Jozi Pizza Wars: Episode 1

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.

YOLO pizza and toppings

 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:

1) Base/crust
2) Flavor/sauce (I’ll include toppings in this criteria)
3) Cold factor (how good the leftovers are the next day)
4) Atmosphere/service
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.

Modo Mio
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.

Ratings:
Base/crust: 3.5
Flavor/sauce: 5
Cold factor: 4
Atmosphere/service: 4.5

Overall rating: 17/20

Modo Mio outside

Modo Mio is a little hut built on a hidden square just across the road from Hyde Park Shopping Centre. 

Modo Mio

My pizza, called “spagnolo e peppadew”.

Gema Trattoria
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.

Ratings:
Base/crust: 4
Flavor/sauce: 3
Cold factor: 3.5
Atmosphere/service: 3

Overall rating: 13.5/20

Gema pizza

My boyfriend’s pizza: Rocket (arugula) and parmesan. He found it slightly dry.

YOLO
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.

Ratings:
Base/crust: 4.5
Flavor/sauce: 5
Cold factor: 4
Atmosphere/service: 2.5

UPDATE: Sadly, YOLO closed its doors in late 2015. Another great Melville restaurant, come and gone. Sniff.

Overall rating: 16/20

YOLO pizza

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.

Ratings:
Base/crust: 4
Flavor/sauce: 3.5
Cold factor: 4.5
Atmosphere/service: 4

Overall rating: 16/20

Nonna Mia

Nonna Mia’s, packed at lunch on a December public holiday.

Nonna Mia pizza

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.

Ratings:
Base/crust: 5.0
Flavor/sauce: 4.5
Cold factor: 3.5
Atmosphere/service: 4.5

Overall rating: 17.5/20

The ant server

I love the Ant’s pizza boards. (Photo: Jon Hrusa)

Roy at Ant

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.)

The series will run concurrently on all-TIM-ate so please follow along there as well. You can track our progress on Instagram and Twitter by following the #JoziPizzaWars hashtag.

PS: This is my last Jozi post of the year. Tomorrow I am off to a faraway place for the holidays.

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18 Comments

  • Reply David December 21, 2014 at 1:32 pm

    tough job, but somebody’s got to do it ! looking forward to episode two !

    • Reply 2summers December 21, 2014 at 3:07 pm

      Haha, thanks David. I agree – had to be done.

  • Reply Jannik December 21, 2014 at 1:42 pm

    “I used to believed that America had the best pizza in the world.”
    Have you heard about this place they call Italy?

    • Reply 2summers December 21, 2014 at 3:06 pm

      Yes I have. But I’ve heard that pizza was actually invented by Italians in America. Don’t quote me on that though – I’ll research it.

    • Reply 2summers December 21, 2014 at 6:14 pm

      I did some research and while pizza was of course invented centuries ago in Italy, Americans have developed a pizza style that is very different from the Italian style. I’ve never been to Italy so I have absolutely no authority in this area — I only know that the best pizza I’ve ever had was in New York City. Hopefully I’ll make it to Italy one of these days so I can do a proper comparison!

      • Reply Sunshinebright December 22, 2014 at 11:19 pm

        Here’s my take on where the best pizza can be found; actually, two places: First and foremost, in Brooklyn NY. When I was living in Brooklyn, we had our favorite Italian restaurant called,
        Stella’s.. If it didn’t have fresh garlic on it, no matter what else it had, it wasn’t good enough! My requirement for pizza still, to this day, is fresh garlic. The next best pizza I had was in Sydney, Australia, believe it or not!! It was so good, my husband and I went back the next day for the same thing. It even had big, fresh shrimp, and, of course, fresh garlic.

        Loved your post about best pizza places. As usual, your writing and photos are so enjoyable. Have a wonderful holiday in your “far away place” and a healthy and very happy New Year.

      • Reply Jannik December 23, 2014 at 11:14 pm

        Sorry if I sounded a bit rude in my first comment. I didn’t mean to. I just got a little provoked on behalf of the Italians for letting them out of the big pizza-equation. I’m not Italian but I’ve been there four or five times, and trust me, you can get a good pizza in Italy.
        It’s a bit like saying “I used to believe that Japan had the best burgers in the world but then I went to Moscow…”
        I would say “visit the USA”.

  • Reply Ashley December 21, 2014 at 6:30 pm

    Wow! All those pizzas do look great! Especially the one with avocado and the chicken one. IT does look better than American pizza…more toppings, less crust, better extras. The weirdest place for pizza is definitely China! They put so many things that I don’t think should go on a pizza! Sweet corn, octopus, spam. Ugh!

    • Reply 2summers December 21, 2014 at 6:38 pm

      Hahahahaaaa, Spam on pizza? Hilarious.

  • Reply Yashik December 21, 2014 at 11:49 pm

    Enjoy the Holidays! Seeya in the New Year!

  • Reply Josef Talotta December 22, 2014 at 8:55 am

    Try BICCCS in Pretoria – pizza by the slice that’s flavorfully complex in its simplicity – squared two-inch-thick slices that’s as close to deep-dish pizza you’ll find in SA. Loving this Pizza Wars concept and look forward to the next installment!

  • Reply Sine December 23, 2014 at 6:53 pm

    Oh, you’re making my mouth water!
    I’ll have to share a quick story on Jozi pizza: we have a visitor here from SA over the holidays, my son’s 17 year old friend. He told me with glowing eyes of this new pizza place that recently opened there, by that BP garage near FourWays gardens. “Sooooo good,” he said. The crust, and the meat on it, he said, were better than anything he’d ever had. Wow, I said, so what’s it called?
    A place called Dominos, was his answer. I laughed so hard. I’d forgotten that they just entered the SA market. I agree with him on one thing though: pepperoni. I sorely missed it on South African pizzas, even the ones I made myself (which btw rates among the best in the world – if I still lived there I’d have to have you and Tim over for a review!), because I could never find pepperoni. That is definitely America’s biggest contribution to the whole pizza experience. Extra cheese and stuffed crusts? Not so much.

  • Reply Regalchild December 26, 2014 at 1:55 am

    After touring Italy, I can agree that South African Italian restaurants still serve some really great pizzas.

  • Reply JoziPizzaWars: Episode 2 | all-TIM-ate January 19, 2015 at 3:14 pm

    […] I collaborated and started a joint (but separate, lol) blog post on the city’s best pizza called JoziPizzaWars. All in good fun and it’s been interesting seeing our quest for the best pizza in Joburg gain […]

  • Reply Ang January 19, 2015 at 5:00 pm

    Can’t ever go wrong with the Ant, but I’m still Gema all the way 🙂

    • Reply 2summers January 19, 2015 at 5:02 pm

      I need to give Gema another try…For some reason the pizza didn’t make an impression on me but one try isn’t always enough.

  • Reply Claire January 29, 2015 at 4:48 pm

    We love Modo Mio! Our ‘hidden gem’ 🙂

    • Reply 2summers January 29, 2015 at 5:21 pm

      Great place – I’m glad you agree 🙂

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