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The Pizza Champions of Champions

October 15, 2014

Who has the best pizza in the Capital Region? After judging the finals of the Tournament of Pizza, I was asked this on camera by some St. Rose students making some kind of short film.

I didn’t have a short answer.

Pizza is a broad category. Someone who thinks pizza is exclusively the domain of New York style thin crust will never enjoy the charred blistery exterior of DeFazio’s. And those who believe the only way to cook a pizza is in a scorchingly hot oven will never delight in those rectangular pies from the Orchard Tavern where the crust almost fries in its metal pan.

Sometimes the pizza that I love the most is from my local slice shop. Not because it’s the best. It’s not. However, that’s the pizza I get to know deeply. That’s the pizza which sustains me. And that’s the pizza which comforts me.

So let’s ask a narrower question.

Between DeFazio’s and Marino’s, the two shops that made it to the finals of All Over Albany’s Tournament of Pizza: Championship Edition, who has the better pizza? You might think this has an easy answer since the question was decided on All Over Albany yesterday. Especially since all the judges, both the official panel and the attendees voting for people’s choice, were in close agreement.

But again I find myself more comfortable with a longer answer.

You can see the official results here and you can read Jon in Albany’s meticulous description of the pies here. Everyone agreed that DeFazio’s presented the best two pies overall. And it’s true. Holy cow those were delicious.

That said, this Troy institution won by the slimmest of margins.

DeFazio’s vegetable pie was a hair better than the Marino’s one. Marino’s meat pie was just a little bit better than DeFazio’s. The Marino’s crust was well made, but just a touch too tough on the veggie pie. And DeFazio’s bolognese sauce was a daring move which could have paid off if their sausage topping had a little more pizazz.

It sounds incredibly trite to say that there are no losers in this showdown, but it’s true. You have no idea how true it is. Choosing a winner between these pies was agony. They were all just so damn good. And it was exciting to see each shop put up pies that were a reflection of their approach to pizza.

Marino’s is all about the classics.

Looking back at Marino’s 2014 TOP performance, it was solid all the way through. The white broccoli and ricotta was stunning. The hot sausage and pepperoni blew away the competition in the semifinals. That sauce on the semifinal margherita was hauntingly good. The green peppers in the finals won over green pepper haters, and when combined with onions and fresh mushrooms produced a vegetable pie with such deep flavors I couldn’t put it down. But it was the classic meat lovers with Marino’s homemade sausage, homemade meatballs and zesty pepperoni that won the people’s choice award for best individual pie.

DeFazio’s is all about pushing the limits of flavor.

The vegetable pizza for the finals was inspired. When we opened the box and I got a first peek at the pie we would be sampling, my heart sank a bit. I noticed a non standard cheese on top and it looked pale and waxy. How wrong I was to dismiss this element, because it was the smoked mozzarella. The pie was a symphony of flavor, with sweet red peppers, bright and juicy tomatoes, sharp and crisp red onions, and aromatic basil, all enveloped in a layer of savory smokey cheese. DeFazio’s bolognese pizza was another deeply layered flavor experience, but this one was all about rich and comforting meat. This could bring salvation in the dead of winter.

The thing about pushing limits is that sometimes you will stumble. I’m okay with that as I’ve never been one to focus on consistency. There were some who did not think DeFazio’s was going to make it past the semifinals, based on some less than exceptional pies. But they did and came back with a vengeance.

On the other hand, classics are classic for a reason. I cannot stress enough how excellent Marino’s pies were at every stage of this competition. Although in fairness that first sausage pie from the shop could have used just a bit more time in the oven.

We’re incredibly lucky to have both of these pizza makers within an easy drive from Albany. Congratulations to DeFazio’s who earned this award with some thoughtful planning and exceptional craftsmanship. Congratulations also to Marino’s who remains a force to be reckoned with, and produced some of the best pies I’ve had in a while.

Do yourself a favor. Go to these restaurants, sit down, order a pizza, and eat it there while it’s hot from the oven. DeFazio’s you will have to call ahead to hold a table. Marino’s has more seating. Both have strange hours. It’s always a good idea to call first in these parts, just to make sure it will be open when you get there.

Just don’t expect New York thin crust, because that’s not what either shop makes. But they both have an admirable respect for quality ingredients and the craft of pizza making.

So who is the best? Maybe it’s whichever one you can drive to faster.

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