Philly food and drink scene

This is why Philly has so many pizzerias

Credit Italian roots, neighborhood shops and a booming food scene.

Margherita pizza at Medusa in Fishtown

Margherita pizza at Medusa in Fishtown

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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Philly has a lot of pizzerias. It’s not something the city is known for — tomato pie is a whole different beast — but anyone who lives here can speak to the idea.

“I literally have a pizza shop on my block, and there’s many others.” said Carolyn Wyman, a nationally-recognized food historian with seven books to her name. “I live in South Philly and every corner pretty much has a deli or a food store.”

Combine those neighborhood joints with the city’s longtime mainstays — 92-year-old Marra’s on East Passyunk, 73-year-old Taconelli’s in Port Richmond — plus the wave of fancy Neapolitan makers (Stella, Pizzeria Vetri, Nomad), the trendy Roman-style pizzaiolos (Alicé, Rione) and the onslaught of build-your-own chains (&Pizza, Snap, Blaze) and you have a pie scene that’s truly bursting at the seams.

There’s so much pizza here that a recent study by Apartment Guide found Philly has the second-highest number of pizzerias per capita among large U.S. cities — nearly 27 for every 100,000 people.

That’s more even than pizza-famed NYC, which has an average of around 17 per 100k if you add the boroughs together. Chicago comes in with a measly 15. By the survey’s count, Las Vegas is at the top of the list with just over 40 pizzerias per 100k — probably attributable to its much lower number of permanent residents and a restaurant scene built for tourism.

The report does give Philly unconditional first in a different slot: 15.5% of all eating establishments here are pizzerias, it says.

How many pizza spots does Philadelphia have? That’s an open question.

Apartment Guide’s numbers are calculated using a base of nearly 3,000 restaurants and more than 400 pizzerias. But a study from the Health Department earlier this fall found Philadelphia has more than 6,000 places to eat. And a Yelp search for “pizzerias” inside the city brought up more than 2,300 responses.

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Arabiatta pie from the original Pizzeria Beddia

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Italian roots, and cheesesteaks too

Part of the city’s pizza proclivity could be traceable to its residents’ ancestry. According to census data, Philadelphia is home to the second largest Italian-American population in the country.

Naples is the original home of some of the owners behind LaScala’s Birra, which operates two locations, one in South Philly and another in South Jersey. Both spots make Italian-style pies, with flour shipped from the Old Country and dough proofed for 48 hours.

“I feel because there’s a big Italian community and people in Philly, they really love pasta and pizza,” said Davide Lubrano Lavadera, manager at LaScala’s Birra on East Passyunk.

He made a quick addendum: “And fries and cheesesteak.”

That’s consistent with speculation from author Wyman, who runs a regular Taste of Philly food tour. “Frankly, I think a lot of those pizza places are selling cheesesteaks,” she told Billy Penn.

West Philly pizza shop owner Tim Mironives is certainly selling sandwiches. He said pizza makes up between 40 to 50 percent of his sales at Atlas Pizza.

Located on South 52nd Street, the neighborhood shop has been in business for about 20 years. Mironives said he entered the pizza game because he saw it as a great business opportunity. “I would say we’re more flexible to the change of times,” he said. “Our customers are more loyal.”

It’s a loyal customer base that’s kept Joe’s Pizza in Center City afloat for more than three decades, said co-owner Casimira Villico. Villico runs Joe’s and several other Philly slice shops with her husband Ernesto, who moved to the states from Sicily, Italy.

“We have customers that have been coming for 30 years,” Villico said. “They don’t come for cheesesteaks, they come for pizza.”

Roman style pizza at Rione

Roman style pizza at Rione

Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Upside-down and everything in between

If there’s one thing everyone can agree on about Philly pizza, it’s that it’s not going anywhere.

The city also brings its own unique style: the upside-down pie, popularized by local cult-favorite Santucci’s, which has several outposts around the city run by various members of the founding family.

It’s also found at Stogie Joe’s Tavern on East Passyunk. One of the newer kids on the block, the shop just celebrated its 10-year anniversary. It’s known for the upside-down style, which features a crispy square crust and flips the ingredients, putting the cheese beneath the sauce.

Stogie’s manager Joey DiOrio said the unique and diverse offerings of pizzerias in Philly are what keep them all in business on that side of town.

“Thinking about the pizza places that are on Passyunk Ave., they all do a little bit of everything,” DiOrio told Billy Penn. Still, he said pizza accounts for half of all the restaurant’s sales.

Plenty of artisan spots tossing Neapolitan pies and build-your-own chains joined the family-owned neighborhood shops across the urban grid over the past couple decades. Though they represent a hefty slice of the city’s pizza scene, Philly’s traditional pie purveyors are still comfortably going strong.

“A lot of people are constantly feeling worried about the competition, but in our case we tend to be friends with everyone because in this business,” said Lubrano Lavadera of LaScala’s Birra. “I feel like what you want is to never stop learning.”

Want some more? Explore other Philly food and drink scene stories.

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Food