Think pizza in Hawaii and you may think of a ham/cheese/pineapple creation that wasn’t even created in Hawaii.
But Hawaii’s contribution to the world stage of pizza goes well beyond pineapple toppings. Within a few square blocks of downtown Honolulu, five eclectic, outstanding pizza hot spots are serving slices and pies for those occasions when pizza fills the culinary and familial bill. Here’s a guide to some of the best pizza you’ll find for — literally — thousands of miles in any direction.
In 2007, Jersey City, N.J., native John “J.J.” Niebuhr was working as a bartender at Murphy’s Bar & Grill on Merchant Street in Honolulu. He was known for pouring perfect pints of Guinness and making pizza using his own recipes on Friday nights for the bar’s regulars.
Across the street, Danny Dolan was working as general manager of O’Toole’s Irish Pub and thinking about his next gig. The two friends met up that December, put together a business plan and opened J.J. Dolan’s in January 2008. (After Niebuhr stepped away from the business, it became just J. Dolan’s.)
“He knew how to make pizza, I knew how to run a bar, and people immediately started coming in for drinks and a bite to eat,” Dolan said. “It was magic.”
Billing itself as “an Irish pub with New York pizza from two guys in Chinatown,” J.J. Dolan’s quickly became a go-to spot for locals to catch the game on TV, enjoy drinks after work at the massive koa wood bar (lovingly restored after being left by the previous owners) and get pizza by the slice.
You can also order signature whole pizzas such as Molto Formaggio, which comes with mozzarella, Parmesan, fontina, Havarti, brie and Gouda; the Scampi, with bay shrimp, mushrooms and scampi sauce; and the Deli Meat, with Italian sausage, capicola, salami and ham. None of the 14-inch pies costs more than $20, unless you want to build your own ($16.75 to start, plus $1.50 per topping).
“The beauty of J. Dolan’s is that it’s for everybody,” Dolan said. “A few years ago, there were four generations of one family sitting at a table, and I knew it meant that we were doing something right.”
What I ate: the half Giacomo with Italian sausage, pepperoni, salami and olives; and a half spinach and garlic pie with fresh spinach, chopped garlic and ricotta; $19.50 each.
Info: J. Dolan’s, 1147 Bethel St., Honolulu; (808) 537-4992. The 16-inch pizzas start at $16.75.
Proof Public House
Just around the corner, on the ground floor of downtown Honolulu’s historic Blaisdell Hotel, built in 1912, Proof Public House is serving “Truth, Strength, Change,” according to owner Serena Hashimoto. For years, Hashimoto, a local musician and professor at nearby Hawaii Pacific University, looked for a restaurant that offered vegetarian fare and stayed open late enough for her to get a bite after playing shows.
Hashimoto couldn’t find that place, so she opened the Downbeat Diner & Lounge with business partner Joshua Hancock in 2011. In 2014, when the owner of the Mercury Bar wanted to sell his lounge on narrow Chaplain Lane, Hashimoto and Hancock took over and instilled the same punk spirit to create Proof.
They tore up the plaster covering the floor, revealing the building’s original tile, added a pool table and installed a giant window for an open-air feel (and so they could project movies onto an adjacent alleyway wall).
The Mercury owners left a gigantic gas oven that consumes nearly the entire (tiny) kitchen at Proof and helped dictate the menu: garlic bread, Cubano sandwiches, grilled cheese and more, all freshly baked.
Plus, of course, pizza. Other pizza parlors go traditional but Proof goes exotic. Toppings here include duck, papaya, Portuguese linguiça sausage and macadamia cream sauces. Proof also offers veggie options, including pizzas with butternut squash, fresh vegan pesto and assorted vegan “meats” such as sausage and bacon.
When other bars in the area start winding down their food options around 10 p.m., Proof fills a glass display case with a variety of pies that can be ordered by the slice until they run out or the bar closes at 2 a.m. End a night in Chinatown with a slice of white dessert pizza, complete with berries and chocolate sauce.
What I ate: the Kauai Chicken pizza, made with macadamia cream sauce, mozzarella, roasted chicken, pineapple, papaya, white onion, with balsamic drizzle; $16.
Info: Proof Public House, 1154 Fort Street Mall, No. 10, Honolulu; (808) 537-3080. The 13-inch pizzas start at $13.
Brick Fire Tavern
Brick Fire Tavern, two blocks away on Hotel Street, is perhaps the most traditional of the pizzerias on this list. Co-owner Matthew Resich’s Neapolitan pies have been certified by the international Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana; Brick Fire Tavern is the only pizzeria on Oahu with this distinction.
“I’m originally from Queens, so pizza and bagel culture was always my thing, that idea of doing bread right,” Resich said. “Neapolitan is sort of the purest form of pizza. The dough has only four components — flour, water, salt, yeast — and how you mold the dough is just as important as the ingredients.”
To learn secrets like these, Resich traveled to Naples in 2015 with his business partner, Inthira Marks, and spent six weeks studying the craft with famed master pizzaiolo Enzo Coccia.
When they returned to the U.S., Resich and Marks spent a month at South Creek Pizza in Reno, where they learned how to pull their mozzarella, before opening Brick Fire in 2016.
Like any respectable Neapolitan pizzeria, the restaurant uses a Stefano Ferrara brick oven (Marks picked out the black bisazza glass that adorns the exterior) that can cook 12-inch pizzas in 90 seconds at 900 degrees.
The wood is kiawe (mesquite), the sea salt is Mediterranean, and the ingredients are generally local (greens from Maui, beets from Mililani on Oahu, and organic sausage and meatballs from Waianae, also on Oahu, where the meat is produced specifically for Brick Fire by local purveyor Robert McGee of Pono Pork). All the oils, balsamic glazes and most of the cured meats, such as prosciutto, are imported from Italy.
Although Brick Fire’s pizza menu features a robust ingredient list — consider the Mamma Mia, with soppressata, pancetta and Italian sausage over hot peppers and mozzarella — the flavors don’t overwhelm you. Resich prides himself on a light touch: “Our pizzas are minimally topped but with high-quality ingredients and a thin center,” he said. “The crust is soft and airy, has a subtle mouth feel and our sauces are bright.”
What I ate: the Carbonara, made with pecorino-Parmesan besciamella, house-made mozzarella, smoked pancetta, white onion and egg yolk; $19.
Info: Brick Fire Tavern, 16 N. Hotel St., Honolulu; (808) 369-2444. The 12-inch Margherita pizza starts at $15.
In 2005, New Zealand restaurateur Dave Stewart bought Caspy’s Hawaiian Bar at 35 N. Hotel St. for a buck.
“The guy was fed up,” Stewart said in a 2012 Honolulu Magazine interview. “I gave him a dollar, because money had to change hands, and he handed me the keys. There was still liquor at the bar. I locked the door and called some friends. I couldn’t drink it all by myself.”
Stewart stripped away Caspy’s cheapy decor and brought the space back to its brick and concrete roots, beginning with a new name: Bar 35. Stewart stocked 150 kinds of beer and partnered with chef Francesco Valentini, who didn’t flinch when Stewart asked for unconventional food items, including a Chinese pizza (because this is, after all, Chinatown).
Valentini created a menu centered on a fusion pizza that still holds its own nearly 15 years later. Options include the French Kiss, made with brie, ham and pesto, topped with fresh basil and mozzarella; Gyromatic, with roasted slices of lamb and beef, tzatziki sauce and romaine; and Smoky Heaven, with smoked salmon, onions, capers, Gorgonzola and cream cheese.
For Stewart, Valentini also created the Sweet Bangkok pizza, with Chinese lap cheong sausage, cilantro and a sweet chili sauce.
With its industrial-chic look and down-tempo vibe, Bar 35 has become something akin to Chinatown’s home bar. Today, the number of beers available has climbed closer to 200 and nightly drink specials keep the after-work crowd coming in.
But it’s Bar 35’s flatbread pizzas that elevate it as a destination.
What I ate: the Gyromatic, described above; $13.
For all the sleek new pizza spots taking over downtown Honolulu, there’s something to be said about the longtime holdouts/standouts. This red-sauce Italian joint on Maunakea Street prides itself on New York deli-style pizzas, pasta, and hot and cold sandwiches.
Rosarina Pizza opened in 1986 on Kalakaua Avenue just outside Waikiki and relocated downtown in 1989 where owner Duke Vu continues to serve his 12- to 16-inch pies on your choice of thin crust, medium-ish or half-inch-thick hand-tossed dough.
The toppings at Rosarina enter territory that some of the other pizza spots in the neighborhood won’t, even offering anchovies as an option when building your own pie. Rosarina’s Combination, which has pepperoni, Italian sausage, green peppers, onions and black olives, smothered in mozzarella, covers all the bases when you’re not sure what to choose.
If the little mustached mascot on the front door — it’s wearing a red bandanna around the neck — doesn’t persuade you to step inside, the prices and quality may. Besides the pizza, Rosarina’s lasagna, manicotti and ravioli are hits.
What I ate: Rosarina’s combination, described above. $21.50 for an extra-large.
Info: Rosarina Pizza, 1111 Maunakea St., Honolulu; (808) 533-6634. A 12-inch pie begins at $9.75.