OPINIONFood

Pizza serves as a blank canvas for culinary innovation—in the U.S. at least

State of the Plate: Italians are strict about their pies, but American pizza chefs have an array of seemingly endless riffs on the popular dish, menu trends columnist Nancy Kruse writes.
Donatos Pizza
Donatos' edge-to-edge pizza is liberally topped with pepperoni. | Photo courtesy: Donatos Pizza.

State of the Plate

It was an uproar of Vesuvian proportions that shook the pizza-making establishment in Naples, Italy, to the core last year. Gino Sorbillo, one of the country’s best-known pizzaioli, pizzamakers, and the scion of a well-respected family of restaurateurs, put pineapple on one of his pies.

Sorbillo claimed this insurrectionist tweak was meant to “combat food prejudice” and to embrace a “disputed ingredient that has been treated like poison.” Traditionalists, however, cried foul and accused him of pandering to tourists. Worse, some critics complained that he was turning them into Americans.

The kerfuffle may strike actual Americans as perplexing. After all, pizza is one of our favorite foods precisely because there is no such thing as a disputed ingredient.

According to analysts at The Pizza Calc, we consumed about three billion pies last year, which equates to a healthy 23 pounds per capita. What’s more, a whopping 94% of us say that we enjoy it at least occasionally.

This is a powerful endorsement, and one that fuels culinary creativity in the segment. And while the major national brands duke it out for dominance, much of the real menu innovation comes from well-positioned local and regional players.

It feeds a whole gang. Pizza’s extraordinarily strong demographic appeal rests in part on its communal nature. It is frequently consumed by hand and in company. Sure, solo diners and/or those using a knife and fork love it, too; but the primal pleasure of breaking bread with others has assumed greater importance to post-pandemic patrons.

Cici’s Pizza addresses this impulse and caters to a crowd with the fun Piezilla, a kind of pizza party in a very large box. This 28” big boy delivers 64 party-cut slices and amps up the flavor with a garlic-butter crust.

Cici's Piezilla

Cici's Piezilla | Photo courtesy: Cici's

Some enterprising operators on the West Coast have been experimenting with tasting menus, like the Pizza Around the World Experience at vaunted Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco, which dishes up seven pies to six diners for a hefty $500. This price tag includes appetizers, sides, an aperitif and, finally, the titular pies.

Donatos Pizza goes over the top from a different perspective. Its Original Pepperoni Pizza boasts more than one hundred pieces of consumers’ No. 1 favorite topping. To make good on its trademarked Edge-to-Edge promise, ingredients are meticulously weighed to the 1/100th of a pound. Exacting, yes, and exactly the way to a pizza lover’s heart.

It borrows freely from across the menu. Pizza Inn, for example, offers a limited-time Chicken Parmesan Pizza that puts the popular entrée right on the crust, while Midwestern favorite Toppers Pizza features a Mac ‘N Cheese Pizza that starts with creamy cheese sauce layered with macaroni, Cheddar and Wisconsin mozzarella cheeses.

Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza and Wings recently launched an Italian Shrimp Festival with, among other things, Shrimp Scampi Pizza; and Sauce Pizza & Wine menus a hearty Lasagna Pizza.

While delivering a conventional main dish as a pie topper clearly has its appeal, many operators take inspiration from other parts of the menu.

Known for pizza innovation, independent Nouvelle Kitchen and Brewery in Minneapolis is currently firing up the Cacio e Pepe Pizza Sandwich, a hot sandwich on house focaccia with fresh mozzarella, house cheese blend, hot honey and black pepper. It’s garnished with pecorino, oregano and fennel powder.

In California, Mountain Mike’s brags that the Chicken Club Pizza here is “better than a BLT,” and makes good on its boast with grilled chicken, bacon, diced tomatoes and green onions crowned with creamy garlic sauce.

Side dishes are being called into the service of pizza, too.

Grimaldi’s puts springtime on the plate with the attractive, seasonal Bacon Asparagus Pesto Pizza. Flavors are enhanced by the smokey, coal-fired pizza crust and the finish of hot honey sauce, the “it ingredient” of the moment, and culinary equivalent of catnip.

Grimaldi's pizza

Grimaldi's seasonal pizza | Photo courtesy: Grimaldi's.

Speaking of sides, at Pizza Luce, Baked Potato Pizza is made with mashed potatoes, broccoli, tomatoes, Cheddar cheese and chopped bacon.

This last raises a question relative to the strange absence of Americans’ favorite vegetable on pizzas in this country. Potato plus pizza seems an obvious and winning combination, yet potato pizzas are few and far between here. This is in contrast to Italy, where diners will find sliced, diced and even French-fried potatoes covering the crust.

It is truly cosmopolitan. Pizzamakers make liberal use of the global pantry, as at Toppers, which invites diners to “krunch with a punch” of heat. The Chili Crisp Pizza combines pepperoni and red sweet peppers topped with chili crisp, another trendy, newsworthy component.

California Pizza Kitchen, the OG of pizza innovation, steps up with the new Green Chili Enchilada Pizza that combines grilled chicken, charred poblano peppers and crispy tortilla chips with salsa verde and queso quesadilla cheese.

Taking its inspiration from the Caribbean, Mellow Mushroom’s springtime specials include the Wild in Havana Pizza that puts the classic Cuban sandwich on a pizza crust. Ingredients here are pork, ham, salami, Swiss and mozzarella cheeses, and garnishes are diced pickles and a mayo-mustard drizzle.

Cacio e Pepe Pizza Sandwich

Cacio e Pepe Pizza Sandwich, Nouvelle Kitchen & Brewery

It attracts non-pizzamakers, too. Other chains want in on the pizza action, which has made for some pretty strange compagni di letto, or bedfellows.

In April, Taco John’s announced the “ultimate culinary collab” when it introduced the promotional Taco Pizza that starts with a corn-and-wheat flour crust that’s covered with refried beans, beef and a four-cheese blend.

Taco Bell’s Mexican Pizza, an on again/off again item, is officially on again as a permanent menu item thanks to patron demand. Seasoned beef and refried beans are sandwiched between two Mexican Pizza shells with Mexican Pizza sauce.

Another Yum brand, KFC, took an even bolder step with its Chizza promotion last winter, in which two fried chicken filets were topped with pepperoni, cheese and marinara sauce. Already a hit in global markets, the item debuted in New York City at a Chizzeria pop up and generated the predictable social media frenzy.

It’s obviously a model of invention. And the outlook is for continued, unbridled creativity in a category driven by value, variety and customization, all buoyed by the product’s extremely favorable demographics.

Watch for activity in the breakfast and dessert categories. Lucky patrons of Happy Joe’s can enjoy both as they start their day with an Omelet Pizza and finish it with a Birthday Cake or S’mores Dessert Pizza.

As for Gino Sorbillo, source of all that Neapolitan hubbub, it’s worth noting that his dish was of a distinctly higher order. The white pie comprised three different cheeses, including smoked provola, a first cousin to provolone, and two regional cacioricotta varieties. Nor did he simply upend a can of pineapple; his fruit was twice-cooked and caramelized—a sophisticated approach worthy of a world-class pizzamaker.

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