The Search for NH's Best Pizza
Lots of places claim to be the state's best. We put them all to the test.
If you’ve seen the movie “Elf,” then you likely recall the scene where the naïve and enthusiastic Buddy bursts in to a café to congratulate the owners on the accolade posted in their window.
“You did it! Congratulations! World’s best cup of coffee. Great job, everybody.”
The shop, of course, had no real claim to the title of world’s best coffee; they’d just bought a neon sign saying they were number one.
Pretenders to the role of “best” abound in any field, but the most saturated spread of bests may be among pizza makers.
Every town and every neighborhood in New Hampshire has its own pizza joint, and every one of them would probably claim that it makes the finest pie in the state. Many can even say they’ve earned the honor: They were the top pick in a festival bake-off, or won in a TV viewers' poll. Even our own Best of New Hampshire awards don’t pin down a definitive top dog; we’ve named 21 pizzerias “best” just in the past nine years.
With so many eateries claiming to be the best and so many types of best to choose from — tops on the Seacoast, tastiest pepperoni, most creative pies — how can you really know who makes the best pizza in the Granite State?
We decided to find out.
From New Hampshire’s dozens of pizza joints, we narrowed the contenders to seven who we feel have the strongest claim to the title of best in the state. We ate directly equivalent pies at each spot. We compared them side by side in such categories as cheesiness and reheatability. And, from this search, we picked our winners.
Gather your appetite and your Buddy the Elf enthusiasm: You’ve got a pizza joint to go congratulate.
To choose our competing pizzerias, we turned to the experts. Several national eating authorities, including the Food Network and Yelp, have named “Best Pizza in New Hampshire” winners over the years. Their picks earned automatic berth. Also qualifying were those eateries who’ve won New Hampshire Magazine’s Best of NH honors for three or more years. Reader polls can be fickle, but when readers and editors pick the same spots again and again, those pie-makers must be on to something good.
When it came to judging these eats against each other, we started with a careful distinction. We weren’t looking for the best pizza place in New Hampshire. We were looking for the best pizza. Factors like friendly owners or menu variety can be subjective. (After all, your idea of the best pizzeria may hinge on its closeness to your house or the fact that they make a pie with anchovies and peanut butter, and anchovies and peanut butter happen to be your favorite foods.) But a pizza-to-pizza comparison will yield more impartial results. A place could earn style points for a trendy interior or kudos for its community spirit, but our main question was a simple one: How good is the pizza?
In fairness to both the artisan pizza creators and the mom-and-pop bakers of the Granite State, we settled on two divisions for our search: gourmet and everyday. We tried one pizza per restaurant and ranked the various parts of each pie — including its cost and how good it tastes when inevitably eaten as leftovers — on a scale of 1-5. Among everyday joints, this meant five categories: crust, sauce, cheese, reheatability and value. Among gourmet spots, there were six: crust, reheatability, value, topping choices, topping quality and base, a joint category to judge the sauce and cheese hidden beneath the more exciting premium toppings.
The pizzas we ate at each spot represented the divisions’ quintessential pies: plain cheese at the everyday joints and the best-seller or signature pie at the gourmet restaurants. This is a crucial litmus test for any pizza place. If the simplest or most popular thing you make isn’t outstanding, then the rest of your menu probably isn’t either.
Let's dig in
- Alley Cat, Manchester
- Tilton House of Pizza, Tilton
- The Pizza Pub at Portsmouth Gas Light Co.
- La Festa Brick & Brew, Dover
- Pig Tale, Nashua
- MT’s Local Kitchen and Wine Bar
- 900 Degrees, Manchester and Epping
The Contenders: Everyday
Alley Cat, Manchester
Take a second to create some mental pictures. First, picture your best image of pizza from a gritty hole-in-the-wall joint in downtown Manchester. Got it? Then imagine your best delicate, thin-crust pie. Now, combine them. That bizarre pairing is what’s served up every day at Alley Cat Pizzeria.
The standard bready crust of most takeout joints is nowhere to be found at this Queen City spot. Instead, it’s replaced by a cracker-thin masterpiece that’s a welcome surprise from a hole-in-the-wall where a 20-inch pie barely runs you $15.
This pizza is unexpected takeout gold, served up from the kind of neon-lit backstreet spot that all great junk food comes from. Be warned, though: The art school-adjacent grungy vibe is fun for hipster types, but straitlaced pizza lovers may want to opt for delivery rather than in-store pickup.
Tilton House of Pizza, Tilton
The shining star of this pizza was the cheese. The generously sized small came packed with what felt like 10 pounds of the stuff, gooey, melty and begging the question, what exactly does the extra-cheese pizza look like?
THOP serves a thick-crust pie, meaning each slice is a substantial undertaking. While good for thin-crust haters, though — and for the practical task of supporting all that cheese without collapsing — the dough wasn’t buttery or crispy enough to make a strong impression. Like the perfectly fine sauce, it was mostly just “there.”
The value and leftover factors were both impressive with this pie. A small cheese pizza rang in at less than $7 and was easily big enough for two, and the melty goodness of the cheese was pretty convincingly recreated with a zap in the microwave the next day.
To add to the quality of the pizza, the charm of this eatery was irresistible. The Lakes Region joint is clearly a community favorite, with kids’ basketball teams and silver-haired couples all enjoying a bite in the bustling dining room, and the sweetie-pie staff is the kind who’ll remember your name and wish you a good day even at rush hour.
The namesake pizza at Gas Light, featuring sausage, pepperoni and ricotta
The Pizza Pub at Portsmouth Gas Light Co.
The pizza-makers at Gas Light have been through a lot lately. A fire in December 2015 shut down their basement pie joint for eight months — unseating the Market Street eatery from our Best of NH title for the first time in six years in 2016 — but they rose from the ashes with a grand reopening last August.
Unfortunately, their pizza isn’t as strong as their spirit. While the specialty pies on their menu sounded tasty, their humble cheese pizza was nothing to write home about. The traditional-style crust was fine, as was the cheese, but the sauce was laden with chunks of tomato that made for too many unbalanced bites. Gas Light’s pie also fared the worst of all seven contenders in the leftover round, with cheese, sauce and crust all blending together into a truly strange bite. Things are redeemed somewhat by the price: While pricey by neighborhood pizza joint standards, a tag of $10 for a 12-inch small is quite the steal when you consider that the pie is a full meal or two at a sit-down restaurant in downtown Portsmouth.
Gas Light’s subterranean dining room is a fun place to gather with friends for a pie and some football, but, until they’ve had some more time to recalibrate after their hiatus, we’d recommend coming for the camaraderie more than the world-class ’za.
La Festa Brick & Brew, Dover
The plain cheese pizza at La Festa was the edible realization of the phrase “jack of all trades, master of none.” On some level, this pie could satisfy everyone: The crust was somewhat crispy and somewhat doughy, the cheese was melty in some spots and thick and chewy in others, and the sauce was enough of a blank slate to work with whatever was happening on a given slice. Even the value and reheatability factors were middle-of-the-road, with a thoroughly average leftover round and a price point that just balanced “a little steep” with “wow, that pizza is huge.”
But the inconsistent flavors and textures of this pie were ultimately more puzzling than pleasing. A heavy smattering of herbs on top of the pizza offered some consistency, but only at the cost of making everything taste, well, like herbs.
La Festa earns kudos for its non-cheese offerings. The inventive specialty pizzas they had on display (see left) looked truly mouthwatering, and their decision to offer all their pies in individual slice form is a stroke of genius. (How many times have you fought with a group of people over what toppings to order on a single pie?) But, as tasty as a helping of shrimp scampi pizza may be, a family-friendly neighborhood spot like this needs to knock the basics out of the park — and La Festa’s most basic offering was just OK.
Left: Pig Tale's Sophia pizza with pesto and potatoes. Right: Pig Tale's Rooster, with crispy potato, hash, bacon and sunny-side-up eggs.
The Contenders: Gourmet
Pig Tale, Nashua
Open only since June 2015, Pig Tale is the new kid on the New Hampshire’s pizza block. The fact that they’ve already been named to a national “best pizza in every state” list, then — not to mention our “Hot New Restaurants” and Best of NH Editor’s Pick selections — should probably tell you something.
Their namesake signature pie sits right on the edge of total insanity. In addition to the standard tomato sauce and fontina cheese base, they top this baby with pork shoulder, bacon, sausage, pickled onions and a barbecue sauce drizzle. It should be way too much! But it isn’t. The crust and the pork shoulder in particular are so good, they’d easily merit spots on the menu as their own bread and appetizer course dishes. The char is unbelievable, the hot pink pickled onion wickedly smart, and the seemingly random barbecue topping perfect for bringing the whole rambunctious thing together. It is obvious eating this pizza that the chefs had to really think and experiment to get the balance of ingredients right — and that hard work pays off.
The only points off for this pie came from things that were pretty great but not phenomenal. The tomato and fontina base was just solid and well-suited for a quiet counterpart to the toppings, and the leftovers of this pizza would only make for your best lunch of the week, not the month. The value category also barely merited a deducted point: This pizza is expensive, but most would agree it’s worth the extra cost.
Pig Tale has been rebranding lately to emphasize their non-pizza offerings (tricky for a spot sleekly designed as an urban pizzeria, complete with giant subway-tiled brick oven in one corner), but here’s hoping they don’t forget their roots.
MT’s Local Kitchen and Wine Bar
OK, so the pizza that Food Network specifically named the best in the Granite State (MT’s Local’s spicy guacamole) no longer exists. But an eatery that caught the industry’s eye once is bound to have some other worthy pizzas, so we gave their current best-seller a try.
The first promising sign was the grill marks on the crust. Though not quite as tasty as the eat-it-by-the-loaf bread basket that came for free before the meal, this crust was a model example of thin and crispy goodness. The base, which forewent sauce altogether in favor of a spreadable goat cheese and shredded cheese blend, was similarly smart and tasty.
On top, the combination of fresh, spicy arugula with prosciutto, fig and grilled onions worked expertly together. Though certain ingredient quirks raised an eyebrow — you don’t often see prosciutto served in perfectly uniform centimeter-sized squares — the overall effect of this pie was very solid.
It did, however, seem a bit like an appetizer. An $18 price tag for a dish that would be a fitting shared first course before a bigger entrée was one of few things — along with fruit jam that heated up much more quickly than the rest of the pie (watch your mouth with the leftovers!) — keeping this fancy restaurant’s pizza from being the best of the best.
900's cult-favorite Mac & Cheese Pizza
900 Degrees, Manchester and Epping
In the world of New Hampshire gourmet pizza, 900 Degrees has long been king. New Hampshire Magazine readers named the spot the best gourmet pizzeria in the state in the 2008 Best of NH poll just eight months after it opened — launching a streak of wins that remains unbroken today — and it’s been heralded by Zagat, Business Insider and more as the best pizza joint in the state.
But the actual quality of their pie doesn’t quite live up to the praise that’s been heaped on it. Their best-seller, a prosciutto, spinach and caramelized onion-topped pie called Bella Cosa, is tasty but not remarkable. A garlic cream sauce takes the place of a standard red on this pie and, after seeming like a great idea for the first few bites, quickly overwhelms the dish. In texture, it dampens the otherwise-crispy crust until it struggles to support the weight of the toppings, and in flavor, it permeates everything, leaving even the salty prosciutto and excellent sliced mozzarella playing second fiddle to the taste of garlic.
This pizza is awesome on paper, pretty good served up as leftovers, and at only $16.50 (half that (!) at lunch or during Tuesday night two-for-one specials), it’s a just about unbeatable deal for an artisan pie. But, after nearly a decade at the top, 900 could use some retooling to keep up with the whippersnapper young eateries nipping at its heels.
In case you haven’t been keeping score as we’ve gone along, two victors have emerged in our search for New Hampshire’s best pizza.
With 23 out of 25 points in the everyday division and 28 out of 30 in the gourmet class, Alley Cat and Pig Tale are the Granite State pizzerias you just can’t miss.
Each of these decorated pizza shops has its merits, as do lots of others around the state. But, in a direct battle among some of the top dogs, these two can’t be beat. Alley Cat creates greasy guilty-pleasure food with the crispy crust and delicate sauce of a restaurant far beyond its back-alley pedigree, while Pig Tale takes the familiar premise of the artisan pizza and blasts it into a science and an art. In a word: One elevates takeout to the gourmet, and the other elevates the gourmet to the “OMG.”
So sure — maybe, to you, we’re as clueless as Buddy the Elf or the guy who made the world’s best coffee sign to stick in your window. But with research (and a few extra pounds of pizza weight) under our belts, we know our votes for the best pizza in NH. We’re eager to hear yours.