Before the COVID-19 shutdown, there was little reason for ambulatory and able-bodied New Yorkers to stock up on frozen pizza. Fresh pizza is the lifeblood of our city. We eat cheap slices off of paper plates on street corners. We wait two hours to sample pies at packed hot spots. We hop on the subway or the Staten Island Ferry and make pilgrimages to the iconic purveyors.
The good news is that multitudes of pizzerias remain open amid the pandemic. The bad news is that quarantines have a lot of us grounded — or avoiding takeout and delivery. Accordingly, critic Robert Sietsema and Ryan Sutton give us their picks for the best and worst frozen pizzas.
A large share of the frozen collection in those supermarkets are stunt pies with such odd features as rice crusts, meat substitutes, and vegetables resolved into a salty slurry. In other words, they chase the phantom of healthfulness without having to be good.
Also keep in mind that availability might vary from store to store. At a Whole Foods in Long Island, most of the pizza shelves were cleared out, save for the expensive Roberta’s variety. At supermarkets in Greenwich Village, the frozen pizza shelves remain well stocked, maybe because there is so much good pizza nearby.
Finally, if any of the notes below come across as particularly piquant, readers should consider that it’s difficult to judge supermarket pizzas without remembering, wistfully, that New York is the pizza capital of the world.
Newman’s Own four-cheese pizza (16 ounces, $8.99): Sietsema’s Winner
Sietsema: The four-cheese version of Newman’s Own, a reservoir of cheeses (mozzarella, cheddar, parmesan, and asiago) on a crisp crust, was the only pie that exactly represents a form of pizza that exists in the real world. (Most of the pies reviewed in this article are freezer inventions aimed at supermarket shoppers.) It is a near perfect evocation of the bar pie available at drinking spots all over the country, including Lee’s Tavern in Staten Island. The crust is really a cracker, the better to hold a slice in one hand while juggling a beer in the other. Grade: A
Sutton: The pepperoni version is a riff on what I call ballpark-style pizza, a variety that’s not as widespread as New Haven or Detroit pizza. The sauce is zesty and spiced, like supermarket spaghetti sauce. The crust packs a vaguely buttery, pastry-like finish. The mozz is oily and mealy. And the pepperoni — I did not sample the four-cheese version — is salty and crisp. Every food critic intuition I possess says this is not good pizza, but nostalgia tells me it would be a perfect match with a chocolate chip mint shake at a Yankees game. Grade: B
Roberta’s margherita (9.8 ounces, $12.99): Sutton’s Winner
Sutton: This is the king of frozen pizza, a near perfect recreation of a classic Neapolitan pie. The crust exhibits gorgeous leoparding, a sign it was charred in a wood-fired oven before being placed in cryostasis. A quick five minutes in the toaster oven brings it back to life, imparting the sourdough crust with a springy chew. Fat gobs of mozzarella, rendered soft as pudding under blunt heat, counterbalance the rampant acidity of the earthy tomatoes. Does the sauce render the top layer of dough just a touch soggy? Yes, but that’s the only culinary flaw. Take note of the price: It’s about double the cost of some frozen pies, yet barely big enough to feed one. Grade: A
Sietsema: If nothing else, the Roberta’s pie is Instagram ready, with its clear polyvinyl packaging, stipples of char on the circumferential edge, and big slices of fresh mozzarella on top, an exuberant display. Don’t get me wrong — this pie is good, and worth trying if only to compare it to its two previous generations: the original version at Roberta’s, and the second generation pie served at food courts under the same brand name. This example doesn’t measure up to either. The crust is exemplary for a freezer pie, but the cheese has been alarmingly rendered the texture of marshmallow fluff, certainly not as delicious as fresh mutz. Grade: A-
Table 87 margherita (9.6 ounces, $7.99): Sutton’s Runner-Up
Sutton: Owner Tom Cucco sought out an unusual source of funding for his Brooklyn pizzeria. He appeared on CNBC’s Shark Tank, where he secured $250,000 to help sell his slices and pies. The pizza is pre-cooked in a super hot coal oven, then frozen and packed. The margherita shines with good basil, mozzarella packing a proper dairy punch, and floral tomatoes. Those tomatoes, alas, would benefit from more acidity, and the flat crust is about as complex as Wonder Bread. But if you add a bit of olive oil, salt, and chiles, it still sings with fresh flavors. Grade: A-
Sietsema: This six-year-old Shark Tank-funded outfit claims to represent “Brooklyn coal oven pizza,” which I didn’t know was a thing. In the same breath the package advertises Hormel pepperoni (Mine was the pepperoni pie, Sutton bought the margherita), so the pie doesn’t know whether it wants to be high brow or low brow. The pepperoni is the much touted cupperoni; the sauce and cheese are agreeable; but the overly browned crust falls short by being way more like a pita than a pizza. Grade: B
The Rest of the Pies
Talia di Napoli margherita (14.1 ounces, $13.99): OK, here’s a shocker — this pizza is actually made in Naples, Italy, with all-Italian ingredients. It is a real Naples pie, and the crust survives the voyage in fairly good shape, only slightly charred and reading as much like bread as pizza crust. Unlike Roberta’s margherita, the cheese behaves like real mozzarella, and the tomato sauce is appropriately unspiced. Yet, even though this pizza is the standard to which many upscale pizzerias in town aspire, its authentic blandness works against it, and one wishes for a little more zing to the sauce. Grade: B+ — Sietsema
Ellio’s pepperoni and sausage (18.9 ounces, $3): The concessionaire at my local 1980s playground would keep slices of Ellio’s warm in the soft pretzel carousel. Rock salt would fall down upon the slices, giving the pizza a nice saline crunch. I can’t say this mainstay has completely stood the test of time, but it still nourishes. A spiced tomato sauce sits under industrial mozz. A squishy slab of bread provides faux-focaccia nourishment. And pepperoni and sausage nuggets impart, well, texture. I sprinkled a bit of fleur de sel on top to add a salty snap, and a dose of nostalgia. I’m rounding the grade up because of affordability. Grade: B — Sutton
California Pizza Kitchen’s “BBQ” chicken pie (14.7 ounces, $6.19): The late Ed LaDou is one of the most overlooked U.S. pizza chefs. As the founding pizzaiolo at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in the early ’ 80s, he helped popularize an innovative California approach to pizza, topping his creations with smoked salmon and duck with hoisin sauce. He took those experiments to the masses with California Pizza Kitchen. Sadly, the frozen varieties don’t keep pace with the restaurant versions. BBQ chicken pizza employs a complex, aromatic barbecue sauce instead of tomato sauce. It begs for acid, none of which is to be found here, though the salty mozz helps keep the sweetness in check. And the bread, alas, is nearly as bland and crunchy as matzoh. Grade: B- — Sutton
Amy’s rice crust spinach pizza (14 ounces, $10.69): This pie from health food behemoth Amy’s is gluten- and dairy-free, so don’t be surprised if the shredded “cheese” doesn’t melt. Still, if you don’t think of it as pizza, but as an exotic flatbread from another planet that has no wheat or cows, the experience of eating it can be semi-enjoyable, even though the spinach doesn’t even seem like spinach. Grade: C+ — Sietsema
Field Day’s uncured chicken pepperoni pizza (11 ounces, $5.99): Not sure what the health benefits of chicken pepperoni are versus pork pepperoni, but the sausage here comes oddly cut into a miniature dice. At least the pepperoni still tastes like pepperoni, and the pie was properly cheesy, with a slight underlying sweetness from the smidgen of tomato sauce. The Achilles heels was the crust, which was leather-like, with the bottom stratum weirdly separating from the rest of the pizza. Grade: C+ — Sietsema
Udi’s Gluten Free margherita (10 ounces, $9.99): This pizza tries too hard. In addition to a tomato mush, it also sports tiny cubes of tomato on top, and as an adjunct to the usual white pizza cheese, there are little balls of what looks like fresh mozzarella on top of that. Sadly, the balls have the consistency of rubber bands and don’t melt. The box advertises “crispy thin crust” and “new improved recipe,” but the crust still resembles a thick sheet of plastic, and the whole pie has a damp taste, possibly owing to the basil, which is advertised but invisible. Grade: D — Sietsema
DiGiorno rising crust pepperoni (27.5 ounces $7.99): “It’s not delivery. It’s DiGiorno,” is a decades-old marketing slogan, and one still directed at those who view delivery as the apotheosis of pizza consumption, wherever in the world that might be. This rising crust variety poofs up in the toaster oven like a souffle, which is the best and most exciting thing about this leaden pie. The sauce has no flavor. The bread is too bready. The mozz is indistinct. And the bottom is weirdly sandy. This is bad pizza. Grade: D — Sutton
Check out the previous piece, Eater’s Restaurant Critics Review NYC’s Best (and Worst) Frozen Grocery Foods