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That's amore

The pizza craze in the U.S. began in New York City in the early 1900s. Italian immigrants would pass through Ellis Island and many settled in Manhattan with their pizza recipes in tow. The food fad slowly migrated to Philadelphia and the now-tainted Jersey Shore before moving west. During World War II, soldiers returned home from Italy with their pizza stories and, thus, the rampant growth of the business hit American soil in full force.

Today, pizza takes on many definitions depending upon which region you are in. We are lucky to get a little slice of each style on the Grand Strand.

I spent more than a few nights arguing passionately about the best pie in New York during my residency. Much in the same way I discuss barbecue now. Pizza in NYC is as important as cheesecake. When I stumbled upon New York Pizza and Subs in the Galleria Shopping Center along Restaurant Row in Myrtle Beach, I was delighted that there was a clear winner in my book when it comes to true N.Y.-style pizza on the Grand Strand. The eatery does big city pizza with laid back beach charm. I'm talking the huge, thin slices that you fold in half to eat. A slice of cheese with crushed red pepper and some extra parmesan gets me every time I go in.

If I close my eyes, smell and listen, I'd swear I was back at Ben's Pizza in Soho. Now that's a good pie! I am still making the rounds of those that claim "New York"-style pizza on the Grand Strand, but it becomes difficult to take the risk of trying something new during a time of hunger. If you want the sure thing, New York Pizza and Subs is it.

Let's talk California. Wolfgang Puck made "California Cuisine" famous, but two former attorneys brought California Pizza Kitchen to the national spotlight in the late 1980s on the West Coast. Its rampant success through the years, which now includes 32 states and 10 foreign countries, brought a whole new philosophy about pizza to the forefront. Everything can be a topping. This success and acceptance led the local incarnation, Ultimate California Pizza, to similar local fame.

Divine Dining Group's Ultimate California Pizza, with multiple locations up and down the Strand, offers many specialty pizzas on its menu, but the possibilities are virtually endless with more than 50 toppings in the arsenal. Everything from filet mignon to Thai chicken to chopped dates joins the traditional ingredients on the pies at UCP. This is definitely California-style pizza at its best.

These slight innovations on the old world food are all great, but, if you want authentic pizza, you have to consider a few things. Cooking method, service and ambiance all play into a traditional pizza experience.

The modern cooking methods for pizza vary from conventional ovens to conveyor belt systems. However, traditionally, pizza was cooked in large, wood-fired brick ovens that give a distinct taste and texture. The brick oven is the Italian equivalent of the Southern cast iron skillet. The older it is and the more it is used, the more flavor you get and the better it becomes. That being said, there is one place on our beach, in my opinion, where tradition and innovation collide and bring a great pizza to the table.

Benito's Brick Oven Pizza and Pasta, 1596 U.S. 17 S., North Myrtle Beach is a local brick oven that will knock pizza out of the park every time. Benito's steps out of the box a little with specialty pies, but also does simple pizza great. On a recent visit, I opted for a little prosciutto, basil and, of course, mozzarella. I couldn't stop eating until the whole pie was gone.

Another key element that you will find at Benito's that is reminiscent of full-Italian cuisine restaurants is the service. Our server promptly greeted us and walked us through the sauces much like a sommelier would a wine list. It was great to have that expertise as we deciphered the menu.

The ambiance is warm and cozy at Benito's. Watching them knead the dough, make the sauce and cook the pies in the open kitchen really makes you feel like you are a visitor at someone else's house. Likewise, the communal tables promote a strong fellowship of eating that can't be matched.

A little red wine, a small salad and a pizza pie remains one of my favorite meals of all time. From New York-style to California-inspired to straight-from-the-old-country, you can find it all in our town.

Cheers!

Kevin Hoover, a local foodie, is engaged in the endless pursuit of the perfect cocktail and dining experience. Check out his blog at lushlifeonline.com.

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