They say even when pizza is bad, it’s good. That makes determining great pizza difficult. How can something so simple and so satisfying spur coastal rivalries and inspire such divisive emotions? And how do you put everything aside—all the variations in technique and crust and style—and crown one pizza best of them all?
If you have had the Grandma pizza at Clay & Fire, this question answers itself. That’s why it’s our pie of the year.
Clay & Fire is not necessarily known for its pizza. The menu is near-Eastern, and there are only two pies on the menu. But chef Brent Gunnels came to the kitchen in a roundabout way. Mid-pandemic, Clay & Fire owner Adam Jones discovered Cult of Pi, Gunnels’ ongoing backyard pizza pop-up, and offered Gunnels a job. He brought his dough recipe with him: a straightforward combination of flour, salt, water and yeast, with a refrigerated fermentation (to control the rise) and a laborious kneading process (to control the crumb). The Grandma pizza is a classic margherita, Gunnels’ favorite. Only he inverts the layers—cheese first, then dollops of chunky garlic tomato sauce…
1111 Burlington St., North Kansas City
The Northland’s brand-new Pizza Tascio is an homage to old ideals, built from more advanced tools. The New York crust here is made with 00 flour (AP is traditional) in order to get it thin and just a little crispy with water from the Missouri instead of the Hudson. The details are on-point here, including the spicy pepperoni, which is finished with a light brushing of Mike’s Hot Honey. For Tascio’s slices, those pies are essentially par-baked, then finished in the deck oven upon order. Hungry for two slices? You might as well buy a whole pie—you’re unlikely to have regrets.
5601 W. 135th St., Overland Park
The Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883. Grimaldi’s Pizza opened under it, on the east bank of the East River, in 1990. It gives you some sense of how much cajones the Grimaldis have to stamp their boxes with “the Pizza that made the [century-old] Brooklyn Bridge famous.” And yet no one argued with Patsy Grimaldi—or the folks that operate coal-fired franchises across fourteen states. Grimaldi made pizzas like he learned from his uncle at Patsy’s in east Harlem, one of the most famous pizzerias in the world. Patsy’s of Harlem may still be the gold standard, and I was duly impressed a few years ago, but I’ve never walked out of the Grimaldi’s at Prairie Fire unsatisfied. This is great New York pizza, with milky mozzarella and a kiss of coal-fired char.
His name is Jason Ransom, and his official title is company president, but you can call him “the guy on the box.”
“On my business card, under my name, it says ‘The guy on the box,’” he says. “When I used to go give out samples in grocery stores, my picture was on the box and people would say, ‘Wait, are you the guy on the box?’ Some people would come back with a Sharpie and be like, ‘Can you sign my box?’”
That was a long time ago, when Ransom was still growing his The Dish frozen pizza empire, which grew out of his restaurant of the same name in Liberty, off Highway 291. For seventeen years, Ransom and his wife ran that restaurant, which specialized in the Chicago-style deep dish pies that are now his top seller.
“I decided, why not package this and take it to the local Hy-Vee and see if they’ll give us some shelf space?” he says.
Hy-Vee in Liberty was The Dish’s only account for two years. “Some other Hy-Vees started calling—’Why don’t you bring it to Parkville, why don’t you bring it to Gladstone?’” he says.
So he did—in a Ford Windstar.
“I’d pull up to the back of these stores, I’d stick the boxes in a cart, and I’d roll up and deliver them to the cases and print up an invoice,” he says…
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANNA PETROW
As a St. Louis native living in KC, I’ve heard just about every jab—we St. Louisans care too much about where we went to high school, we think too highly of our baseball fandom and, yes, we no longer have an NFL team. Fair enough. But I refuse to stand idly by while people badmouth St. Louis-style pizza. Is it an acquired taste? Perhaps. Is it bad? Definitely not.
For those who are unfamiliar, St. Louis-style pizza has three unique characteristics: a wafer-thin crust, a distinctive processed cheese and an unconventional slicing method. The pizza dough is made without yeast, resulting in a thin and crispy crust. The pie is cut into squares, not slices. The pies are topped with a processed cheese called Provel, a waxy “blend” of cheddar, Swiss and provolone. It’s a local product and prized for its low melting point, which makes it buttery and gooey out of the oven. As the pizza cools, Provel hardens into a gluey, plastic-like consistency—the leftover slices are extra good as part of a nutritious breakfast.
Kansas City has four spots making authentic St. Louis pies, and all have their merits.
You cannot mention St. Louis-style pizza without first paying homage to the chain that started it all: Imo’s Pizza. There are now two local Imo’s franchises, both on the Kansas side: 4200 Rainbow Blvd., KCK and 11552 W. 135th St., Overland Park. Imo’s also has toasted ravioli and uses Provel in its unmelted form on its salads…
Some of my most memorable college days in Iowa City started with a piece of pizza for breakfast before tailgating on a Saturday morning. And it wasn’t cold, leftover pizza ordered the night before. The pizza I speak of is formulated for breakfast and doesn’t come from a pizza joint you’ll find anywhere on this list of the best pizza spots in Kansas City. It came from a gas station.
In the Hawkeye State, the breakfast pizza from Casey’s is legendary—so much so that Cedar Rapids native Ashton Kutcher and wife Mila Kunis have declared their love for it publicly. The pizza, offered by the slice in a rotating heated glass case or as a whole pie if you order ahead, is topped with scrambled eggs, mozzarella cheese and bacon bits or sausage crumbles.
No place loves breakfast pizza like Iowa—there’s a spot in Des Moines that tops pies with Froot Loops—but Casey’s is king. Around KC, the gas stations are harder to find (7875 Quivira Road, Lenexa, is the only one inside the 435 loop), so my guess is that most drive around the corner to QuikTrip for their fix of breakfast ’za. But I’ve found a few highlights beyond institutions that also sell gas and lottery tickets…
Il Lazzarone is one of fewer than a hundred spots in the entire country to earn certification as authentic Neapolitan pizza from the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. The original project from noted local pizzaiola Erik Borger opened in the River Market in 2015, firing pies in imported Acunto Mario ovens. Ingredients are often imported here, and red pies are made with San Marzano tomatoes while white pizzas are made with perfected ratios of mozzarella and olive oil. Each maintains the customary leopard-spot char around the edge. The simple ricotta pizza is one of our favorites, topped with fresh garlic, basil, oregano and mozzarella, then finished with tiny pools of whipped ricotta. Not everything is traditional at Il Laz, though—the Nutella pie is topped with bananas and sugared strawberries.
1889 Pizza Napoletana
Another local Neapolitan pizza joint, 1889 is cozied in a strip mall in KCK. 1889 was started by Kelli and Jason Kolich, who met while studying abroad in Italy and bonded over their shared love for Italian culture and food. The wife-husband duo opened 1889 in 2014 and trained under world-renowned pizzaiolo Tony Gemignani. The crust here is a tad softer and a little less chewy than the crust at Il Laz, and the menu is a bit more adventurous—see the Prized Pig pizza with smoked pulled pork and barbecue sauce, for example. Of course, the menu also has signature Neapolitan pizzas like the margherita and quattro formaggi. But we think the Honey Bee is the way to go. It’s made with fresh pear slices and gorgonzola, then drizzled with local honey and topped with arugula.
Traditional Chicago-style deep dish pizza is its own type of food science. A flaky, buttery, biscuit-like crust lines the bottom of the pan. Cheese hides the toppings, and red sauce hides the cheese—the cheese is buried below the sauce so that it doesn’t get scorched by the long bake required to cook a cake-thick crust. As a Chicagoland native, I can say with authority that Third Coast in Lenexa (7820 Quivira Road, Lenexa) makes a very solid deep dish pizza. The makeup of the pies is comparable to Chicago tourist trap Lou Malnati’s, but the slices hold themselves up way better, in my opinion, not falling to the sag and spoon-able soupiness that often comes with the deep dish territory. The deeper the pie, the more simple I keep the toppings, so I just stick with pepperoni here and let the crust do the talking…
Pizza Shuttle is an institution. For Jayhawks of a certain age, the restaurant (invariably pronounced with an “i” in place of the “u”) was an oasis—virtually the only place in Lawrence to get hot food delivered after the bars closed.
Ordering it, though, wasn’t just a way to placate stomachs filled with cheap beer. It was an act of maturity, a declaration of independence. For the first time in your life, you were in the adult world, making adult decisions, and you’d decided to make some bad ones.
Eating junk, after all, is more than a mere culinary indulgence. It’s an embrace of life, an expression of the glorious, bulletproof feeling that’s so emblematic of youth. Junk food is an act of true mindfulness, a hot and greasy way to seize the moment, heedless of one’s waistline or cholesterol. It’s like smoking—fun, maybe, but very, very dumb.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY CALEB CONDIT & REBECCA NORDEN
Sarah’s on the Hill
Regardless of where you reside, Sarah’s on the Hill will make you a little jealous. The Hill in question is Strawberry, and this laid-back KCK pizzeria pub stands out as probably the best little neighborhood joint in the city. It’s a homey corner space with tatty hardwood floors and exposed brick, somehow even more inviting because the dining chairs are nineties vintage, reclaimed from a high school. Both the namesake and founder, Sarah, and the current owner, her brother John, are Breitensteins, part of a large family of old stock Hill people—the family owns Breit’s Stein and Deli, which is famous for its Reuben. Here, the big draw is the pizza, which is great always but a steal at happy hour. The pies are medium-thick and plenty cheesy while delivering some sourness and char in the crust.
In the aftermath of a January snowstorm, long after the plows had cleared the roads, I ordered a pizza online from Sarah’s on the Hill. When I arrived at the quiet KCK corner to pick up my dinner, I encountered a lone figure hunched over the deadbolt at the door to Sarah’s, fumbling with his keys. His name was Charlie, and around the broken cigarette dangling from his lips, he told me that the restaurant had closed due to the snow. I decided to make my way to the Easy Inn just a few blocks away, where the bartender recommended the jalapeno popper pizza. Shorty’s Pizza—that’s what Easy Inn’s co-owners John Stoner and Blake Lostal have branded their cracker-thin crust pies—is simple and satisfying in a pinch, best paired with a Lone Star or five.
The owners of Providence Pizza come from Rhode Island, a state that has its own local style of red-top square-pan pizza. It makes sense, then, that they gravitated to the Motor City’s style of pie—red on top, fat but airy in the middle, with the cheese crisped against the edge of the pan. A few years ago, there were a handful of decent Detroit pies in the city. Today, the two local locations of Providence (one in the Parlor food hall downtown, the other in Grandview) have proofed up to the top of any discussion about the style. A recent visit showed why…
Not all Instagram contests are grifts. Just ask Jhy Coulter.
The pizzaiola behind the Devoured pop-up —that’s her pie on the cover of this month’s mag—was scrolling Instagram during her years in the kitchen at Webster House when she came across a giveaway for a RoccBox backyard pizza oven run by Instagram-famous Toronto chef Matty Matheson. The post asked followers to like, comment and then share their ideas for adventures they’d have with the RoccBox if they won it.
“I just started going HAM,” Coulter says. “It was stupid, but I really wanted to win. Honestly, I thought those giveaways were a scam. I was like, ‘This shit isn’t real, but I’m going to try anyway.’”
It was real, and she won. That was back in August 2019. Obviously, a lot has changed since. When the pandemic started, Coulter was furloughed from her job as a chef in the executive kitchen for UMB Bank.
“I was like, ‘What do I do during this time?’” she says. “I was unemployed and I was like, ‘Well I might as well pull out the RoccBox.’ Before that, it was just for fun, like for Chiefs games and stuff. But I realized I really like using it. I started watching a bunch of pizza videos on YouTube and trying to perfect the dough. I became obsessed with the process.”
Coulter invited family and friends over to her Hyde Park home for socially distanced pickup pies. They were a hit—and she just kept getting better from there…
Nick Vella was a rising star of Kansas City’s pizza community: His pandemic-born Observation Pizza, with its impeccable crust and irreverent toppings, was in demand even after his untimely death in August 2020, when his team briefly tried to carry the business forward in his honor.
Vella had been a regular at Lucky Boys in the West Bottoms, where he became friends with owner Justin Norcross. Norcross had introduced pizza to the bar menu during the pandemic as a travel-friendly takeout option.
“We just started nerding out together,” Norcross says. “We would drink and talk pizza, and techniques were shared, and around May of 2020, he gave me some of his starter to work with.”…
Patrick here: I was honestly never a huge fan of the old Joe’s, though it did save my life on numerous occasions after 25-cent beer night at Harpo’s. When Guy’s took over the window at Kelly’s Westport Inn, the new owners said they were keeping the old Joe’s Pizza Buy The Slice recipe. On our visit, the manager confessed they “upgraded everything.” The new recipe is a huge improvement.
Fast, cheap, appropriately greasy slices on a paper plate. This West Plaza staple has authentic pizza shop vibes—you can tell the guys guys working own frisbee-catching dogs and here have stories about deliveries gone wild.
D’Bronx has been around long enough that there’s a nostalgia factor these days. Sadly, the quality has gone down over the years, but it’s still above average.
Great cheese flavor, but they cut the tip off the slice and threw it in the box next to the slice, like some sort of Sicilian threat.
Slow on delivery, light on flavor, heavy on grease. The crust varies between soggy and burned, and if you’re lucky, it might be both.