As American as pizza pie

The popularity of pizza sees no signs of waning. In fact, pizza fans took a larger slice from the pie in 2011, as sales rose 2.2 percent to $33.6 million, according to data from Mintel. And an even healthier gain of 2.9 percent is projected for 2012.

Pizza is craveable, comforting and relatively cheap—three traits that contributed to its rise during a down economy. But innovation has also played a part. Creative toppings, artisanal ingredients, wood-fired ovens, crust improvements and other upgrades are tempting jaded pizza palates.

The secret is in the dough

Wolfgang Puck is a pizza pioneer, one of the California chefs who introduced the masses to the glories of crisp, thin-crust, artisan pies. Now, the next generation of these pizzas is being served up with some unique twists at Wolfgang Puck Pizza Bar in Charlotte, North Carolina—the first location of a projected multi-unit concept. 

“The uniqueness starts with the dough,” explains executive chef Scott Wallen. “We put it through two pre-ferments; the first fermentation takes seven days and the second is overnight.” This longer fermentation makes the dough lighter and airier with slightly sour flavor characteristics, he adds. The dough is formed into a round crust that gets a good rise during baking—about 1½-inches around the edge—but retains its crispness. The same dough is used for the restaurant’s breadsticks and focaccia rolls.
Next up are the toppings—another key point of differentiation. “People have the opportunity to really eat locally when they order one of our pizzas,” says Wallen. The cured meats, including soppressata, pepperoni and salami, are made by a small Greensboro, North Carolina producer—San Giuseppe Salami Co.—with pork sourced from local hogs. Chapel Hill Creamery supplies mozzarella and Goat Lady Dairy, goat cheese. Much of the produce is local, too.

“We give people the chance to savor local foods in a casual setting and make an effort to stay true to the ingredients,” Wallen notes. That means he avoids overly topping the pizzas, using just enough to accent the dough. Among the 18 handcrafted individual pizzas is the Carolina Goat Cheese with local farm tomatoes, pesto and fresh basil ($11); House-Made Lamb Sausage with goat cheese, roasted peppers, roasted eggplant and cumin ($14); and Rosemary Potato and Egg Pizza with pancetta and sweet peppers ($12).

The Pizza Bar’s third unique element is its dual-fuel pizza oven. It features a gas-heated stone and hickory wood fire to create the mix of heat and flavor that sets the pizzas apart. “There’s lots of competition in the pizza market, but Wolfgang’s style brings something very distinctive to the Carolinas,” Wallen claims. “It’s a more artisan way of thinking.”

A pizza for every palate

Sammy’s Woodfired Pizza, an 18-unit regional chain based in La Jolla, California, competes with the big boys by offering something for every pizza fan—as well as patrons who aren’t in a pizza mood. The menu lists signature Woodfired Pizzas in variations using topnotch ingredients. These include Margherita with grape tomato, burrata, pesto and house-made tomato sauce ($11.50), La Dou’s Barbecue Chicken ($12.50) and New York Style (sautéed mushroom, pepperoni, salami, Italian sausage and homemade tomato sauce, $12.50). Guests can pay another buck to substitute nonfat mozzarella and pay $3 extra for a gluten-free crust.  The latter is baked on a special screen to avoid cross-contamination.

“The New York pie and the Barbecue Chicken are the most popular,” reports Jeff Moogk, Sammy’s executive chef. “There are still a lot of meat lovers out there.” To further please those carnivores, he recently introduced a new Hawaiian Pizza—“the adult version of the old Hawaiian pie.” It boasts rosemary ham instead of traditional Canadian bacon, fresh golden pineapple, Fresno chilies, mozzarella and fresh mint. 

There’s also a menu section of Artisan Thin Crust Pizzas, with toppings such as Raclette & Fingerling Potato with Applewood Smoked Bacon ($13) and Bianco (smoked provolone, mozzarella and gorgonzola, $11.50).  “These are freshly baked on a thin crust, like a French tarte flambé,” Moogk explains. “We keep the toppings and garnishes to a minimum and emphasize the cheeses.”

“Pizza is a lot of fun to play with,” he adds, “but we can’t go too far off the beaten path; the flavors have to blend.” Moogk leads a culinary team that came on board earlier this year. Besides introducing new pizzas like the Bianco and Hawaiian, they’ve expanded the Tapas section of the menu, adding selections such as Artichoke Fritters, Japanese Style Chicken Meatballs and Mini Duck Tacos. “We’re a very sharing restaurant and this satisfies customers’ needs to broaden flavor profiles and menu items,” Moogk feels.

It also gives the team an opportunity to cross-utilize more ingredients and increase product turnover. “About 80 percent of what we bring in is just 24 to 48 hours old.”

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