There’s a saying that there’s no such thing as bad pizza. But some pizza is better than others.
There are times pizza is a function. We’re tired. There’s ball practice. Somebody had a long day. Let’s just get something quick and easy that everybody likes.
Functional pizza, we’ll call it.
Then there are other times that pizza is a destination, a reward, a celebration.
Good pizza is easy.
Great pizza is an art.
There are times on vacation you might need functional pizza. You’ve had a long day at Dollywood, you’re tired.
The kids are grouchy, for the love of God you just need someone to get something they’ll eat to the hotel room fast so you can all eat, go to bed and get back to living your best vacation life tomorrow.
There are other times on vacation you want something a little better. The kids are in the mood for pizza but you want something that will engage your higher culinary purpose.
The compromise is pizza, but great pizza.
When looking for great pizza in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, here’s your top five best chances for transcendence:
5. Taste of Italy in Gatlinburg, Tenn.
You can find great pizza in some higher end locations (see No. 1 on the list), but often the search for great pizza leads us to America’s strip malls and shopping centers.
Places with high traffic and relatively low overhead.
While I can’t speak specifically to the overhead, I feel like Taste of Italy, located on East Parkway in Gatlinburg, at the far end of the Food City lot, is just that kind of place.
Opened by a pair of New Yorkers who moved to the mountains, Taste of Italy offers a lot more Italian fare than just pizza, but if you’re in the mood for a quality pie, you could do a lot worse.
There’s some variety here but nothing you won’t find on menus across the country. While I do enjoy the occasional change of pace, you can’t go wrong with the deluxe or meat lovers.
If the kids don’t want anything other than cheese or pepperoni, get them what they want and order a sausage roll or stromboli. It’ll do you right.
4. Smoky Mountain Brewery in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tenn.
My grandmother, a tiny Hoosier woman named Wilma who grew up in the Great Depression, shockingly wasn’t much of a drinker.
Her one exception?
“John Aaron, I do like a beer with my pizza,” she’d tell me, knocking back a Schlitz tall boy and tearing another slice from the pie with her hands.
She was probably drinking Pabst.
Anyway, the idea of beer and pizza, hand in hand, goes all the back to my childhood and has been endorsed by my wonderful Nanny.
I suggest you go to the Smoky Mountain Brewery, either in Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, order the Baker’s Choice and a few microbrews, and celebrate in her honor.
Alternatively, order the T-Rex and spend the rest of the evening pretending you can’t reach the pizza in the middle of the table because of your implausibly short arms.
Gnashing your teeth and sneering like one of Maurice Sendak’s Wild Things is also recommended.
3. Big Daddy’s Pizzeria in Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tenn.
The pizza game is crowded. Pie-slingers come and go.
It’s important to have a niche, an edge. The chain-restaurant giants claim so much of the available business already, the others have to have a little something different to stand out.
Welcome to Big Daddy’s, featuring a 550-degree, wood-fired flame inside a one-of-a-kind brick oven.
Why is the oven one-of-a-kind and what would make one brick over technologically superior over another? I have no idea, but it sounds impressive.
Also Big Daddy’s is so committed to freshness, they don’t own a freezer. That’s Amish-level commitment to fresh ingredients, right there.
As for the pizza, a thing Big Daddy’s does that I really like is a tier topping system for the build-your-own options. Silver toppings are mostly veggies, gold toppings are mostly meat and platinum toppings include things like prime rib, prosciutto and anchovies.
It’s like a little gated community for your pizza.
2. Bellacino’s Pizza and Grinders in Sevierville, Tenn.
A small chain, Bellacino’s has exactly one restaurant in East Tennessee, and it is located in Sevierville.
I’m a fan of the Bellacino’s Pride, which is basically, take the 7 best toppings known to man, put it on the pizza and bake it, but you can’t go wrong with the supreme or the meat eater.
If you’re looking for a change of pace, the taco pizza is actually pretty good too, but I understand some would balk for philosophical reasons. I also like Bellicino’s because I have a bit of a word association disorder.
It’s like there’s a filing system in my brain and if you say the trigger word – a little bit like the word of the day on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse – you’ll set off a chain reaction among the synapses in my cerebellum. One trip to Bellacino’s means I can subject my kids to days of me singing the “Lunch Lady Land Song” from Saturday Night Live.
My kids may not know the Magna Carta from Magnum P.I., but by God they will know “Hoagies and grinders, hoagies and grinders, Navy beans, navy beans and (singing like Axl Rose) Sloppy Joe, slop, sloppy joe”.
I am a simple man, and simple things make me happy.
1. Mellow Mushroom in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tenn.
The pizza here is great. The variety is creative and fantastic, and I’ve never had anything less than an excellent pizza at Mellow Mushroom.
Now, I’m going to tell a personal story here about why Mellow Mushroom is No. 1.
My 8-year-old son JP was born with several food allergies. None of them affect his breathing, at least that we know of. Still, if he eats something he shouldn’t, he breaks out in hives and starts itching all over. It’s miserable.
Some things affect him more than others. Beef makes him throw up. Eggs affect him almost instantly. He can have small amounts of soy without a big problem and even a little dairy sometimes.
He is usually pretty good about avoiding the foods he shouldn’t have but sometimes, I think, he feels left out. Last year, I was called to come get him at school because he was breaking out in hives and he can’t stay after he takes his medicine.
It turns out the class was having ice cream and JP decided he wasn’t going to be left out this time.
“Buddy,” I said when I picked him up. “You know you can’t have ice cream. What happened?”
“I know, Daddy. But my brain told me to,” he said, summing up my lifetime of bad decisions better than I ever could have.
So JP, in all his years, never had pizza. When we order pizza, he gets breadsticks or crust brushed with a little butter and parmesan which we call pizza.
It’s hard to remember the role pizza plays in a child’s social life. Pizza day is the best day at school. Birthday parties, sleepovers, end of the year ball team celebrations. Pizza is the go-to food of choice, and JP has had to sit on the sideline, wondering what all the fuss is about.
Anyway, we went to the movies last year (before the bad times), and afterwards went to Mellow Mushroom without checking the menu.
They didn’t have JP’s usual nuggets and fries. I was ordering a side salad and pretzel bits for him when, on a whim, I asked if they had a dairy-free cheese pizza.
Being a hippie pizza place, they did.
How my son finally had a chance to try real pizza
It took JP about 1.3 milliseconds to confirm that yes, he would very much like to try a real pizza that wouldn’t make him itch.
When they brought that thing out, John Paul looked like a king at a banquet being presented with all the finest meats and cheeses of the land.
He was so proud, so happy to have this little thing that we all take for granted.
He ate two big pieces and two more when we got home. I tried it.
It was pretty good. Tasted like normal pizza. My boy finally got to have pizza.
Look, my kids are happy and healthy and we are so lucky. I don’t mean to paint this as if we are anything close to the challenges many other families in this country face.
But Mellow Mushroom let JP sit and eat real pizza like the other kids.
That’s why they are No. 1 on my list, and the pizza’s pretty damn good, too.
Where’s your favorite place to grab pizza when you visit the Great Smoky Mountains? Let us know in the comments!