With football season underway and Election Day looming, here’s something upon which everyone can agree: Charleston has so much pizza.
The pies just keep on coming. Not counting Melfi’s on Upper King, which opened on Tuesday, the current pizzeria-to-person ratio in downtown Charleston is approximately 1-to-598. And here’s where the local pizza discussion can become somewhat divisive: Is that “So much pizza!” roared gratefully with an accompanying fist pump? Or “so ... much ... pizza,” muttered mournfully with head in hands?
Unless you’re gluten sensitive or lactose intolerant, I’d suggest there’s good reason to take the upbeat attitude. OK, it’s a lot of pizza. But the supermarket also has a lot of vegetables. As connoisseurs of the genre have been saying for years, pizza isn’t a monolith: It’s a diverse collection of styles, each of which tells a tale about a particular place or time. Just as you might want both artichokes and zucchini in your life, you can probably muster love for both D.C. jumbo slices and Colorado mountain pies.
And now that the Charleston pizza scene is maturing, local pizzeria owners are getting super specific about the types of pizza they’re making. Four of the newest pizzerias in the Charleston area aren’t merely selling more pizza: They’re selling Detroit-style pizza, New York-style pizza, Sicilian pizza and bar pies. Even better, they’re offering really good versions of the above. These reviews aren’t starred, because I visited each pizzeria only once, but there isn’t a bad decision in the bunch. I would happily eat any of these pizzas again — and while watching football and election returns, I probably will.
At Uneeda, the prices are round and the slices are square. An even $5 buys two slices of cheese pizza (which is what I ordered everywhere I went, since I needed some kind of control mechanism to keep this research project ruly.)
Yet in keeping with Sicilian tradition, cheese isn’t the slice’s defining element: There’s a visible perimeter of blackened crust that commands attention, and a thick streak of tomato sauce that bisects the cheese like a crossing guard’s belt.
Confusingly, those are also qualities of a grandma pie, which is what owner Ben Rabin says he’s making: Maybe Uneeda Grandma sounded too weirdly personal and mean to put on a restaurant shingle. Like Sicilian pizza, grandma pizza is stretched in an oiled pan, but it isn’t allowed ample rising time before baking. It’s basically a Sicilian made the way grandma made it, which was under pressure and in a hurry.
The result is a pizza that isn’t so showily tall or casually fluffy. To extend the grandma metaphor, think of the difference between crochet and lace: The crust of a Uneeda slice has a compact web that’s an ideal foundation for bronzed mozzarella. Flavorwise, the pizza is dominated by garlic, applied with the gusto of someone who’s serious about keeping the Evil Eye at a distance. But those crisped corners are Uneeda’s masterwork.
It might not rival the automobile as Detroit’s greatest product, but for Southeast Michiganders in the late 1970s, the most important thing to come out of the city was the slogan, “Say Nice Things About Detroit.” Equal parts wistful and menacing; the message was drilled into me so insistently that I’d probably have to recuse myself if this pizzeria didn’t measure up. But here I am.
Whereas Uneeda is primarily a takeout operation, with only canned beer and wine to encourage sticking around, Toni’s leatherette booths and well-rounded menu make it feel like a place to bring the family. The dining room is sparsely decorated, not counting the cases of Faygo Red Pop stacked four high, but all of the wall paraphernalia references Detroit pride. Toni’s owners worked at Buddy’s Pizza, which is to Detroit pizza as Katz’s is to East Coast deli.
Officially, Detroit pizza is another Sicilian derivative, so a pizza rookie might dismiss it as deep-dish. But it’s nothing like those wettish-crusted cheese casseroles that give Chicago a bad name. Baked in a blue steel pan, Detroit pizza is crisped at the edges and only subtly spongy within. It’s always topped with brick cheese, which has a particularly satisfying tang.
Toni’s pizza exhibits all of the above, but its finest attribute may be its tomato sauce, which proves that sweet isn’t always synonymous with weak.
It is not faint praise to say there is nothing outwardly remarkable about the pizza at Pizza Prospero, which this summer opened just northeast of Mount Pleasant Towne Centre.
Prospero belongs to native New Yorkers who were stunned to discover some Southerners associate pizza with special occasions, since decent pizza back home is as easily accessible as tap water. In order to coax the Lowcountry toward their idea of pizza normalcy, they set out to serve an unfussy pie that would neither challenge customers’ fundamental pizza beliefs, nor fail to meet their quality expectations.
On both scores, Prospero has succeeded. Customers seeking more flash can choose from an array of toppings, including cantaloupe, eggs and candied bacon, but the most basic version is a blue-collar pie that gets the job done.
While the mozzarella, ricotta and olive oil applied to Prospero’s NYC White were meeker than a gourmet grocer would prefer, allowing salt and garlic to have the run of the pie’s flavor profile, its crust was impeccable. Thin, but not crackery, the crisp-edged crust had the chew that results from careful handling. It might not qualify as special east of the Hudson, but it’s manna east of the Cooper.
Depending on when you patronize Uptown Social, your pizza may have more or less cheese; a bunch of basil, or not so much.
This is not information I should have, since the parameters of this project were one pizza per pizzeria. But I’ve eaten at Uptown Social on my own time, for non-professional purposes, just because I’m inordinately fond of the massive restaurant’s bar pies.
Uptown Social is a multilevel party bar by night, but it’s fairly empty during the day, leaving plenty of room for you to commune with the splendor bequeathed to Uptown by pizza consultant Anthony Falco. Falco, late of Brooklyn’s legendary Roberta’s, engineers pizza-making plans for clients, but his essential contribution involves stressing the importance of ingredients. And if that sounds like hooey to you, you can order a pie without aged mozzarella.
Better, though, to appreciate the full complexity of an Uptown Social pizza by tasting it the way Falco intended. Bar pies are exceptionally thin (pizza expert Ed Levine of Serious Eats believes that’s because tavern keepers could sell more beer to folks who hadn’t filled up on food), with crusts that crunch around the edges. Yet on the way to that last bite, you’ll encounter a robust tomato sauce and enticingly sour crust. It’s a pizza that ought to always be in style.