In 2023, Houston’s pizza scene became increasingly diverse, with new restaurants and takeout and delivery joints drilling down on specific styles and varying approaches to dishing out saucy, cheese-covered dough.
Though New York-style slices and full-sized pies are already mainstays in the city, the recently opened Neighbors Pizza Bar in Second Ward slings consistently crispy slices. Nonno’s Family Pizza Tavern, which opened in August, promises a crackery crust akin to Chicago tavern-style that has many locals — and Esquire magazine — in a chokehold. Pi Pizza veteran Anthony Calleo has returned to the pizza game full-time with the opening of the city’s first Detroit-style pizza joint, Gold Tooth Tony’s. Betelgeuse Betelgeuse opened its second outpost in Montrose, dishing out beefy ironclad pizzas with crispy crusts laced with Wisconsin brick cheese. There’s a stellar clam pie that calls to New England from Pastore, and a blast from the Pass & Provisions past with handmade pies from chef Terrence Gallivan’s Elro.
Even before 2023, Houston had some good pizza. There are the existing rotating, no-rules-style specials with a cult following at Tiny Champions. The often hard-to-get oblong-shaped Roma-style pizza from ORG Pizza Garden, made with slowly fermented dough and hand-picked ingredients, solid wood-fired pies from Ostia, Naples-verified Neapolitan pies from Pizaro’s, and the list goes on. But with the recent crop of pizza restaurants popping up all over the city, it’s hard to that Houston — a city known for its breadth of Tex-Mex, barbecue, and Asian cuisine— is experiencing a pizza renaissance.
Pizza, beyond its Italian roots, is a communal food deeply ingrained in American culture and memory, Calleo says. But slice shops don’t do as well in Houston, he says, possibly because of the Southern sprawl that compels residents to drive miles to their favorite pizza joint rather than popping into a restaurant for a slice on a walk around the neighborhood. Still, like other cities, Houston consumes a lot of pizza and in varying styles, ranging from fast chain-restaurant-style pizzas to cheffy pies using local ingredients. The pizzeria’s proliferation in Houston in 2023 may suggest that restauranteurs are betting on comfort and a dish that offers fractionally better margins at the ingredient cost level. (“Great pizza doesn’t have to be 00 flour or made with water imported from New York,” Calleo says.)
While some Houstonians have been skeptical about Houston being a “good pizza” city, especially in comparison to major pizza hubs like Detroit, Chicago, and New York, Calleo asserts that good pizza in the South does exist. “It’s out there. I think people get caught up in this idea that if it’s not from the North, it’s not going to be good pizza. It’s the mystification of pizza,” he says. “Like, I could make you beautiful, amazing food, but I still have the Domino’s app on my phone.”
For Armando Dimeo, co-owner of Coastline Pizzeria in First Ward, opening a pizza joint came down to pizza being his favorite food. Dimeo, who grew up in the restaurant industry, often visited his father’s family in Naples where the flavors of Neapolitan pizza — the texture of its charred, airy crust; the tangy richness of its stewed tomatoes — were embedded into him, he says. Knowing that not everybody likes the wood-fired pies, he decided to experiment, crafting what he calls a Texas-style grilled pizza with an oiled, herb-seasoned crust that’s chargrilled to appease Texan palates. His pizzeria is fittingly named after the slang term “coastline,” which harks to the imperfect saucy line that separates the cheese and the crust, as well as alludes to both the Neapolitan and Texas coasts.
Shawn Bermudez and chef Matthew Pak, the owners behind popular Montrose mainstays the Burger Joint and the Taco Stand, will open the Pizza Place in 2024, a project that they say was an easy next move for their food empire, which banks on “the popular stuff” that many people gravitate to for comfort. But for Pak, who grew up in upstate New York working in pizzerias, and has been playing with dough for more than a year, serving the most common styles of pizza wasn’t enough. Instead, he’s dreaming up a new style — a Houston style, maybe? — that combines the best of the Neapolitan bubbly, charred, chewy crust with the crisp sturdiness of a New York slice. It’s an addicting experiment — a pizza pastime.
Dimeo says the pandemic need for social distancing to curb the spread of illness may have also fueled the surge in Houston pizzerias, which have always been masters at to-go orders. “For me, this is the oldest style of takeout, and maybe that’s why so many pizzerias are exploding,” he says, adding that he’s seen the takeout portion of the business at his family restaurants soar.
Sometimes trends just happen; in 2022, Houston was Smash Burger Central. Maybe, like Calleo says, it’s the ongoing fascination with pizza. Maybe many Houston chefs — similar to Calleo, Pak, and Dimeo — have been plotting to open their dream pizzerias for a while. What matters is that people are willing to give it their best shot.
“I’m happy the pizza community is growing here. I wouldn’t say it’s going to be Chicago or New York,” Dimeo adds. “But we can get there.”