The Californist is an avid supporter of small and locally owned businesses. As 65% of US pizzerias are locally owned and operated, it's always a solid decision to go with the proud, locally sourced pizza over the 500 mile industrial pie.
Now's as good a time as any to remind you that when you buy a pizza, mathematically, you should ALWAYS BUY A LARGE. The price per square inch, a metric used in pizza economics, indicates it's financially wiser to go with large pizzas--remember how easy it is to reheat, grill, or sometimes serve cold (while camping, for instance).
It's not surprising Italian food is the most popular ethnic food in the US. Everyone has a favorite pizzeria. When arriving in a new town, one of the first things people track down is a pizza haunt. Statistically, 93% of Americans have at least one slice per month, supporting a $25 billion industry. Incidentally, 61% of us prefer thin crust, which I'm relieved to read. I'm not a Chicago deep dish fan, way too much cheese and sauce. Few things are as enjoyable on a long hard day than looking forward to a warm slice and a cold brew to bookend the night.
Let's talk about our favorite Central Coast haunts. The criteria here is to find lesser known, locally owned restaurants with great reputations in the community for quality ingredients, taste and hospitality. We've sampled countless slices over the last few weeks and our aim is to provide insights seeking foodie favorites. We strongly encourage our readers to share their favorite pizzerias/pizzas and toppings in the comment section below. If you enjoy this collection of destinations, check out our favorite Central Coast breakfast haunts and Mexican grills pieces. Let's dive in.
Expect generous toppings, fresh thick cut portioning and flavorful spicy sauces. Nardonne's is one of those places where unless you have friends or family in the area, there's a good chance you missed this restaurant. I've lived in the area for over thirty years and in that time my circle failed to bring to light this Central Coast institution. They've kicked out the pies since '76, Nardonne's is still owned by Ben and his mother Janice Dougherty. Often, Ben will greet and serve you the baked greatness himself. Bearing a rustic and iconic sensibility, preparing Sicilian style pizzas with criss-cut slices stacked with market fresh ingredients. If you order straight off the menu, expect a deeper slice, but if you are accustomed to thin crust, you'll need to specify that when you order--which I recommend.
Recognized by foodies throughout California for its authentic pizza craft, burying the toppings, roasting the edges, fantastic dough and generous mozzarella. When you order Italian sausage, you get Italian sausage. The Los Osos Nardonne's maintains a hefty craft beer list with a variety of draft options and a great menu of local and regional wines. When Nardonne's is busy, expect service to be the same, bring patience and recognize quality means a time investment.
Bearing a modern approach for service, you order your food after standing in line, pick up your own utensils and try to find a seat. Don't expect a wait staff to sit your party. They also make a whole host of salads, calzones and sandwiches, I recommend the Nardonne's Special, served with ham, salami, pepperoni, pepperoncini, mozzarella, sauce, all baked and served on fresh roll. Nardonne's has some funky hours, which goes to show you their success, Wednesday thru Saturday.
Gino's Pizza is one of those pizzerias people eventually land on upon discovering pizza options in the five cities. They don't slam you with an ocean of grease, dehydrated herbs and limp soggy crust. Gino's has been one of my go-to's for as long as I've lived here.
Making their pizzas with a crunchy crust and chewy soft dough interior, it's one of the few pizzas where I'm happy to eat the crust to the end. The diameters run smaller and are more expensive than other pizzerias, but you're paying for quality ingredients. Market fresh veggies and great herbal additions like fresh basil and cilantro and a whole host of protein options make Gino's worth the expense, I strongly subscribe to the you get what you pay for philosophy. I always order garlic on my pizzas and Gino's knows when you ask for garlic, you don't mean a tiny diced chunk, you mean at least a clove-full, and that's what you receive. Gino's also makes great calzones the size of a catcher's mitt. Perfect for multiple meals.
Without hesitation, Cugini's is Santa Maria's best pizzeria. You ask online or search Yelp for a pizza in Santa Maria, top of the list with the highest reviews is Cugini's. Cugini's makes a whole stable of Italian dishes, pizzas, salads and pastas, but honestly--get their pizza. A reputation precedes the individual.
Cugini's injects more pride in their pizzas than you'll find in most other pizzerias; we're talking focus on quality ingredients that spill to the edge. Check out this pizza: homemade pesto with artichoke, tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and basil. Look at that filling veggie pizza on the bottom right. And they say pizza can't be healthy. The Cugini VIP is a staple favorite for meat-lovers, stacked with spicy sausage, pepperoni, onion, tomato, mushrooms and other crunchy veggies. Cugini's is awesome about alterations and has a giant menu of house pizzas and ingredients for custom orders.
One of the best restaurants on the Central Coast, Ember serves wood-fired Italian-infused gastropub quality food since 2013. Staffed by some of the finest local chefs with CV's that stretch through most favored local restaurants, Ember exudes quality, pride and utmost service to its patrons. Watching the kitchen staff work the open kitchen is mesmerizing.
Owner / Chef Brian Collin introduces local flourishes and novel approaches to his dishes, the pizzas leave his kitchen furnished the same. Don't fear unusual ingredients. This is the time to try ingredients you previously didn't care for because they were poorly prepared in your childhood. I used to hate asparagus. My mother sauteed the hell out of the stalks until they congealed into a droopy green mush, then unceremoniously smothered in butter and salt. It was disgusting. It wasn't until I was older and had properly blanched asparagus with garlic, olive oil and a pinch of seasoning that the vegetable realized some potential, opening the gates for a vegetable I now love. Ember's menu is seasonal and constantly changing, but I always recommend a mix of veggies and meats.
Whether visiting Ember on a date night, celebration, or evening out expect Collin's team to surprise you with big-city ideals and local charm. Ember's dishes, including the wood-fired pizzas, are prideful delicious mosaics of flavor. Look at these artisan quality wheels.
Eat good food. The motto for Los Alamos' now-staple Full of Life Flatbread restaurant. They've served up the baked greatness for over a decade, making farm-to-table crafted pizzas, salads and desserts. Nationally recognized for the attention to quality and unique approaches to staple American dishes, one finds atypical mightily savory dishes: carpaccio (awesome raw charcuterie), oyster and pork pizza--God bless America, right?--with bearnaise sauce, chanterelle and bacon, and pork shoulder and fennel pizzas to name a few of the many, many pizzas they've crafted here over the years.
I always recommend ordering the seasonal or daily special. Try something daring, go outside of your pepperoni and cheese comfort zone. Some of the flavors you'll be introduced to at Full of Life are right out of your backyard, curated by astute chefs to surprise and invigorate your palate. The pizzas are wood fired, of course, and served on a savory, lightly sweet and crisp flatbread, portioned sauce and seasoned toppings. Also highly recommended are their desserts (try the Beast) soups and salads, all of which bear seasonality, but are savory and hearty.
Known for their customer service, expect to be treated like a guest, but also recognize that Full of Life is a gastropub destination, sometimes bringing a strong demand that requires patience. If you fumble around online, you'll find many visitors claiming Full of Life made the best pizza of their lives. It's one of the many reasons Los Alamos is on track for coolville and worth the trip for wine and food tasting, or at least a stopover on a greater road trip, as Full of Life is right off highway US-101.
The multi-award winning pizzeria Palo Mesa Pizza has locations in AG and SLO, delivering some of the best traditional and nontraditional pizzas on the Central Coast. Winning the 2015 bronze medal at the international pizza challenge in Las Vegas, owner/chef Michael Stevens serves quality ingredients and prideful prep; his winning traditional pizza is a pepperoni and mushrooms (sauteed in sherry). In 2013, Palo Mesa came in 5th best pizza in the world. Seriously, these guys know what they're doing. It's the kind of place where you hear about that kind of feat and you say to yourself, what the hell am I doing with my life--how did I not know this?
They make a huge variety of custom and off-menu pizzas, but honestly, if it's your first time, order "Ken's Favorite." It's packed with tomatoes, olives, pepperoni, ham, Italian sausage, hamburger, onions, bacon, pepperoncini, bell peppers and mushrooms. I wouldn't tinker with the order, even if you don't like some of the toppers, be bold and let it ride as-is the first time. I'm not a fan of mushrooms or olives, but on this pizza both add, not detract from the flavor. It's one of the most ambitious and flavorful pizzas in the area.
Petra fell into my life. I was hanging with some friends at Bang the Drum brewery, one of my favorite SLO breweries and hard-chilling patios, when a buddy found out I hadn't had Petra. He immediately dug out his phone with a, "Dude, you need this in your life." I'm suspicious of most of the gluten-free and any other diet restriction craze; most scientific research indicates the paranoia of gluten intolerance is unfounded and that there are health ramifications for going completely gluten-free when you haven't actually been diagnosed as having Celiac disease by an MD. Okay, that said, the gluten free crust at Petra is unbelievable.
I know you think the gluten free craze is nonsense, but seriously, order Petra's gluten free Greek with feta pizza.
It's one of the best pizzas on the central coast and no one talks about it. Fantastic fresh veggies, crunchy peppers, diced tomato, with delicious feta and oil, it's the kind of pizza most people skip on the menu, but shouldn't. I usually add chicken, and Petra stacks the toppings to the edge, ensuring another eat-it-through to the crust kind of pie.
My hope throughout these pieces is that I tell you about a place or pizza you haven't heard of or tried before. I want you to branch out and explore some new local favorites. Every few years we get a new kitchen of hard working souls slaving away for us, hopefully making proud savory meals and it's important to give these entrepreneurial spirits a chance to earn your loyalty.
Let Us Know & Share.
The Californist would love to hear your favorite pizza destination in the comment section, what do you order on your wheel? In a similar vein, check out our favorite Central Coast breakfast haunts and our Favorite Mexican grills articles. We're certain you'll find a new favorite meal somewhere in the neighborhood. As this resource is a huge labor of love, if you feel compelled, please share the link or like our Facebook.