a few, such as his Sicilianand potato-and-rosemary pie,that weren’t. Luckily for pizzaenthusiasts, he plans on taking the conceptmarkets in the near future. But, likehis pizza recipe, he is taking expansion slowly.“Things you think will take months, in reality,take a couple of years,” he says. “But as the countrygets less regional, there is definitely room forhigher-end pizza outlets, and who better to do itthan me?”

Atlanta’soldest pizzeria, Everybody’s Pizza (everybodyspizza.com),opened in 1971 across the street from Emory University and, according toco-owner Andy Kurlansky, keeps a safe distance from the Atlanta pizzawars. “We don’t really have any competition,” says Kurlansky.We serve trademarked menu items such as the PBLT (pizza, bacon,lettuce, tomato sandwich) and the Pizza Salad (a pesto-topped pizzacrust-baked and cut into squares and then topped with lettuce, tomatoes,sun-dried tomatoes, chicken, cheese and vinaigrette) thatcustomers have been ordering for years.” Kurlansky boasts that evenTom Brokaw was a regular back in the ’70s, giving a shout-out tothe pizzeria on the Today Show. And while the menu does changeevery year or so, with the addition of new creations that Kurlanskythinks up, he says that customer favorites always remain.

Kurlansky and co-owner Phil Paymer opened a second locationof Everybody’s in 1991 in the Virginia/Highland area, which offersa wide selection of imported beers and a place to dine alfrescoon the back balcony. Kurlansky says that he’s always got his eyesopen for the opportunity to open a third location, and with the pizzeriaregularly nominated—andoften winning—best pizza awards from local votes, another outpostof Everybody’s certainly wouldn’t have a problem filling seats.

While Everybody’s offers a “kids eat free” night, dabbles in local newspaper advertising and donates gift certificates for fundraisers,Kurlansky says he does most of his advertising on the plate with good food. “You have to have passion,” he says. “If you’re notpassionate, cut your losses now and head on down the road.”

Side Trips

Since we were driving through Birmingham, Alabama, onour way to Atlanta, we thought, “Why not get some pizzaon the way?” With a tagline like, “You’re gonna love it…orelse!” we couldn’t resist stopping into Mafiaoza’s Pizzeria& Neighborhood Pub (mafiaozas.com), which originallygot its start in Nashville in 2003. We were met by generalmanager Nick Nicholson, who walked us through themenu—then, since road trips work up an appetite, wedidn’t waste any time ordering a gaggle of tasty items,including a cheese plate; a trio of dips served withcrostini; fried cheese ravioli sticks; goat cheese buttons(goat cheese rolled in breadcrumbs and fried); a slice ofThe Informant (a veggie pie with basil Alfredo sauce); a slice of The Dolan(spicybarbecue chicken with a barbecue sauce base and Mafiaoza’s blend of cheeses); and a Margherita pie.

Antico Pizza Napoletana (anticopizza.it) has been noted for intensifyingthe Atlanta pizza wars with its simple rustic interior and limited list ofpies that take inspiration from Naples; despite having been open forjust over a year (since September 2009), many consider it the best in thecity. The process of eating at Antico is unique: Order at the counter infront, and eat in back on oversize picnic tables that overlook the wood-firedovens churning out pies, stacks of fl our bags, and pizzaiolos tossingwet chunks of mozzarella on just-spread dough balls. Since we had justarrived in Atlanta on a major pizza eating excursion, we ordered lightly—single pie, the Margherita D.O.P., with San Marzano tomatoes, buffalomozzarella, basil and garlic.