I used to believed that America had the best pizza in the world and I wouldn’t find good pizza in South Africa. That was nonsense. Johannesburg is a legit pizza town and the world should know this.
I’ve come to love pizza more in South Africa than I did in America. South African pizza is less about the crust, which is usually ultra-thin, and more about the toppings, which are fresher, more plentiful, and more diverse than those on the average American pizza. South African pizza always comes with ramekins of grated parmesan, garlic, and chiles — so much better than those powdered cheese and dried red pepper shakers in America.
Avocado is a common pizza topping here. See the ramekins of garlic and chile in the background? American pizzerias need those.
I’ve been meaning to write about Jozi pizza for a while (my last pizza post was almost four years ago), but I’ve been caught up in the enormity of the task. There are so many good pizza places around Joburg. I don’t know how to choose which restaurants to write about or how to assess them objectively. Plus, one person can only eat so much pizza.
I decided that finding the best pizza in Joburg was too big a challenge to undertake alone. I almost scrapped the idea. But then my foodie friend Tim, who writes a blog called all-TIM-ate, mused in a recent post that there should be a list of Joburg’s top 10 pizzas. I immediately tweeted Tim and said I’ve been thinking the same thing. So we hatched a plan for the Jozi Pizza Wars.
Tim and I formulated a preliminary list of what we think are the top Jozi pizza places. (I’m sure this list will grow as we go along.) We will visit each restaurant and rate the pizza on several criteria, on a scale of 1 to 5:
2) Flavor/sauce (I’ll include toppings in this criteria)
3) Cold factor (how good the leftovers are the next day)
5) Overall rating (total of all four criteria)
Tim and I won’t visit all the restaurants together or in the same order, but we will both review them all. Once we’ve eaten a critical number of pizzas, we will compile our scores and determine the 10 best pizzas in Joburg.
For my first installment I’ve rated five pizza places: Modo Mio, Gema Trattoria, YOLO, Nonna Mia’s Kitchen, and the Ant Café. I’ll rate more in future posts.
335-339 Jan Smuts Avenue, Shepherd Market, Craighall
Tim and I met at Modo Mio to hatch our Jozi Pizza Wars plan. I had been there once before but hadn’t tried the pizza until I went with Tim. The pizzas we had were fantastic. Tim’s had porcini mushrooms and truffle oil, which I’d never had on pizza before, and mine had an interesting combination of chorizo, peppadews (tangy peppers), caramelized onions, and thyme. I wish they had a smaller option for their pizzas, as the one-size-fits-all pizzas are a bit large and expensive. But I love the atmosphere at Modo Mio, which is in a strange little parking lot just off Jan Smuts Avenue.
Cold factor: 4
Overall rating: 17/20
Modo Mio is a little hut built on a hidden square just across the road from Hyde Park Shopping Centre.
My pizza, called “spagnolo e peppadew”.
Queens Road, Opposite Queens Place, Kensington
I went to Gema with friends who live near Kensington; Gema is their favorite dinner spot. Gema’s best selling point is that it’s a locals-only kind of joint — an old-fashioned Italian restaurant owned by an old-fashioned Italian family. I like that vibe. The pizzas are solidly good, with more basic ingredient combinations than many other Jozi pizza places. I enjoyed my spinach-bacon-feta pizza (feta is a popular South African pizza ingredient), but I didn’t fall in love with it as much as I wanted to. I also wasn’t blown away by the service. Gema is definitely good enough to go back to though.
Cold factor: 3.5
Overall rating: 13.5/20
My boyfriend’s pizza: Rocket (arugula) and parmesan. He found it slightly dry.
3 7th Street, Melville
YOLO, which is right in my neighborhood, took a while to grow on me. Despite the glowing reviews I’d heard, I was underwhelmed the first time I went. But I like YOLO more each time I go, and the last time I absolutely loved it. There are so many interesting topping combinations and YOLO is one of the only pizzerias in Joburg where you can choose between different crusts and bases. I usually stick with the plain crust and tomato base, but the peppadew base is also delicious. The pizzas come in two sizes, which is great. My only complaint with YOLO is the atmosphere — I think the ambiance and service are a bit lackluster.
Cold factor: 4
UPDATE: Sadly, YOLO closed its doors in late 2015. Another great Melville restaurant, come and gone. Sniff.
Overall rating: 16/20
The Percy special — bacon, salami, red and green peppers, onions, mushrooms, chili, avocado, and garlic — with the traditional crust and Napoletana sauce. (Percy is YOLO’s owner and a legendary Joburg pizza chef.)
Nonna Mia’s Kitchen
Corner Grant Ave. and Henrietta Rd., Norwood
Tim’s October review of Nonna Mia’s sparked the Jozi Pizza Wars project in the first place. Nonna Mia’s is a new spot in Norwood, on the site of an old Cappello’s chain restaurant. I had lunch in the casual downstairs section (there’s a formal dining room upstairs) and liked the boisterous atmosphere. I also loved my square pizza, which felt authentically Italian. Nonna Mia’s pizza crust is thicker than most Jozi crusts, which means it holds up well in the fridge, and the pomodoro sauce is flavorful. I’d like to see a few more creative topping combinations on the menu though. Nonna Mia’s pizzas are available in three sizes and the smallest size is perfect for one.
Cold factor: 4.5
Overall rating: 16/20
Nonna Mia’s, packed at lunch on a December public holiday.
My square pizza with chicken, peppers, and mushrooms.
The Ant Café
11 7th Street, Melville
My love for the Ant, Melville’s oldest pizzeria, is totally biased. The Ant is the first place where I ate pizza in South Africa and I have many fond memories there. I love the dark, wood-smokey, grungy-yet-romantic interior, which has a ton of character. I even love the apathetic service. (I’ve given a high rating for atmosphere/service even though the service is slow. Just part of the Ant experience.) I love the paper-thin pizza crust — invented by the mercurial Ronnie van Der Walt, the Ant’s original owner — even though it doesn’t do well in the fridge. The leftover issue isn’t a problem for me because I usually eat the whole pizza. I love the tried-and-true topping combinations: My favorites are the bacon-avo-feta pizza and the Italian pizza. Quirks aside, the Ant is my favorite and it probably always will be.
Cold factor: 3.5
Overall rating: 17.5/20
I love the Ant’s pizza boards. (Photo: Jon Hrusa)
This photo of my friend Roy is inappropriate and has nothing to do with pizza. But it’s my favorite picture from the Ant.
That’s the end of Jozi Pizza Wars Episode 1. Winner of this episode: The Ant! (Note that the Ant also won the first round on all-TIME-ate, and Tim is not biased like I am.)
PS: This is my last Jozi post of the year. Tomorrow I am off to a faraway place for the holidays.