Neapolitan pizza isn’t a delivery system for pepperoni and sausage. The dough is very soft, it’s cooked so quickly in wood-burning ovens that the edges puff and bubble, and the toppings are minimal, usually just uncooked crushed-tomato sauce and a few circles of fresh mozzarella, preferably made with sweet buffalo milk, maybe a few basil leaves sprinkled here and there.
This isn’t a Netflix-and-chill kind of pizza.
A search for great Neapolitan pizzas around Charlotte led me out to try a few places around the state that are with scoring high marks. As I did with the Charlotte search, I focused on Margherita, the simple and classic version. (If I had a chance to try more, I mentioned it.)
To round it out (yes, that’s a pizza joke), here are my picks for the four best Neapolitan pizzas in the state. Do I expect arguments? Of course: A great slice of pizza is worth fighting over.
No. 1: Mission Pizza Napoletana, Winston-Salem.
Hands down, this was the best pizza I’ve had outside Italy. Owner Peyton Smith, a self-described “pizza geek,” has been obsessed since he first stumbled onto Neapolitan pizza on a chance stop in Naples as a young man in 1998. After leaving his job in pharmaceutical sales, he started with a portable operation, Forno Motto, in 2008 before opening his restaurant in Winston-Salem’s Arts District in 2014. (You can read more of his thoughts on the breed in my first story, on Charlotte Neapolitans.)
Don’t expect fancy: It’s a stripped-down place with concrete floors, simple tables and a long, open kitchen with the wood oven right up front so you can watch him lovingly turn your pizza with a paddle to get the charring just so.
The pizza is sublime: The rim – the cornicione in pizza-speak – is chewy and pillowy, freckled with black dots, while the thin center is tender and just barely soupy. Smith is so set on the importance of eating pizza immediately that if a newcomer comes in and wants a pizza to go, he says he has sometimes offered to give them a pizza free if they’ll eat it immediately, just to prove his point.
What else: The sides are simple, but the best we had was the arugula salad, topped with what the menu promises will be “copious Parmigiano.” The menu wasn’t kidding: It was like an alpine mountain of lightly dressed arugula with a snowcap of fluffy shreds of cheese, so much that you can’t fork into it without triggering an avalanche.
Mission Pizza, 707 Trade St. NW, Winston-Salem. Hours: 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday. 12-inch Margherita Extra (Italian mozzarella di bufala, pecorino and basil), $15.
No. 2: Inizio Pizza Napoletana, Charlotte.
After opening in Providence Commons, owner Grant Arons added a second location on the edge of Dilworth last summer. He certainly stood pizza on its head around here, with a focus on two wood-fired ovens made in Naples and his insistence on ingredients that includes bringing bottled water from Italy.
His pizza crust is as flavorful as a good loaf of bread, with a puffy, raised edge and plenty of charring. (He trains his pizza cooks not to overhandle the dough, to preserve that puffiness). Purists argue with using a drier cheese like pecorino under the sauce, but it gives the slices a chewy cheesiness.
What else: The menu is worth exploring, particularly the crowd-favorite pistachio-ricotta pizza and my favorite seasonal special, Lemon Ricotta (it returned just for the summer). Save room for gelato, particularly traditional Italian flavors like pistachio.
Inizio Pizza Napoletana, 10620 Providence Road and 2230 Park Road. Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday. Margherita: $12 for small, $18 for large.
No. 3. Pizzeria Mercato, Carrboro.
Chef-owner Gabe Barker certainly has bona fides: He opened this place with his parents, legendary chefs Ben and Karen Barker of the late, lamented Magnolia Grill in Durham. (His mother’s touch is still visible on the dessert menu, and his dad is often hanging around to help). It’s located on a busy corner near the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, so the menu, including antipasti and salads in addition to the pizzas, features a fresh/local vibe.
He’s also attracted major attention: He was on Eater.com’s 2018 Young Guns list (up-and-coming culinary talent), and in 2016, Bon Appetit picked his place as one of the three best pizza joints in the country.
In the Neapolitan school, Mercato’s pizza is a little different: My hand-shaped Margherita was football-shaped instead of round, and the crust was much crispier than other Neapolitans. This isn’t a foldable pizza slice; its center is almost cracker-crispy on the bottom. But the sauce has a palpable flavor of tomato, beneath generous pools of fior de latte mozzarella, baked-in basil leaves and dots of olive oil.
What else: Look for the local-produce touches, particularly in specials like a cherry tomato pizza topped with tiny Sungold tomatoes. On a hot summer morning at lunch, the Zuppa was a delight: A chilled corn soup with chanterelles, creme fraiche, bits of raw sweet corn and hits of peppery heat from chile oil.
Pizzeria Mercato, 408 W. Weaver St., Carrboro. Hours: 5-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday, noon-9 p.m. Sunday. 12-inch Margherita: $13.
4. Benny’s Big-Time Pizza, Wilmington.
Why did TV chef Vivian Howard, who has made Eastern North Carolina food traditions into her brand, open a pizza parlor in Wilmington for her first move out of her hometown of Kinston?
“I’ve always kind of fought the urge to cook Italian-ish food,” she told us by email. “I love to eat it. Ben (Knight, her husband and business partner) loves to eat it. I think everybody enjoys it. And at this point in my career, I get more pleasure from serving people food I know they will enjoy than making food that challenges people.”
Like all of Howard’s restaurants, the best part of Benny’s is the details. Built in the gentrifying South Front district near downtown, the 1920s building, originally a shirt factory, has been lovingly restored, with brick walls, wood floors and red padded booths. Get there early: At 5 p.m. on a Friday, it was already busy and by 6, the line was out the door.
Howard’s love of N.C.-made ingredients shows up all over the menu. Some of the cheeses, including fior di latte (cow’s milk mozzarella), come from the family-owned Siano Cheese in Charlotte. The Neapolitan crusts are bubbly, with crisp, shiny edges and a little charring. One pepperoni pizza we tried suffered from a bottom that was a little pale, but the Margherita was cooked just right, with pools of mozzarella and just enough sauce.
What else: Expect chef touches like the hot honey (hot as in “red with Calabrian chiles,” not warmed) served with all the pizzas. One of the best things we ate was a seasonal appetizer of tender zucchini bread topped with extra-soft chicken liver mousse, whole pistachios and peach mostardo, a summery play on Tuscany’s traditional chicken liver pate.
Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria, 206 Greenfield St., Wilmington. Hours: 4-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 4-11 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday. 14-inch Margherita: $13.