Domino’s, Pizza Hut and Little Caesars are dinosaurs. They’re remnants of a previous era in American dining, a time before it was perfectly acceptable to order a coffee by saying: “I’ll take a half-caf oat milk latte with three pumps sugar-free mocha.” Now, ordering food is all about getting exactly the order you want, and that’s never been more apparent in the new wave of fast-casual pizza joints.
At new-school chains like Blaze Pizza, Mod Pizza, Pieology, PizzaRev and Uncle Maddio’s Pizza, hungry customers order individual-sized pies with whatever toppings they want, and are served a made-to-order pizza within just a few minutes. But with so many choices out there, how do you know which chain is the best? I ate at all the nation’s major fast-casual pizza spots to find out.
How we selected the pizza for this ranking
Because there are thousands of possible combinations of toppings at every chain and one man’s stomach can only fit so much food, I tried the most bare-bones pie listed on the menu at each chain to best judge the quality of the pizza. I only ordered pizzas featured on the menu because it put the onus on the restaurant to determine which type of plain pie best featured their ingredients. For some chains, the plain pie had a basic sauce and two types of cheese. For others, it was a sauceless white pie with basil. Now let’s get to the pizza!
The pizza: Classic Margherita
There was a time in the not-so-distant past when Uncle Maddio’s was one of the hottest pizza chains around. But 2019 isn’t working out quite as well, as the operator of the chain filed for bankruptcy protection in April. Despite that, it still operates almost 30 shops in 10 states, making it worthy of inclusion into this ranking of national, fast-casual pizza chains.
The ingredients in the Classic Margherita were encouraging, with a mix of fresh and shredded mozzarella, garlic olive oil, Roma tomatoes, basil, salt and pepper: a perfect-sounding option for anyone craving white pies. But the reality wasn’t as enticing. The crust lacked any sort of char. And normally I’m all for plenty of cheese on pizza, but what came out of the oven was a tad too oily and greasy for my liking. One highlight was that every bite of the pie that included the fresh mozzarella was a properly salted delight.
Old school brands like Pizza Hut have been experimenting with beer delivery, but alcohol is generally a no-go when it comes to legacy fast-food pizza places. PizzaRev leaned into the pizza-and-beer pairing by opening up Taprooms around the country. A location in Nashville features pour-your-own brews with plenty of taps to choose from. It’s certainly one way to stand out in the pizza chain game.
Pizza isn’t always the healthiest choice when it comes to mealtime, so it’s nice to see PizzaRev offering options like Daiya vegan cheese, organic tomato sauce, Beyond Meat toppings and Caulipower crust. (Of course, of those options, only the organic sauce is relevant for this ranking because I’m focusing on plain pies.) The pizza I ordered had sauce, mozzarella and a traditional crust.
The good news: The crust is on the thinner side compared to the other fast-casual pizzas, but there’s more than enough pie per serving to fill you up for two meals. The sauce and mozz are serviceable, but neither ingredient particularly stands out. Also good news: It’s not too greasy. PizzaRev fits into the category of restaurants you eat at when it’s convenient, but perhaps won’t go out of your way for.
When LeBron James isn’t busy filming “Space Jam 2,” he’s investing in different business opportunities. Blaze is one investment that’s done very well for the Laker, as the brand is opening locations like crazy. It stands out from the pizza pack by making the dough from scratch in-house each day ― the location I visited featured an employee hard at work stretching and preparing dough in a separate room all to himself.
Here’s a little pizza parlance for you: cornicione. It’s what ’za freaks call the outer edge of the pizza crust, and it’s the secret to what makes Blaze delicious. Unlike other chains, there’s a layer of fine cornmeal dusted onto the crust here, which adds to the textural joy you get when eating it. The char on the crust adds a hint of smokiness to each slice, counterpunching the acidity of the sauce and cheese. The mozzarella cheese feels a little flimsy, and the pie is a tad too greasy for my liking, but the crust and sauce make this something worth seeking out. Prices vary depending on where you live, but I picked this up for $5.50 at a Vegas-area location ― a price point much lower than other chains in this rundown.
If you haven’t heard of Mod Pizza yet, that may change, since the company plans double its number of locations and open another 500 stores in the next five years. Mod offers an array of toppings (30 in all, including offbeat choices like spicy chicken sausage, croutons and romaine), and stands out by featuring finishing sauces. These sauces layer an additional pop of flavor on your pie with options like Mike’s Hot Honey, balsamic fig glaze and sri-rancha sauce.
The simplest pie at Mod is the Maddy, with red sauce and mozz. The first thing I noticed about the pie is the fantastic char on the underside of each slice and the cornicione. The cheese is delicious without overwhelming the pie, but the pizza’s secret weapon appears to be the sauce, which is worth bottling up. The sauce has a mouthwatering kick from red pepper flakes and a blend of spices that turn even the most plain pie into something worth picking up. And because the crust is among the thinnest I tried, eating an entire pie won’t have you feeling sluggish.
The pizza: Margherita da Vinci
On Pizza Today’s list of Top 100 Pizza Companies of 2018, Blaze and Mod ranked higher in gross sales than Pieology. (Uncle Maddio’s and PizzaRev didn’t crack the top 100.) That’s likely in part due to the restructuring Pieology has done over the past year and a half, resulting in the closure of a few locations. But it’s still operating pizza joints in 20 states (and Guam!), and based on the results of my taste test, you should swing by sometime soon. Kevin Durant clearly believes in it (he’s an investor).
Pieology’s Margherita features basil, grape tomatoes, garlic, mozzarella, parm and an olive oil blend. I’ll admit that if I had to build my own plain pie, those would not be the ingredients I’d choose. But that’s what the Pieology menu steered me toward, and I’m glad it did. The thin crust has the char any self-respecting pizza lover demands of a slice, and it also has a buttery, airy feel to it. Each bite is supremely satisfying: the overwhelming freshness of the heaps of garlic and tomatoes register instantly. I didn’t miss the sauce one bit. The cheese was perfectly layered, and didn’t overwhelm the other elements of the pie. All the elements combined made for a pizza I couldn’t stop eating. Pieology may not be lagging behind the other fast-casual pizza chains for long.