Craig LaBan has scoured the Pennsylvania and Jersey suburbs and produced an Ultimate Dining guide with more than 150 recommendations for the best places to eat and drink. This preview highlights some of his top picks for pizza. Go to philly.com Thursday for the full guide or buy the print version at philly.com/store.
The pizza revolution has come to the suburbs in a big way, from wood-fired Neapolitan pizzerias to crispy old-school rounds and pan-pie traditions that date to the 1940s and remind us how deeply rooted Italian-American traditions still are in our region. In many ways, though, the pizzeria has become the new neighborhood restaurant, where good ingredients are showcased and handcrafted cooking can still shine for an affordable price. Here are three of my favorite places to satisfy a craving for great pizza beyond the city limits.
VECCHIA PIZZERIA (2 bells)
249 Bridge St., Phoenixville, 610-933-1355
In a world that rewards multitasking, Frank Nattle is single-minded. And his quest — for the perfect Neapolitan pizza — has long been one of the best reasons to visit Phoenixville. There are other notable Neapolitans in the suburbs, like Spuntino in Doylestown and Biga in Bryn Mawr. But there’s a purist’s mission at Vecchia I appreciate — so don’t get overly complicated with toppings. The pizza you need to know (and, lately, a steal at $10 for lunch) is just one: the Regina, a Margherita made with buffalo mozzarella, a sunburst of San Marzano sauce, and aromatic basil. True to the Neapolitan style, the crust puffs quickly and blisters from the 1,000-degree heat burst of a fresh log tossed in the oven, and the center remains soft and soupy (“almost rare, like a marshmallow,” says Nattle.) So try it with a knife and fork, Italian-style, and savor the roasty chew of the crust, the creamy cheese and bright fresh sauce in one bite. The added bonus: Nattle recently expanded the minimalist menu to include some more homey salads and classic pastas, like the excellent spaghetti with cockle clams and cherry tomatoes we devoured in between bites of that stellar Regina.
27 W. Main St., Maple Shade, 856-667-4992; tacconellispizzerianj.com
It can be hard to keep track of who’s who in the legendary Tacconelli’s Pizza Universe, spread between now squabbling family factions in Port Richmond, the Navy Yard, and South Jersey. They all have virtues. But it’s the outpost in Maple Shade from fourth-generation pizza scion Vince Tacconelli, 54, that has been my preference for a destination pie. No one has to reserve dough in advance. The spacious dining room is comfortable for a group. And the pizzas still have that trademark Tacconelli’s well-done crunch — despite the fact they’re cooked in modern hearths rather than the 13-foot-deep brick oven cave of Port Richmond. The signature white pies and spicy marinara-sauced pizzas (try it with sausage and sweet peppers) still have that special something — boosted lately with cloud spots of house mozzarella. The emergence of the next Tacconelli’s generation, Vince’s 25-year-old son, Vince Jr., has also resulted in a series of affordable but excellent housemade pastas, like the gnocchi with tender pork ragu and a snappy bucatini with pesto. So now this renowned destination for special-occasion pizza has grown up into a neighborhood Italian restaurant I could visit every week.
7803 West Chester Pike, Upper Darby, 610-789-7770; 1233 West Chester Pike, West Chester, 484-983-3704; picas-restaurant.com
People often are divided over whether the pan pizza at 76-year-old Pica’s is either pricelessly old-school or hopelessly anachronistic. But Upper Darby native Tina Fey’s a devoted fan (as is star chef Greg Vernick) — and I’m with them. There’s a unique character to the crusty edges of this pan-baked dough, which is pleasantly chewy without being heavy like a deeper dish pie and is ideal beneath the sauce-topped cheese and heat-charred crumbles of sausage with fresh mushrooms. Locals of a certain generation order it by “the shirt box.” There’s a full Italian diner menu, too, which is in fact hopelessly anachronistic. Even so, I was pleasantly surprised by the toothy snap of the house-extruded spaghetti. A snazzy new branch opened in West Chester earlier this year.