Free Markets

Why Frozen Pizza Is the Best Pizza

The best pizza isn't made in New York, Chicago, or New Haven. It's made on assembly lines.


Debates about pizza are a lot like debates about religion, or politics, or monetary policy: There are a lot of strongly held beliefs, but very little is ever truly resolved.

Yet if one were to make a list of candidates for the best pizza in New York City—which, with apologies to Chicago, Detroit, and New Haven, is a reasonable proxy for the best pizza in America—then Di Fara Pizza would almost certainly make the cut.

Di Fara is something of a legend among pizza enthusiasts. In 2009, The New York Times called it "one of the most acclaimed and sought-after pizza shops in New York City." The shop has repeatedly won contests for best pizza in New York and has at times been overrun by bustling crowds and long lines. A slice of Di Fara isn't just a piece of pizza; it's a tradition, a public ritual, a foodie culture event.

Di Fara is located on Avenue J in a heavily Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Brooklyn called Midwood. Taking the subway from Manhattan takes the better part of an hour, and when you arrive, you encounter a shop that has been open since 1965 and looks the part: Outside, there's a large, heavily weathered sign advertising "PIZZA" and "ITALIAN HEROS," though most of the place's nonpizza items were discontinued long ago. Inside, Di Fara is what one might politely call unassuming—or, less politely, dilapidated.

After you order a slice, it takes about five minutes to heat it up in one of the shop's gas-powered metal ovens. The slice also looks unassuming. There is nothing on the plate or in the shop to visibly signal this is trendy food, sought after by connoisseurs. There is no pretense in the presentation of the product, which is served on a paper plate and a tear of tinfoil. Aside from a slightly elevated price of $5, there is little to indicate this slice is all that different from any of the other hundreds or thousands of slices of pizza one could eat in the greater New York area.

Instead, it is simply, casually, almost indifferently excellent, an edible lesson in pizza perfection. The cheesy top is bubbly and gently browned; the not-too-sweet sauce tastes like summer-fresh tomatoes; the crust is crackly and buttery, with the hint of warm softness one can obtain only from freshly heated bread.

Di Fara was founded by Domenico DeMarco, an Italian immigrant who passed away in 2022. When he died, New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells described him as "a living link between the cooking of Southern Italy, where he was born in 1936, and New York City's corner-slice culture." DeMarco was famously fussy about ingredients, and the results are apparent in every astounding bite.

A slice from Di Fara simply tastes better than I ever imagined pizza could. Months later, I can still recall the sublime balance of flavors, the light and crispy texture. I can say with certainty it is the single most delicious, most satisfying piece of pizza I have ever had.

But Di Fara does not make the best pizza in America. Nor does any other celebrated pizza shop in New York or elsewhere. Not even Chicago.

The best pizza in America doesn't come from an oven in Brooklyn or some other cult foodie mecca, where it was fastidiously handmade by some aging artisan. It comes from the freezer case at your local grocery store, where it arrived on a semitruck after being constructed on an assembly line at a nondescript factory in the middle of the country.

The best pizza in America is made by Red Baron, a catchall mass-market brand owned by the frozen-food megacorporation Schwan's. Red Baron makes frozen pizza with a variety of toppings and in an array of styles, from Thin & Crispy to Classic Crust to Deep Dish, because big corporations don't judge if you prefer Chicago-style. Personally, I'm fond of Brick Oven Pepperoni, but the particulars are largely irrelevant. Whereas a Di Fara slice tastes indifferently excellent, Red Baron tastes merely indifferent. The sauce is a little too spicy and a little too sweet, without the lively burst of tomato flavor. The cheese and pepperoni have a salty, fatty, processed edge to them. The crust is a little too crispy and a little too brittle. After you pull a Red Baron pizza out of the oven and take your first, slightly-too-hot bite, you are likely to react with a shrug and the thought: Sure, not bad! Judged strictly on its culinary merits—taste, texture, smell, visual appeal—Red Baron is vaguely competent at best. If you cook it properly, it can be reasonably enjoyable, especially in times of stress or exhaustion, but it is never memorable.

Red Baron's merits are not culinary, at least not in the usual sense. Its virtues have more to do with convenience, consistency, and price.

Red Baron is never great pizza, but it is never bad pizza either. It's also shockingly inexpensive: A whole pizza costs about the same as a single slice from Di Fara. Unlike a hot slice from Di Fara, which can only be found in a couple of locations in New York, Red Baron can be found in grocery stores practically anywhere in the country—and in household freezers anywhere in the country.

Red Baron is the best pizza not because it's the tastiest, but because it's cheap, abundant, and always there.

Red Baron—along with its many mass-market, corporate-produced, grocery-store-freezer-case contemporaries, such as DiGiorno—represents a kind of culinary miracle, the product of decades of technological innovation and industrial processes, as well as the complex cultural evolution of pizza itself, which began not as an artisanal delicacy but as a lowly, versatile, inexpensive street food for the poor.

Red Baron is not only the best pizza in America: It is, in at least one underappreciated way, the most authentic.

Pizza Freedom

Pizza as we know it originated as a regional street food in Naples, Italy. From the earliest recorded observations, it was a flexible, forgettable food, an on-the-go bite for lazzaroni, or day laborers.Because it was so adaptable, and because it was associated with a class of workers whose lives were unstructured and unplanned, pizza was also associated with a kind of live-as-thou-wilt lifestyle freedom.

In the mid-1830s, Alexandre Dumas, the French novelist behind books like The Three Musketeers, traveled to the Italian city, and several years later he published Sketches of Naples, a book about his experiences. Several long passages of the book are devoted to the lazzaroni and to one of their primary foods of choice, pizza.

"Other men have houses," wrote Dumas, "other men have villas, other men have palaces, the lazzarone has the world. The lazzarone has no master, the lazzarone is amenable to no laws, the lazzarone is above social exigencies; he sleeps when he is sleepy, he eats when he is hungry, he drinks when he is thirsty."

The lazarrone diet, in Dumas' telling, consisted primarily of two foods: watermelon in the summer, and in the winter a curious and deceptively complex dish called pizza. "At first sight," he wrote, "the pizza appears to be a simple dish, upon examination it proves to be compound. The pizza is prepared with bacon, with lard, with cheese, with tomatas, with fish."

The revolving selection of toppings wasn't just a nod to differing tastes; it was a marker of the city economy's health. "The price of the pizza rises and falls according to the abundance or scarcity of the year. When the fish-pizza sells at a half grain, the fishing has been good; when the oil-pizza sells at a grain, the yield of olives has been bad. The rate at which the pizza sells is, also, influenced by the greater or less degree of freshness; it will be easily understood that yesterday's pizza will not bring the same price as today's." Pizza, Dumas declared, was "the gastronomic thermometer of the market." (Even in its earliest incarnations, pizza had something in common with monetary policy.)

In the century after Dumas described pizza in Naples, pizza began to spread—first around Italy, and then to the shores of the U.S., following waves of Italian immigration. Lombardi's, often recognized as the first dedicated U.S. pizzeria, opened on Spring Street in Manhattan in 1905, selling pizzas for five cents; as always, it was a thermometer of the market. Other pizzerias soon followed, mostly in the New York area, and eventually beyond. Pizza was initially treated as an Italian specialty food, but even the earliest iterations were Americanized, adapted to domestic tastes and ingredients.

As Italian pizza began to take root in America in the early 1900s, another innovation was in the works: frozen food.

A man named Clarence Birdseye had begun experimenting with methods to rapidly freeze all sorts of food, with a focus on fish and vegetables, using methods designed to lock in fresh flavor. Some forms of frozen food already existed when Birdseye began his experiments, but they were slow frozen, resulting in mushy, flavorless food. They were considered so awful that New York passed a law that banned giving frozen food to prisoners. It also required stores to prominently note the presence of frozen foodstuffs in large lettering above their entryways.

Birdseye saw a different future for frozen food. As a young man he'd worked a series of jobs that took him to far-flung places—the untamed West of the early 1900s, the remote chill of Labrador, Canada—and on his journeys he always missed the taste of fresh food. Like many men of the era, he believed in the power of science and industry; he ended up with hundreds of patents to his name, many of which had nothing to do with food. Unlike many men of the era, he was obsessed with preparing food. His early letters were filled with recipes he'd developed using novel ingredients.

This combination of interests and experience combined in 1924, when Birdseye obtained a patent for a novel method of freezing fish, based heavily on a quick freezing method he'd learned from the Inuit while working in Canada. Some early freezing machines had existed as early as the mid-1800s, but Birdseye was the first to both grasp and develop such a product's commercial potential.

As Mark Kurlansky writes in his 2012 biography, Birdseye, many of the man's important innovations came not from one-off technological improvements but from the development and marketing of freezing infrastructure. He not only had to implement methods to store and transport frozen food; he had to convince skeptical grocery store owners and consumers that frozen food was in fact worthwhile. He lent expensive freezers to grocers for free so long as they carried his products. He staged elaborate dinners for investors, revealing only at the end that everything they'd eaten had been frozen. He was as much a marketer as an inventor.

At the heart of Birdseye's project was a belief in technological progress and the power of industrialization to improve the world. It was a fundamentally different worldview than the one shared by most elite consumers today, which elevates labor-intensive, relatively rare craft products. Understanding Birdseye's innovations, Kurlansky writes, means understanding that his worldview was shaped by an inescapable localism. "We need to grasp that people who are accustomed only to artisanal goods long for the industrial. It is only when the usual product is industrial that the artisanal is longed for."

The Frozen Pizza Revolution

So it was with pizza. In the years after World War II, pizza became a staple of American dining both out and at home. By the late 1950s, make-at-home pizza recipes were appearing in Betty Crocker cookbooks, still labeled as Italian specialties.

But pizza of the era was, by definition, artisanal, local, handmade, and labor-intensive. It tasted best when fresh from the oven, which meant you had to be pretty close to where it was cooked in order to enjoy it properly. The problem for pizza was much the same that Birdseye had identified for fish and vegetables: How could people enjoy fresh food without proximity to where it was produced?

Thanks in part to Birdseye's innovations, Americans in the postwar era had started buying freezers and refrigerators for their homes. Local entrepreneurs were the first to spot the opportunity: Like other food, pizza could be chilled and reheated at home. In June 1950, The New York Times described a Boston company selling refrigerated pizzas that could be warmed up in the oven; the cost, by this time, was 49 cents a pie. "The tangy pies have a bread-textured crust and are delightfully seasoned with oregano, thyme and a variety of spices," the Times reported, while recommending that consumers bake them longer than the packaging instructions recommend. Just two weeks after opening, the New York outpost of the company was already churning out 3,000 pizzas a day. Clearly this was an idea with promise.

Other producers sprang up around the country, often to great success: As a 2020 CNBC story on the history of frozen pizza notes, ads in Massachusetts touted frozen pizzas for just 33 cents—even then, everything was more expensive in New York—while the frozen and refrigerated pizza business boomed everywhere from Akron, Ohio, to Chicago.

True industrial production came to pizza in the early 1960s, thanks to a Minnesota couple named Jim and Rose Totino. In 1951, when the couple opened an Italian restaurant in Minneapolis, pizza was still enough of an unknown that Rose reportedly had to bake her bank's loan officer a pizza in order to get funding approved, according to an obituary in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. But the business expanded, and in 1962 the company started making frozen pizzas en masse in a factory in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, a short drive from Minneapolis.

By the early 1970s, their brand, Totino's, was the best-selling frozen pizza in the country. A magazine ad picturing Rose advertised "quality, variety and innovation" while touting such new products as "Pizza Slices" and "Microwave Pizza." In 1974, the company recorded $50 million in sales, and the couple sold their brand to Pillsbury for $20 million in 1975. The following year, Schwan's launched Red Baron, which would be marketed by a fleet of World War II–era stunt planes. By 2022 it would be the country's second-most-popular frozen brand, with more than $250 million in sales in the first four months of the year alone.

Even Bad Pizza

There is a saying about pizza: Pizza is like sex—even when it's bad, it's still pretty good. Serious foodies and sexual progressives (but I repeat myself) might disagree, with some cause.

But the old saw is at least directionally true. Even the worst pizza is usually not so awful, and the merely mediocre examples are, if considerably short of exquisite, often quite satisfying.

Red Baron pizza is far better than bad. At its best, it's a pleasantly tacky treat that's superior to its competition—that includes DiGiorno, the best-selling frozen pizza brand. When DiGiorno came to market in 1995, it was the first frozen pizza to offer a rising crust that expanded into soft, chewy pizza dough when cooked. This helped the brand compete against fresh-baked takeout and delivery pizzas, hence the brand's long-running slogan: It's not delivery. It's DiGiorno.

DiGiorno's rising crust pizza was a triumph of industrial innovation that launched the brand to the top of the frozen pizza sales charts. It was also a heavy, bready, crust-dominated pizza that could be enjoyable for a few bites but was simply too dense to truly enjoy after more than a slice. The sales figures say millions of frozen pizza fans disagree with me, but I find Red Baron superior for its balance of peppery sauce, molten cheese, and thin-but-not-too-crackly crust.

Red Baron's relative lightness makes it ideal when consumed late at night after a drink (or several) when your local delivery spot has closed for the evening. My favorite local pizzeria stops delivering around 10 p.m. on weeknights. Red Baron, in contrast, respects my night-owl tendencies; as long as I've got a box in my freezer, I can have a warm and crispy pie ready in about half an hour, regardless of the time.

Red Baron's around-the-clock availability is complemented by its almost absurdly low price point. Even in an expensive grocery market like Washington, D.C., a whole pepperoni pizza—which provides a little more than 1,300 calories—typically sells for roughly $7, and supermarket sales occasionally bring the cost down to half that. My favorite local delivery option starts at $22, and that's before add-on toppings, delivery, and tip. Red Baron might not taste quite as good, but it's a fraction of the cost.

Even as food inflation has skyrocketed since 2020, frozen pizzas have stayed affordable, leading to an 11 percent jump in overall frozen pizza sales in 2022, according to Restaurant Business. As in 17th century Naples, pizza remains a thermometer of the economy.

As for the taste and texture, Red Baron is a standout, at least among its peers—and not only according to me.

In July, Consumer Reports published superlatives for frozen pizzas that put Red Baron Classic at the very top, with an Editor's Choice award. "Red Baron is the crowd pleaser," the magazine declared. "You get the distinct taste of crust, sauce, and cheese in each bite." That might sound like a low bar: It's pizza that, uh, tastes more or less like pizza. But in the sprawling universe of frozen pies, it's more than enough to rise to the top.

That universe is almost comically vast. In October 2022, a Twitter user named Michael Bradley shared a video of the frozen pizza selection at a Woodman's grocery store in Wisconsin. The video lasted just a single minute, but as the camera strolled past case after case and aisle after aisle of frozen pizza, it seemed to go on practically forever, offering endless permutations of frozen crust, sauce, and cheese waiting to be reheated at home. The video, simply captioned "a frozen pizza section in Wisconsin," became enough of a viral sensation that it was featured on the Today show.

Frozen food has been with us for most of a century, and frozen pizza has been a staple for over 50 years. Yet even now, the sheer, silly abundance of the stuff remains enough to astound. The variety and expansiveness of a frozen pizza section in Wisconsin is literally awesome: It can provoke a kind of awe.

That abundance is what Red Baron represents. Red Baron is not, objectively, the single best pizza, period. This year, Pizza Today named a New Haven, Connecticut, pizzeria as the nation's top pizza joint. The best pizza I've ever had, based on a large but not completist sample, is a slice from Di Fara—but Di Fara is in New York, and I live in Washington, D.C. (And while Di Fara will ship frozen pizzas packed with dry ice to my door, they have nothing on the price and convenience of Red Baron.)

Meanwhile, Red Baron is never farther away than a short trip to the grocery store. Most of the time, it's in my freezer. That's why, for me and millions of others, it is frequently the best pizza that is reasonably affordable and available right now. It's not a bucket-list item for adventuresome foodies, but it is a tasty, filling, and cheap snack for today's lazzaroni: the working-class eater who owns little but has no masters and is amenable to no laws.

That sort of virtue, the fruit of industrialization and mass production, of consistency and affordability, is often overlooked in today's culture—in food especially, but in other goods as well. We live in an era of awesome abundance, of inexpensive availability, of good-enough stuff that is the best not because it's the most exquisite but because it's cheap and instantly available and sometimes even surprisingly good for the price. As the story of Clarence Birdseye reminds us, it is only because of that taken-for-granted abundance that we can fully appreciate the elevated excellence of the Di Faras of the world.

Ironically, Di Fara, too, was once considered something of a déclassé product by the pizza elites of the world. Di Fara heats single slices in gas-powered metal ovens that reach lower temperatures than the wood-fired, whole-pizza brick ovens that some pizza purists consider truly authentic. But over time, Di Fara won over the skeptics by demonstrating the delicate, delicious virtues of single-slice setups. The debate about the best pizza will never be resolved, but perhaps someday the industrially produced wonder that is Red Baron will finally make the list.