Plenty of bars around America, indeed around the world, serve pizza. After all, what culinary combination satiates the inner desires of mankind better than cold beer and hot pizza?
Not one, pizza peeps!
Despite the prevalence of barroom pizza from sea to sea shining sea, there’s only one place in America where an eccentric form of individual barroom-baked pan pizza is a way of life – a savory local delicacy that people grow up eating from the time they’re little school kids until the day their heroic alcohol-ravaged liver gives out in middle age.
It’s called South Shore bar pizza – or just bar pizza if you live on Boston’s South Shore. It’s a proud blue-collar culinary tradition in the pubs, taverns, dive bars and working-class watering holes in the communities south of Boston.
There is no pizza in the world like South Shore bar pizza – not as far as I’ve found in nearly 30 years of culinary travel. I’ve surveyed food writers, chefs, pizza aficionados and traveling salesmen who pick up pizzas and bored housewives in townie dive bars all over the country.
Not one has ever found anything quite like South Shore bar pizza.
Bar pizza is so ingrained in South Shore culture that many people who grow up south of Boston don’t even know it’s “a thing.” Celebrity sports writer and South Shore native Jerry Thornton of Barstool Sports fame is one of those people.
Few people have more South Shore street cred than Thornton. He likens Route 3 to the Silk Road of the Orient, climbs the Great Blue Hill as proudly as Hillary did Everest, and has his passport stamped each time he crosses the Neponset River Bridge.
One day years ago he and I were doing a radio show, on South Shore radio station WATD no less, with our pal, host and fellow South Shore native Kevin Tocci, when the topic turned to bar pizza and what made it such a great signature of South Shore culture.
Thornton was bewildered. Like a greasy sun-soaked North Shore guido on Revere Beach bathed in baby oil who didn’t see the skin cancer coming.
“Wait a minute, bar pizza is a South Shore thing?” he asked, the wittiest sports writer in America, bamboozled. “I’ve been eating it my whole life. I thought everyone had bar pizza.”
Au contraire, mon Irish-American frere.
Only on the South Shore do we have South Shore bar pizza. Thornton was so excited about this discovery he wrote about it and Tweeted about it in a joyous epiphany of South Shore pride.
What makes South Shore bar pizza so delicious … and so unique? It’s not just one thing, really. South Shore bar pizza is defined by many cultural curiosities and culinary idiosyncrasies that make it different than any other pizza on the planet.
South Shore natives know bar pizza when they see it. But it’s hard to truly define. So here then is the first effort to record for posterity and South Shore pride everything unique, special and awesome about America’s most delicious, and most eccentric, style of pizza.
1.Bar pizza is a personal 10-inch pizza: one man, one pizza
First and foremost, one bar pizza feeds one person. You don’t split a bar pizza. You don’t order it by the slice. Every person orders their own pizza.
Sure, you can trade slices of pie with your bros or your hos once the pizza comes out to the bar. But the pizzas are pretty small and drinking beer makes you hungry. So the rule is always: one man, one pizza.
Two men, one pizza? That’s just not right. It disorients South Shore sensibilities, much like taking the Red Line past Park Street Station.
In some of the more respectable bar pizza joints the Tuesday night dart team will drag you into the alley out back and teach you proper local pizza etiquette if you attempt to share a bar pie.
Dates are no exception. One boy. One girl. Two pizzas.
Even breast-feeding babies in Irish families south of Boston get their own take-out bar pizza on a Friday night. Gotta teach ‘em young.
One dad. One mother. One baby. Three pizzas. Got it?
2. Bar pizza is cooked in old steel pans – the older the better
South Shore bar pizza is a pan pizza. It’s ALWAYS cooked in a small steel pan. No pan? Not bar pizza.
The best pizza pans are old, weathered and seasoned to perfection – just like South Shore native Steven Tyler of Aerosmith fame.
Some bar pie joints have been cooking bar pizza in the same bar pizza pans for decades. Literally 40, 50 years. The pans get better with age and the pizzas cooked in them taste better.
3. Bar pizza – duh! – is sold in a bar
Bar pizza is meant to be consumed in a barroom while drinking beer – preferably a frosty glass of ice-cold American lager.
Most, if not all, bar pizza bars also sell pizza to go. In fact, many of them probably sell more pizza to go than they sell in house.
You do NOT get bar pizza at a traditional pizza shop. You know, the kind of place that sells Coca-Cola, subs, sandwiches, salads and pizza by the slice?
That’s pizza shop pizza. Not bar pizza.
There are a couple minor exceptions. Ultimate Pizza in Easton is more of a sub-style shop. But it has legit famous South Shore bar pizza. Same for Geri’s Pizza Galore in Avon.
4. But sometimes you can buy bar pizza in a garage or an old veterans’ hall
There are a small handful of exceptions to the “bar-pizza-in-a-bar” rule.
There’s a place in Bridgewater called J’s Flying Pizza. It’s in a guy’s garage and he sells bar pizza only to go. It is not a bar. It does not sell beer. There are no seats. It’s a friggin’ garage. Not even sure it’s legal.
But it is authentic bar pizza. The fact that a guy is selling bar pizza to go from his garage in a honky-tonk blue-collar town like Bridgewater gives J’s Flying Pizza legit culinary street cred. People dig J’s Flying Pizza.
Then there’s Hoey’s at the AmVets in Randolph. This place is glorious. Another legend of bar pizza with blue-collar street cred.
Hoey’s is bar pizza kitchen inside the local AmVets beer hall. So, yes, there is a bar. But Hoey’s is not a bar.
Hoey’s only makes the pizza. You order pizza from the Hoey’s kitchen and then go sit at the bar and order beer and wait for your pizza. You do not order pizza at the bar. That’s just not right. The bartender might throw you out for lacking the proper cultural context.
Most clubs like the AmVets are open only to veterans and members. The Randolph AmVets is open to the public. Anyone can walk in off the street, even people from Cambridge – I guess because the bar pizza at Hoey’s is so popular and attracts fans from around the region.
5. Bar pizza is traditionally sold to-go wrapped in a brown paper bag
This is where South Shore bar pizza really starts to look and feel different than any other pizza, even to the untrained eye of a North Shore resident.
If you live anywhere else in the world and get a pizza to go, it comes in a cardboard box. Round pizza in a square box? Makes no sense! Apparently, these nitwits never studied plumbing at the old Quincy Vo-Tech. It’s all about geometry, people.
South Shore bar pizza is quite a bit different. Bar pizza to-go traditionally comes cocooned between two round cardboard plates and wrapped in a brown paper bag, cinched up at the top to form a tight fit. Round pizza. Round wrapping.
Now, there are definitely bar pizza joints that sell pizza to-go in a cardboard box. Some of them sell fine, upstanding bar pizza. But, to me, if it doesn’t come wrapped in a brown paper bag, it’s not really bar pizza. It just tastes better snugged up safely in a brown paper bag.
I’m not sure how the brown paper bag tradition began. But one South Shore bar pizza legend, long-time pizza maker Paul Desmond of Rag’s Tavern, believes it was borne out of necessity: barrooms don’t have room for big stacks of clunky cardboard boxes. Those brown paper bags save a lot of space – meaning more Bud Heavy and Jack Daniel’s for everybody.
6. Bar pizza barrooms are often called cafés
OK, this is another way that South Shore bar pizza starts to flex its muscles as a unique culinary idiom.
Café in the rest of the world is a coffee shop. You get coffee in a café. Café literally MEANS coffee!
Not here south of Boston. We may be good at plumbing. But linguistics? Not so much.
Here south of Boston, a café is a place where you get Bud Lights, shots of Jame-O and pizza wrapped in a brown paper bag.
The Cape Cod Café and Home Café, both in Brockton, the Lynwood Café in Randolph, the Next Page Café in Weymouth, the Venus Café in Whitman, Big D’s Neponset Café in Canton, the late, great Alumni Café in Quincy – to name just a few.
Not one of them is a coffee shop. I’d be shocked if any one of them ever sold a single cup of coffee in 60 years. Instead, all of them are old neighborhood bars with cheap booze and delicious bar pie.
Not all bar pizza bars south of Boston are called cafes. But almost all bars south of Boston called cafes are bar pizza bars.
7. Friday night is the official feast day of bar pizza culture
It’s not uncommon south of Boston to see people walk out of bar with stacks of those brown paper bags six, seven, eight pizzas high – especially on a Friday night.
Here’s why: the region south of Boston is the most heavily Irish-Catholic section in all of America. The South Shore is often called the Irish Riviera because of its many coastal towns and heavy Irish population. The most Irish zip codes in America are all south of Boston.
So in past decades, when people here were more likely to follow Catholic restrictions against meat on Fridays, families ate fish or pizza for dinner.
Bar pizza joints thrived with take-out biz on Friday nights. People don’t follow those Catholic Friday night practices like they used to do. But Friday night is still bar pizza night for thousands of South Shore families.
8. Bar pizza has a unique stiff cracker-y crust
Bar pizza dough is pretty basic made with all-purpose flour, water and yeast. I’ve described it as “biscuit like” or “cracker like.” It doesn’t have the “tang” you find in fancy upscale pizzas.
Remember, this is a working-class pie. It was meant to feed guys who just got off a shift at the shoe factory or the shipyard. So the ingredients are fairly basic. These were tough guys who didn’t care if the crust adhered to ancient Neapolitan tradition. They just wanted to stuff their dirty, foul-mouthed immigrant pie-holes with dough, sauce, cheese, pepperoni and Jim Beam.
The crust was just a simple vehicle to deliver all that delicious happiness. Either way, bar pizza crust is pretty distinct and rigid.
9. No flop!
Bar pizza does not flop or bend. It usually sticks out proud and true as you pick it up off the plate. The slices are small and the crust is pretty hearty. So slices of bar pie rarely if ever flop.
10. Bar pizza is made with good ol’ all-American cheddar cheese
Think you need mozzarella and fancy Italian cheeses to make pizza? #Fakenews!
Bar pizza is an American tradition and made almost exclusively with good old American cheddar – and nothing else. There are some minor variations. Some places might mix in mozzarella or other cheeses here and there.
And some spots that get a little too big for their britches have these uppity one-off versions of bar pie with things like feta and olives – like they think they’re fucking California Pizza Kitchen all of a sudden.
But in almost all cases cheddar cheese is bar pizza cheese. No cheddar? Not bar pizza.
11. Bar pizza has no exposed crust around the edge
Another visual cue South Shore bar pizza is different than any other. One reason why South Shore natives immediately know bar pizza when they see it is because there’s no exposed crust around the edge.
The dough is stretched out in the steel pans, and the sauce and cheese, and whatever other toppings, go right to the edge of the pan. A small bit of crust might be exposed by the time the pizza comes out of the even and the pan.
But for the most part, you never see on bar pizza that edge of crust common to almost every other form of pizza in the world.
12. Bar pizzas are usually prepped well before you order
Walk into most any pizza joint in America and they start tossing the dough only after you order. How quaint.
That ain’t how it works south of Boston.
Most bar pizza joints prep the dough and the sauce (and often the cheese) in the pan earlier in the day and then stack the prepped pans in the refrigerator awaiting your order.
Some bars might have 200 or 300 pans stacked in the fridge already filled with dough topped with sauce, to get ready for a busy night. Then they throw on the toppings, if any, and pop it in the oven only after you order the pizza.
A couple reasons why: First, I’m told that the refrigeration before cooking helps temper this basic bar pizza dough and keeps it from rising too high. Second, there are still places out there where the bartender himself makes the pizza for you (def more common in the old days).
Having everything prepped allows the bartender to focus on more important things – like pouring you more High Life and well vodka.
13. Bar pizza bars often look like somebody’s abandoned home
Bar pizza bars are old working-class joints and rarely have windows, fancy décor or any semblance of modern restaurant design or style.
Most of these places are real old-school dive bars that look like somebody turned grandma’s living room into a dingy pool parlor after she kicked the bucket.
“Here’s to you, Nana!”
Lynwood Café, one of the standard bearers of South Shore bar pizza, looks like a rambling old wood-framed tenement building housing indentured seamstresses from Cambodia.
Underrated Lynch’s Tavern in Abington is a blighted nearly windowless hole in the wall right next to the train tracks. It’s glorious, especially when the commuter rail to Boston rolls by 10 feet from your seat and the vibration splashes your shot of Jack Daniel’s all over the bar.
The interior of Damien’s Pub hasn’t seen the light of day since New England wood-framed construction was invented by the Pilgrims back in ’20.
14. Cape Cod Café in Brockton, according to largely undisputed legend, invented South Shore bar pizza after World War II
Cape Cod Café, in a tough, blighted part of the old industrial city of Brockton, is a hugely popular bar and one of the best spots for South Shore bar pizza.
Great pie! Order the oversized pepperoni. And get it with a Greek salad.
But “The Cod,” in true South Shore bar pizza tradition, has its own eccentricities. For example, the Cape Cod Café is a good 50 miles from Cape Cod, and, um, it’s not a café.
However, The Cod is widely considered the birthplace of South Shore bar pizza. The Greek-American Jamoulis family bought the bar after World War II and soon thereafter began serving customers what we now know as South Shore bar pizza. They still own the bar today.
Nobody knows for a fact if Cape Cod Café invented South Shore bar pizza. But nobody has any real evidence to the contrary. It’s a good story and it makes sense.
Brockton in its glory days boasted countless bar pizza joints that have since disappeared with its industry. But it remains the spiritual home of South Shore bar pizza with many solid, local watering holes serving quality bar pie.
15. Bar pizza culture spread from Brockton along the old trolley routes to Quincy
The heart of bar pizza country extends from Brockton in the south to Quincy in the north. These are the two largest communities south of Boston and historically blue-collar communities.
Brockton in its hey-day boasted the nation’s largest shoe industry. Quincy was a shipbuilding powerhouse that launched battleships and aircraft carriers in World War II. Even today, as times have changed, both cities still have a large number of gritty taprooms and bar pizza joints.
Back in the day, these two cities were connected by a network of trolley routes. Old timers from Quincy used to tell me they’d take the trolley to Brockton when Quincy High played Brockton High in football. It’s my theory that the bar pizza phenomenon caught hold among the old dive bars along this travel corridor.
The trolleys are long gone. But even today, most bar pizza joints are found along the Route 37, Route 28 and Route 18 corridors that the trolleys once followed and that connect Quincy and northern South Shore to Brockton and middle South Shore. This is the heart of bar pizza country.
16. You can get bar pizza “laced” or with “burnt edges”
Another South Shore bar pizza oddity: lacing vs. burnt edges. It’s basically the same thing.
They pour a little bit of sauce around the edge of the dough where it wedges up against the pan. The sauce burns against the pan in the oven, creating a dark black edge, or lacing, of burnt crust.
For some reason, South Shore bar pizza people absolutely love their pizza made this way. The South Shore Bar Pizza Social Club is ALL about the lacing.
However, different bars use different terminology. Some bars call it laced, others call it burnt edges. It’s laced at the Lynwood, it’s burnt edges at Town Spa, a longtime bar pizza landmark in Stoughton.
Ask for the wrong thing at the wrong bar, and they might not know what you mean. Hell, they might kick you out just for being a wise-ass know it all. And, well, you probably deserved it anyway. Many bar pizza bars don’t know what either term means. It’s a super-specialized thing.
People who order their pie “laced” or with “burnt edges” are definitely hard-core South Shore bar pizza aficionados.
17. There are hyper-local sub-styles of pizza within the South Shore bar pizza genre, including one made with Boston baked beans
There are three major subsets of South Shore bar pizza, each with subtle differences. I call them Alumni style, Randolph style and Brockton style.
The Alumni style is found in the northern South Shore communities of Quincy, Braintree and Weymouth closest to Boston. Almost all the bar pizza in these towns originated at the old Alumni Café in Quincy. Spots like Rag’s Tavern Quincy, Braintree Brewhouse and Alumni Weymouth serve Alumni-style pizza.
The Randolph style is most notable by its signature bean pizza. That’s right. Bean pizza. Usually called the bean special.
This is pizza with bits of onions and bits of salami or bacon, and baked beans. Sounds disgusting. It’s actually amazing. You find it only in Randolph, at places like the Lynwood and Hoey’s.
The Brockton style is defined by its Greek heritage. You typically order bar pizza in Brockton with a Greek salad. You don’t usually see Greek salad and bar pizza outside of Brockton.
18. The mighty Neponset River forms and impenetrable Great Wall of Pizza over which no South Shore bar pizza shall pass
The Neponset River is the border between Boston to the north and Quincy to the south. Basically, the mighty Neponset separates Boston from the South Shore, both physically and culturally.
Once you cross south over the Neponset River from Boston, the air is cleaner, the bird songs are sweeter and the girls are prettier.
You do not find South Shore bar pizza, or even pizza in the South Shore style, north of the Neponset River.
North of the Neponset River you find only lepers, dragons and roast beef sandwiches.
19. Bar pizza was born of Greek-American culinary tradition – or maybe vice versa!
Here in America, at least here in New England, there are two major kinds of pizza: Italian pizza, a thin-crust pie cooked directly and the oven, and Greek pizza, a thicker crust pie cooked in pans.
Turns out this style of Greek pizza is largely New England phenomenon. Greek pizza in Greece, for example, is not baked in a pan. Instead, it’s a flatbread baked right in the oven, much like Neapolitan pizza.
For some reasons, Greek pizza makers here in New England, sometime around World War II, started cooking pizza in a pan. People like the Greek-American Jamoulis family at Cape Cod Café. Many of us long assumed that South Shore bar pizza was born of this Greek tradition.
Turns out the opposite might be true.
Boston-based food writer, culinary historian and “Passionate Foodie” Richard Auffrey believes that Greek pan pizza here in New England actually began with South Shore bar pizza.
Auffrey argues that there’s basically no evidence that Greek-American pan pizza existed before South Shore bar pizza.
“Historically Greek pizzas seemed to tend more toward flatbreads,” Auffrey wrote to me. “And from my initial research, it seems those Greek pan pizzas (you get in New England) began around the same time as bar pizzas, early 1950s. Kind of a chicken and egg thing.”
20. There is a Pizza Maker Zero who invented bar pie before Cape Cod Café!
So there’s a legend out there that South Shore bar pizza wasn’t even invented on the South Shore.
Auffrey believes it may have been instead invented by an Albanian-American pizza maker from Connecticut in the 1950s named Charlie Tsiskas. He either spread the idea of pan pizza to Greek bar owners in Brockton or shared the concept with somebody who did.
I’ve also been told, but have no proof, that Tsiskas and South Shore bar owners all learned of the Greek pan pizza concept from someone else, an unknown culinary magician whose legacy lives on today.
We call him Pizza Maker Zero. The mystery man who contracted the world’s first known case of South Shore bar pizza.
21. There is an entire new Facebook group devoted to South Shore bar pizza
It’s called South Shore Bar Pizza Social Club and it’s super active and even educational. It was launched in late February 2020 and within 12 weeks had nearly 12,000 members.
It’s been an amazing group. Members have actively supported their local bar pizza makers throughout the restaurant crisis In fact, many of these bar pie joints are selling more take-out pizza than ever.
Most everyone in the group has learned of new bar pizza joints, and learned that South Shore bar pizza culture is much bigger and more pervasive than we realized.
And hundreds of members have learned to make bar pizza at home, sharing tips and recipes, even places to score those pizza pans – all while keeping alive the tradition and culture of bar pizza even when the bars themselves are shut down.