- Greggory Moore
While trying to think of a Christmas gift for my dad, I recalled hearing that Michael’s Pizzeria, located not far from my downtown Long Beach home, had been named the nation’s #1 pizzeria by Zagat Survey. Bingo! Downright pleased with myself, I hopped online to print out a confirmation of the #1 ranking that I could craft into a little DIY gift certificate for Dad—”This piece of paper entitles you to the best pizza in the country + beer” or something like that.
But I ran into a snag. While I had no trouble finding a host of articles seemingly confirming the Zagat ranking, I couldn’t find confirmation from Zagat itself. Moreover, since Michael’s Pizzeria was listed as scoring a 27 (out of 30) for food and two other pizzerias scored a 28, I was nonplussed. But with a modicum of research, I stumbled into a simple cautionary tale of how sometimes the news you read is generated from unverified press release.
The press release emanated from Michael’s itself. “Zagat Names Michael’s Pizzeria Best Pizzeria in U.S. and Los Angeles,” the headline proclaimed. The problem was, Zagat had done no such thing—though the confusion on Michael’s part may have been understandable.
“The list [of the best pizzerias in the country] was originally sorted alphabetically by state (where Michael’s was first on the list),” says Susan Cadrecha, a communications senior associate for Zagat. “This caused some initial confusion over a #1 ranking (which was not correct). We’ve since adjusted the list for it to be in alphabetical order according to property name.”
Any media outlet seeking to confirm Michael’s claim with Zagat would have received immediate clarification. That’s exactly what the Orange County Register did. “It’s not entirely clear where the bit of hyperbole came from,” staff writer Greg Mellen wrote as the questionable stories were popping up, quoting Zagat spokesperson as saying that, while “Michael’s is listed among the top pizza restaurants in America,” Zagat did not declare any pizzeria as the nation’s best.
Nonetheless, a plethora of local media outlets—including the Long Beach Post and LAist, as well as TV stations like KTLA 5, KCBS 2, and KABC 7—reported that Zagat had named Michael’s Pizzeria the country’s top pizzeria. Which means that none of them actually confirmed the supposed ranking with Zagat.
Why not? None of the abovementioned organizations provided Random Lengths News with an answer to that question, although three of did offer insight into what transpired:
• A spokesperson for LAist evinced surprise at hearing the claim was inaccurate and admitted that it “[l]ooks like we got that info from a local Patch site,” presumably a reference to Belmont Shore Patch, which published the press release in full (properly attributing it as such).
• A spokesperson for the Long Beach Post confirmed that the source of the story was the Michael’s press release and says Michael’s subsequently “apologized to various publications […] for the misunderstanding.” However, Michael’s categorically denies sending any such apology. “That’s not true at all,” says Carl Dene, a principal with the Michaels Restaurant Group. “[…] That is absolutely untrue. We never sent anything like that.” (The Post did not respond to RLn‘s follow-up query on this claim.)
• A spokesperson for KCBS says its story was based on Michael’s claim “that its Naples Island location was ranked best pizza joint in the U.S. in 2013” and provided a link to Zagat listing Michael’s as “one of several pizzerias on Zagat’s top-rated list.”
The confusion that started the chain can be traced to July 2013, when the Michaels Restaurant Group was informed that Zagat had awarded their Naples Island pizzeria a 28 for food, appearing to be the only pizzeria in the country to achieve such a score. However, although Zagat provided Michael’s with a plaque reflecting the 28, by late September—i.e., the time of the questionable news stories—the Zagat Website listed the pizzeria as scoring a 27.
That 27 remains in place today, with Antico Pizza Napoletana in Atlanta and Lovely Fifty Fifty in Portland, OR, scoring a 28. But that doesn’t mean Zagat is saying Michael’s isn’t the best pizzeria in the country. As writer Lesley Balla noted in an October Zagat article entitled “Michael’s Challenge All U.S. Pizza Makers to Cook-Off,” Zagat’s list of “the #1 pizzerias in 15 different cities […] doesn’t anoint any particular pizzeria as the front-runner.”
While Carl Dene concedes that there was a good deal of confusion regarding whether Michael’s was at one time ranked—even if not officially named—as the #1 pizza in the country, the organization is both proud of the high regard Zagat has for Michael’s Pizzeria and willing to take on all comers.
“Last fall, we were thrilled and honored that our original 2nd Street location received the highest rating for food of any pizzeria in the country by Zagat,” says founder Michael Dene in a statement provided to Random Lengths News. “Michael’s Pizzeria received a 28 for food, unheard-of for a pizzeria, which carried the distinction of being the highest in the country. The information that was provided to the media at the time was based on numerous conversations that we had with the team at Zagat and with their knowledge. Zagat.com listed Michael’s Pizzeria first in its list of ‘Top Pizza Joints’ in the country, and only after other pizzerias complained did they change the order to alphabetical. We still stand by our 2013 rating and challenge any pizzeria across the country to make a better pizza than here at Michael’s.”