It's early Friday evening at Rusted Sun Pizzeria. From our perch at the counter, we can see towheaded owner Wally Stephens working. Feet planted, he rocks left to right with metronomic rhythm, punching a ball of dough from side to side. When it's thin enough, Stephens flings the dough high above his head, where it flattens into a wobbly plane before landing back in his ready hands.
In between tosses, Stephens scurries up front to fiddle with the stereo, which isn't playing Widespread Panic as loudly as it should. Then he runs back into the kitchen and keeps rocking. Stephens will craft around a dozen crusts before we leave, but his energy never flags. He loves making pizza. "A good crust," he says during a quick break, "is the most important thing. And a good sauce."
On Sunday, but around the same time, Heath Koltenuk seconds that. The lanky owner/chef at Nuch's Pizzeria & Restaurant says the secret to great pizza is "really easy." Koltenuk pauses briefly to pivot between four different pies—two on the front counter, two on the back—then re-establishes eye contact and says, "All the base ingredients—your crust, the sauce and the cheese—they all have to be good."
Well, how do you know they're good? If you're going to a new pizzeria and want to size up the merchandise, both men say the same thing: "Get a plain cheese pizza." If that's not good, they say, no topping in the world will save it.
City Weekly couldn't show such restraint for this ol' dining guide. From up north in Ogden to down south in Provo, there are so many great pizza choices, and so much variety, that plain cheese pizza seemed boring. Also, it was hard to decide where to start. Do you try to find the best of each discipline, from New York-style to Chicago to Neapolitan to American? Ultimately, we thought like a tourist and operated on word of mouth and impulse rather than variety. Consequently, we overspent our pizza expense budget by 130 percent trying some—but not nearly all—of Salt Lake City's best pies.
We started our adventure in Sugar House at Este Pizzeria (2148 S. 900 East, Salt Lake City, 801-485-3699; 156 E. 200 South, Salt Lake City, 801-363-2366, EstePizzaCo.com). Co-owner Anthony Stewart said via e-mail that good pizza also entails TLC. In the chef, you want "somebody who cares overseeing the process." But dat crust, though. It shouldbe "crispy but pliable," says Stewart, with "not too much sauce and more emphasis on cheese, with an outer crust that is crispy but still bread-like." The New York-style slices we tried—one each of cheese, pepperoni, veggie and meat from the slice menu—were just awesome. Especially the sliced meatballs on the meat pie [dabs drool from keyboard].
Earlier on Friday, we went to Maxwell's East Coast Eatery (357 S. Main, Salt Lake City, 801-328-0304; 1456 Newpark Blvd., Park City, 435-647-0304, MaxwellsECE.com) in the Boston Building in downtown Salt Lake City. We'd heard tell of a pie called the Fat Kid and, well, could you pass that up?
The name, Steven Maxwell writes, "was my Italian grandmother's nickname for me when I was a baby [because] I was pretty chubby." Fat Kid became a term of endearment among Maxwell and his friends, and the pizza—topped with pepperoni, ricotta cheese and spinach—is a popular choice at both Maxwell's locations. For something so simple—spare toppings, cheese and sauce on a thin New York-style crust—it's incredibly tasty. Maxwell, in case you're wondering, also swears by crust: "The toppings all play off the crust."
At Rusted Sun Pizzeria (2010 S. State, Salt Lake City, 801-483-2120), we'd missed the lunch special, so a consensus found us ordering a good old Hawaiian. Wally Stephens serves what's, in essence, New York-style pizza—but he's not precious about it. "I don't care what you call it, as long as you like it," he says with a laugh. The thin, crispy crust teemed with cheese, sauce, real Canadian bacon and pineapple to make the best Hawaiian pizza since our dear, departed Sugar House favorite, Der Ratskeller.
On Saturday, we paid a quick visit to Settebello (260 S. 200 West, Salt Lake City, 801-322-3556;895 W. East Promontory, Farmington, 801-451-9100, Settebello.net). We popped in just after they opened at 11 a.m. and ordered the Margherita to go. It was ready in a flash, and the server included some red-pepper oil, saying it's too good not to try. We almost didn't, for fear it would spill on the ride home. Then we figured, what the hell? The pizza—with its chewy, charred Neapolitan crust and juicy crushed tomatoes—was good enough on its own. The pepper oil pushed it over the top, and we finished the last slice just before the on-ramp at 900 South and West Temple.
Nuch's (2819 S. 2300 East, Salt Lake City, 801-484-0448, Nuchs-Pizzeria-and-Restaurant.com) was the last stop. There's a pizza there called the New Haven. In all his years of making pizza—Koltenuk, now in his 50s, started at age 5 in New York—it's the weirdest he's seen. "When I first opened up, I asked my wife's co-workers what they'd like [to see on the menu]. They said, 'We want that mashed-potato pizza.'" They'd all gone to New Haven, Conn., and had it at some bar." Koltenuk says the only other information they gave him was, "I think it had some garlic in it." So he created his own version, topping his New York-style crust with Yukon Gold mashed potatoes, chunks of roasted garlic, bacon, cheese and asparagus. It's now his signature pie.
The way the Salt Lake City pizza scene is booming, this guide could have been twice the size. We could have spent even more money, and gained even more weight. But exploration is part of the fun. Get out and see what good pies you can find—and spread the word.
A P.S. on the Pie
Slices That Eat Like a Meal
Some people like their crust thin and crispy, others go big. ThePie (ThePie.com) is a Salt Lake City pizza institution. The XXL slices, beautifully burdened with toppings, are undeniably 'Murrican style—and go great with a pitcher of beer. There are four locations (and a fifth, delivery-only store), but the real Pie experience is the original location, located underground across from the University of Utah.
In Draper, there's authentic Chicago-style pizza at Sweet Home Chicago Pizzeria (1442 Draper Parkway, 801-545-0455, SHCPizza.com). That means you wanna order it stuffed, with the sauce on top—and you should grab a fork. Lifting a slice from one of these bad boys will strain your back.
Keepin' It Cheap
The advent of five-dollar pizza can be seen as a scourge or accepted with the adage that pizza is like sex; even when it's bad, it's still pretty good. The quality of Big Daddy's Pizza (multiple locations, BigDaddysPizza.com) varies with the location. Sometimes you get a fresh, clean pie—sometimes you get pools of grease. But for $5.95 (12-inch pepperoni, takeout price only, usually hot and ready), it's actually really good. Some locations serve chili verde pizzas (note: spicy!) and milkshakes. And speakin' of giant pies, Big Daddy's serves the 26-inch Grandaddy!
On the Side
Cheesy garlic bread and salad are pizza's most ubiquitous sidekicks, but who really eats the salad? Try The Pie's (multiple locations, ThePie.com) Cheese Pull-a-Parts—essentially a pizza crust stuffed with cheese, brushed with oil and sprinkled with garlic, oregano, parmesan and romano cheese. Dip these in ranch or marinara and soon you'll wonder how you'll fit in even a slice of that plus-size pie. Good news for vegans and the gluten-free: There's a version for both of you, and it's even better than the original.
Another must-try are The Famous Garlic Rolls at Free Wheeler Pizza (150 S. 400 East, 801-322-3733 FreeWheelerPizzaMenu.com) in all their chewy, greasy goodness. Get 'em by the dozen, and keep mints handy for a couple of days.
To hell with "dessert" pizzas and giant chocolate-chip cookies! (I'm sorry Mega-Tollhouse—I still love you.) But the Dream Cookies at Nuch's Pizzeria & Restaurant (2819 S. 2300 East, 801-484-0448, Nuchs-Pizzeria-And-Restaurant.com) really live up to their name. These black-and-white cookie sandwiches come filled with your choice of sweetened mascarpone cheese, fresh vanilla bean, crushed caramelized walnuts, orange zest and fresh basil.