Top 20: Where to get the best pizza in Orange County

The goal: find 20 awesome pizzas.

I began this quest three years ago and vowed not to rest until I found 20 legitimately awesome pizzas. Not merely decent. Not merely good. Better than that.

I asked a lot of smart people for recommendations. I followed up on reader suggestions. I combed through countless Yelp reviews. And I came to realize that most diners are blissfully happy eating mediocre pizza.

I blame Domino’s. Everyone wants pizza delivered, or else they want takeout. But here’s the thing: The best pizza doesn’t travel. Pizza needs to be eaten straight out of the oven. (In these reviews, “traditional” means a deck oven designed to bake pizza.)

Nevertheless, companies like Domino’s and Papa John’s have spent huge sums of money engineering crusts that can tolerate bouncing around in a cardboard box in the back of a Prius for 30 minutes and still taste the same as when they left the store. It was revealed last year that the United States military has created a pizza that can remain edible for three years. God bless them, but I’ll pass.

You’ll notice this list skews heavily toward Neapolitan style. That’s not because I have a bias toward Naples, Italy, the birthplace of pizza and one of my favorite places to travel. OK, maybe just a little bias.

More importantly, I admit to a bias against pizzas topped with barbecue sauce, hoisin sauce, fish sauce or any other weird toppings, like chicken. Otherwise, I genuinely enjoy New York-style pizza. I searched high and low for that and found what I think is the best.

I love Chicago-style deep-dish and stuffed pizzas, too, so I happily tasted every version I could find from Placentia to Rancho Santa Margarita.

Time and again, though, the best pizzas were those made by chefs who mostly practice the Old World traditions of Naples.

So, after eating pizza about twice a month for three years – plus several times a week for the past couple of months – here’s my list of the 20 best pizzas in Orange County.

1. TJ’s Woodfire Pizza: A brick-and-mortar opened last fall after the success of a very popular food truck, which is still used for catering and events. The pizza lineup includes authentic Neapolitan, New York, Sicilian and cracker-thin styles. Each is good in its own way, but the Neapolitans are best.

Oven: Wood-fired

Must-try pie: The Margherita pizza here is one of the best Neapolitan-style pies you’ll ever eat. The crust is perfectly blistered and charred, the burned bits are particularly delicious. The tomato sauce is light and bright. The cheese is soft and supple. But what’s even better is customizing this pizza with prosciutto.

Bar: Great draft beers. Limited but decent wine.

Delivery: No

Where: 641 Camino de los Mares, San Clemente; 949-243-6433,

2. Brick: Pork may be the star of David Pratt’s nose-to-tail kitchen, but a blazing hardwood fire is the restaurant’s heart and soul. The pizzas hew closely to Neapolitan traditions. All sausages are made in-house.

Oven: Wood-fired

Must-try pie: The Carne pizza is extraordinary, topped with Italian sausage, Calabrese salami, slow-roasted porchetta and crisp pork belly. The crust is absolute perfection. Drizzle it with Calabrian chili oil instead of chili flakes.

Bar: Full bar. Fantastic Italian wines, with almost everything priced below $50.

Delivery: No

Where: 216 N. El Camino Real, San Clemente; 949-429-1199,

3. Pizzeria Sapori: Sapori Ristorante opened its adjacent pizzeria last year. Chef and owner Sal Maniaci can now be seen most days manning the new pizza oven himself.

Oven: Wood-fired

Must-try pie: The marinara pizza is quintessential Neapolitan, made with nothing more than a great crust and great tomato sauce, leaving absolutely no room to hide. This pizza should definitely be on everyone’s bucket list.

Bar: Full bar. Extensive Italian wine list.

Delivery: No

Where: 1080 Bayside Drive, Newport Beach; 949-644-4220,

4. Rance’s: Nobody in Orange County has perfected Chicago-style pizza better. Rance’s offers two competing styles reminiscent of Chicago’s two biggest rivals. The stuffed pizza is as close to Giordano’s as you’ll find, while the pan pizza is almost indistinguishable from the Original Gino’s East.

Oven: Traditional

Must-try pie: Both styles are great, but the best is the house special pan pizza with sausage, jalapeños and olives.

Bar: Beer and wine.

Delivery: No

Where: 1420 Baker St., Costa Mesa; 714-708-2143,

5. Pizzeria Mozza: Los Angeles’ Nancy Silverton joined forces with New York’s Mario Batali to create one of the most important pizzerias of all time. Mozza’s dough doesn’t taste like typical pizza crust. It’s not modeled after Naples or New York or Rome or even L.A. It’s got the unique snap-crackly crunch and tangy DNA of Silverton’s famous sourdough. It’s extremely puffy around the edges but micro-thin in the center. Mozza’s fennel sausage set a standard for pizza across the country.

Oven: Wood-fired

Must-try pie: Although the fennel sausage is justly famous, the unsung hero is the Benno, a revelatory riff on Hawaiian pizza with shaved pineapple and Italian ham. No matter what you think about pineapple on pizza, just order it.

Bar: Full bar. Extraordinary Italian wine list with many bottles under $50.

Delivery: Yes, via Door Dash

Where: 800 West Coast Highway, Newport Beach; 949-945-1126,

6. Stag Bar & Kitchen: The team behind Dory Deli recently took over and relaunched the historic Stag Bar, just around the corner, cannibalizing the old Stag Liquor Store and turning it into a small dining room and pizza kitchen with chefs Jeff Moore and Joseph Havlik at the helm. The pizzas are superb, made with fresh ingredients that suggest the chefs know their way around the local farmers’ markets. They originally tried making their own fresh mozzarella in-house, which didn’t quite work but illustrates their commitment to taking pizza to another level.

Oven: Traditional

Must-try pie: The Hot and Bothered is a white pizza with mushrooms, jalapenos and olives. It’ll be difficult to enjoy those same ingredients anywhere else after eating this.

Bar: Full bar. Excellent mixology. Impressive whiskeys. No-nonsense beers. Limited but decent wine.

Delivery: No

Where: 121 McFadden Place, Newport Beach; 949-673-4470,

7. Jinny’s Pizzeria: Jinny’s recently took over the tiny food stall vacated by Noodle Tramp at Santa Ana’s 4th Street Market. Although it bills itself as California pizza with a dash of New York attitude, I’d suggest the reverse is more accurate. Pizzas are served whole or by the slice.

Oven: Traditional

Must-try pie: The search for O.C.’s best, most authentic New York-style pizza ends right here with Jinny’s classic cheese pie. Jinny’s does New York pizza better than most pizzerias in New York.

Bar: Beer and wine available at an adjacent vendor.

Delivery: No

Where: 201 E. Fourth St., Santa Ana; 714-542-0281,

8. Pizza e Vino: Steve Dickus instigated Orange County’s Neapolitan pizza revolution when he opened Pizza e Vino in 2008, the first restaurant in O.C. to receive the official seal of approval from the pizza council in Naples. Naturally, the Margherita here is textbook.

Oven: Wood-fired

Must-try pie: The guanciale pizza begins as a classic Margherita with San Marzano tomato sauce and mozzarella but is taken to the next level with guanciale (fatty pork jowl) and housemade fennel sausage. Runner up: burrata pizza with olive oil, roasted grape tomatoes and balsamic reduction.

Bar: Nice selection of wines by the glass and bottle. Limited beer.

Delivery: No

Where: 31441 Santa Margarita Parkway, Rancho Santa Margarita; 949-713-1500,

9. Filomena’s: This is a hidden gem, where chef Linda English’s pizza has slowly evolved over the past couple of years. The crust reached perfection midway through 2015. It’s hard to categorize the style, as it’s not quite New York, not quite sourdough, but rather a whole lot of goodness in between.

Oven: Traditional

Must-try pie: The pepperoni is so spicy – it’s heavenly – that it comes with a trigger warning from the staff.

Bar: Very good selection of Italian wines. Standard beer.

Delivery: No

Where: 2400 Newport Blvd., Costa Mesa; 949-642-3810

10. Naples Ristorante e Pizzeria: Although the restaurant claims to be an authentic Neapolitan-style pizzeria, it’s not. Not even close. That’s just Disney marketing run amok. This place serves classic Italian-American cuisine. The thin-crust pizzas are indeed very good. They’re just not true to the spirit of Naples as advertised. It’s also important to note that the large pizzas are exponentially better than the small ones.

Oven: Wood and gas combo

Must-try pie: The large pepperoni is topped with a gazillion tiny slices of phenomenally delicious, slightly spicy salami.

Bar: Full bar. Great selection of Italian wines.

Delivery: No

Where: Downtown Disney, 1550 Disneyland Drive, Anaheim; 714-776-6200,

11. Il Dolce: This restaurant is a quaint family affair that helped galvanize O.C.’s pizza awakening when it opened six years ago. Inexplicably, the dining room is frequently empty, which doesn’t make sense because the pizzas are superb.

Oven: Wood-fired

Must-try pie: The nduja pizza is a full-throttle spin on Margherita, amped up with nduja, which is a soft, spreadable, almost liquid Italian sausage very similar to Mexican chorizo.

Bar: Full bar. Decent wine selection. Standard beer.

Delivery: No

Where: 1902 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa; 949-200-9107,

12. Pitfire Artisan Pizza: This growing, Los-Angeles-based chain serves scratch-made pizzas that, while not exactly claiming any particular pedigree, show a strong resemblance to Neapolitan craftsmanship, mixed with a free-spirited California vibe.

Oven: Wood and gas combo

Must-try pie: While I generally do not enjoy pizzas topped with salad, the burrata pizza here is an absolute must. The burrata melts into a puddle of thick, gooey cream, which is then topped with arugula, pesto and toasted hazelnuts. It sounds weird, but it’s awesome.

Bar: Full bar. Respectable beer and wine.

Delivery: Yes, via ChowNow

Where: 353 E. 17th St., Costa Mesa; 949-313-6333,

13. Pirozzi: The Neapolitan-style pizzas that emerge from the massive hearth at Pirozzi will have you dreaming of Naples. It’s no wonder you’ll hear so many diners speaking Italian.

Oven: Wood-fired

Must-try pie: The Margherita pizza – San Marzano tomato sauce, sparse blobs of buffalo mozzarella, a few leaves of basil – is meticulously true to the spirit of Napoli.

Bar: Full bar. Extensive Italian wine selection.

Delivery: No

Where: 2929 East Coast Highway, Corona del Mar; 949-497-8222,

14. Fuoco: When this Neapolitan-style pizzeria opened a couple years ago, the pizzas were watery and soggy. Thankfully that’s been fixed, and they’re now consistently delicious and true to form.

Oven: Wood-fired

Must-try pie: Although you can’t go wrong with the classic Margherita or extra-spicy Diavola, the best of the lot is the marinara pizza, which is garnished with a handful of garlic, a few cherry tomatoes and a hearty glug of olive oil.

Bar: Decent beer and wine.

Delivery: No

Where: 101 N. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton; 714-626-0727,

15. North Italia: This Arizona-based mini-chain is one of the sexiest Italian restaurants to open in O.C. in years, with a modern, airy, indoor-outdoor vibe and a fantastic pizza program that walks a fine line between modern Cali and vintage Naples.

Oven: Traditional

Must-try pie: The Pig is loaded with soppressata, spicy pepperoni and Italian sausage, with a perfectly salted, crisp crust.

Bar: Full bar. Decent selection of wine by the glass, terzo and bottle.

Delivery: No

Where: 2957 Michelson Drive, Irvine; 949-629-7060,

16. Ecco Pizza Shoppe: Ecco adheres to a lot of the tenets of authentic Neapolitan pizza, but there’s a uniquely crispy, crackery quality to the crust that sets it apart from anywhere else and keeps it just outside the mainstream conceit of Naples.

Oven: Wood-fired

Must-try pie: A lot of pizzerias make something called Diavola, and this is the one you need to know about, topped with fresh chilies, thinly shaved Calabrese salami and a drizzle of chili oil.

Bar: Full bar outside on the patio, geared more toward liquor than wine

Delivery: No

Where: Packing House, 440 S. Anaheim Blvd., Anaheim; 714-817-7323,

17. Settebello: Crystal Cove’s Settebello has also been given the seal of approval by Italy’s Neapolitan pizza police. The flour comes from Italy. The sausages, from marquee Italian brands. It’s practically impossible to have a bad pizza here.

Oven: Wood-fired

Must-try pie: The carbonara pizza is a surprising discovery. A twist on pasta carbonara, the brunch-friendly pizza is topped with eggs, pancetta and black pepper. Prepare yourself for the unexpected. It’s almost like quiche, and it is strangely sublime. Otherwise, go for the Vico, a white pizza with sausage.

Bar: Full bar. Extensive wine selection.

Delivery: No

Where: Crystal Cove Shops, 7864 East Coast Highway, Newport Beach; 949-715-2072,

18. Al’s New York Cafe: The name “cafe” gives the wrong impression. There’s an unsettlingly authentic New York vibe to this shoebox-sized dive with only a couple of wobbly tables and a few stools awkwardly positioned against a counter overlooking the kitchen. There’s almost always someone smoking just outside the open doorway. Most people get their pizza to go, but I urge you to stake out one of those stools. You’ll want to eat this New York-style pizza straight out of the oven.

Oven: Traditional

Must-try pie: The pepperoni pizza has a perfectly foldable thin crust. It comes out of the oven covered with a slick, glossy sheen of pepperoni grease, and a delightful crispness to the crust’s outer edge. This is what Domino’s dreams of being but never will be.

Bar: No

Delivery: No

Where: 1673 Irvine Ave., Costa Mesa; 949-722-1212,

19. Pizzeria Ortica: Pizzeria Ortica was another of O.C.’s first-wave Napolitanas and continues to be one of the best despite a controversial own-ership shakeup three years ago. Ortica’s pizza dough is descendent of a 300-year-old starter from Naples. Chef Justin Miller and his team make most of their own sausages in-house.

Oven: Wood-fired

Must-try pie: The Margherita is exemplary, but the pizza that best encapsulates Ortica’s personality is the Milanesa, topped with fontina, mascarpone, Parmesan and asparagus, along with a slightly runny fried egg and a generous splash of olive oil.

Bar: Superb Italian wines. Impressive beer. Classic cocktails.

Delivery: No

Where: 650 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa; 714-445-4900,

20. Angelina’s Pizzeria Napolitana: This cramped and boisterous pizzeria in Dana Point is one of the area’s newest champions of Neapolitan cooking. It recently launched a second location in Irvine (not yet sampled).

Oven: Wood-fired

Must-try pie: Margherita D.O.C. (“Denominazione di Origine Controllata” is an Italian certification of quality and authenticity.) Even in Naples, every pizza is slightly different, each owing its popularity to one ingredient or the other. Here, it’s the sauce, which is gloriously bright and uncomplicated yet surprisingly soulful.

Bar: Limited but decent beer and wine

Delivery: Yes

Where: 32860 Pacific Coast Highway, Dana Point; 949-427-1834,

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