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27. Zenos

Classification: Traditional

Location: Marshalltown, Iowa

Good pizza is not the exclusive domain of Chicagoans, or New Yorkers, or even Italians for that matter. These historic perfecters of pizza have carved out well-deserved reputations, learned from the masters over decades—sometimes centuries—both from the fiery depths of brick ovens and also from various culinary schools of hard knocks. It's a tough game. But there are many routes to pizza mastery, and that process has taken pie-making artistry to many far-off and distant lands. So it shouldn't come as a huge shock that the pizza game is surprisingly strong in Iowa—the Breadbasket of America. We pizza lovers are the main benefactors of these noble pursuits, especially when greatness shows up in non-traditional places like the rural plains of small-town USA.

I hail from a long line a risk-averse eaters from The Hawkeye State. Of course, most family members are quick to point out that I've taken cautious consumption to unparalleled levels, but let's just say that meat, potatoes, bread, and Jell-O were the key ingredients to a balanced Iowa diet, and I've been fairly sluggish in trying to adapt. Then again, on weekends and holidays, the family would occasionally introduce novelties such as 1% milk, cheese, or fruit pies, and that provides the main conduit between my personal heritage and pizza everywhere. While the amount of cheese on a typical Zenos pizza would be considered immodest in certain Iowa counties, it's pure pizza harmony but when blended with a classic thin crust and a savory but firm sauce.

Like so many pizzerias around the country, they opened in the post-war era. Earlier this month, I took a drive across the sweeping Iowa plains to pick up a favorite aunt who introduced me to Zenos, but tragically, I wasn't able to partake, even though we were within a few miles. We've enjoyed many great pies here over the years, and from my earliest memories, I don't think the interior or the exterior have changed. So, it's only fair to ask: "Is this heaven?"

No, it's Iowa. (9 of 10 stars)

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