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Thinking Outside the (Pizza) BoxThinking Outside the (Pizza) Box

June 1, 2003

9 Min Read
Thinking Outside the (Pizza)           Box

June 2003
Culinary Caonnection


Thinking Outside the (Pizza) Box

By Dianna Fricke-Stallsmith

Pizza —Some might say that they’ve been there, done that. But have they?

Pizza has become a permanent part of our culinary landscape, so it’s easy to take this ubiquitous Italian pie for granted. But pizza’s continuing popularity and growing penetration into all of today’s market segments offer a wealth of new opportunities to incorporate original flavor concepts, unusual ingredients and more-convenient forms. Creative chefs are combining the familiar with the far-out and coming up with inventive new pizza combos to keep the category fresh.

More popular than ever
Pizza is served in 38% of full-service restaurants and 26% of quick-serve operations, and is the seventh-most-common menu item in foodservice today. Despite difficult economic times, the top pizza chains are staying afloat — especially those that continue to innovate with new products.

The packaged-pizza segment, which includes frozen and refrigerated pizzas, continues to witness strong growth. Convenience; low cost; and trendy, upgraded ingredients contribute to the consumer appeal of “take-and-bake” and frozen products. Upscale grocers, such as Boulder, CO-based Wild Oats Markets, Inc., are adding in-store pizza ovens to meet customer desires for fresh-baked pizzas. Even convenience stores are installing countertop conveyor ovens and serving cooked pies. And pizza is not just for pizzerias — it’s popping up on the menus in all sorts of restaurants, from the Olive Garden to Applebee’s, Trader Vic’s and even The Cheesecake Factory.

Successful pizza-dining destinations build a loyal clientele by producing consistent product using quality ingredients. Many diners order the same type of pizza every time — 36% of all pizzas ordered are pepperoni — but more-adventurous diners are looking for new, bold tastes. Operators need to offer new choices and keep abreast of trends to attract these customers and stay competitive.

Eclectic meets Italian
Walk into the most popular pizzeria in Naples, Italy, and you will find just two types of pizza, margherita and marinara. But here in the United States, the choice of pizzas is as wildly eclectic and varied as our polyglot, multiethnic population.

Pizzas are found in every section of the menu from appetizers to entrées to desserts. At Overland Park, KS-based Applebee’s International, Inc. locations across the country, the Veggie Patch Pizza appears on the appetizer menu; and Kerrville, TX-based Mr. Gatti’s Corp. establishments offer an extensive selection of dessert pizzas.
Customized pizzas are popular as well, with no limit to the options available. Diners can choose the type of crust (New York, Chicago, California, pan, thick, thin cracker-style or stuffed), sauce (traditional, pesto, spicy peanut, barbecue and more), and every type of cheese and topping.

More-sophisticated menus feature smoked salmon, goat cheese, shiitake mushrooms and even duck sausage on pizza. The Olive Garden, owned by Darden Restaurants, Inc., Orlando, FL, features a Grilled Chicken Alfredo Pizza, and Los Angeles-based California Pizza Kitchen, Inc. has one with caramelized pears and Gorgonzola.

Asian, Southwestern and Latin flavors are the most popular ethnic influences on pizza, which may be linked to the double-digit growth of Asian and Hispanic populations in the United States. Thai-chicken pizza, one of the most popular Asian-influenced pizzas, is found on the menus of 5% of the top 500 chains that menu pizza. Wolfgang Puck — who started the gourmet-pizza trend at Spago with his smoked salmon, red onion and sour cream pizza — now offers a Thai Chicken Pizza with bok choy, snow peas, chile-peanut sauce and chopped peanuts.

Corn, jalapeños, potatoes and cilantro are just a few of the Latin flavors on the list of pizza toppings at restaurants such as San Francisco’s Pizza Orgasmica; Zachary’s Chicago Pizza Inc. in Oakland, CA; and Round Table Pizza, based in Concord, CA. Tostada Pizza and Taco Pizza are Latin-themed offerings at Clara’s Restaurant in Battle Creek, MI; while jerk chicken and peanut ginger sauce top the Caribbean Pizza at Amici’s Pizza, Berkley, MI.

Flavor combinations from classic cuisines often adapt well to pizzas. A quick tour around the world shows that in every country where pizza is popular (and that’s just about everywhere), this pie serves as a vehicle for the local flavor palette. In India, one will find pizza topped with tandoori chicken or with pickled ginger, mutton and paneer (a form of cottage cheese); the French garnish their pizza with bacon, onion and cream; and in Japan you might even find a pizza topped with squid.

Restaurants are experimenting with size, shape and even cooking techniques. More and more pizzerias are featuring wood-burning brick ovens. The steady, high heat gives thin-crust pizzas a delicious crispness. Grilling a thin round of pizza dough before adding toppings creates an attractive appearance with a slight char and unique flavor. The chef can grill the shells ahead and add toppings to order. Large rectangular pizzas cut into slices, as many pizzerias in Italy do, are a variation of the more typical “pizza-by-the-slice” wedges.

Not just for vegetarians
For years, “veggie” pizzas were listed at the bottom of menus as a last-ditch option for non-meateaters. Today, with an increasing number of vegetarians and others who want to eat a more vegetable-based diet for health reasons, vegetarian items are featured on menus in every restaurant category.

Pizza is the most common vegetarian menu item. In fact, 12% of pizzas menued are vegetarian, versus 2% of all menu items. Detroit-based Little Caesar’s Enterprises, Inc. even touts the fact that its vegetable pizza — ordered with a sesame-seed crust and no cheese — can provide a nutritionally balanced meal for vegans, strict vegetarians who consume no dairy products or eggs.

Vegetable pizzas lend themselves easily to unusual and nontraditional flavor combinations. The menu at California Pizza Kitchen includes such vegetable-themed pizzas as Wild Mushroom, a combo of cremini, shiitake, portobello and white mushrooms; and Vegetarian with Japanese Eggplant, with roasted corn, red onions and mushrooms. Mushrooms also make an appearance on Dallas-based Dave and Buster, Inc.’s Shiitake-Boursin Pizza. Pizzeria Uno, a subsidiary of West Roxbury, MA-based Uno Restaurant Corp., offers the Spinoccoli Pizza with fresh spinach and broccoli; the Triple Mushroom Pizza; and the Artipeggio Pizza, with marinated artichoke hearts, grilled eggplant and sweet red peppers. Gourmet Veggie Pizza at Round Table lives up to its name, with zucchini, spinach, artichoke hearts and mushrooms.

Vegetables made easy
Convenient, frozen, preroasted and seasoned vegetable blends can enhance many different types of pizzas, both vegetarian and meat-based. The roasting process concentrates the natural flavors and adds full-bodied roasted notes. Fire-roasting removes 20% to 30% of the water in the vegetables, resulting in less weeping and a better-textured crust. Since the vegetables are partially cooked before freezing, they finish cooking in the same amount of time it takes for the pizza crust to cook in the oven.

These frozen vegetables add instant flavor and variety. Flame-roasted onions and red peppers complement more-traditional pizza flavor profiles, while sweet corn with peppers or black beans — combined with Monterey Jack cheese and pregrilled chicken or beef strips — can inspire a host of Latin and Southwestern variations. Rosemary-roasted redskin potatoes go great with soft goat cheese, or blue cheese, pancetta or bacon. And roasted sweet potatoes with maple syrup might be the jumping-off point for exciting new combos with ham, sweet onions or even mole sauce.

Chargrilling is another technique that adds flavor, texture and visual appeal to vegetables. The Cheesecake Factory’s Grilled Vegetable Pizza includes chargrilled eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers and broccoli.

The dessert frontier
It was only a matter of time before someone deconstructed a piece of apple pie into its basic components of crust and fruit filling, and perhaps a crumb or streusel topping, and realized that with a little creativity these elements could be tweaked to become … dessert pizza. While some operators view dessert pizzas as a novelty, others say they are a popular and profitable item.

The Dutch Apple Crisp Pizza, offered as a buffet dessert item at East of Chicago Pizza Co., headquartered in Willard, OH, has proved so popular that customers complain when it’s not available. Hot cinnamon streusel, coconut cream — even piña colada, and peanut butter and jelly — have made their way onto dessert-pizza menus. Peach, blueberry and strawberry are all popular choices for fruit pizzas, but apple and cherry are the biggest sellers.

Apples make a delicious pizza topping when combined with soft cheeses, such as mascarpone, Brie or cream cheese, and dusted with cinnamon and sugar, or make a sweet filling for a calzone served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of caramel sauce. The roasting process concentrates the natural sugars, and a light cinnamon-and-brown-sugar glaze caramelizes the apple slices, providing a depth of flavor not found in fresh apples. Also, the water content of flame-roasted apples is less than that of fresh, so problems associated with excess moisture can be avoided.

A true transformation
Pizza was born in Italy but grew up in America, where culinary creativity and technical ingenuity have transformed it into the quintessential all-American food. As chefs continue to innovate to meet the tastes of growing ethnic populations and new dietary concerns, they continue to challenge food-product developers to create products and techniques to bring new pizza concepts to the widest possible audience in the greatest range of formats. From a thin-crust pizza topped with beef tenderloin, mashed potatoes and white-truffle oil at Boston’s Mistral Restaurant to a slice-on-the-run from a 7-11 or a “take-and-bake” from the supermarket, pizza is constantly being reimagined, reinvented and repackaged to keep Americans coming back for more.

Dianna Fricke-Stallsmith, CWPC, CRC, is an R&D chef for Boise, ID-based J.R. Simplot Company, having worked in the foodservice industry for 10 years and with J.R. Simplot for six years. She is a graduate of the Western Culinary Institute in Portland, OR, and has a B.S. in nutrition and dietetics from Idaho State University, Pocatello. A past president of the ACF Idaho Chefs de Cuisine, Inc., she is an active member of the American Culinary Federation and the first woman to receive her CRC credentials from the Research Chefs Association.

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