Altoona Pizza Is Confoundingly Delicious

Though it's highly controversial, this Pennsylvania pizza style gets a lot of things right.

Allow me to be the bearer of surprising news and set something controversial to rest: Altoona-style pizza is very good.

After tasting a variety of regional pizzas this summer, from Iowa taco pizza to Colorado-style pizza to Ohio Valley pizza, I've realized that most regional styles remain obscure at the national level for good reason. Cold pepperoni and cold cheese on warm pizza just doesn't make a whole lot of sense (sorry, DiCarlo's), nor does an egregious amount of braided, puffy crust served with honey (apologies, Beau Jo's). So when I traveled to Altoona, Pennsylvania a few weeks back to hit up 29th Street Pizza Subs & More, I was ready to despise Altoona-style pizza. It is, after all, a square-cut pizza sheathed in processed American cheese.


But, I'm here to tell you that Altoona-style pizza is good. Great, even. My preconceived notions were wrong. American cheese on pizza works. It's odd and it's ugly, but it is undeniably magnificent, and I highly recommend trying it for yourself.

What is Altoona pizza?

Altoona-style pizza originated at the Altoona Hotel sometime in the '50s, but that hotel was destroyed in a fire in 2013. Since then, a bunch of restaurants have taken to recreating this style of pizza in Altoona, which is defined by square Sicilian crust, deli salami, tomato sauce, green bell pepper, and melted yellow American cheese. The original Altoona pizza used Clearfield American cheese from a company based in Curwensville, Pennsylvania, a borough about an hour away from Altoona.


At 29th Street Pizza in Altoona, where I had the pleasure of trying this abnormal slice, owner Steve Corklic says the establishment is going on its 19th year of business. He's grateful that people from all over the country have gravitated toward this unusual slice.

"We've been blessed," Corklic says. "My wife and I, we've never been into the business before. We definitely had the good lord's hand on the business."

Corklic attributes the low, unchanging price of the pizza as part of the restaurant's success. One slice of Altoona-style pizza has remained $2.50 for years now. "It should be more than that," he admits, "But we've kept our prices down. People realize that, and we're pretty popular because of it."


Why Altoona pizza is worth tasting

So why does Altoona-style pizza work? It comes down to the crust, and this pizza crust is damn good. It's not some flavorless, uniformly textured Grandma slice prepared in a rush. At 29th Street, the square crust has excellent Sicilian-style texture; the undercarriage is slightly browned, and the edges are crispy and crunchy. This plays off of the thick, springy, doughy center very well. In short, it's just enjoyable to eat, man.


Corklic explains that the crust is fermented and cooked in deep sheet trays, much like Detroit-style pies, in a 450-degree oven before the famously atypical toppings are added to the squares. The result is melty, sweet, meaty, and even a little spicy.

The toppings on an Altoona pizza—a layer of tomato sauce, deli salami, and a sliced green bell pepper ring—are somewhat maddeningly encased by a blanket of processed American cheese, so each slice looks dully, uniformly orange. Wouldn't the pizza look better with the toppings on top? The slick salami and green bell pepper would at least keep it from looking so... nuclear. But in fact, this pizza is somehow more enticing, more intriguing, because it just looks like a mass of melted yellow cheese. Since I could see only the vague shape of the toppings beneath, curiosity made me want to immediately bite into the thing.


This doesn't feel like eating pizza. It feels more like eating a cheeseburger. The gooey American cheese is somehow the perfect foil to the spicy, salty salami and the perfectly crisp-and-spongy crust. It's almost a little unnerving to see processed cheese on a pizza crust this well-constructed, but that's why the whole thing works: It's junk food made well, a little bit of finesse and a little bit of garbage. Would this pizza be better if it had mozzarella and pepperoni on it? I'm not so sure. I've had that pizza a million times.

The best way to eat Altoona-style pizza

Here's the move if you go to 29th street: Add extra salami for 25 cents. The pizza benefits from a bit more meaty flavor because the cheese can be a tad oppressive. Corklic says a lot of people even add pepperoni on top of the pizza.


Still, in order to fully enjoy Altoona-style pizza, you need to leave your pizza purity at the door. Arrive with an open mind, and I think you'll find Altoona-style pizza is quite good. For $2.50 a slice, you can't really argue with it.

"I told my wife when we opened: We're gonna work harder, we're gonna have less profit margins, the door's gonna swing open and closed quite often," Corklic says. Indeed, there's usually a line of people waiting for pizza at 29th Street. They can't all be wrong, can they?