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DFW's fired-up pizza scene joins the upper crust

What's your favorite pizza place?
Posted 6:39am on Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2012


Beyond the nine pizza places highlighted here, we offer extra slices from some other North Texas favorite "pie" shops. Also: an entertaining look at the practice of folding your pizza slice.


Weaned on boring chain pizza, Dallas-Fort Worth is up to its eyes in pies of all kinds, as we break free from the shackles of canned toppings and cardboard crusts.

We may not have cultivated the long-standing traditions of cities like Chicago, with its intense deep dish pies; or New York with its floppy thin-crust; or even the West Coast, with its gourmet smoked salmon toppings. But we're making up for lost time.

We have New York-style, Neapolitan, deep-dish, fast-food and artisan pizzerias. We have pizza fired by wood and fired by coal. We have three pizzerias approved by the Verace Pizza Napoletana Association, which certifies that pizza is made to the standards of Napoli, Italy: Cane Rosso in Deep Ellum, Dough in North Dallas and Cavalli, in Irving and McKinney.

"It used to be that people would complain about the crappy pizza in Dallas-Fort Worth," says Aimee Padden, who works for European Imports, which sells meats, cheese and other gourmet ingredients to restaurants. "But we have a lot more pizza places now, each bringing their own twist -- thin crust, mobile concepts, there's a lot to choose from."

What most of the new wave has in common is an upgrade in quality.

"They're using way better-quality ingredients, like imported salami and prosciutto," Padden says. "The other thing is, they're devoting more attention to the crust, right down to importing the flour from Italy to make the best dough. Even Italian restaurants like Nonna are stepping up their game."

It's a long way from the days when our only options consisted of chains like Pizza Inn and Pizza Hut, where pizza was prized not for flavor but for its sturdy ability to withstand a heap of salty black olives and shriveled pepperoni.

One of the few exceptions was Campisi's, which got into the pizza business unintentionally, president David Campisi says.

"We had a lounge on Mockingbird and my family started bringing in Italian food," he says. "The pizza thing came about almost by accident. That was back in the '40s. We were the first pizzeria in Texas, even before the chains."

Fort Worth had Mama's Pizza, which opened its first branch on East Rosedale Street in 1968. In the suburbs, a chain called Joe's Pizza & Pasta flourished, with branches sprouting from Mesquite to Colleyville. Owned by a network of cousins, nephews and other loosely related family members from Albania, they filled the gap with average-quality Italian.

But everything changed in 2004 when the first Fireside Pies opened on Henderson Avenue, turning out exciting pizzas from a roaring wood-fired oven. The center of the crust was floppy -- gasp! The edges were brown and crisp. Toppings were artisanal: prosciutto, arugula and goat cheese. Fireside made people see pizza in a different way.

Now you can find New York-style in Southlake at Coal Vines or Grapevine at Grimaldi's. You can find Neapolitan pizza at Fireside Pies in Fort Worth, Cane Rosso in Deep Ellum, Dough in North Dallas, and Cavalli in Irving and McKinney. The market keeps growing; Cane Rosso just signed a lease on a second branch in East Dallas and has designs on Fort Worth. Or you can take a nostalgic trip back to an original, when Campisi's opens its first branch in Fort Worth in March 2013.

"A lot of it is what you've grown up with," Campisi says. "But I'm glad to see there's so much interest in pizza these days."

So much interest, in fact, that we can't mention them all here -- but we can single some out. Here are nine places that have helped advance the state of pizza around Dallas-Fort Worth, with the role they played in our pizza evolution. (And for a run-down of some other local faves, click here.)

Straight outta Brooklyn

Grimaldi's: One of the oldest names in American pizza history that's now a chain, Grimaldi's locations are like the movie version of a New York pizzeria, with kitschy subway signs, red-and-white checkered tablecloths and Frank Sinatra crooning in the background. Grimaldi's does a decent job of re-creating the flavor of the original pizzeria, with thin (but not too thin) crusts and a tomato sauce that's slightly sweet. Toppings are neither plentiful nor gourmet but Grimaldi's makes its own chewy-firm mozzarella.

Best slice: Regular tomato sauce topped with artichoke hearts, anchovies, Italian sausage and ricotta cheese

Goodfellas

Coal Vines: Ex-New Yorker Joseph Palladino, who also co-owns Nick & Sam's, opened Coal Vines in 2006 to re-create the classic New York pizza of his youth: a thin-crust pie fired in a coal-burning oven until the edges get dark and crispy. Topping options are limited to just a few -- sausage, roasted pepper, fresh garlic, tomatoes and Bolognese beef. It's all about the interplay between the crisp crust, smear of tomato sauce and veil of good cheese. With expansion, they've dumbed down the ovens -- they are a coal-electric combo now -- but you can still get a good thin-crust and a nice glass of red wine.

Best slice: Regular pie with tomato sauce, mozzarella and Parmesan

Chain 2.0

Pie Five Pizza: Texas-based Pizza Inn devised this streamlined re-imagination of what it means to be a pizza chain and did a not-bad job. Think of it as a pizza version of Subway, in which you specify your choice of crust and toppings, and -- thanks to a new-age convection oven, ba-da-bing ba-da-boom -- get your personal-size pie five minutes later. The toppings are OK for the price, and you can have as many as you want for the same $6.49.

Best slice: Five Star -- little bit of everything with pepperoni, beef, pork sausage, green and black olives, red onions, two-pepper medley and three cheeses

Cheech & Chong

Mellow Mushroom: This Atlanta-based chain was started by three college students and still emanates a casual, collegiate attitude, even though the chain now has 150-plus locations across the South and Midwest. Decor is tie-dye groovy, and the menu employs winking stoner titles such as "Munchies" (for appetizers) or pizzas like the "Maui Wowie" (with pineapple and ham). As befits the college hang it wants to be, Mellow has a big commitment to beer with a wall of taps that includes Fort Worth's own Rahr.

Best slice: Magical Mystery Tour, with pesto sauce, mushrooms, spinach, feta and jalapeños.

Game changer

Fireside Pies: When Fireside Pies first opened on Henderson Avenue in Dallas in 2004, it was a revelation, with its blazing wood oven, artisan crust and chunky, robust toppings. Who could imagine piling salad greens on top of a pizza? Or slices of tomatoes so thick, you almost needed to cut them with a knife. And the crust -- puffy, crisp and golden -- was divine. Fireside has since expanded and tweaked its recipes, making the crust crispier to accommodate the tastes of its customers. But it's still slinging fantastic pies, and it will always earn our gratitude for freeing us from the shackles of crappy chain pizza.

Best slice: House-cured pancetta with egg, onions and Gruyere cheese

Local underdog

Rocco's

When Barclay Ryall Jr. opened Rocco's in 2005, he was ahead of the curve with his showpiece wood-burning oven, turning out puffy pies with charred edges to the crust and wonderful yeasty flavor. His artisanal approach extends to the toppings, too, with sauce made from fresh tomatoes, not from a can. What a pity that Rocco's is take-out only, because you can't sit down and eat the pizza straight from the oven, the way it should be eaten.

Best slice: Vaquero, with ranchero sauce, grilled chicken, red onion and poblano pepper.

Chicago-style

Uno: For 20 years, Uno Chicago Grill has been teaching the locals about Chicago-style deep-dish pizza. And it does an exceptional version -- as good as it gets. The tomato sauce is rich and ruddy, and the pizza truly is like a pie, with a buttery crust that encloses a thick filling of ingredients. These are substantial pizzas; you only need a couple of slices. Fort Worth has the only Uno Chicago Grill (as it's formally known these days) in Texas, let's give it some love.

Best slice: Numero Uno -- "the works" with sausage, pepperoni, onions, peppers, mushrooms and chunky tomato sauce.

Neapolitan king

Cane Rosso: Former techie Jay Jerrier acted on his obsessive passion for true Italian-style pizza and became the new standard for pizza in Dallas-Fort Worth. Cane Rosso opened in 2011, making pizza the way it is done in Naples: in a grand wood-burning oven whose fire burns at 800 degrees-plus, producing pizzas that bake quickly yet emerge with flavorful, chewy-crisp crusts and artisan toppings, applied with a light touch. His pizzas are about harmony, balance and refinement. (Jerrier also has interesting opinions on the art of folding a pizza slice.)

Best slice: Paulie Gee, with tomatoes, soppressata salami, caramelized onions and Calabrian chiles

Pizza pioneer

Campisi's: Before Neapolitan pizza, before artisan, even before the chains arrived, Campisi's was here. The place started out in 1945 as a bar and brought in homey Italian food as an afterthought. Its strangely amorphous, vaguely rectangular pies with the crisp thin crust became the standard by which many locals measured pizza (and inspired knock-offs such as I Fratelli). Though tastes have changed, it sticks to the formula, and its loyal fans love Campisi's for it.

Best slice: Cali pizza with grilled chicken, Roma tomatoes and artichoke hearts.

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