02.19.2015 Lohud | Is Anthony’s the best pizza chain in America?
By Larry Olmsted

The scene: Anthony's Runway 84 is a weird, one-of-a-kind restaurant not far from the Fort Lauderdale airport. Fitting both its name and location, it has an aviation theme, and in part is like eating on a plane, but it is very upscale, with classic old-school Italian- American cuisine, the kind of place Sinatra might like. It's been popular for over 30 years, and in 2002, Anthony Bruno, who took over the restaurant from his father, launched the first Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza as a more casual, cheaper alternative for locals. The concept has been wildly successful, and with partners including Miami Dolphins legend Dan Marino, the pizzerias now dot the East Coast, with 25 just in Florida, and another two dozen in New York, Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, with the newest one getting ready to open outside Boston.

Each restaurant is different, but they typically have a pub-like atmosphere with full table service, an open kitchen behind glass or a counter, a small bar with a few counter seats, and menus and craft beer lists written on blackboards. Walls are covered with lots of old pictures of the DiMaggio-era New York Yankees and more contemporary Florida sports heroes - especially Marino. These are mixed with random images of Sinatra, Ali, Lennon and Marilyn Monroe. Add the flat-screens and you get an ambiance of casual neighborhood restaurant meets sports bar – the one thing it doesn't feel like, save for the elevated stands on the tables, is a pizzeria.

Pizza is America's most popular food, but compared to burgers, sandwiches, tacos or even fried chicken, it has rarely traveled well. Historically pizza "chains" came in two shapes and sizes: very local small groups and huge national chains. The former, like Lou Malnati's in greater Chicago, Imo's in St. Louis, or the tiny (less than 10) Connecticut-based Frank Pepe's are beloved but limited, while the latter, Pizza Hut, Domino's, Little Caesars and Papa John's are national but known for being cheap and fast rather than good. There are some recent exceptions, like 800 Degrees Pizza out of California, profiled in this column, but no one is changing the game like Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza, which has quickly stretched north to Massachusetts. Imagine pizza so good that seasonal snowbirds from New York – the most pizza-defensive city in the country – liked it so much they imported it from their winter stays in Florida. If you think of a chain restaurant as spanning multiple states and being accessible to a goodly amount of people, it is easy to say Anthony's is the best pizza chain in the country, and I say just that.

Reason to visit: Pizza, eggplant Marino, salad, wings, focaccia sandwiches

The food: Coal-oven pizza is most associated with New Haven-style, considered by many critics to be the nation's very best. But strictly speaking, despite its choice of fuel, Anthony's is not New Haven-style pizza, an ultra-thin and sometimes messy affair. Anthony's crust is thin but crisp, and the pizza very lightly sauced, in no way soggy, so it is easy to pick up and eat by the slice with no drooping. The house slogan is "Pizza Well Done," and they come out from the oven quite literally smoking, with a couple of black spots and char on the edge and bottom, but there is no burnt taste at all. Because the classic model is simple, just a layer of mixed mozzarella and romano cheese with a few round dabs of tomato sauce, for all but pizza purists I heartily recommend adding toppings. There are some interesting make-your-own choices including the ultra-popular baby meatballs and "long, hot finger peppers." But the pre-planned specialty pizzas are more bizarre, interesting and delicious, including Philly Cheesesteak, Roasted Cauliflower with Toasted Breadcrumbs, Broccoli Rabe with Sausage and an Arugula-salad topped pizza.

But perhaps the most special – and delicious – specialty pie is topped with eggplant Marino, very thinly sliced eggplant stacked and layered with just a bit of romano cheese and tomato sauce. This dish is so light and flavorful that against common sense it works as a pizza topping, but is also available on its own as a solo dish. Eggplant Marino showcases the philosophy that makes not just the pizza but all the food at Anthony's so good: it is simple and understated, letting great ingredients speak for themselves. These kinds of casserole eggplant dishes are usually drowned in breading, sauce and cheese, but here it is just rich eggplant flavor kissed by the cheese and sauce – and it is fantastic. Likewise, if you order a side of Anthony's award-winning meatballs – readers of the local Sun Sentinel named this South Florida's Best Pizzeria, Best Wings, Best Meatballs and Best Service – they are tasty, tender, lightly sauced and accompanied with a big dollop of delicious, fresh ricotta cheese. A far cry from the heavily processed stuff found in the dairy cooler at the supermarket, this simple but quality touch makes the dish.

If a pizzeria serves wings it's usually an afterthought, but not at Anthony's, where they are as popular as the pizza, and also utilize the ultra-hot coal ovens. These wings are not drowned in hot sauce or coated in breading, they are just plump wings roasted in the oven. They are served under a mound of caramelized onions with some wedges of the signature thin, addictive focaccia. These are not wings for Buffalo chicken fans, they are wings for chicken lovers, and they are wonderful. Slathering some of the soft, sweet roast onions on the focaccia makes for another take on delicious pizza.

Even the basic Italian salad is standout, again benefitting from quality ingredients, mixing lettuce with excellent pitted olives, hardboiled egg, onions, tomatoes, chick peas and celery, very lightly tossed in house dressing. Because the coal-oven focaccia, which comes with almost everything and is similar in consistency to Indian naan, is so good, they also use it as a sort of wrap for sandwiches. These look like gyros but come in a choice of meatball, roast beef or tuna salad, and are far better than any sub or bulkie roll could be.

Anthony's is a great pizzeria, but it is much more, and between the salads, sandwiches, wings, meatballs and of course, eggplant Marino, you can easily dine here without having pizza at all and still have a wonderful meal. On top of the great food, well-selected craft beer list and friendly professional service, prices are very reasonable and portions generous. The small "individual" salads easily serve two and the small order of wings contains 10 – plus focaccia wedges and onions - whereas the norm is six with some celery.

Even the cappuccino is done at a higher level, clearly handed down from much fancier Anthony's Runway 84, prepared perfectly with Italy's high-end Lavazza beans and served with a rock sugar-coated stirring stick and two delicate little biscotti cookies. You really cannot go wrong here.

What regulars say: "I love the pizza, but everything is so good it is hard to choose, with the wings, the eggplant – even the tuna sandwich is great, I get that a lot," said Sherrie Rosen, a South Florida advertising executive who takes her family.

Pilgrimage-worthy?: Yes, if you are in a part of the country where great pizza is rare - like Florida.

Rating: Yum-Plus! (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)

Price: $-$$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)

Details: Anthony's are found throughout Florida and in New York, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and soon Massachusetts; acfp.com