Menu Innovations | July 2011 | By Barney Wolf

A Pizza the Action

Diners are demanding gourmet, health-conscious pizzas and are willing to pay a premium. Are you ready?

It seems that everyone has an opinion about what makes a great pizza. Maybe that’s why there are so many pizza parlors across the country.

Some counts put the national total at more than 60,000 shops. That’s a lot of choices, and plenty of tough competition.

As pizza joints vie for consumers’ dough, a growing number of quick-service and fast-casual pizzerias are opting to distinguish themselves by serving gourmet pies that feature multigrain crusts, imported traditional ingredients, and all-natural components.

“Like so many things that start in the rarified air of high-end dining, gourmet pizza is filtering down to fast casual and quick service,” says Peter Reinhart, an author and chef on assignment at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, North Carolina.

“We’re seeing the mainstream starting to catch up with the type of quality usually available in artisan pizzas,” he says. “The interest in this is growing everywhere.”

Dozens of independents and small chains have incorporated local, regional, and sustainable ingredients into their pizzas. Wood- and gas-fired open hearth–baked crusts are increasingly showing up, as well.

“The truth of the matter is there is a lot of innovation in the whole pizza category,” says Dean Small, founder and managing partner of Synergy Restaurant Consultants of Laguna Niguel, California.

Whether it’s the dough’s fermentation process, various cooking platforms, or the use of organic tomatoes, high-quality cheese, and exotic toppings, “a lot of operators are coming up with great, creative ideas for their pizza.”

Over the years, pizza has gone through a metamorphosis. Many chains decided they needed to compete by piling the cheese and toppings atop heavy, doughy crusts.

But pizza is really about “bite to chew,” Small says. It doesn’t need to be ooey and gooey to have great taste. It can also be modest in terms of calories.

According to a study last year by Technomic Inc., more than nine in 10 Americans eat pizza at least once a month at a restaurant or at home.

“The Pizza Consumer Trend Report” found that, as in many other restaurant segments, pizza customers want healthier options. Two in five diners say they want whole-wheat crusts, organic toppings, and all-natural components.

As a result, some pizzerias “are trying to differentiate on quality, rather than unique offerings,” says Sara Monnette, director of consumer research for Technomic.

One growing trend in gourmet pizza is Neapolitan style, which has traditional ingredients, such as double-zero Italian flour, San Marzano plum tomatoes, fior de latte or mozzarella di bufala cheese, basil, sea salt, and yeast.

The thin-crust pizza is placed in a wood-fired oven and heated to about 900 degrees for no more than a minute and a half.

Increasingly, American pizzerias “are reinterpreting the pizza to include a wider range of ingredients,” Monnette says. That includes unusual blends of American cheeses and flours, as well as nontraditional toppings, such as figs, cracked eggs, and various meats.

Some of the brands featuring Neapolitan pies are Punch with seven Minneapolis-area units, four-unit Spin! in suburban Kansas City, and CHIPP in Brooklyn.

CHIPP owner Lenny Veltman plans to expand into a chain of authentic Neapolitan-style pizza parlors.

“Even the [wood-fired] oven was built to Neapolitan specs,” he says, referring to requirements of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, which certifies pizzerias that meet its authentic Neapolitan criteria.

“CHIPP’s made-from-scratch 12-inch cheese pizza weighs a feathery 9 ounces,” says Veltman, a restaurant veteran who was a contestant on TV’s The Apprentice.

Customers have a choice of 40 toppings, and there are about a dozen specialty pizzas ranging from $8.50 for the Marinara (sauce, oregano, and garlic) to nearly $16.50 for the Bufalotta (fresh mozzarella di buffala topped with arugula and Parma prosciutto).

Many other gourmet quick-service and fast-casual pizzerias have embraced at least one requirement of the Neapolitan style: the wood-fired oven.

Among the first American limited-service restaurant companies to use an open, wood-fired pizza oven was Wolfgang Puck Express. The fast-casual restaurant chain echoed the pizza-making style of the celebrity chef’s full-service locations.

“The open hearth has the aroma that is enticing, and it’s more artisan. It also tastes better,” Small says. “It separates you from the competition with a much better product and better caramelization on top. It’s the way to go.”

After all, he says, “the pizza is really all about the dough.”

Pizza is a good candidate to experiment with flours, including high-fiber whole wheat and multigrain, says Steve Hodge, corporate executive chef for ConAgra Mills.

“We have whole grain, nine grain, five grain, and Ultragrain,” which combines the nutritional benefits of whole grains with the taste, texture, and appearance of white flour, he says. “It also performs like white flour.”

Using some multigrain flours requires different preparation because those with bran particles absorb more water. At the same time, Hodge says, “we’re finding that because of the whole-grain content, when baked in an open-hearth oven, the crust gets real crispy.”

Another popular baking style is the gas-fired brick oven, which is a part of some pizzerias’ focus on a healthful halo of ingredients.

“Pizza has never been known as healthy, so we wanted to change that,” says Anthony Pigliacampo, cofounder of Modmarket, a two-unit Colorado operation.