Though pizza wasn’t one of our staples at home, it quickly became our go-to when in need of a break from the local cuisine in SE Asia. Surprisingly, you can find it everywhere, and even more surprisingly, most of it wasn’t terrible.
That’s not to say it was all great, either. Pizza pitfalls in Asia can include sickeningly sweet sauce, tasteless processed cheese, and/or crusts of dubious origin. In the U.S., the common pizza problem is, surprise surprise, overabundance: too much sauce, too much cheese, too many toppings, too much crust, or all of the above. You could say we have a problem with balance when it comes to our food.
Still, it’s hard to make such a winning combination of carbs, cheese, and sauce seriously awful, even if the crust has been replaced by some other bread product (“when pizza’s on a bagel, you can eat pizza any time“). But, it’s another thing to find an excellent pie, and it’s the tiny details, from the type of flour used to the levels of salt in the sauce, that take a pizza from decent to truly transcendent.
We’ve spent countless hours and consumed an inappropriately large amount calories in search of such pies in SE Asia. At times, we felt like giving up, such as in the case of a “tortilla-like, flatbread base” (hmmm, how about just “crust”?). But still, we soldiered on, confident in our mission.
In the end, we emerged triumphant, just like our victors. Everybody wins in the game of good pizza.
Ahhh … Bangkok – named by many as the world’s greatest food cities thanks to its outstanding local cuisine. Whether you’re grabbing a steaming plate of pad thai streetside in Sukhumvit’s famed Soi 38 or dropping the big bucks at what’s been dubbed Asia’s best restaurant, it’s all good. Ridiculously good.
While I don’t dispute this, I think it takes more than a stellar local food scene to make a city a truly great eating destination – what’s on offer from other cuisines around the globe, and how good it is make a food city truly spectacular. Bangkok has that in spades: from sushi to sandwiches, from tacos to tapas, from burgers to brunch, from pancakes to pizza, Bangkok offers authentic, delicious cuisine from around the world.
Case in point: our #5 favorite pizza in SE Asia, Pala Pizza Romana. This place is dubbed by many as the best pizza in Bangkok, and the masses agree. We had to wait 10 minutes for a table, which never happens in Asia, and we came at the end of the lunch rush hour. The pizza is made a al Romana in meter-long slabs, but fear not: you do not have to eat the whole meter, unless you want to of course (no judgment). You can also order these babies by the half meter, or even better, by the slice so you can sample more (obviously the best option).
We tried: the Diavola (mozzarella, tomato, black olive, salami – H’s favorite minus the olives), the Lago Verde (eggplant, tomato, zucchini, mushroom, pesto – my favorite), the Boscaiola (mozzarella, tomato ,sausage, mushrooms), and the Brie & Speck (brie cheese, speck ham, tomato). Aside from the pizza, don’t miss the burrata caprese salad – perfect for sharing before your pizza showdown. And, if you just can’t get enough, hit up their deli for some meats and cheeses to take back to your room for a hotel picnic, Wanderrlust-style. You’re welcome.
You may remember my ode to Pizza Chi a few months ago. My review has stood the test of time and then some – many pizzas in many countries later, it’s still the best in Vietnam and one of the best we had in SE Asia.
The crust is beautifully executed – thin yet sturdy with some chew. The sauce is simple, flavorful, and light, and the cheese and toppings are applied with Goldilocks precision – not too little, not too much, just right. Our favorite was the Pizza Bo Bam, a ground beef and pineapple delight that sounds weird but shouldn’t given the popularity of “Hawaiian” pizza.
The fact this all can be found in non-touristy Cao Bang, a city north of Hanoi with exactly zero options besides cheap Vietnamese food, makes it all the more impressive. The owner/pizza-maker (the only non-Westerner on this list) is passionate about his craft and learning in general, so don’t miss the chance to chat with him and meet his adorable family.
Pizza Phan Luang is not the easiest place to find in LP. It’s away from the main drag, across the river (via a bamboo walking bridge), and in the backyard of an English center, with little signage to guide you.
When you do find it, you’ll be greeted by a charming and relaxed atmosphere – it feels a bit like a fancier BBQ or luau, complete with tiki torches and candlelight. They were PACKED when we arrived, so we opted to have a drink at the bar while waiting for a table (we ended up relocated after a few minutes due to the bar’s proximity to the blazing pizza oven). The team is small, so orders do take time. But, this is pizza and this is Laos, so have drink, sit back, look at the stars, and enjoy being miles away from your real life in this happy and beautiful country.
Like Pizza Chi, these guys nail the elements and keep it basic – pepperoni, Hawaiian, etc. Prices are very reasonable, they serve wine in addition to beer, and it’s great for all types of travelers – couples, families with kids, groups, budget backpackers looking for a bit of a splurge, or even solo travelers (join one of the long communal tables).
Like Pizza Chi, Made In Italy is a diamond in the rough. Like a 10 carat, flawless canary yellow diamond.
Labuan Bajo is a small port town on the island of Flores (also known as East Nusa Tenggara – one of Indonesia’s poorest islands), and it’s become a tourist destination thanks to nearby Komodo National Park, home to wild komodo dragons and some of the most spectacular and diverse marine life in the world. The park is accessible only by boat, and since Labuan Bajo is equipped with both an airport and ferry terminal, it’s the natural jumping off point for Komodo tours. Locals are working hard to bring Labuan Bajo up to tourist standards, but it’s still very much lacking in basics like sidewalks, proper plumbing, waste treatment, reliable electricity, etc.
And then there’s Made In Italy. A massive brick wood-fired pizza oven greets you when you walk in, along with the most professional wait staff we found in all of Indonesia. The space is all warm wood, bathed in candlelight and surrounded by touches of green with fabulous views of the harbor and Komodo National Park in the distance. It’s a seriously lovely and hip atmosphere not out of place in New York. That Marco, the Italian chef and owner, opened this place around five years ago when NO ONE was here makes it all the more remarkable.
But enough about that – let’s talk food. Things kick off right with an amuse bouche: a warm breadstick straight from the pizza oven, brushed with olive oil, and served with a little pizza sauce – just a little taste of the amazingness to come. We sampled the crostini mista as well as some pastas, both of which were lovely, but it’s the pizza here that is the real standout. Our favorites were the Inferno with spicy salami and chilis and the Gorgonzola e Salsiccia with, you guessed it, gorgonzola and Italian sausage.
We may or may not have pulled a frat boy: taken home half of the pizza, left it out at room temperature, and eaten it for breakfast the next day. No regrets – eat like a champion.
If you had told me at the beginning of this trip that I would find world-class pizza in Cambodia, I would have laughed in your face. Il Forno turned me into a believer.
Its pies best many I’ve had in Chicago, NYC, and, yes, Italy. During our two weeks in Cambodia, we ate there at least four times – we even tried to crash a wedding party that had bought out the place one night (no dice, btw). It’s owned and operated by Italians, so many of the ingredients are imported from Italy. Stand-outs include the al Salame (spicy, of course) and the Ricca with tomatoes, fior di latte (mozzarella), gorgonzola, prosciutto di Parma & Parmigiano-Reggiano.
I can’t help but give a nod to their excellent pastas and meat dishes as well. The braised Tuscan pork belly special is TO-DIE-FOR, and the hand-made pastas are cooked and sauced to perfection (we liked the tortelli with Parma ham and ricotta in a pink sage sauce and the black ink tagliolini with prawns and zucchini). They also offer cocktails, imported wines (try the reasonably-priced Barbera d’Asti), and beer.
Tucked away down a pedestrian-only alley filled with shops and restaurants and away from all the rowdiness of Pub Street, even the atmosphere and setting feel straight out of Italy. But, if you are too tired to leave your hotel after a day fighting the maddening and massive crowds at Angkor Wat, they do deliver.
Dare I say that Il Forno might just be our very favorite restaurant in all of SE Asia?
Photo credits: Featured image and all other Il Forno images courtesy of ilfornorestaurantsiemreap.com; Pala Pizza images courtesy of palapizzabangkok.com; Pizza Phan Luang image courtesy of tripadvisor.com; Made in Italy image courtesy of David Trauts via fvrtravel.com.