The Worcester Pizza Tour

Pizza is a perfect food that everybody loves to eat. It’s an emotional thing that forges strong opinions as to who makes the best and which style rules. I consider myself versatile. Thin crust, deep dish and variations between – each are OK as long as my pizza crust provides some chewy resistance with a crusty edge and a bready flavor enhanced by a deep-baked brown crust.

That’s not to underestimate the toppings, though. For they are the punctuation marks – exciting, questionable or sluggish. Take, for example, the cheese. Each time I suffer through a slice from the big franchises, the cheese seems to be some cream-cheese “product” schmeared over the dough. It throws a soggy blanket over the pizza experience.

Give me honest ingredients and don’t go overboard with them!

Fortunately, Worcester has plenty of local flavors when it comes to pizza. Here are a few of them.

The Wonder Bar Restaurant
121 Shrewsbury St., Worcester • 508-752-9909

The Wonder Bar is, perhaps, Worcester’s most venerable pizza parlor and one of its most venerated. After its lights went out for a year or so, new owners peeled back fifty years worth of modernization attempts and restored its original luster.

To keep our comparisons as objective as practical, we selected the combination pizza: Sausage, Mushroom and Pepper.

First observation: the cheese. They used a lot of it. Real, honest mozzarella. So much of it that when I grabbed my first slice, big stretchy strands draped from the pie across the table to my plate. Be ready to wipe it off your chin!

Then, the other toppings. Strips of fresh green peppers were soft and sweet and plentiful. Sliced brown mushrooms retained their mild flavor and a bit of firmness. But the meat really caught our attention. Each slice had several chunks of sausage that was lean and crumbly with flecks of tasty fennel. This was a combo whose ingredients were fresh, real and applied in generous measure.

The Wonder Bar serves up a fairly thin crust, not cracker-thin, but pliable enough that you can fold your slice and enjoy it without using a fork. Baked deep brown on the bottom, I reckon the Wonder Bar has accomplished the classic pizza experience.

Antonio’s Pizza
286 Chandler St., Worcester • 774-530-6000

This is as close as we care to get for dining at those huge, franchised pizza stores because, in general, we prefer to avoid industrialized food product. Antonio’s new store is Pizza Wonderland on Chandler Street. Our waitress informed us that it is the largest location and then went on to explain the Antonio’s experience: Its reputation is for pizza by the slice, as well as full pizzas. By-the-slice involves procedural details that we avoided by ordering a full pizza.

Before diving into the pizza, we started with an appetizer, the Meatball Skillet. This was a good strategy; Antonio’s meatballs were flavorful, and the marinara sauce was well above average. The Italian at our table gave them an enthusiastic thumbs up.

Strangely, though, this promise of flavor did not carry over to our Sausage, Pepper and Mushroom pizza. The toppings were attractive and abundant and baked onto a hand-crafted crust. Everything looked perfect. But flavor was strangely lacking. Maybe that’s the strategy; each table is set with little shaker bottles of spices. I added oregano, hot pepper flakes and shaky cheese in an effort to help this introverted pizza assert itself.

The verdict? Antonio’s Pizza has, seemingly, an endless variety of pizza choices. It is, perhaps, the ideal place for groups who can’t make decisions and want different slices for each member. The slices are huge; the flavor won’t offend.

Pepe’s Pizza
274 Franklin St., Worcester • 508-755-1978

With Pepe’s, we said goodbye to mass-production and returned to personal preparation. Pepe’s is a family business in one of Worcester’s converted industrial spaces; the menu is less extensive than the chains, but the chefs are happy to prepare variations. For example, we selected the Funghi Pizza – tomato sauce, mozzarella and mushrooms – and asked the server to add sausage. No problem!

This was a classic pizza bursting with flavor. The broad, thin crust was baked golden brown on the bottom and topped with tasty marinara and a lacy layer of stretchy-hot mozzarella cheese. The scattering of mushrooms and bits of sausage added their own flavors to an underlying balance of herbs and spices.

Each slice was pizza bliss!

Pepe’s feels “made with love.” It’s located just down the street from Edge at Union Station apartments. I know if I lived there, I’d want to make Pepe’s my personal food service provider.

Volturno Pizza Napoletana
72 Shrewsbury St., Worcester • 508-756-8658

I must admit, the installation of Volturno on Shrewsbury Street was one I watched with eager expectation for what seemed at least a year. The promise of Neapolitan pizza – the planetary standard for pizza perfection – was one of the most exciting developments in the flowering of Worcester’s dining scene.

With such hype comes terrible risk.

But I can happily report that the sheer joy of a slice of pizza from a backstreet taverna in Napoli has been replicated at Volturno. The thin crust has the same chewy texture; Volturno’s glittering kilns have the blistering heat it takes to blacken dough bubbles that form on the outer crust, deepening the flavor with delicious richness.

Our Margherita pizza came with thin base of San Marzano tomato sauce topped with islands of buffalo mozzarella cheese and strips of fresh basil. It was pizza perfection in texture, depth and balance of flavors! It was so delectable, we ordered another; the Vongole Pizza, a flavor outrage consisting of fluffy ricotta cheese, smoky bacon and minced clams.

Of course, we want beer with our pizza. Each of these emporiums had decent selections of draft beers to choose from. Along the way, I enjoyed Wormtown’s Be Hoppy, Harpoon IPA and Sam Adams’ Rebel IPA.

But at Volturno, I chose one from the other coast, Coronado Brewing Company’s Idiot IPA. A bit higher in alcohol content, it was served in a snifter. Bitter hops were softened with pine and citrus notes; it was an excellent value and, perhaps, the ideal complement to these wonderful pizza flavors.

This has been just a thin sampling of the pizza available in the Worcester area. Next assignment: deep dish.

By Bernard Whitmore