Stretching the definition of the classic tomato-and-mozzarella pie has become a popular menu pastime, but how far is too far?
This article first appeared in the 15 September 2007 issue of Restaurants & Institutions (R&I).
R&I is the USA's leading source of food and business-trend information and exclusive research on operators and restaurant patrons. Editorial coverage spans the entire foodservice industry, including chains, independent restaurants, hotels and institutions. To find out more about R&I, visit its website here >>
By Allison Perlik, Senior Editor
Now that mainstream diners devour barbecued-chicken and garlic-shrimp pizzas without batting an eye, the quest for chefs is finding out just how far out of the box pizzas can go.
Operators who are eager to put fresh spins on the iconic recipe while keeping customers comfortable enough to drum up sales find that the answer lies somewhere beyond tomatoes and cheese but short of out-of-context combinations that don't meld with the classic construction (chili-dog pizza, anyone?). The only hard-and-fast rule for success is to provide an easy point of entry for diners, whether through the use of fresh, seasonal products or by incorporating on-trend flavor profiles as an anchor in familiar elements.
"I try to walk the line between giving people what they expect and what will challenge them a little," says Gordon Drysdale, executive chef-partner at San Francisco-based Pizza Antica restaurants, where toppings range from fennel sausage with mushrooms and onions to asparagus with preserved lemons and tarragon. "You need variety for the width and breadth of customers you serve."
The singular guideline for Executive Chef Brian Poe's hearty appetizer pizzas at the Millennium Bostonian Hotel's The Atrium restaurant is that they showcase New England ingredients. A recent recipe uses a grilled semolina crust as a vehicle for smoked, locally sourced shrimp, lobster, scallops, mussels and clams atop Vermont Cheddar cheese with lobster-stock-infused tomato sauce.
Such flavor profiles aren't likely to topple pepperoni and sausage as the category's top sellers, but operators agree that a touch of originality is essential for keeping customers' interests piqued. In-house sampling is one way to encourage guests to stray from tried-and-true favorites, but well-educated servers who share their enthusiasm for the offerings can be even more effective.
"If the staff rallies behind a recipe, that can really tip the scales," Drysdale says.
Rules of Engagement
At Sudbury, Mass.-based Stone Hearth Pizza, the Neapolitan-style pies generally reflect ingredients indigenous to Italian cuisine.
"Our current special is a barbecue-chicken pizza, and while I'm confident you won't find barbecue sauce in traditional Neapolitan restaurants, you will find other ingredients we use regularly, such as white beans, broccoli rapini and artichokes," says Michael Ehlenfeldt, Stone Hearth's executive chef and general manager. "We're pulling from the region and focusing on those flavors, and it really helps us define our food."
About half of Stone Hearth customers opt for tomato sauce, but less-conventional bases such as white-bean spread and eggplant purée see brisk sales as well. Cheese is a fertile area for experimentation, too, with about one-third of diners ordering pizzas topped with feta, goat, blue or fontina cheeses in addition to, or in place of, standard mozzarella, Ehlenfeldt says. In keeping with Neapolitan tradition, kitchen staff take a light hand with toppings so as not to overwhelm the flavor contribution of house-made crust.
At Panzano, a contemporary Northern Italian restaurant in Denver, Executive Chef Elise Wiggins' daily specials aim to reflect pizza's natural balance, which traditionally stems from a crisp crust matched with sweet, acidic tomato sauce and rich, salty elements such as cheese, sausage and pepperoni. A late-summer inspiration strikes an equally pleasing equilibrium using different elements: sweet Mariposa plums atop a garlic-olive-oil base with creamy feta, walnuts and arugula drizzled with truffle oil.
Another recipe, which marries soft, slightly tangy Crescenza cheese with prosciutto and balsamic reduction on grilled flatbread, taught Wiggins an important lesson about what customers will and won't accept where pizza is concerned.
"I had it on the appetizer menu for a while as grilled pizza, and it was a tough sell," she says. "The Crescenza and prosciutto are served cold, and if you use the word 'pizza,' customers look for hot elements. Now we call it flatbread, so it doesn't go against what people think of as pizza."
Know Thy Customer
When 24-unit, Denver-based chain Spicy Pickle introduced 11-inch pizzas called Pizzetti to its sandwich-and-salad menu last year, Chief Operating Officer Tony Walker knew the recipes had to relate well to the concept's demographic.
"In fine dining, servers have time to educate customers," he says. "In the fast-casual atmosphere, people need to be able to come in, look at the menu and decide what they want."
That means menu descriptions for less-mainstream ingredients include parenthetical explanations such as "prosciutto (ham)" and "sopressata (sausage)." Executives keep a close eye on how far they can push pizza's boundaries and still please the chain's mainstream clientele.
Portobello pizza with truffle oil didn't fly-"People didn't quite understand it," Walker reasons-but he credits the popularity of a chipotle-pesto pie that features roasted chicken, red onions, green peppers and mozzarella to broad acceptance of the basil-based sauce.
To help gauge the potential acceptance of nontraditional pizzas, the company examines customers' sandwich preferences in particular markets.
"Are they eating pastrami or rosemary ham, or is it more about mesquite turkey and regular ham?" Walker says. "If [it's the latter], then you have to pull back the reins a bit and slowly, over time, introduce new ideas."
At Pandini's, an Italian-themed concept from Sodexho USA's Allentown, Pa.-based Retail Brand Group LLC, Director of Product Development Rob D'Orsi looks to full-service dining trends and popular flavor profiles to create limited-time offers that stray from standard fare. A spring promotion featured red-pepper pesto-roasted red peppers with garlic, Parmesan cheese, salt and olive oil (nuts, a common allergen, were excluded)-as a foundation for chicken, provolone cheese and asparagus.
"I usually start with the sauce as a flavor profile, then go for balance and color," D'Orsi says. "Pizzas need to create a good visual. It could be the greatest recipe in the world, but if it doesn't look good, people probably won't purchase it."
Pies from Madison Heights, Mich.-based Hungry Howie's Pizza & Subs Inc. most often are shared by families, so the carryout/delivery concept came up with a broadly appealing way to keep its menu distinctive but accessible: seven flavored crusts. The vendor-produced spice blends-among them sesame, garlic, Cajun and ranch-are sprinkled over the chain's hand-tossed or crispy thin crusts before the pizzas are topped and baked.
"When I was a kid, we'd eat the pizza and throw the ends of the crust back in the box," says Vice President of Marketing and Product Development Jeff Rinke. "We thought that if people weren't eating their crust before, it wouldn't be a big risk to try a different flavor of crust." Rinke says that 95% of customers order the specialty crusts.
Expect the Unexpected
Even for non-Italian themed restaurants, pizza represents a prime opportunity to offer guests worlds of flavor in a recognizable, easily shareable format.
Such is the impetus behind the far-from-conventional offerings at Italian-accented sushi spot Natsumi in New York City, where popular sushi rolls inspire the menu's "Pizza Nuova" section. Spicy crab and tuna pizzas both feature chopped frisée, wasabi oil and balsamic reduction; the crab version adds avocado and wasabi tobiko, while the tuna version adds spicy mayonnaise, mango and red tobiko.
The pizzas, prepared using frozen purchased dough, are especially popular among young, trendy diners snacking in the bar with friends, says owner Barbara Matsumura.
For Executive Chef Vikram Garg, devising a play on pizza based on naan, the traditional Indian bread, was a no-brainer at upscale restaurant Indebleu in Washington, D.C.
"It's a perfect blend of our concept: modern cuisine and Indian flavors," says Garg, whose naan "pizzas" are stuffed with green chiles, basil and shredded mozzarella-the last of which works better than fresh mozzarella for cooking in the tandoor oven because of its lower moisture content.
For toppings, customers choose from among creamy, house-made paneer cheese, chicken prepared tikka-style (in a spicy yogurt marinade) or more-traditional prosciutto. Each pizza is finished with a touch of salt and lime juice, which Garg says counters the chiles' heat and cuts the mozzarella's richness.
Thin Is In
Even hotter than bubbling mozzarella atop a just-baked pie, Neapolitan-style pizzas are the latest trend taking the segment by storm, from Spacca Napoli Pizzeria in Chicago to Pizzeria Fondi in Seattle.
Though most operators don't adhere strictly to the guidelines set out by Verace Pizza Napoletana (a Naples-based trade organization that promotes and certifies what it deems authentic methodology), those billing their pies as Neapolitan typically meet a handful of defining criteria:
- Baking pizzas quickly at high temperatures (up to 900F) in wood-burning ovens (or, often, gas-fired stone or ceramic versions designed to achieve similar results);
- Hand-forming crusts that are cracker-thin, crisp and bubbly;
- Sourcing authentic ingredients such as high-protein Italian flour, canned San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and fresh yeast;
- Taking a minimalist approach to toppings such as fresh tomatoes, basil and prosciutto.
The appeal for consumers is twofold, says Chief Concept Officer Don Adams of Restaurants Unlimited Inc., which operates two Pizzeria Fondi restaurants in Seattle. Diners perceive Neapolitan-style pizza as both a lighter version of the classic recipe they love and the perfect vehicle for the fresh, flavorful, quality ingredients they crave.
"Once customers try the pizza, it's very addictive," Adams says.
Pizza dough proves an ideal platform for delivering an appetizing-and sometimes surprising-array of on-trend flavor profiles, as illustrated in the menu items below.
- Everyone's going Greek: At Aigre Doux in Chicago, Chef-owner Mohammad Islam's Greek Pizza presents braised lamb, kalamata olives, feta cheese, roasted tomatoes, marjoram and arugula over grilled-eggplant spread. The Santorini from Denver-based Spicy Pickle also taps kalamata olives and feta, along with sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, green peppers and oregano.
- Burgers are big: Even high-end, Sudbury, Mass.-based Stone Hearth Pizza Co. offers a version of "cheeseburger" pizza, complete with locally sourced Angus beef, two-year aged Cheddar and caramelized onions. At St. Joseph, Mo.-based chain Breadeaux Pizza, diners dig in to Bacon Cheeseburger Pizza with ground beef, onions, Cheddar cheese, Dijon mustard and dill pickles.
- Tell the Philadelphia story: Melville, N.Y.-based Sbarro bakes seasoned beef, onions, green and red peppers, and mozzarella inside hand-tossed dough for its stuffed Philly Cheese Steak pizza, while a rendition on the Philadelphia favorite from Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Domino's Pizza is topped with sirloin steak, green peppers, onions, mushrooms and provolone cheese.
- Shuffle off to Buffalo: Harry's Restaurant and Bar in St. Louis serves Buffalo Chicken Pizza laden with diced fried chicken, hot sauce, blue cheese and mozzarella. Buffalo Chicken Pizza is a regular menu feature at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Va., as well.
- Organics are easy as pie: Across the country, a new crop of pizzerias is touting its commitment to use of organic components from dough to sauce to toppings. In the mix are Crust in Chicago; Sudbury, Mass.-based Stone Hearth Pizza Co.; and Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Pizza Fusion.