The best pizza in Auckland: Foodies choose their favourite in a blind test

by Kate Richards / 12 October, 2017
Photography Angie Humphreys

Nicest slices

What makes a perfect pizza? We wanted a definitive view on Auckland’s best, so we recruited some experts from the food world, blindfolded them, and started serving them slices to see what they thought. These are the results.

“Do we look slightly like hostage people?” someone asks. Actually, they do. And they are hostages, but only for a short time, and for a very important task. It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but two of Auckland’s best-known food writers, a senior waiter from one of the finest restaurants in town and a genuine Italian sit blindfolded at a gingham-clad trestle table, in Paperboy’s captivity for a gigantic pizza taste test. All we need is a tall, drippy candle in an old Chianti bottle, and the scene has all the makings of something from a Godfather-esque mob thriller.

But no one’s holding them for ransom: Ginny Grant, Alice Harbourne, Simon Benoit and Giapo Grazioli are here willingly, to be blindfolded and taste six pizzas in order to uncover Auckland’s best. To test their palates, we ordered pizza margherita – the Neapolitan classic with tomato sauce, mozzarella, basil and salt – from four of our favourite Auckland pizzerias: New Lynn’s Settebello, Ponsonby’s Farina, Dante’s and Sal’s. We also threw a couple of curveballs by getting them to taste pizza from Domino’s and a heated frozen oven pizza from the supermarket. After the judges donned their blindfolds, we fed them, slice by slice, and asked each of them for their opinions on which pizza was the best. Here, we feature each of the pizzas our judges sampled, their comments as they ate each slice, and their final verdict.

From left Our judges Simon Benoit, Ginny Grant, Alice Harbourne and Giapo Grazioli at our pizza taste test.

Meet the judges

Our pizza tasters – two excellent food writers, and two hospo pros (including an actual Neapolitan) – were blindfolded before being handed their slices to judge.

Alice Harbourne: Harbourne is a Metro food writer and Paperboy’s former food editor. She’s from Yorkshire and likes dogs. Don’t let that girl-next-door look fool you: Harbourne is a serious pizza eater, and ruthlessly critical of a poor slice. Before our test, she’d never eaten anything blindfolded.

Giapo Grazioli: You might know Giapo Grazioli from Giapo Ice Cream, the shop he co-owns with his wife Annarosa, but you might not know that this self-taught pastry chef is also a pizza connoisseur. Grazioli grew up in Naples and has been eating pizza since he could chew. He claims to enjoy the Italian staple two or three times a week

Simon Benoit: He’s a proud Frenchman and the manager at The French Cafe, but Simon Benoit primarily considers himself a full-time eater. His experience in pizza-eating spans decades; one of his favourite stories is how, as a child, instead of cutting his pizza he’d fold it into four and eat it like a sandwich.

Ginny Grant: Born in Christchurch and now an Auckland resident, senior food writer for Cuisine magazine Ginny Grant loves pizza. A lean, mean and expertly trained palate means she can pick the best of the pack with ease. Check out her Twitter feed (@ginnygrant) to admire an excellent-looking “spring pizza” she once made.

Farina

Sergio Maglione’s casual Ponsonby eatery, Farina (244 Ponsonby Road), is the only restaurant in Auckland to hold a coveted Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana badge – recognition of Maglione’s work to protect the integrity of true Neapolitan pizza-making techniques here in New Zealand (he also owns Toto’s Pizza in the central city). 

GINNY GRANT Look at the crust on that! There’s a lot of blistering. The sauce is good too. Definitely a wood-fired one. This is delicious, really perfect and all-over great – the cheese is great, the sauce is good, the herbs on it are appropriate. I ate all of that one!

SIMON BENOIT Oh yuuum. For me, the crust like that with a little bit of burnt, that’s what I really like. I’m really enjoying [it]. That’s really good, really nice and really complete – it has everything for me. Earlier, I was trying to taste the crust and the topping separately, but when you eat it folded it all comes together.

GIAPO GRAZIOLI This pizza is another level. They put parmesan cheese on the top and semolina on the bottom. The guy that’s doing this knows what he’s doing. I won’t judge the sogginess – it’s at least 10 minutes from where it was made. If the mozzarella is there, it’s going to release more water. There’s steam in the box... you just have to go with taste and texture as it would be when it comes out of the oven. This is Farina – I think so, because of the flavour and because of the texture. It is somebody that is trying to do extra. This is the best. By far.

ALICE HARBOURNE It’s really yummy. This is the best all-rounder, and the cheese is really good. Really, really gorgeous, lovely fresh flavours, and really balanced – when you eat the cheese you can taste the creaminess to balance the basil and the sauce. It was really, really tasty.

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Dante’s Pizzeria Napoletana

Kevin Morris of Dante’s (they have branches at Ponsonby Central and 2/40 Hurstmere Road, Takapuna) takes pizza extremely seriously. He imports Caputo flour, mozzarella cheese from Campana, and San Marzano tomatoes. He also proves his dough for up to three days, meaning the margherita pizzas he makes are D.O.C certified – a quality assurance for authentic Neapolitan pizza. His wood-fired oven was even built in Italy by master pizzaiolo (Neapolitan pizza maker) Gianni Acunto, using soil from the base of Mount Vesuvius. This, Morris says, is the correct material for ensuring his oven maintains heat and the pizza cooks quickly. Morris’ restaurant is named after his pizza-loving Italian grandfather, Dante.

SIMON The crust for me is already nicer. The dough for me is more what I like. [And] you have the fresh basil again. It’s really nice. The whole pizza feels really fresh: very fresh tomato sauce and fresh ingredients. They leave more dough for the crust, which I actually like. I like the style of this one.

ALICE It’s really good. The tomato is almost like they’ve just blitzed it in a food processor. It doesn’t taste like it’s really been cooked – or is that just me? [But] it’s really fresh. Is this a Dante’s one? It was slightly underbaked but what I liked about it was that it held up the filling – the dough didn’t collapse.

GINNY [There is ] definite blistering. It’s puffy. The dough folds nicely on the edges which is good when you’re trying to bend it together.

GIAPO I found this chewy; I believe it’s a little bit raw. I don’t think the tomato has been cooked, and because it’s slightly thicker I found it a bit raw inside the dough. But overall it’s a Neapolitan pizza, the ingredients seem sufficiently good. I found the dough a little bit heavier.

Domino’s

This American-born fast food chain – and inventor of the hot-dog-stuffed-crust pizza – first arrived in the country in 2003, and last year opened its 100th New Zealand store. Operated under a franchise model, the chain is widely known for its less-than-traditional toppings – like chicken fajita, potato wedges, and pineapple – and bargain $5 pizzas.

GIAPO Bleh. That’s an electrical oven. It’s not wood-fired. It’s not an Italian-style pizza. The cheese on top seems more like a Kraft cheese slice. Tomato sauce – [it’s] watery, and it’s a very sweet sauce. And if you try it now, look what’s happened to the crust: it became like cardboard. Lots of sugar in the dough or the sauce… they’ve put sugar somewhere.

GINNY It’s really sweet. And [there’s] quite a bitter tang afterwards in that sauce. It’s not pleasant. I don’t think it’s that bad, but the crust isn’t great. There’s no blistering.

ALICE I don’t really understand this pizza because it must be very small for the size of the slice. Is it a mini pizza? I don’t hate it, [but] it is really sweet and it has a strange tang to the sauce. Interesting.

SIMON Nice and warm, although, what’s the topping? Did they put pineapple in there? There’s no acidity in the tomatoes. It tastes like dry herbs, like a lot of them.

Settebello

Nestled in semi-suburban New Lynn, Settebello (3/1 Rata Street) has charm by the bucketload. Owner Francesco Acri is a Naples native, and learnt his pie-making skills at the locally-famous Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana as a young pizzaiolo. The dough here is proved for a minimum of 20 hours, so the pizza crust won’t weigh you down. Uncomplicated toppings like buffalo mozzarella, anchovies and olives ensure authenticity. Because it came from further away, it was a little cooler than was ideal by the time it was served to our panel.

GIAPO I can smell it now, that’s for sure. [It’s soggy but] when you keep it in the pizza box, and you leave it with the steam from the oven, it makes water. I will focus on the taste, and maybe the technique. I grew up with this – for me it’s normal to have a steamed pizza when it’s come from 400 degrees then [when you] close the lid down, there’s water inside the box. I’ll tell you two things I’m pretty sure of – this is a very Neapolitan pizza and it’s wood-fired. Those two things I can guarantee. I think it’s a great pizza, essentially.

ALICE It’s veeeeery soggy, and the crust has no firmness at all to it. Oh, it’s so floppy! But it’s not their fault, as it’s travelled further than the others. [It has] good flavour in the crust, which I didn’t expect. I didn’t think it’d be that smoky, but it’s got a slight smokiness. I didn’t get any basil.

SIMON This is a really Italian-style pizza. It has fresh basil too. I just got a bite of fresh basil. But I’m eating the crust now and it’s a little chewy.

GINNY It’s a little bit soggy underneath, but they said it came from further away. It doesn’t break though! The basil is nice and it has good sauce. The cheese is a fresh mozzarella. There’s a little bit of blistering on my end which I like.

Frozen pizza

We tried to trick our tasting panel with a generic supermarket pizza. This Woolworths Select mozzarella and tomato pizza describes itself as “wood-fired with mozzarella cheese, cherry tomatoes and basil”. It also claims to be made in Italy. 

GIAPO This smells so good. Different dough, eh? [Takes a bite.] Okay, this is not Italian-style pizza. What’s this cheese? What was the point of the oregano? For me, this is not wood-fired. It’s so flat.

ALICE That smells soooo good. [Takes a bite.] Oh, I don’t know if I like this. It’s horrible. It’s almost like an oven pizza. Really stodgy. It’s got far too much dry herbs on it, like someone has spilt them, and it’s so salty actually. It reminds me of, in Yorkshire, school dinner pizzas. Suspicious.

SIMON The crust is a bit harder. There’s no blistering on this one. It’s really dry.

GINNY It’s very, very crisp. It’s not going to bend is it? Stiff. Nah. I can feel that it’s standing quite upright. It’s so strong. There’s no blistering that I can taste.

Sal’s Authentic New York Pizza

They’re popping up all over town. What does our panel think?

Sal’s desire to offer Aucklanders that authentic New York slice is so great that they now have 16 locations in the region. Opened by long-time friends, Sal’s is great for feeding a crowd, with gigantic 18-inch pizzas and plentiful sides. Wisconsin mozzarella, California tomatoes, and New York meats and flour are all imported to give punters the best, most American experience.

GIAPO I know this pizza. Is it too salty? I don’t think I can have two slices with this saltiness.

ALICE This is Sal’s [Ed’s note: she’s still blindfolded!].There’s a pretty good ratio of sauce to cheese for the size of it. You can tell the cheese isn’t as high-quality. [But] it doesn’t feel too overwhelmingly sloppy or anything.

SIMON It’s very decent pizza, although it’s quite sweet. Moving to this from the previous one [Farina], I think if we had this on its own as the first pizza it would be okay. But since we had pizza that was more of a pure style to this one, [which] is a bit more loaded on flavours, it makes it seem very different. You can see a big difference between the three Italian-style pizzas, where you can tell they use fresh everything. There’s a big gap between the other two and this one, which is still a good pizza, but yeah.

GINNY It is quite sweet and it doesn’t have the same crust. Very salty. And oven-baked. 

 

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