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Pizza steps up

Is “better pizza” following in the footsteps of “better burgers” as the next fast-casual star? Some industry veterans are betting on it, including Smashburger’s Rick Schaden, who is opening his first Honest Pizza, and Wetzel’s Pretzels founder Rick Wetzel, who is growing Blaze Pizza.

Tim Green, a pizza specialist with Synergy Restaurant Consultants confirms that pizza is very fashionable right now, with everyone striving for a “better product. Even Domino’s is taking time to press out dough and bragging about its ‘better’ pizza,” he says. “The seriousness about pizza is growing and this is just the beginning,”
Green points to several trends driving better pizza:

  • A focus on the dough,
  • Lighter and simpler toppings,
  • Super-hot ovens that cook in 2 minutes or less,
  • Charred, blistered crusts,
  • Pairing pizza with craft beer and wine,
  • Extreme customization.

Here’s how these trends are playing out.

Blaze Pizza
Pasadena, California
4 locations

Bradford Kent, Blaze Pizza’s executive chef, worked on perfecting his pizza dough for three years before he was satisfied. “It’s the cornerstone of a great pizza,” he believes. The secret is a long fermentation—at least 24 hours—at room temperature to produce lactic acid and create lightness, followed by refrigeration to slow down the process and develop flavor.

“We use a hand press to flatten the dough in one motion. This promotes consistency and the less handling, the less chewy the crust,” Kent explains. Precise sourcing and intensive training is also key. “Flour is milled to our specs and carefully measured so that one bag equals exactly 110 pizzas,” he says.

At service, patrons choose toppings Chipotle-style; two minutes in the 800°F oven and it’s done. A simple pie with sauce and cheese is $5; for $7.45, guests can add unlimited toppings or order a signature pie. “One of our most popular is the ‘Green Stripe’—grilled chicken, roasted red peppers, arugula and a stripe of pesto,” says Kent.

California Pizza Kitchen
Playa Vista, California
260 locations

While new pizza concepts like Blaze are vying for a piece of the pie, old favorites are not standing still. California Pizza Kitchen, a pioneer in handcrafted, hearth-baked pizzas, has several innovations in the works.

With the goal to “translate any type of cuisine into pizza” for its global menu, CPK recently introduced Spicy Korean BBQ Pizza. “Korean barbecue is a huge trend in L.A.,” says Brian Sullivan, senior VP of culinary innovation. “Kogi [Roy Choi’s Korean taco truck] brought it to new heights.” Kimchi, the spicy fermented cabbage that’s a Korean signature, can be polarizing, Sullivan feels, so he created a light kimchi salad with fresh cucumber and cabbage for the topping.

To achieve its characteristic thin, crisp California-style crust, CPK uses gas-fired hearth ovens at most of its units. The pies are hand-tossed and cooked at 500°F for 3 to 7 minutes. “We decided to get dough presses off the line and go back to hand-tossing so guests can see the action,” notes Sullivan.

A new initiative that really excites Sullivan is the Best Pizza Chef program—a celebration of CPK’s cooks. At the inaugural competition, each of the cooks created a unique pizza and the winner received $10,000 and chain-wide recognition. “This program gives our cooks a sense of ownership and leadership,” says Sullivan. It also gives the team some cool new pizza ideas.

Three pizza players

How to differentiate your concept in the crowded and competitive pizza markets of New York City, Chicago and California? Take a look.

Forcella, New York City
At his new Manhattan spot, master pizzaiolo Giulio Adriani bakes Neapolitan-style pizzas in a custom-built 1000°F oven. Guided “make-your-own pizza” sessions allow “customers to share in the excitement and creativity of the experience by getting their hands dusted with flour and interacting with the dough,” he says.

Quartino Ristorante & Wine Bar, Chicago
In this city where deep-dish pizza is king, chef-partner John Coletta opts for 20 variations of thin-crust “pizze” and house-made cheeses and salumi. The new Burrata Pizza (left) features house-made burrata cheese, fresh basil and cherry tomatoes. These small pizzas are meant for sharing with a quartino of wine.

Pitfire Artisan Pizza, Los Angeles
Wood-fired ovens distinguish this concept, which also takes pains to source local, organic ingredients and connect with its community, according to founder Paul Hibler. Diners can “Be an Artist” and create their own pizzas from 18 toppings. Sometimes these creations make it onto the permanent menu. 

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