Does Seattle Need to Define its Preferred Pizza Style?

A recent wave of pizza openings might bring us closer to defining a local style

By Chelsea Lin


February 9, 2016

This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Seattle Magazine.

When celebrated neighborhood haunt Delancey (Ballard, 1415 NW 70th St.; 206.838.1960) first started firing blistery pizzas, owner Brandon Pettit witnessed a funny moment: A local leaned over to her friend and said a bit too loudly, “This pizza is OK, but it’s not New York style.”

A woman sitting at the bar overheard the comment—and proceeded, in her thick East Coast accent, to give them an earful defending Delancey’s pizza.

In this city full of people born and raised on pizza from somewhere else, local pizzaioli fight an uphill battle against geographic preference. What does it mean to make New York–style pizza—or Chicago deep dish, or Sicilian tomato pie—in the Pacific Northwest? Seattle’s defining pizza culture may be that we don’t really have our own identity (not yet, anyway) beyond the use of stellar ingredients, but Pettit and other self-proclaimed pizza nerds and professional dough slingers around town say that’s not necessarily a bad thing. “I think the fact that we don’t have a pizza culture is what’s so exciting right now,” he says. “There’s so much room for growth—room for restaurants to do whatever they want to do.”

Indeed, as Pettit launches his newest venture—Dino’s Tomato Pie (Capitol Hill, 1524 E Olive Way; 206.403.1742), set to open any day now—the city is undergoing a bit of a new wave obsession with pizza. What began in 1979 with the single, family-run location of Pagliacci on The Ave in the University District has evolved as slowly as dough rising in a cold room. And while there were some early adopters of wood-fired pizza, such as Café Lago (Montlake, 2305 24th Ave. E; 206.329.8005), which kicked off its legendary pies in 1990, the boom of mostly Neapolitan-style pizza happened a decade ago: Via Tribunali (multiple locations), Tutta Bella (multiple locations) and Veraci (Ballard, 500 NW Market St.; 206.525.1813) in 2004; followed by Tom Douglas’ Serious Pie (multiple locations) in 2006. In the last six months alone, Seattle has welcomed a third wave of sorts, a handful of pie shops bringing influences from around the country to define, or rather to prove we don’t need to define, Seattle’s preferred pizza.

Clockwise from top left: Sizzle Pie’s jalapeño and crushed garlic-laden Napalm Breath; Ian’s Pizza’s signature Mac n’ Cheese pie; Ernest Loves Agnes’ 3 Meat Pie features spicy coppa, speck and hot Italian sausage, plus a drizzle of spicy honey; and Windy City Pie’s Hot Island pizza, topped with pineapple and jalapeño; Photos: Colin Bishop; Sizzle Pie: Courtesy of Sizzle Pie

Perhaps it’s the covert nature of Windy City Pie that draws people in—folks love to be let in on a delicious secret, after all—or perhaps it’s just that this city has a lot of Chicagoans with an unrequited love for deep-dish pizza (a tall-sided style of pie piled with toppings, finished with tomato sauce, and so hefty it often requires a fork and knife to eat).

Either way, owner Dave Lichterman is the first to laugh at the peculiarities of his project, which generally requires folks to meet him on a street corner deep in SoDo to pick up their pies—“like a speakeasy vibe,” he says—since his catering license prohibits sales from his actual commissary kitchen. Lichterman’s pizzas are worth the effort. The former programmer has drawn from his favorite Illinois pizza parlors, such as Papa Del’s and Burt’s Place, to create a masterpiece featuring a rich, brioche-like crust edged in caramelized cheese that holds, in the case of the delicious Hot Island ($27), house-made sausage, pineapple, jalapeños, a paste of roasted garlic and an ultraflavorful tomato sauce. Lichterman doesn’t believe in the old “it’s good—for here” philosophy of finding Chicago-style pizza outside the Midwest. “I think, in general, food should not be judged by what people are used to, or what’s around it,” he says. “Good food is good food.”

Yet not everyone loves a deep-dish pie, and those looking for a unique flavor may want to check out Sizzle Pie (Capitol Hill, 1009 E Union St.), an Oregon original with four locations in Portland, one in Eugene, and another opening this month or next in the Seattle spaces formerly occupied by Auto Battery and Po Dog. Co-owner Mikey McKennedy is a veteran of both the food and music industries who says he was “always the kid that tried really hard to be vegan, but I’d be on tour and there’d be this delicious-smelling Polish sausage, and the foodie in me would win.” Sizzle’s menu of large, thin-crusted, New York–style slices (the kind best eaten folded in half and enjoyed after a drink or two) and whole pies reflects that duality—signature vegan and meaty pizzas are represented equally, and with equal attention to detail. There’s even a gluten-free-crust option.

Another newcomer with a similarly out-of-the-box approach has set up shop just a few blocks away: Ian’s Pizza (Capitol Hill, 1620 Broadway Court; 206.659.4721) hails from Wisconsin and considers no ingredient off limits.

The restaurant’s best-selling thin-crust pizza is topped with mac ’n’ cheese, though you’ll also find barbecue sauce, sweet potatoes, “buffalo chicken,” guacamole and a laundry list of other toppings on the mega-size slices. 

While these places focus specifically on pizza, Ernest Loves Agnes (Capitol Hill, 602 19th Ave. E; 206.535.8723) offers it on just one section of its menu, which also includes locally inspired, handmade pasta dishes, such as squid ink tagliolini with Manila clams.

However, co-owner Jason Lajeunesse—who also co-owns Big Mario’s, Capitol Hill’s quintessential late-night New York-style pizzeria—says they’re taking pizza so seriously that they asked guru Anthony Falco of revered pizzeria Roberta’s in Brooklyn to train the staff in making pizza. The result is a delight, particularly the 3 Meat Pie, flecked with spicy coppa, speck and Italian sausage, and then drizzled with spicy honey, which is Lajeunesse’s favorite.

Dino’s, too, comes with an East Coast perspective, modeled on the sort of pizza taverns—bars mostly, with a pizzeria in the back—Pettit frequented while growing up in New Jersey. The corner spot will feature both thicker-crusted Sicilian square pizzas (called tomato pie or grandma slices) and the delicate, round pizzas topped with farmers’ market bounty that are so popular at Delancey. There will be a 40-foot-long bar, at which diners can order what Pettit calls “upgraded versions of trashy Jersey drinks” such as Long Island Iced Teas and Alabama Slammers, and a walk-up window for takeout orders and slices. Remind you of a dive bar in Little Italy? That’s kind of the point: “I want it to feel like I just bought Hattie’s Hat and put a pizzeria in it,” he says.

The bottom line here goes back to that interaction at Delancey. Whether or not our local slices measure up to the best procured from Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, Brooklyn’s Di Fara or any street-corner pizzeria in Naples, this city of imports has got a good thing going. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re making filet mignon or meatloaf,” says Ethan Stowell, whose third location of the NYC-style Ballard Pizza Company is set to open in South Lake Union this month (500 Ninth Ave. N). “There’s basically fancy pizza and there’s not fancy pizza. Seattle doesn’t necessarily have one type that’s more defining of the region than the other, but I think we offer both. I think we’re a little bit of a combination.” And a combination—in pizza terms—is never a bad thing.