By Kwaak Je-yup
There was a time when getting a decent pizza - Italian or American - in Seoul was impossible. Not anymore.
Here are the top 10 pizzerias this side of Naples, whose menus were tested and tasted over the last few months.
D'Buzza is the brainchild of Lee Il-joo, 28, and partners, who came out of nowhere to make the capital's hottest pizzeria. On any given day, patrons should expect a lengthy wait in front of the door thanks to its just-as-lengthy list of offerings.
A medical student based in Canada, Lee was taking a brief stop in Italy to go on to Albania for a social services mission when he stumbled upon the boot-shaped nation's famous culinary culture. He dropped everything and decided to pursue cooking.
"I want pizza culture to be shared by as many people as possible", says Lee.
Buzza is the Italianized Korean term for rich or a rich man.
"I wanted to pick something simple and catchy, like the name of a real estate agency. But it also reflects the quality of our flavor and our ingredients: they are rich".
743-33 Hannam-dong, Yongsan-gu
Open everyday from 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
On weekdays, there is an afternoon break
3 p.m.-5:30 p.m.
There are few pizziaiolos, or pizza chefs, in Seoul that insist on using wood to fuel their ovens (like D'Buzza, for example), but possibly the most meticulous one out of them all is Lee Young-woo, 35. Watching him make your pizza is one of the joys of eating at Spacca Napoli.
"Anybody can turn the dial on gas ovens and get the temperature constant and right", says Lee. "But with the traditional oven, you have to keep adding more wood and can only have one pizza at a time in the oven".
While every pizza will come from his hands, the caveat is that with less than 10 tables, there is no reservation or guarantee that you would get those coveted spots; so line up early.
2F, 413-2 Hapjeong-dong, Mapo-gu
Open Monday-Sunday 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. except 2nd and 4th Mondays of every month.
The Pizza Peel
The Canadian owner and chef David Lauckner, 35, came to Korea four years ago and realized there were no affordable and decent pies around. He tried everywhere, and he had to take the matter into his hands.
Fast forward to last year, he opened a small joint inside an Itaewon market, having learned the trade from the masters of Sorrento, Italy for a few months.
"My pizzas are not strictly Italian", says Lauckner. "I wanted to mix it up with recipes Americans or Canadians like". He says he wants to create, at honest prices, some great tasting pizzas, simple and unpretentious. The formula is working: within a few months after opening, the place has been packed, and customers are the ones demanding expansion.
34-65 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu
Closed Monday. Open Tuesday 5 p.m.-10 p.m., Wednesday-Friday noon-10 p.m. (afternoon break 2:30 p.m.-4:30 p.m.), Weekends noon-10 p.m.
Here is a quintessentially Korean experience: pizza with soju. Since 1991, the hole-in-the-wall Pizza Island has been in business in this unlikely out-of-the-way corner of the city, serving pies that defy imagination.
Its pizzas have double, often triple layers of fresh cheese from the best Korean producers, and that makes them perfect accompaniments to soju, according to the regular clientele and foreign tourists who come here from the Grand Hilton next door.
The chef Kim Yeon-suk, went to Nagoya, Japan and worked at a pizzeria for two years to learn the sauce, which, she says, makes all the difference.
202-24 Hongeun-dong, Seodaemun-gu
Open Monday-Sunday 4 p.m.-2 a.m.
Pizzarium di Roma
The rectangular shape is not the only distinguishing factor of Pizzarium di Roma, a tiny pizza parlor at a hike from the main Itaewon strip. Made by a young team of chefs, the pizzas are fresh and tasty. Ranch pizza, the popular favorite, is worth several bites.
While the bread-like crust may not please everyone, the distinct character and charm of Pizzarium will win you over. Thanks to its popularity with the pizza lovers, a second branch opened two years ago around Garosu-gil.
"I like the one in Itaewon better than (the branch in) Garosu-gil", says former New Yorker and foodie Kim Jung-yun. "It is not a sitdown joint, more of a stand-up-and-eat-it-fast-type of place that reminds me of NYC".
529 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu
Open Tuesday-Sunday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
554 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu
Open Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Management says its pizzeria was the country's first to bring brick-oven pizzas to the capital. Opened in 1999 and still wildly popular in Itaewon, La Tavola remains a strong contender to the best pizza throne. The proof is in the pudding: the quality and taste have stayed consistent over all these years. With a decent wine list and ample space, the place is perfect for a night with foodie friends.
123-33 Itaewon-dong, Yongsan-gu
Open Monday-Sunday noon-midnight
The city's rare vegetarian restaurant is well-renowned for its aubergine pizza. It became so famous that there is now an offspring branch in the Bukchon Hanok Village specializing just in pizzas. Don't fret, meat lovers. Oz's Kitchen will prove that vegetarian pizzas can taste yummy, too.
12-5 Samcheong-dong, Jongno-gu
Open Monday-Sunday noon-10 p.m.
Any Italian food lover in Seoul should know the name Santino Sortino, the chef behind the two famed Itaewon restaurants named after him.
He sold them, took a break in Italy and came back with Grano, which has already established itself as the spot for foodie expats, CEOs and celebrities.
Sortino says he wanted to open a place that serves "simple but good" food, and his Roman-style pizzas are the proof of that philosophy. His mouth-watering recipes, with a creative choice of toppings, will make you ponder over the menu before ordering.
645-1 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu
Open Monday-Tuesday noon-midnight, Wednesday-Saturday noon-2 a.m., Sunday noon-10:30 p.m. closed on national holidays
Daejangjangi (Blacksmith) Hwadeok Pizza
With only a handful of tables, reservations are a must at this always-packed pizzeria in the Bukchon Hanok Village. The reclusive owner is a real blacksmith, hence the name, and supposedly began making pizzas out of personal interest.
The quirky interior design actually has not much to do with the pizzas, which stick to the bare-bones basics.
The most popular on the tiny menu is the gorgonzola pizza, taken with honey. The public has it right.
62-1 Gahoe-dong, Jongno-gu
Wednesday-Monday 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
The Kitchen: Salvatore Cuomo
Hyped up to be the best pizzeria in the city with a celebrity pizzaiolo name, The Kitchen certainly reigns as the most expensive pizzeria on this list. On this reporter's particular visit, the doughs were soggy and the service sub-par.
The only saving grace was the excellent cheese on every pizza, but contrary to the popular myth, buffalo mozzarella flown in from Italy is no longer on the menu.
646-2 Sinsa-dong, Gangnam-gu
Monday-Sunday 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m., closed on national holidays