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.

The pizza at Modmarket uses dough that has nine whole grains. That makes the crust more flavorful when baked at high heat in just two or three minutes, Pigliacampo says.

“It doesn’t have the whole-wheat bitterness taste,” he says. “We focused on getting that bitterness out without adding sugar or honey,” making the crust good for vegans, too.

Modmarket uses a half dozen of its own sauces, plus fresh cheeses, local vegetables, and nitrate-free natural meats. The arugula and prosciutto pie uses fresh arugula when it’s in season and the flavorful, thin-cut meat is from La Quercia farm in Iowa.

The arugula is also in other pies, including the Fig, with goat cheese, gorgonzola, mozzarella, provolone, pepper, and figs.

A 12-inch pie costs from $6.50 to $9.50, and the calorie count is less than half that of most competitors. The receipt and menu include all of the nutritional data.

“You don’t need to pile the toppings high to have a great pizza,” Pigliacampo says. “You just need to have very flavorful ingredients.”

This is part of “the big trend of farm to table,” Reinhart says. “There is more use of locally raised, sustainable meats and vegetables.”

Prices for these pizzas can be higher because the ingredients are costlier or harder to get. However, as more farmers get in the business “to meet some of the concerns of sustainable resourcing, we will see more of it in the mainstream,” he says.

At RedBrick Pizza, some vendors “are still educating themselves” on the chain’s requirements for healthful items, says James Minidis, cofounder and president. “We formulate our recipes and pair ourselves with vendors who can provide what we need.”

Some ingredients are organic, a number are natural, and many have no preservatives.

This extends to all types of fixings, from pepperoni to dough.

Crusts can even be made gluten-free with the use of “ancient” grains, such as spelt and amaranth, Reinhart says.

Modmarket features a gluten-free pizza, as does 60-unit RedBrick Pizza, which worked closely with the Celiac Disease Foundation to develop its baking process.

“We take all the precautions,” Minidas says. “There’s no cross contamination in preparation, and it’s baked on a raised, separate stone in the oven.”

The chain’s regular pizza uses dough made with multigrain flour and açai berries. Baked at 1,000 degrees in a brick oven, the crust stays moist inside but has a crunch to it, too.

RedBrick’s interest in healthful, preservative-free products resulted in pizzas that are lower in sodium, calories, and carbohydrates than a typical pizzeria. The 9-inch pizzas range from 280 to 600 calories and cost from $5 to $7.50.

Specialty pizzas, such as the Thai pizza with Thai sauce, cilantro, cashews, carrots, red onions, and mozzarella, are $8–$12 for a 12-inch pie and $12–$17 for a 14-incher.

The idea of turning pizza, which is generally considered culprit food, into a healthy solution is at the heart of Naked Pizza, a chain launched after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, says Brock Fillinger, cofounder and head of operations.

The operation has 17 units in the U.S. and Dubai.

As with many other gourmet pizzerias, the delivery and carryout chain’s dough is special. Its blend of 10 “ancestral” grains and seeds is made in dough balls and shipped to the stores so all crusts are consistent.

The dough has prebiotic agave fiber and probiotics, and the toppings include all-natural, nitrate-free meats, all-natural tomato sauce, premium cheeses, and fresh-cut vegetables.

“It’s expensive to do,” Fillinger says, “but we’re banking on eventually buying in volume as we add more stores and more people turn to that style of making pizza.”

Naked Pizza allows customers to build their own pizza in 10-, 12-, and 14-inch sizes, with original and thin-crust pies going for $5–$7 and the toppings $1.50 and more.

The 12-inch gluten-free pizza is $10.

Specialty pizzas cost from $13 to $17 and include the hometown Ragin’ Cajun with sausage, chicken, garlic, bell peppers, and onions. The Smokehouse has hickory-smoked barbecue sauce, onions, and chicken.

Bexley Pizza Plus is also testing smoked items on pizza. The independent pizza shop in suburban Columbus, Ohio, has won numerous awards for its pies.

Most recently, co-owner Brad Rocco placed fourth in the traditional pizza category—highest among Americans—in the International Pizza Challenge in March. His entry was a spicy pepato pepperoni and mesquite-roasted portabella mushroom pizza.

The success of the mesquite mushrooms made Rocco consider purchasing a smoker to make the ingredient in bulk, as well as other barbecue items.

“It opens all kind of possibilities,” he says.

Top That! Pizza in Tulsa, Oklahoma, teamed up with 3 Guys Smokin’ to introduce three barbecue pizzas in June. The pizzas use local ingredients and 3 Guys’ rubs and sauces.

Although pizza is certainly Italian-based, it embraces all kinds of ethnic and regional tastes, from Puck’s California cuisine to Asian flavorings.

Mexican flavors help differentiate Pizza Patrón, which has 100 units. One of those ingredients is chorizo, a red-colored pork sausage made with chili peppers.

“It’s one of the draws for our customers,” says Andy Gamm, director of brand development for the Dallas-based chain. “One of the challenges is to get it distributed to all locations, because it has been hard to source out an authentic chorizo recipe.”

The company has limited-time offers featuring the flavors of certain areas of Mexico, such as one honoring La Nortena. “The ingredients are typical of taquerias of that area, which feature barbacoa, cilantro, onion, and tomatoes,” Gamm says.

“It’s what makes us unique,” he says.