Story by Dave Eckert | Photo courtesy of Buffalo State Pizza
There are very few things, in my opinion, more subjective than pizza. Ask 100 people what their favorite pizza is, and you’ll likely get 100 different answers. Pizza is a personal choice. Very personal. What follows are brief profiles of four Kansas City pizzerias I personally enjoy. If I didn’t include your favorite, and I likely didn’t, here’s hoping you don’t take it personally!
My first stop brings me to one of the most unique pizzerias you will ever visit-Clay & Fire on the city’s west side. What makes it unique? Well, in the first place, it’s housed in an old two-story brick house with massively steep steps both inside and out, making it a challenge to access. It has an amazing wood-burning oven reaching temperatures of one thousand degrees. Then there’s the fact that it’s not a pizzeria. It’s a Mediterranean restaurant that just happens to have some of the best pizzas in the metro (my opinion that’s shared by many). That’s thanks to the man manning the oven, Executive Chef Brent Gunnels.
Photo courtesy of CLAY & FIRE
Gunnels’ signature pizza at Clay & Fire is called “The Grandma,” which Gunnels described in great, loving detail. “Originating in Long Island, the puffy square pizza was made by first generation Italian immigrants. Hence, the endearing name. Our version is a love child of my experience with pizza throughout my life. The dough is a cross between Neapolitan and New York with an airy crumb and structural integrity to allow delivery without compromise. The cheese is low moisture, whole milk mozzarella-a tip of a hat to my NY pizza family. I cook it at a cooler temperature than a Neapolitan, but hotter than a New York-style. This gives our pizza its signature texture. The sauce is comprised of quality tomatoes, which are hand crushed with freshly minced garlic stirred in, making it fresh and zippy. Finally, we finish it with fresh basil, a fruity Lebanese olive oil, and Grana Padano cheese, resulting in a pizza that’s rustic, bright, and fresh,” Gunnels recanted.
Gunnels says he’s been blown away by the response. “Everyone seems to feel the love and care I put into that pizza, and I couldn’t be more honored to share this beautiful pie with the people of Kansas City. It has been remarkable,” Gunnels shared. I don’t think I need add anything else other than if you don’t seek this pizza experience out, you don’t know what you’re missing.
Photo courtesy of T-SHOTZ
Far less personal, yet no less interesting, are the Detroit-style pizzas you will find at T-Shotz. Yes, T-Shotz, the restaurant, driving range, and golf-themed gaming venue located off Barry Road and 169 in The Northland. I asked General Manager J.W. Fisher how he describes Detroit-style pizza and how it came to be a feature on T-Shotz’ menu? “Detroit-style pizza is a rectangular pizza with a thick crust that is crispy, airy, and chewy. It is traditionally topped with tomato sauce and Wisconsin brick cheese that goes all the way to the edges. We felt that DSP was a growing trend nationally and was not well represented in the KC market making this the opportune time to offer it on our menu,” Fisher shared.
T-Shotz features five versions of Detroit-style pizza as well a “build you own” option. “Our most popular is the KC BBQ. It’s topped with marinated chicken, Wisconsin brick cheese, and a sweet and tangy bbq sauce. I tried three of the DSPs recently, and the bbq was my personal favorite, too. Being a Chicago native loyal to Lou Malnati’s deep dish, I was surprised how much I enjoyed the Detroit-style pizza. Just don’t ask me to root for the Tigers, Lions, Pistons, or Red Wings. That would be too much!
Photo courtesy of BUFFALO STATE PIZZA
Next, a visit with Buffalo State Pizza and its co-owner, and one of the nicest guys I’ve met, Philippe Lechevin. Buffalo State, which has two locations, one in The Crossroads, and one in downtown Overland Park, is known for its “ridiculously large slices” of pizza, which I love, but not as much as the authentic New York-style crust made from fresh dough every day. “That’s one of the biggest elements of our pizza, the fact that everything is so fresh: the dough, the sauce, the cheese, the meats, even the tomatoes and herbs in the summer when we source them from local farmers,” Lechevin told me.
Lechevin is a native of France and a classically trained chef, who, among other positions, held the post of the Executive Chef of The Kauffman Center prior to jumping into the world of pizzas. I asked him if he ever missed his days of fine dining, “If I were ten years younger, I’m sure I would want my own bistro or brasserie, but I’m no kid anymore, and there are only so many hours in the day, and so many days in the week. I enjoy serving really good pizza, sandwiches, and other goodies, and I like interacting with my customers in a more casual, fun environment,” Lechevin stated. I like it, too, and I’m certainly glad Lechevin made the change.
Photo courtesy of FUN HOUSE PIZZA
Finally, another pizza experience unique to Kansas City with the longest history of these four by far – Fun House Pizza. “Fun House Pizza started in 1964. Helen and Marty Graham opened the original Fun House in Raytown. They started franchising, and at one point, we had 11 locations,” Fun House Pizza Owner Jim Dingman recalled. These days, there are three Fun House locations, but only two associated with the original, Dingman owns those two-one in Blue Springs, and the one I visited off 350 Highway in Lee’s Summit. “I started working at the Raytown location back in the 80’s when I was in high school. Then, after serving in the Marine Corps, I ran a trucking company, but also worked at Fun House,” Dingman said. “The Graham family asked me to be part of the ownership group back in 1990 or 1991, and I’ve been here ever since.
Fun House Pizza prides itself on providing a family-friendly environment complete with pinball machines, video games, and picnic tables for family-style seating. Dingman is also proud to continue the tradition of fresh ingredients. “We make our own dough, sauce, and sausage every day,” Dingman stated. To me, one thing that makes Fun House so unique and delicious is the crust, which is hand-tossed to a perfect thickness, crunchy and crisp, and able to support Fun House’s massive amounts of ingredients. If you’re looking for a wafer-thin Margarita pizza, you’re in the wrong place. But, if you want a monster pie with salami, pepperoni, Italian sausage, mushroom, olives, and ground beef (the pizza I had) there is only one Fun House Pizza!
Fun House Pizza might not be your slice of pie, but personally, I love it. See, I told you pizza was subjective!