This week the travel website TripAdvisor declared that the North End’s Regina Pizzeria is the best pizzeria in the country. We should take that announcement with a grain of powdered Parmesan straight from the shaker.
It happens that I love the pizza at the Thacher Street spot. These are utterly classic old-school Italian-American pies: crisp, thin crust; a little char at the edges; the right amount of blistering and chew; a blessed union of bright sauce and flavorful cheese. I’ve put Regina on lists of the best pizza Boston has to offer, and as long as nothing changes (please let nothing change), I stand by that forever. I even prefer it to another longtime local favorite, Santarpio’s.
This isn’t about Regina. It’s about TripAdvisor, and the stock we put in ratings from it and similar sites, and the fuss we make over announcements like this — because it’s fun, and because it lets us lord something (again) over New York, which came in second with Bleecker Street Pizza. (New York was still, rightly, named number one US pizza city, over Boston at an unimpressive number seven. Note that Vegas and Orlando came in ahead of us. Is your Pizza BS meter beeping yet?)
Let’s go to the press release. It says that the rankings are “based on millions of reviews and opinions from TripAdvisor diners. The top pizzerias and cities for pizza were determined by taking into account the quality and quantity of reviews and great pizza reviews, with more weight to reviews from the past year.”
In other words, what does well among TripAdvisor diners is . . . what does well among TripAdvisor diners. If there are good and prominent reviews of a place, more people will go, and then write more reviews. TripAdvisor is a travel site. So who is writing its restaurant reviews, travelers dropping in, or locals in the know? Although TripAdvisor doesn’t share those statistics, a company survey analyzing the dining behaviors of more than 9,500 consumers shows that both locals and travelers use the site to research restaurants, but the numbers are weighted toward travelers: 93 percent of respondents use it when they’re away, 78 percent when at home.
To rate a restaurant, a TripAdvisor user clicks on one of five bubbles: terrible, poor, average, very good, or excellent. Regina rates a 4.5, with 70 percent of the 2,469 reviews being “excellent.” It happens that it’s technically not even the top-rated pizza place in Boston, never mind the country. That honor goes to Italian Express Pizzeria, in East Boston, with 79 percent of 760 reviews being “excellent.” I’ve never been to Italian Express Pizzeria, which I plan to visit just as soon as possible, given that it is number five out of 2,620 restaurants — restaurants, not just pizzerias — in Boston.
Sorry, O Ya, L’Espalier, No. 9 Park, et al., but the top restaurant in Boston, per TripAdvisor, is Sam LaGrassa’s. The sandwich place is a five-minute walk from the Globe office. I took an informal survey of my co-workers, and it’s not even number one on a list of places they like to go for lunch. (Blame the closer Al’s State Street Cafe. There’s even an office Slack channel, als_pals. “Purpose: Talk about how good Al’s is, going to Al’s, previous trips to Al’s, puns involving the letters A-L.”)
This means that a visitor to Boston may wind up eating at restaurants that aren’t particularly representative of Boston. A cousin recently sent me a message, asking where to eat when she comes to town. “Any opinions on these TripAdvisor recommendations? The Q, Barcelona, Venezia, Boston Sail Loft,” she wrote. I’ve got nothing against these establishments, but I probably wouldn’t recommend them to an out-of-town guest either; they’re chains one might visit in another city or places nobody I know seems to go. (I suggested Gourmet Dumpling House, Toro, Daily Catch followed by Modern Pastry, and Belle Isle Seafood, if you were wondering.)
It’s worth noting that Sam LaGrassa’s, Italian Express Pizzeria, Regina, and Bleecker Street Pizza have all been featured on the Food Network. Given the way culture works, popularity is often a reflection of visibility, not quality — perhaps particularly where tourism is concerned. “Hey, honey. Let’s go to that place Guy Fieri liked, the one we saw on the teevee!”
Eating by algorithm is inherently faulty. We know this. Common sense tells us this. The spoken word tells us this. New Yorkers will fight you to the death arguing about Di Fara, Lombardi’s, Patsy’s, Totonno’s, without Bleecker Street Pizza ever entering the conversation. (Other New Yorkers will fight me to the death for having even mentioned Di Fara, Lombardi’s, Patsy’s, or Totonno’s.)
In fact, trying to pick the best pizza at all is inherently faulty, although an exercise that is both tasty and fun. Pizza is not a monolith. Pizza is as gorgeously varied as the people who make it. Do you want Greek, Neapolitan, Sicilian, New York-style, New Haven-style, deep dish, thin crust, grilled, bar pizza . . . ? Recently my esteemed colleague Kara Baskin said that Somerville’s new Dragon Pizza is Boston’s best. A few weeks later, I declared my love for Rabottini’s in Allston. We were both correct. As I wrote at the time, “If there’s one food that clearly illustrates just how subjective taste is, it is the pizza. . . . No one’s favorite is right or wrong. Everyone’s favorite really is the best.”
If you’re going to eat pizza in Boston, here is a short list of places I think you should try. But enough about me. What are your favorites?
Area Four: Dough made with a teenage starter, a 36-hour rise, a wood-burning oven, and hand-pulled mozzarella combine to make Area Four’s a stellar pie. 500 Technology Square, Kendall Square, Cambridge, 617-758-4444, www.areafour.com
Galleria Umberto: Only open for lunch, this cafeteria-style institution serves Sicilian slices until they run out. It won a James Beard America’s Classics award earlier this year. 289 Hanover St., North End, 617-227-5709
Max and Leo’s: Blistered, charred, thin-crust pies from a 900 degree coal-fired oven. 325 Washington St., Newton Corner, 617-244-7200, www.maxandleospizza.com
Picco: Heavenly pies, puffy and tender yet crisp and charred. I can’t not get the margherita, but the Alsatian pie is a pleasant diversion. 513 Tremont St., South End, 617-927-0066, www.piccorestaurant.com
Rabottini’s Pizza: The rounds are good, the square pies even better: bronzed and blistered, with beautiful structure, pocked with a network of tiny holes and big bubbles. It’s kind of like a really great loaf of bread topped with whole milk mozzarella and vegetables straight from the farm. 182 Western Ave., Allston, 617-903-4576, www.rabottinispizza.com
Regina Pizzeria: Open forever and everything a classic pizza place should be — fabulous pies from the brick oven, pitchers of beer, and Sinatra on the jukebox. 11½ Thacher St., North End, 617-227-0765, www.pizzeriaregina.com
Santarpio’s Pizza: You’ll find great pies and plenty of character at this old-school pizza joint. Don’t miss the barbecued homemade sausage. 111 Chelsea St., East Boston, 617-567-9871, www.santarpiospizza.com
Stoked Wood Fired Pizza Co.: Blistered pies with perfect chew and compelling toppings, plus good beer and cocktails. Extremely kid-friendly in the early hours. 1632 Beacon St., Washington Square, Brookline, 617-879-0707, www.stokedpizzaco.comDevra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.