11 Frozen Pizzas We'll Stand By
They say there's no such thing as bad pizza, but that hasn't stopped the frozen-food industry from waging a decades-long experiment to disprove that old adage. Still, advances in rising-crust science have forced purveyors to step up their game. We're living in the golden age of frozen pizza, and some are even better than the chains.
To find the best, I've spend the past two-and-a-half years risking hypothermia in the frozen-food aisle and adult-onset diabetes to taste-test the most common frozen pies on shelves. The criteria: I picked all the major brands available in their classic, most basic forms, and rated them based on cheese, sauce, texture, crust, and overall tastiness. If pepperoni was an option, I went with that. (I'm only human.) Barring that, plain cheese. No French bread, bagels, pockets, or specialties. Just good ol' pizza. This quest is ongoing, will be regularly updated, and will continue until I've eaten them all, or my doctor steps in. Here are 11 pies I'll stand by in the year 2020.
California Pizza Kitchen Crispy Thin Crust
What's good: This pie from the famed mall-adjacent pizza chain gets some props for getting a tad fancier: The pepperoni has a pronounced smokiness, there are tiny diced tomatoes, and the cheese -- blocks of mozz and smoked Gouda -- is flecked with basil haphazardly, as if some stoned teenager at the mall personally shook the herb on top. The crust, too, stands out with its crackery texture and slight saltiness.
Room for improvement: Those flourishes are also a bit of a downer because they give the illusion that you ordered a much better pizza before the overall meh of it reminds you that it was frozen. If you did order this at a restaurant, you'd be bummed. Unless you ordered it at California Pizza Kitchen, in which case you're probably on a high school date in Middle America.
Side note: CPK recently started selling take-and-bake versions of its restaurant pies. If you have a CPK near you, that's a much tastier use of your oven. Incidentally, they freeze very well.
Table 87 Coal Oven Margherita
What's good: It’s frankly shocking that it took this long for somebody to get a New York slice into grocers’ freezers, but after a Shark Tank investment, Brooklyn’s Table 87 Coal Oven Pizza is rolling out nationwide, standing out from the pack with a gigantic frozen Margherita slice. The flavor profile on the huge triangle is solid: fantastically gooey cheese with a punch of salt, fresh sprigs of basil, and a pizzeria-caliber sauce that strikes the balance between acidic and sweet.
Room for improvement: The only thing holding it back is the crust; somewhere in the production process, it lost its spring, coming out of the oven dense and brittle. What’s more, the crackery consistency frequently results in a shattered slice. Still, it’s better than a good number of the fake Famous Ray’s knockoffs you’d stumble across late at night in NYC, and an impressive feat of frozen-pizza innovation… but for a better crust experience, resist the slice and opt for the full, single-serving round version.
Newman's Own Uncured Pepperoni
What's good: Here's a pizza you can feel good about: Newman's Own donates all of its profits to charity. But it also might make you feel a little woozy after you house the whole thing. The cheese here is pretty on point, and the sauce has a hint of spice that goes great with the thicker-than-normal uncured pepperoni.
Room for improvement: This is a damn fine frozen pizza until you consider the crust, which can't make it past the cardboard phase. Still, the whole package more than makes up for a little blandness on the back end. Kind of like The Color of Money.
Screamin' Sicilian Holy Pepperoni
What's good: With its goofy/fun packaging complete with a cut-out mustache, Screamin' Sicilian has made a splash among the new wave of pizzas vying for space in your freezer. The crust is actually foldable and doesn’t have that signature cardboard texture. The cheese in particular is dynamite, with a stretchiness that approaches pizzeria caliber. The thick-cut pepperoni is applied generously.
Room for improvement: The only thing keeping this from true greatness is the sauce, which is just too tangy, making good on that promise/threat to "assault your taste buds" on the box. That's a matter of personal taste, though it'd be a lot easier to ignore if said sauce wasn’t applied so abundantly. This is a solid pizza.
What's good: If you time it right, the crust is springy and altogether delightful. It can't match that pizzeria bounce you get from thicker-crust offerings, but it's close, and the stringy cheese goes a long way in heightening the experience. It's a bit generic, but in a great way.
Room for improvement: But the sauce is the real detriment here. It's got a kick to it that overpowers everything, which would be fine if this thing wasn't swimming in it. It just straight-up drowns everything out. It's a shame that it derails such a solid pie -- and make no mistake, this is a solid pie. The good news? Freschetta makes a great brick-oven square pie, but that only makes the OG's collapse at the finish line that much more tragic.
Outsiders Milwaukee-Style Pepperoni
What's good: There’s no such thing as Milwaukee-style pizza, despite the packaging’s claim that it exists and the presence of a variation loaded with spicy sausage, caramelized onions, and cheese curds. No, what this is is tavern-style pie. But they kind of pull it off, semantics be damned. This is the rare thin offering that actually nails the whole "cracker-thin" crust, but it’s the sauce -- sweet, salty, not at all acrid -- mixed with the saline, smoky cheese that puts it above. In addition, the pepperoni, which is presented in discs and coarse-chopped hunks that get a little char, is the most flavorful and least greasy of the lot. There’s no such thing as Milwaukee-style pizza. But if this is what it tastes like in frozen form, maybe there should be.
Signature Select Rising Crust
What's good: First, the crust, which tastes almost exactly like a HOT-N-READY from Little Caesars. That isn't exactly the epitome of takeout, but hits a certain nostalgia spot. It's flecked with Parmesan (nice touch) that gives it an almost Crazy Breadish vibe, and the crust almost completely avoids that cardboard texture. It’s bouncy, crunchy, pillowy. Bravo, off-brand pizza (available at stores like Safeway, Vons, and Albertsons!).
Room for improvement: It's topped with what appears to be pizza soup, a combination of mozz and a runny, relatively tame sauce that feels more like an afterthought until you consider that there's so much of it. And the pepperoni -- here piled on in discs and thick strips -- is clearly brand X. Five paper towels later, it was still a slippery mess of grease, and combined with the sauce and cheese, it completely changed the middle into a mess of doughy goop. The closer you get to the crust, the better it gets. But that's a lot of wasted real estate in the center.
Look, this isn't a "real" pizza. The crust is exceedingly firm on the bottom and doughy on top. But this pizza feels like it's really, really trying to be a real pizza, and it's largely succeeding. I'd rather eat this than Domino's or Papa Murphy's any day.
What's good: The cheese? Salty and elastic. The sauce? Slightly sweet but with a pleasant red pepper kick. Even more important, unlike many frozen pizzas, it doesn't appear to be applied by a hyperactive 2-year-old given free rein on a stock pot and a big-ass ladle. No, you would never believe that this was delivery. But you also probably wouldn't care, because this is one of the most balanced and nuanced of all the options in your freezer. You see it at the top of lists like these all the time for a damn good reason.
Pizza Romana Pepperoni
What's good: For the first time in this ranking, a pizza came out of my oven that wouldn’t look out of place in an actual cardboard pizza box, with cheese sizzling and a big ol’ bubble in the dough. And on first bite, the consistency of the crust is absolutely remarkable: It’s springy and doughy and you can fold it in half without it breaking into cracker chunks.
Pizza Romana is actually imported from Italy and available in fancy and mom and pop groceries, and its heritage shows. The cheese actually stretches! The pepperoni’s a team player rather than a flavor hog! The sauce is… well, honestly, the sauce is kind of forgettable. Still, there’s a great deal to love here. If this was from a pizza restaurant, it’d probably be in the top 10 in most average towns, unless that town was Florence, in which case it would probably be, like, 700th, which is still pretty good.
Room for improvement: The only thing holding it back is a peculiar aftertaste that distracts from the quality, like somebody thought it would be funny to make every third bite taste like a Totino’s Party Pizza. It’s a very slight distraction, though.
Table5 Uncured Pepperoni
What's good: Table5 tastes like what would happen when somebody attempted to make a Chicago-style deep dish, then gave up, reduced the number of toppings, and called it good. Great, even. There are just so many things working in this thing’s favor that it challenges the notion of what a frozen pizza is. It starts with a signature cornmeal crust, which pulls double duty as a buttery, decadent holding vessel and also serves as a reward at the end of a slice. No joke, if I got this crust at a pizzeria I’d be pretty stoked: It’s doing its own thing, circumventing the need to go the rising-crust route and instead offering up a base that wouldn’t be out of place at some fancy-pants artisan pizza joint. It's a crust with identity. The generously applied pepperoni has a nice zip and the cheese has an impressive elasticity.
Room for improvement: The only gripe I have is the sauce. It’s actually very good -- tangy, slightly sweet, nicely balanced with herbs. But there’s barely any on it until you get toward the crust. In fact, I briefly thought something was amiss and there was no sauce at all. Then I got to the third bite and realized it was there on the back end.
That’s a neat trick: Each bite of this pizza gets better, all the way until that superlative crust. Then you get to start it all over again. Which I did. Until the entire pie was devoured within 15 minutes.
Home Run Inn
What's good: This isn't the pizza you imagine when you crave a quick fix, unless you grew up with it in Chicago and went to a very specific pizzeria (called Home Run Inn, in case you didn't realize it). A deep-dish or Chicago thin-crust this ain't: It's more a hybrid, taking the butteriness of a deep-dish, then flattening it out. The crust is dense, rich, and buttery rather than fluffy, and tastes a lot like a mix between a cracker and a savory pie crust. But when it mingles with the slightly sweet and tangy sauce, the blanket of immaculately salty and stretchy mozz, and the mildly spicy uncured pepperoni, some sort of magical alchemy occurs. No, this isn't what you were imagining when you decided to get a pizza at the grocery store. It's better. The best frozen pizza on the market, in fact.