Cheese steaks. Rocky Balboa. The Liberty Bell. All these things come to mind whenever Philadelphia is mentioned, but pizza? Not so much. Considering it's location in the middle of America's "Pizza Belt" and Philly's notably large Italian population, it's curious that the city doesn't have more of a reputation for great pizza. After this past weekend's visit to Tacconelli's Pizzeria, I can attribute this to two factors: the dominance of the Philly cheese steak, and the fact that Philadelphia pizza just isn't that good.
To be fair, I shouldn't judge an entire city based on one pizzeria alone, but as a transplant Philadelphian myself, I have my reasons which I'll eventually get to. Tacconelli's was founded by Giovanni Tacconelli, an Italian immigrant and bread maker. In 1947, Giovanni decided to start using his 20 foot square coal oven (!!!) to start making pizzas.
As you can see, the oven looks less like an oven and more like a hole in a wall. That's how big this thing is. In fact, the pizza peel is seriously like 15 feet long, I couldn't even fit it into one picture:
It has it's own support crossbar in the middle of the kitchen! So here's the deal with Tacconelli's- anyone who's ordered from or eaten there before knows you have to call a day in advance just to reserve your dough. When I called, I was asked what time I'd arrive and how many pies I wanted. I've heard of two hour lines and pizzerias that close when the dough runs out, but this is unheard of. And yes, they did sell out of dough.
Tacconelli's offers four basic pies: Tomatoe [sic]- no cheese, Regular- a little cheese, White- salt pepper cheese garlic, and Margherita- mozz, sauce and basil. I ordered a Margherita and a regular with half tomatoes, but was told "we don't put tomatoes on regular pies." Um, okay.. at the waitress's suggestion, we ordered a white pie w/ tomato and spinach ("a favorite").
I have to include this section of the menu, which raised my respect for Tacconelli's half a notch: this pizzeria knows what its crust can handle, unlike many others that encourage patrons to pile on topping after topping onto a pizza that just can't support it. At least Tacconelli's knows its pizza's 'threshold,' and advises its customers accordingly. The Margherita came first-
Woah, okay. If this is the Margherita, I wonder how little cheese the 'regular' has. The sauce was decent enough, though slightly sugary- but c'mon, if you're going to put cheese on a pizza, don't stop four inches from the edge! WTF!?
I'm not a cheese glutton, I just want relatively consistent bites throughout a given slice. Also, they may as well have saved themselves the cost of basil, because I couldn't taste or smell it. To their credit, the cheese was tasty and fresh (I just wanted more), and the crust was the best part of the pizza- crunchy, thin, and nicely charred.
Next came the white pie with tomatoes and spinach.
Or maybe I should say, the white pie with garlic, garlic, spinach, garlic, and tomatoes. Jinkies, I can still taste the garlic in the depths of my throat. This pizza was somehow worse than the Margherita, truly lacking in any real flavor or character. The spinach was precooked to a tasteless blob, the tomatoes were bland, and barely any cheese to speak of.
It looks good though, right? I don't know where Tacconelli's gets their sub-par ingredients, but I'm positive they could make sure a killer pie with a changing of the guard. Making a scrumptious crust is half the battle, and they've already got that covered- I just think their toppings could use some work.
I'm sure I'll catch hell for this review from Philadelphians that grew up on this pizza, but it just wasn't that good. Other than a few other notable pizza joints in the city (Mama Palma's, Marra's), Tacconelli's competition is/was Pietro's and Lombardi's- both of which are transplanted NY pizzerias. If there's one thing I've learned this weekend, between Tacconelli's and De Lorenzo's, it's that loving a pizza you grew up with, or any food for that matter, unfortunately doesn't make it good.