Sunday, April 26, 2009
If you had asked me two years ago to review the available gluten free pizza, I would have said there was little point. There were a few frozen varieties, none were very good, and all were extremely expensive. For the price of one of those crappy little frozen things, I would have told you to just get yourself a decent steak and grill it up. Now, thanks to everyone from big grocery store chains to national restaurant chains to mom and pop local restaurants to creative entrepreneurs, it is actually possible to compare a cadre of pizzas, most of which are actually worth buying and eating.
This review is focused on pizza available in the DC area, both frozen and at restaurants. This is not necessarily a comprehensive list of what is out there, so let me know what I've forgotten!
I'm starting this review with frozen pizzas, and starting the frozen pizzas with the best: Bella Monica. Last Thursday, Trevor from the Bella Monica restaurant in Raleigh, NC drove all the way up to DC to have a pizza party with the Gluten Free Dinner Club (http://celiacdisease.meetup.com/112/). I'd like to thank Trevor for making the trip, for making Bella Monica a beacon for gluten free food, and most of all for giving me some free pizzas to bake at home and review!! Bella Monica started as a restaurant in Raleigh, and they are expanding their gluten free pizza production to sell at grocery stores nation wide. In the DC area, they are available at MOMs, Roots, and possibly other places I'm not remembering. They are also close to being added to Whole Foods and Wegmans, and may get into Giant. If you shop at any of those stores, PLEASE talk to the managers or fill out suggestion forms to get these in the store. Ok, the actual review... This is the first gluten free frozen pizza I've had that really cooked right at home. The crust is crispy and delicious, and has no odd taste from weird flours. The sauce and toppings are fresh and the flavors meld together to make this taste like I remember REAL pizza. This stands on par with the best fresh pizza I've had at any restaurant, as far as crust - the topping choices are limited, but that is to be expected, if I want more I can add them to the cheese pizza myself. Really the only downside to these was a few of the mushrooms on my Mushroom and Herb pizza - a couple retained a lot of water and made the crust a little soggy in the area. But, that was only the big, thick pieces, some of which had been placed on top of each other. If that's the worst thing I can say about a gluten free pizza, you know it is damn good!! This is the only frozen pizza I've had that is really worth the money. I can't wait until the next time I go to the Triangle area to check out the restaurant!
Amy's is definitely a friend of the celiac community, and I often have one of their frozen dinners for lunch if I need something quick. Their GF pizza is decent, and probably gets you the most food for your money. However, the crust is never quite perfect and the sauce and cheese aren't as good as Bella Monica. This is decent, but falls well below Bella Monica.
Glutino has been doing gluten free longer than any other company on this list (I think). Their pretzels are absolutely fantastic. But, their pizza has lots of room to improve. It is decent as far as price - the little one in my pictures was $5. This Three Cheese Brown Rice Crust pizza that I did a direct comparison to Bella Monica with was better than their older kinds, but you knew you were eating a gluten free crust. The sauce was thin and tasteless and the cheese was poor quality. Not really worth buying unless that's all you can find and you REALLY need some pizza.
Whole Foods sells their own frozen pizza crusts. They are thicker than any other GF crust I've ever seen and taste very good. However, they require careful topping and baking, as they tend to stay soggy in the middle. I recommend thawing and baking right on the rack, which can be a problem if you are not in a 100% GF house - I like to use cookie sheets for cross contamination safety, but that is guaranteed to make this crust soggy. This is definitely better than Glutino's or Amy's crusts. Against Bella Monica, it depends on if you like deep crust or thin and crispy - I like thin and crispy, so Bella Monica stays on top.
Now on to some real restaurants:
Lilit Cafe is a little restaurant in Bethesda, MD. They have a fantastic gluten free menu, thanks largely to a partnership with Sweet Sin Bakery (http://www.glutenfreedesserts.com/). I haven't had their pizza in quite a while, but it was fairly good. The crust doesn't instantly let you know you're eating gluten free, which is nice. The toppings available are top notch and serve to elevate this above frozen pizza. This is also the only place I know of that has gluten free sandwiches, which I think are the real star. There are other places that have better pizza, so I get a sandwich whenever I make it up here. Lilit Cafe deserves special thanks for being the first restaurant I've ever gone to that really caters to the gluten free crowd. It is amazing to order food at a place where gf is the norm, rather than the exception. If I lived closer, I'd be here daily.
Uno's has done a great job rolling out gluten free pizza over the last 6 months. Based on how they say they train their staff, I feel very safe eating it. Uno's has had a GF menu for a long time and was among the first national chains to recognize the gluten free market as attention worthy. The pizza is very good. Their crust is buttery and flaky. I prefer a crisper crust, but Uno's tastes great and holds together nicely. It definitely adds to the taste and doesn't leave you trying to guess which kind of flour is giving the odd after taste - refreshing for GF. Unfortunately, the topping selection is rather limited. Uno's is in the process of carefully certifying toppings for the GF pizzas, so that should change soon.
Pete's is a New Haven style pizzaria in NW DC, right at the Columbia heights metro stop. I love this place. Their crust is thin and crispy and tastes great. Their toppings set them above any other place in the area. It is pricey, but 100% worth every penny. I go here whenever I can. The owner is usually there and always tries to talk to you when you order gluten free, a very nice touch that makes you feel safe with how the food is handled.
Zpizza is my favorite gluten free pizza for one important reason: THEY DELIVER!!!. A couple months ago, I ordered delivery pizza for the first time in about 7 or 8 years. Plus, it's really good. They have thin crispy crust the way I like it and a great range of toppings. They stopped using wheat flour in all the stores and replaced it with rice flour over a month before starting to bring in GF crusts, to really make sure there wouldn't be cross contamination. No crust is made at their stores - both GF and wheat crusts are shipped in frozen. With no loose wheat flour in the store, separate prep area, tools, and oven space, cross contamination is highly unlikely.
I am embarrassed to say that even though I live only a few miles away, I have never eaten the pizza at Rustico's, so I can't really review it. However, they have their normal menu marked with items that can be prepared GF, and it amounts to about half the menu - not bad at all. I have heard their pizza is great, and really need to get out there. However, I have also heard of issues with cross contamination. I haven't heard that in a while though, so the issue may have been addressed. I'll try to get out to Rustico's soon and add a real review!
Here are all the pizza's I've had, ranked in order of my favorites:
It should be noted that the only reason Zpizza beats Pete's is because they deliver. Based solely on quality, Pete's has the edge. The fact that the frozen Bella Monica pizzas beats out two real restaurants should tell you just how amazing it is! If there were more toppings, Bella Monica might be able to top Zpizza and Pete's too.
Please add comments with your favorite places and any pizzas I left off, I'm sure there are several!