9 Red Flags At A Pizza Shop That Should Send You Running

We all have our own favorite pizza parlor. It's a place that brings us joy, consistency, and deliciousness. But what if you move, or go traveling? Suddenly, you get a hankering for pizza and don't know where to go. While picking the right pizza parlor is important, it's equally important to know where not to go. Yes, you can always ferret out information online, but nothing beats visiting in person and checking out a physical location. The next time you're in unfamiliar territory, there are a few red flags you should watch out for before ordering that slice of pepperoni.


Chowhound spoke with Angelo Competiello, owner of Alta Irpinia in the Lower Hudson Valley village of Suffern, New York, to discern these flags. A hybrid salumeria and pizzeria, Alta Irpinia is already receiving rave reviews, as are Competiello's pizzas. The restaurateur, who appeared in Season 33, Episode 1 of "Beat Bobby Flay" (and, yes, beat Bobby Flay), knows what makes a good pizzeria. Even more importantly (for our purposes), he also knows what red flags to look out for when you're walking into a pizza shop for the first time. In addition to Competiello's expertise, we've also included some general advice on how to spot a sub-par pizza shop. Without further ado, we present the 9 pizza shop red flags that should send you running.


1. The shop looks like it hasn't been cleaned in ages

Before ordering your pizza, take a look around the restaurant. Is there dirt in the corners? Is the glass case containing so-called fresh pizza littered with crumbs? Is the bathroom cringe-inducing, the toilet seat terrifying? Is there a mop just sitting in a bucket of dirty water in the main space of the shop? If you can see such grime in public areas, imagine what it looks like in the places you can't see. A pizzeria with filthy nooks and crannies, a greasy counter, and a bathroom that clearly hasn't been cleaned in a very long time are all good indicators that hygienic corners are being cut, likely including food preparation. If there's no soap in the bathroom, after all, what are the chefs and staff washing their hands with?


A dirty pizzeria is also likely to attract vermin, such as rats and cockroaches. These nasty critters leave waste that can make you sick. If there are food droppings all over and crumbs that stay out for days, it's as if that pizzeria put a neon WELCOME sign in the window for creepy crawlies to come on in and stay for awhile. They can stay, but you should not!

2. The ingredients look like they've been sitting around all day

If you can see the pizza chef making pizza, that's pretty cool. Who doesn't love watching the dough spin through the air? But if you're seeing sauce just sitting around or cheese and meats that aren't refrigerated, that's a red flag that eating there might make you sick. The Meat and Poultry Hotline advises eaters to never leave food out of the refrigerator for more than 2 hours. This is because bacteria can grow when food is left in the range of temperature called the "Danger Zone" – between 40 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. 


When the pizza and ingredients look like they're not fresh, that might mean they've been sitting out for too long in temperatures that could cause food to become contaminated with bacteria. This could also mean that the food has not been prepared safely before it was cooked, or that it wasn't preserved safely after it was cooked. You don't want to mess with food poisoning. Best to avoid such places entirely.

3. The veggie pie looks soggy

Veggie pizza is wonderfully versatile. Peppers, onions, eggplant, and even broccoli are right at home atop a cheese-laden crust. If it's not prepared fresh, though, the vegetables can become soggy. You never want to eat pizza that's been lingering so long on the counter that the vegetables turn into gelatinous mush or dry out. Another thing to look out for is a sloppy-looking slice. This often means a pizza has been cooked with raw vegetables on top, causing the pizza to become droopy when you try to eat it. Sautéed or grilled vegetables are your best bet for pizza toppings, both in terms of taste and consistency. 


Another concern is that vegetable slices tend to linger in the shop. The longer a pizza is sitting out, the riskier it becomes to consume because of bacteria. If the veggie slice looks like it's been hanging out too long, it probably has — and that should make you think twice. If you really want a fresh vegetable slice that is delicious, you should order a pie to be made fresh. This might take longer, but it's worth it.

4. The pepperoni is curling up, and not on purpose

Pepperoni pizza is an absolute classic. The saltiness and spice combined with cheese, sauce, and bread never fails to make mouths water. However, this popular pizza is also the key to figuring out whether or not a pizzeria is waving red flags at you. If you see pepperoni curling on a pizza, you should ask what kind it is. "Cup and char is very popular," says Angelo Competiello, referring to a kind of pepperoni that will curl on purpose. Cup and char pepperoni was once uniquely popular in Buffalo and the Midwest. Now, you can find it just about everywhere. 


Though cup and char pepperoni is supposed to curl, other pepperoni is not. Ideally, pepperoni that is not cup and char should lay flat on your pizza if it is fresh. It should also look shiny or oily. If it doesn't hit these marks, it's been hanging out too long, and you would be wise to look elsewhere. What should you look for if the pepperoni is cup and char, though? "Oil congealing or turning solid," Competiello advises. This means the pepperoni has been sitting out for too long.

5. They don't make their own sauce

When walking into a pizza place, what does Angelo Competiello love to see? "Ingredients being shown, cans of tomatoes to see the quality of products." A good pizza place should make its own sauce from such ingredients. There are a variety of ways to do this; the spot doesn't have to be smashing whole tomatoes to pieces in the back, although that's never a bad thing. One of the best, as Competiello's quote indicates, is to use good canned tomatoes like San Marzanos, which are always worth the splurge. The most important thing is, you don't want to see jars of premade sauce being used, or a pot of sauce sitting unheated for a long time. If sauce is hanging out, it can grow bacteria that might make you sick. 


In terms of flavor, sauce makes the pizza. So if you're getting pizza at a place that doesn't make its own sauce, you're missing out on a chance to experience authentic and fresh food. If a pizzeria is cutting corners regarding one of the most important ingredients, how else is it taking chances?

6. The menu is confusng

Pizza and sushi, together in one restaurant? While both dishes are delicious on their own, it's troubling to see them on the same menu, sometimes alongside macaroni and cheese, hamburgers, chicken vindaloo, and pork tacos. "I look out for a laundry list of stuff," says Angelo Competiello. It's a major red flag for any restaurant, because a place that tries to do everything is probably not going to succeed at anything. 


When a pizzeria has a menu that combines multiple cultural dishes in a way that does not feel intentional, it's a sign the chefs aren't making pizza in an authentic way. Most likely, they're not even making all of this food from scratch or getting the freshest ingredients. If you want to have a meal with lots of diverse dishes, you're better off ordering pizza from your favorite pizzeria, sushi from your favorite sushi restaurant, and a hamburger from your favorite pub. 

7. They don't heat up your slice

Cold pizza might be fine the day after a night out — you stumble to your fridge, grateful for that mushroom slice. Some people even prefer to eat it this way, and they're not crazy: There's even some legitimate science behind why pizza tastes better cold to these people. But walking into a shop and being given a lukewarm piece of pizza is not okay.


Pizza shops might be busy places, but that's no excuse for a chilly slice. Throwing cold pizza at a customer doesn't inspire much faith in quality, taste, or business ethics. In fact, it indicates so-so customer service. "Good treatment of customers and employees" is something Angelo Competiello says he is always on the look out for when he walks into a new pizza place, and you should be too. If you order a slice and are quickly thrust a cold one without much care, it's probably a good indicator that the pizza is not anything special. 

8. They don't offer extra toppings

Even the most perfect slice could use some extras. These can range from unexpectedly delicious pizza toppings like lemon slices and potato chips, or simply sprinkled seasoning. Reaching for that jar of red pepper flakes doesn't mean the pizza isn't good enough as is — we all just have our preferences for personalizing our food. It's a pretty good sign when a pizzeria has said pepper, grated parmesan, oregano, chili oil, hot honey, and/or garlic powder on hand for you to use as needed. Make sure the cheese is fresh, though. A good way to check is to look for lumps of cheese in the shaker, which is a sign that it might have been out for too long. 


Aside from allowing you to play with flavors, it's just good customer service to offer a variety of options to patrons. If you walk into a pizza shop and don't see condiments available for you to use, it might be a red flag that the owners don't care enough about their customers to add these finishing touches to the experience.

9. There's no social media presence

In this day and age, if a restaurant doesn't have any sort of social media presence, it's a red flag. It's increasingly necessary for food establishments to have an internet presence, whether on Instagram, Twitter, or with a personal website. Absence can be glaring, and might indicate a lack of care. This should cause you to rethink whether or not you really want to check the spot out. 


You might want to imagine a world in which a pizzeria is so good, it doesn't need an Instagram account to show off its pies. But let's face it — this isn't the case. Any pizzeria worth its weight will want to advertise online or share its customers' happy hash-tagged reactions to its delicious pizza. A lack of internet presence says that a pizzeria is lacking in professionalism, just too lazy, or doesn't really expect to be around for all that long. None of these conclusions inspire confidence.