The Field Guide to Massachusetts Pizza

The Dunkin’ Donuts empire. The assumption of white clam chowder. The word “Hamburg.” As a former New York Stater now living in Massachusetts, there are some things I have just had to accept. Chief among them? Massachusetts pizza.

Growing up, I took good pizza, in all its thin crust and bubbly cheese glory, for granted. Bad pizza came from Pizza Hut, convenience stores, and mall cafeterias. Everywhere else the pizza was, reliably, pretty solid. Case in point: one of my favorite pizza joints was in a strip mall next to (my mother’s) weight watchers class.

In Massachusetts, you can make no such assumption. Most New Englanders, it seems, are content to create a doughy, pizza-inspired product, skipping that mysterious element that converts modest ingredients into capital-P Pizza.

Characteristics of the dreaded Massachusetts Bread and Cheese Pizza (MBCP) include a thick and slightly soggy crust, a generous helping of lumpy marinara sauce, and a topping of melted (not bubbly/burned) cheese. Adding insult to injury, many pizza joints serving MBCP don’t even offer slices. A pizza joint without slices? What’s up with that?

After MBCP, the most common type of pizza to encounter is the novelty slice. Think: endless varieties of unlikely toppings and “themed” slices. Taco Pizza. Cheeseburger Pizza. Turkey Club Pizza. As you may have guessed, novelty pizza establishments are typically found adjacent to bars in college towns. And they’re not all bad — Antonio’s in Amherst, MA, makes a pretty nifty Salad Pizza, which trades both sauce and cheese for a deft combination of fresh spinach, tomato, artichokes, roasted red peppers, kalamata olives, and a balsamic vinegar and oil infusion. It’s pretty tasty, but a far cry from the slices of my youth.

Traditionalists on a quest for an old school slice will find the task hard but not impossible.

Some general advice:
1) Under no circumstances rely on Yelp reviews. They are written by people who have no problem marrying the phrase “New York Style” with “3 inch crust.”
2) Be suspicious if the pizza joint in question serves coffee or has an extensive sandwich menu. Delis are not pizza joints.
3) Ask yourself: do I want traditional greasy slices or a something fancier? Many trendy restaurants can provide a high-end, if not traditional, interpretation of pizza. Baba Louie’s is at the top of the list for quality wood-fired Massachusetts pizza with fancy ingredients. If you do go the chichi route, watch out for “fake gourmet pizza,” which is usually just flatbread with a handful of arugula on top.

Real deal gourmet pie from Baba Louie’s. Famazing.

4) Look around. Are there old, possibly broken, arcade games? Fluorescent lighting? Vinyl booths from the 70s? These are all good signs, as the best, most classic, slices come from what I would term “Dirty Pizza Caves.” Get past the ambiance (or lack thereof) and you’re usually rewarded with thin and crisp slices (with no need for novelty toppings).

An example of a “dirty pizza cave.” Note the faded sign made with a stencil. There’s probably an old cigarette machine inside.

Follow this advice and you’ll be well on your way to finding the perfect Bay State slice. And, god willing, there might even be a table-top Pacman game in your future.

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3 comments
  1. Thanks! I’ll try to remember this lesson for next time I lust for pizza which won’t be very long.

  2. Adam S said:

    Loved this article for so many reasons.

    I was actually getting hungry as I was reading. I had no idea that Massachusetts was known for pizza? This whole write-up reminded me of Man vs. Food, which I happen to watch religiously. Although, now that I think of it, Adam’s a New Yoaka, so I’m sure I’m gonna get flack for droppin’ his name here in Baston. I’m sorry I’ll shut up now…

    …one more thing — is there a person on the planet that doesn’t like Ms. Pacman? I’m buying one. Classic.

    • I’m glad you like it! Massachusetts has (I think) a pretty negative pizza rep generally, probably because it’s close enough to NY for comparison. There’s a lot of bad out there, but definitely some good, too.
      I love Ms. Pacman, and basically all arcade-type games. I even love the trivia ones that used to be in lots of bars. Only the real dives have them now.

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