This country has an unwritten, universal list of debate foods. What do I mean by debate foods? Solid question, loyal reader. Basically I mean the foods that cause you and your friends to spend an hour trying to convince each other that your preferred food is better than theirs. From bagels vs. biscuits to shoestring vs. steak fries, I have engaged in many such debates, many times with the same folks. I find them a necessary part of my friendships. After “settling” the doughnut debate I decided it was time to settle another big one — pizza. Pizza is a very divisive subject. The biggest question is will always be NY Style or Chicago Deep Dish. The answer is ALWAYS NY Style… unless you are a communist that not only hates Americans, but also Italians, self-respect, dignity and yourself. Our big question is who serves the best here in Richmond? To the tasting lab!!!
As I don’t actually have a tasting lab (yet), I invited everyone to Ardent in Scott’s Addition. Yes, you can bring food. They encourage you to do so. The caveat to coming to this shindig was that you had to bring a small cheese pizza from your favorite Richmond pizza place. I also requested you bring a second pizza, dealers choice on the type. My friend Anne convinced me (and rightfully so) that we needed a constant on which to judge all places fairly. This is, of course, a logical basis for broad spectrum testing. Hence, we went with the basic cheese pizza. Why something so plain? All good restaurants accomplish great things with the basic building blocks. If you cannot master the humble cheese pizza, what makes me think you can thrill me with anything else? Plus, everyone can get behind cheese as pepperoni is too spicy for some people. I also suggested smalls for both the price and because 7 to 14 small pizzas is a lot of pizza for 12 people. Scoring was broken into four categories: size of the small, overall flavor, sauciness of the pizza and cheesiness. All four were ranked on a scale of 1 to 10 with one being low and 10 high on this scale.
Damn it man, enough of the small talk!! Get down to the nitty gritty before I slap you with a pizza!! Ok ok. Chill out, friends. First off, let’s start with who was lovingly selected by the attendees to showcase their stuff. The first unknowing provider was Picciotti’s Pizza located at 9039 W. Broad Street. The second was Belmont Pizzeria based out of 602 N. Belmont Street. The third was Tarrant’s Cafe stationed at 1 W. Broad Street. Fourth was 8 1/2 over at 401 Strawberry Street. Our fifth and sixth both came from Mary Angela’s Pizzeria anchored at 3345 W. Cary Street (we got a thin crust and a Sicilian style). Finally, our vegan/vegetarian couple Kelsey and Laura made a wonderful homemade pizza to submit in the running. So now you know what we got and from where it came. The real question: How did it all stack up? Well, the numbers have been crunched and the results are in. Here we go, starting with the lowest average score and moving to the highest.
Holding up the pizza rear for our group was 8 1/2. The pizza garnered an average score of 5.28, which set it just a hair above mediocre. It also ranked 7th in votes making it a weak showing all around. The majority of the tasters felt that the biggest hang-up of the pizza was its lack of sauce. It almost danced along the lines of a white pizza more than a cheese pizza. What it lacked in sauce it made up for in cheese and garlic flavor. The strong garlic flavor was noted by many of the tasters and they were on board. It was strong, but not overwhelming as garlic can sometimes be. The crust was also crispy, which helped this pizza. Unfortunately, this pizza just couldn’t pull it all together to find a higher place on the list.
In sixth place is Belmont. In votes, Belmont was 1 spot higher in 5th place. Where this pizza lost major points, through no fault of its own, was in the size column. The person who brought this was a giant bonehead and brought a medium instead of a small. FINE.. it was me. In doing so this pizza was disqualified by most voters in the size department bringing its average score WAY down. Sorry, guys. This pizza did pull in the highest flavor score with an 8.38 score. The voters agreed that there was a nice spice to the sauce and a wonderful flavor to the crust. One comment pointed out the nice balance of sauce to cheese, but felt the sauce was a touch sweet. I personally love this pizza. I think that the pizza I get from here each time is delicious. Granted, the votes didn’t agree with me. Nor did one commenter who wrote, “A little boring. Good drunk pizza.” Can’t please everyone I guess.
In the last of the lower bracket (5th place) we have Mary Angelas Sicilian pizza. It pulled an average score of 6.75 and a voter ranking of 6, one place worse than it sits. Sauciness was the killer of this pizza. It just didn’t seem to have enough to combat the thickness of the crust. People seemed to feel overwhelmed by the amount of crust which, while tasty, was overabundant. The overall size of this pizza tied for 1st with a score of 7.63. It was a nice size pie that provided hefty slices for all. I disliked this pizza myself. I am not a fan of thick crust for a pizza. I have a hard time looking past that to appreciate the toppings or the sauce. Yes, I felt this pizza was cooked well and an excellent portion size, but it was too much crust for me to support. Still, it garnered enough support to almost make the dead center of the pack. Can’t fault it for that.
The pizza in 4th place, precisely the middle of the group, was from Tarrant’s. This pizza garnered an average score 6.97, in part due to a strong sauciness showing. It tied for first in the sauciness category. Their sauce received rave reviews from quite a few voters. One said it was the best sauce of the day. I personally felt it was a touch too tomato tasting. I know that sounds weird, as it is a tomato sauce. Most pizza sauces are tempered with spices, like oregano and garlic, to cut the strong acidic tomato flavor. I felt that this pizza didn’t have that, making the sauce very strongly tomato. Still, I felt the portion of sauce was excellent. It was an excellent sauce to crust ratio. Where people didn’t love this pie, was its size. Outside of the disqualified pizza, this received the lowest score. In the end, people voted this pizza into the same rank it received score-wise, 4th. Pretty decent showing.
Now we make our way into the top three. This pizza put up strong marks in all categories and was voted into 2nd place, unfortunately it wasn’t there score-wise. Scores bestowed the bronze medal upon the homemade pizza. Our friend Kelsey, put quite a bit of effort into this pie. It showed in all areas. Everyone else seemed to agree. Most people found the pizza super flavorful. In fact, it was very close to having the highest flavor score of all the pizzas. The homemade dough baked itself into a crispy and delicious crust. The heavy-handedness on the cheese distribution was well received. No one ever complained about too much cheese. To come in against 5 professional pizza places and claim a medal is impressive work. Kudos to the chef.
In second place with a score of 7.59 was Mary Angelas thin crust. Vote wise this pizza actually placed 1st. I can see why too. Its 8.25 score made it the best in the cheesiness category. This pizza was loaded with gooey cheese from edge to edge. The high volume of cheese caused the crust to be slightly chewier than a lot of the other pizzas. I am a fan of a slightly chewy crust over a super crispy one so I was happy. People also thought the sauce on this pizza had great flavor. You could taste the herbs, as noted by one voter. This pizza was all around a success and highly commended. It should be quite pleased with its strong finish.
For those keeping track at home, that leaves one medal left to hand out and one pizza box to pin it on. The gold medal, with a score of 7.72, goes to Picciotti’s. This pizza went all out in every category. It tied for first in both size and sauciness. It also finished second in cheesiness. You can’t argue with the numbers here folks. What truly surprised me is that via votes, this pizza only finished 3rd. Comments were all over the place, too. One person commended the nice thin crust while another praised its good cheese and sauce flavor. On the other end of the spectrum we had one voter who felt this pizza was slightly salty and another who felt nothing stood out. Yet, in the end the scores told a different story. With that said, this pizza ended up on top this day.
The pizza game is strong in Richmond. Every place that had a pie represented did a good job. There weren’t many pieces left at the end of our tasting, which is a great sign. I know there are more pizza places in town that need to be put to the test so don’t think this is the end. There are slices out there that are just begging to be eaten and we are just the people to do it. Until then, faithful reader, may your crust be crispy, your sauce flavorful and your cheese plentiful.