I never considered Phoenix to be a pizza city. Religiously watching Food Network throughout my childhood, I was bombarded with propaganda surrounding the heated war between the deep-dish delicacies of Chicago and the paper-thin pies of New York. Aside from the Barro’s my family ordered from once a week and the Domino’s I would waddle to many a drunk freshman night – my scope of the pizza culture in the Grand Canyon state was miniscule.

Last Saturday, this all changed.

Buying my ticket to the Phoenix Pizza Festival, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Would I arrive to an underwhelming display of cold, sad “classics” – cookie-cutter pepperoni slices atop an array of cardboard crusts, adorned with cheese that would give Play-doh a run for its money? Or would I walk into a pizza snob’s wet dream – pies littered with prickly pear cactus and roasted javelina – an homage to Arizona’s indigenous offerings? The answer is, well, neither.

Arriving downtown to Margaret T. Hance Park, a tinge of Roma tomatoes tickled my nose and the scent of crust freshly-blackened by wood fires made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Walking closer, I found something interesting; scalpers, lots of scalpers. They were helping the droves of people - including families who had trekked from the North valley and frenzied boyfriends looking to appease their disgruntled counterpart – who were all scurrying to nick a ticket.

Luckily for me, I thought ahead and entered the premises hitch-free. The crowd was as varied as the tasty offerings, from dates and girl gangs to families and foodies. I was overwhelmed with how much there was to do: ice cream trucks dishing out cones to winding lines, bands getting the crowd grooving with classics like Modern English's “I Melt With You” (ironically cheesy, huh?), and pizza stealing your glance no matter what direction you looked. I could write a lengthy novella about the entire experience, instead, I’m bringing you my Top 3 Slices of Phoenix Pizza Festival:

1. Dolce Diavolo – La Piazza al Forno (Glendale, Arizona)

cheese, sauce, pizza
Delia Johnson

I came to the festival with two goals in mind: 1.) eat something you would never expect to find on pizza and 2.) taste something truly authentic.

Taking a bite of this slice, I felt like I was biting into Italy. Like, floating down a Venetian canal in an Armani suit bumping “That’s Amore” Italy. At first glance it didn’t appear special, but the first nibble had me high-tailing it back to the booth to ask what the hell I was eating, because it tasted that magical.

The pleasant girl working the booth informed me this was a family business through-and-through, from the sweet little girl who fetched my blood orange San Pellegrino to the man that delivered the pies straight from their artisan oven. I also learned why this pizza tasted so damn sweet – not the imported San Marzano tomatoes, but HONEY. Well, now I’m never NOT going to put honey on my pizza…thanks a lot guys.

2. Mac N’ Cheese Special – Grand Avenue Pizza Company (Phoenix, Arizona)

cheese, tomato, sauce, pizza
Delia Johnson

You know those times when you’re walking around, minding your own business, then someone walks by with something you need to have – right then, right there? Yeah…this was one of those times.

This pie is something else. People were funneling away from Grand Avenue’s tent like worker bees – all with this decadent slice in-hand. Covered with mac and cheese, sundried tomatoes, fresh broccoli, beef chorizo and a panko-parmesan topping, I had to ask them what wasn’t included on this glorious trash pile. The mastermind at the oven was tattooed from hands to neck (I’m partial to ink nerds), and when you pair that with an innovative menu spanning far beyond mushrooms and black olives – I’ll need to make the trek to Grand Avenue very soon

3. Spicy Sriracha Chicken – Freak Brothers Pizza Co. (Coming soon!)

meat, vegetable, sauce, pizza
Delia Johnson

This one sandwiches itself between the other two – the right amount of classic pizza taste with an added oompf that makes you just go “…shit, that’s good”. This pie was covered with grilled chicken, jalapeno slices and a Sriracha drizzle…my gawd did this thing pack some serious heat. You really forget how hot raw jalapenos are until you take a fat bite into one, seeds and all. Atop the thin, crispy crust, this slice was the perfect snack to end the day.

My appreciation for Arizona’s pizza scene grew ten-fold on Saturday, and I really wish I had more than just a couple of hours to explore. Just goes to show that when you ditch the cheese-caked cardboard boxes of old, there’s a world of saucy goodness out there just waiting for you.