TOP 2011: Round 1: Albany

TOP2011 RD1 Albany

The Tournament of Pizza -- sponsored by Sunmark Federal Credit Union -- makes its final Round 1 stop in Albany.

The pizzerias in this opening round pool competition of cheese pizzas:

Crowd pick: Hill Street Cafe - Albany
Renee's pick: Pie Hole - Albany
Committee pick: Pizzeria Sapienza - Albany
Committee pick: Marisa's Place - Guilderland

This bracket is wide open because Pasquale's -- the two time overall tournament champ that dominated the Albany bracket for so many years -- is no longer in business.

The judges -- plus our guest judge -- gathered for the final Round 1 tasting...

sunmark pizza banner

A quick note about how all this works: The four judges -- Albany Jane, Daniel B, Jerry, and our guest judge -- taste the pizza blind. That is, they don't know which pizza they're tasting during judging. They taste the competitors side by side. The scoring is on a 100 point scale -- each judge represents a quarter of those possible points.

Guest judge

Our guest judge for the Albany bracket is Noah Sheetz, the executive chef at the Executive Mansion and a member of the Chefs Consortium, a group focused on raising awareness about local food. As you might expect from someone with his expertise and experience, Noah was a tough judge!

TOP 2011 RD1 Albany judging

Round 1 pool

Pie Hole Hill Street Sapienza Marisa's/td>
Crust 7 8 14 13
Sauce 10 10 16 13
Toppings 8 13 14 15
Overall taste 15 18 27 28
Totals 40 49 71 69

Post game:

Pie Hole
Great name -- not so great score. The judges didn't find a lot to love in this pie. The crust was "way, way too thick" and "like a rolled out piece of bread dough." The judges thought there wasn't enough sauce, and what was there was "dominated" by oregano. "Not a fan of the mix of cheeses used," remarked one judge. And concluded another: "Looks like a factory-made pizza."

Hill Street Cafe
The Mansion Neighborhood spot was facing some difficult odds in this tournament -- tavern style pizza hasn't fared well in previous years, a trend that continued here. The judges weren't fans of the crust, describing it as undercooked and "breadsticky." The sauce scored a bit better -- one judge described it as "tart and bright." And though the cheese was "nicely applied," the judges found it lacking in flavor.

Pizzeria Sapienza
The downtown shop put up a very respectable score in its first appearance. "Beautiful bottom crust," said one judge, though another noted some gumminess. The sauce won praise for a "wonderful savory profile, partly salty, partly sweet, nice umami." And the "thick layer" of cheese was "rich and creamy."

Marisa's Place
The Guilderland shop has posted solid scores in past tournament matchups, and did so again here. Marisa's thin crust had "a nice crispness and good chew" and "nice flavor." The pizza included a "perfect amount of sauce." And while the cheese didn't necessarily light up the judges, one noted and appreciated what tasted like Romano. Concluded one judge: "What I think of when I think of thin-crust pizza."

Up next

So, Sapienza and Marisa's advance. It'll be downtown Albany vs. Guilderland in Round 2.

Monday: The second round of the Tournament of Pizza -- the pepperoni round -- starts.

Thank you, thank you

Thanks to guest judge chef Noah Sheetz from the Chefs Consortium!

The 2011 Tournament of Pizza is sponsored by Sunmark Federal Credit Union.


Sorry, but Little Anthony's on Central will always and forever have my vote! Vegan Pizza FTW!

I've never noticed this until this year -- is this a "thin-crust pizza contest," or just a pizza contest? I've seen a few references now to crust being "too thick," whereas I know I like my pizza to have a little heft to it (at least enough so it doesn't flop down and drop all of the toppings when I pick up a slice).

I love Marisa's pizza! I moved from Albany to Guilderland was spent the first two years mourning the loss of decent pizza. When I found Marisa's, I swear the heavens opened up and angels sang.

KB: Oh, yes, this is definitely a New York-style pizza contest. The tavern- or pub-style pizza that Hill Street serves really is Albany's native pizza form (see also The Orchard, The Fountain), but it's never going to win this tournament.

That's not a bad thing. We're close enough to New York City that we should have places that can serve up a good slice of thin crust. This tournament always unearths them.

I'm glad to see Sapienza posted the highest score in round one. I told you guys downtown had good stuff. :)

For me it's about proportions. Thicker crust pizza is fine, as long as the crust is delicious and well cooked. I've voted for several superior thicker crust pizzas over lesser thinner crust pizzas in my days on the judging panel.

When it works it can be great. A thicker crust can provide structural support for a generous amount of well made sauce and a heaping pile of savory cheese that's tasty enough to justify its fat and calories. Thick crusts also stand up very well to many toppings that can cause thinner crusts to fail, like onions and peppers.

But often thick crusts cause problems. They can not cook all the way through, they can be tough or gummy. More often than not, the crust ends up dominating the flavor of the pizza. And at the end of your bite, when you should be left with a rich, satisfying, lingering sense of umami, instead you have a dry, tasteless, half-masticated lump of bread in your mouth.

What I'd like to see, and maybe this is just my opinion, but I wish you guys would break out the tournament to make it even larger. Have an expanded tournament for just Albany, Troy, etc. Then from those winners have a real final four of the best pizza from each area.

I don't want to rag on Sapienza's. It's not a bad slice of pizza and I usually grab a slice every so often for lunch, but the fact that it came out in the top 2 for the Albany bracket has started to make me lose faith in this tournament.


Agreed. I can't believe that, upon walking in to the "Pie Hole", and seeing those two lonely pizzas gathering dust among the completely empty counter, you didn't immediately scratch them off your list of competitors. What's in a name, anyway? If I start a dessert place and call it the fudge hole, will it create an instant buzz?

BB - I think what you're talking about would be a very valuable thing, but logistically would be a nightmare to organize and execute. It would also cost a fortune.

In the defense of AOA and the intent of the Tournament of Pizza, they are never professing to be seeking out the absolute best pizza in the area. It is more geared toward starting conversation within the AOA community about pizza and to say which among the competitors (some selected based on previous years performance, some based on popular decision this year, others based on past judging participants) has the superior product.

@ derryX

Calling something "The Tournament of Pizza" is absolutely informing your readers that you are seeking out the "best" pizza in the region. If you added modifiers like: "Best pizza for delivery" or "Best place specializing in pizza" or "Best pizza joint", then I could see the logic in the selections. But that wouldn't be as much of a draw for readers as simply calling it "The Tournament of Pizza." So AOA seems to have backed itself into a rhetorical or grammatical corner on this topic and there are bound to be some establishments that are shocked and appalled at being left out. Specifically Max London's in Saratoga and The Gastropub in Albany (formerly Pasquale's).

When i was a child dad would get a pizza from The Madison Tavern. We would have it picnic style in Washington Park.Over the years sis, and i have favored The Fountain,Andriano's in Delmar,and now I lLove New York on Central near Rite Aid for their meatball,ricotta pies.

I find it hard to believe places like Max London and The Gastropub would be "shocked and appalled" and being excluded from this tournament.

The Tournament of Pizza is a brutal challenge for even the places that do nothing else but pizza.

For those more refined establishments that make gourmet hand-crafted pizzas, I would imagine they would prefer their food evaluated in a better setting. You know, like in the dining room, where it can be enjoyed hot out of the oven.

Perhaps I'm wrong and Max London does a brisk take-out pizza business. But in my experience, some of the more gourmet pizzas suffer even worse in transit than the more sturdy versions cranked out by pizza parlors across the land.

Side by side comparison is an incredibly valuable approach. It allows for anonymity both on the part of the judges and on the part of the competitor. Plus judges can literally stack the slices up next to each other. Sure, there are trade offs. But I think they are worth it.

Maybe, just maybe, I'll consider some kind of Tour de Pizza. But people won't be happy about that either.

It's still mysterious to me as to why the New Madison Grille's pizza (on, you guessed it, Madison Avenue in Albany) is never considered for this contest. How do contestants get nominated? It's an old Albany pizza recipe (60+ years?) which has been passed down along with the building, and it's my personal favorite in the area.

BK - The following post explains the basic idea of how the competitors made it into the tournament:

(A read of the selection procedure should make it clear to others that there's no way this tournament could find the very best slice in the region, only the best among competitors, which should open the discussion of pizza in the area to the community.)

The nomination process is clearly explained in the following posts:

Can people quit complaining now that their personal favorite pizza isn't in the contest??

Hi there. Comments have been closed for this item. Still have something to say? Contact us.

The Scoop

For a decade All Over Albany was a place for interested and interesting people in New York's Capital Region. It was kind of like having a smart, savvy friend who could help you find out what's up. AOA stopped publishing at the end of 2018.

Recently on All Over Albany

Thank you!

When we started AOA a decade ago we had no idea what was going to happen. And it turned out better than we could have... (more)

Let's stay in touch

This all feels like the last day of camp or something. And we're going to miss you all so much. But we'd like to stay... (more)

A few things I think about this place

Working on AOA over the past decade has been a life-changing experience for me and it's shaped the way I think about so many things.... (more)

Albany tightened its rules for shoveling snowy sidewalks last winter -- so how'd that work out?

If winter ever gets its act together and drops more snow on us, there will be sidewalks to shovel. And shortly after that, Albany will... (more)

Tea with Jack McEneny

Last week we were fortunate enough to spend a few minutes with Jack McEneny -- former state Assemblyman, unofficial Albany historian, and genuinely nice guy.... (more)

Recent Comments

My three year old son absolutely loving riding the train around Huck Finn's (Hoffman's) Playland this summer.

Thank you!

...has 27 comments, most recently from Ashley

Let's stay in touch

...has 4 comments, most recently from mg

A look inside 2 Judson Street

...has 3 comments, most recently from Diane (Agans) Boyle

Everything changes: Alicia Lea

...has 2 comments, most recently from Chaz Boyark

A few things I think about this place

...has 13 comments, most recently from Katherine