The ratings scale will be similar to the Burger Challenge with a ranking of 1 to 5 in each of five categories: Crust, Cheese, Sauce, Toppings and Overall. We'll order a "plain" pizza from each location and also one (or more) with toppings. This second pie should be the house specialty - whatever is recommended as the best they have to offer. And here we go...
Round 1 brings us to Zavino at 13th & Sansom in easily the busiest and most happening neighborhood in the city. They don't take reservations, so you're going to have to wait if you come on a Friday night. If there is no room at the bar, they will however take your phone number and text you when your table is ready. And there is no shortage of places to wait it out on 13th street these days.
It's a tight space at this corner, with a bar & counter seating running the length where you can watch the art being made. You're going to get friendly with your neighbors and you're going to be dodging servers often. In the summer the outside tables are always full. It's all part of the allure though. There's a reason so many people want to eat here. Full restaurants are always a good sign.
The appetizers are one of the best parts of the menu with a great selection of salumi, cheeses, roasted veggies, and hand made pastas. You could get by just on the appetizer section and leave with a smile on your face. We are here for pizza though - the apps will have to wait.
My favorite was definitely The Stache. Start off with a whole wheat crust, top with pistachio pesto, mozzarella, parmesan, and baby arugula dressed with lemon vinaigrette. Wow. I've had pistachio on pizza before but not in pesto form. There is a lovely lusciousness in the rich yet crunchy sauce, and it picks up a great char from the 850° oven. The peppery arugula and tartness of the vinaigrette cuts right through the pesto. Even the whole wheat crust was good - which is a rare thing I think. It always sounds like a good idea, but ends up tasting something closer to cardboard. We asked the server what our specialty pie should be and she automatically said Stache. It's their best pie.
The Truffle - with baby spinach, truffle oil, and a barely cooked egg with all that yokey goodness strewn across the pizza. They let you break the yoke and spread it around, so it's even more fun. The subtle hints of truffle are enough to let you know it's there but not overpowering. So many times you get a pizza that just tastes like one big truffle (#first world problems). This is an amazing pie. The perfect combination of super savory ingredients. It is decadence on dough.
Zavino is also getting in on the Italian beer train and offering a few large format bottles that are really interesting and worth a try. Give the Collesi Ambrata a go - it's an amber ale that is just slightly hoppy with some notes of dried apricots and dates. It also helped that one of the challenge team members happens to work at Moore Brothers in Delaware. Any mention of this to a manager and we usually get some sort of hookup. This time it yielded a bottle of Italian stout that was like a smokier version of Murphy's Irish. I didn't even know stout was brewed anywhere close to the Mediterrenean. Lucky for us it's one of a few new bottles that the restaurant is trying out for the spring/summer season. I don't recall the name, but you can ask at the bar.
Overall this was a hell of a start to the Pizza Challenge. Zavino's oven is humming as it churns out near perfect pies at a dizzying clip. The artists in the kitchen are churning out pieces worthy of Raphael (not the Ninja Turtle). And they are keeping it interesting with new specialty pies every week or so. Everything is really high quality and the service is tight. There's a reason this place is always busy.
Food Baby Rating: Triplets!
112 South 13th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19107