According to Datassential’s Menu Trends report, more than 35 percent of the nation’s restaurant menus feature pizza among their offerings. At quick-service chains, the figure is slightly higher, at 38 percent. And those are just the outlets that actually use the word pizza to characterize their handiwork. If you expand the definition of pizza to include so-called flatbreads—a crafty synonym that usually connotes a smaller but more expensive pizza—the percentages nose even higher.
Pizza’s prevalence probably isn’t remarkable for Millennials, who have grown up in an era when pizza essentially became shorthand for a baked, open-faced sandwich. Pizzas with barbecue sauce and chicken—or with prosciutto, pesto, and pine nuts—have been part of their worlds practically from the beginning. But for those of us who remember when pizzas were served mostly by corner pizzerias owned by stout, mustachioed Sicilian gents covered in flour from head to toe, the evolution is a bit jarring.
Today, pizza is an entirely self-contained food delivery system comprising everything you need to satisfy not just your palate, but also your other senses. It requires no accompaniments, but will generously accommodate just about any foodstuff you care to heap on it. This means pizza can also be engineered to be remarkably healthy, and even (nearly) nutritionally complete. Furthermore, it’s suitable for consumption at any time of day, including mornings. Just ask any one of the thousands of ardent pizza-for-breakfast advocates—they’re everywhere.
There are three significant trends in the pizza universe today that I believe are worthy of further investigation and exploitation.
Easy artisanal expression. From cheeses, breads, and beers to honey, pickled figs, and handcrafted jerky, the artisanal food movement has been gathering steam for years now and has swept up dozens of formerly fungible commodities in its maw. But there’s just something about pizza that lends itself to artisanal expression. The simplicity of the form and the ease with which different artisanal elements can be combined offer a perfect platform for experimentation and ingredient upgrading.
Start with the dough itself. If an enriched white crust seems way too bland (you know, because it just is), there are a growing number of options for sourcing varieties made from whole grains, heirloom grains, or sprouted grains, all of which can enliven a pedestrian pie’s texture and flavor. Then chains can think about incorporating rustic or traditional sauces containing fresh herbs and spices. And beyond those two foundational pizza upgrades, there are local and regional opportunities for customization: locally sourced vegetables; proteins whose provenance can be traced straight back to the farm; and local or sustainable bacon, sausage, pepperoni, cheeses, or dairy products. The list goes on.
And while it would be a bit of an about-face from the traditional quick-serve ethos, which is all about consistency and uniformity of flavor, texture, form, shape, and style, I personally believe that pizza offers a unique opportunity for chains to practice just a hint of inconsistency, which is inherent to artisan-style craftsmanship. One person’s Margherita pizza doesn’t necessarily have to look exactly like the one perched on the next table—and, in fact, the perception of a freshly made, higher-quality product is enhanced by slight differences from one pie to the next.
Mash-ups—taking liberties with the form. These days, it takes a great deal to get consumers’ attention with a reimagining of the basic pizza formula, but Boston Pizza, a Canadian chain, has reportedly pulled it off, with a six-layer cake made entirely of pizza. Pizza Hut’s Cheeseburger Pizza raised eyebrows as well, as has a Domino’s pie featuring a breaded-chicken “crust.”
These would be the extreme variations on a theme, and would qualify more as creative flights of fancy than additions to a daily routine. More interesting to me are ethnically influenced mash-ups: a crust topped with bulgogi sauce—a Korean barbecue staple—for instance, or a pizza heaped with Pad Thai, or one slathered with Mediterranean-style chicken stew comprising both Greek and Italian elements, from black olives and Feta cheese to Buffalo Mozzarella and olive oil. Shoehorning different ethnic ingredients into a single pie could well produce the inspired and offbeat flavor combinations that are so compelling to those worldly, open-minded, and novelty-craving Millennials.
Reclaim the health halo. Hardcore pizza purists, such as those at the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, are dedicated to the idea that there are only two types of “real pizza”: Marinara, made with tomato, oil, oregano, and garlic, and Margherita, composed of tomato, oil, Mozzarella or Fior di Latte, grated cheese, and basil. These basic formulations, unlike a Meat Lovers’ variant, needn’t be particularly rich, astoundingly caloric, or outrageously indulgent.
That’s why it makes sense that a chain like Domino’s has created a pie containing one-third less fat and salt. That’s a great place to start, but reclaiming the health halo isn’t just about subtracting things; it can also be about adding ingredients that promote good health. I’m talking about vegetables that are both scattered atop the pizza and diced and baked into its crust, and about whole-grain flours that are higher in fiber and packed with flavor. Pizza won’t likely enjoy health-food status anytime soon, but as quick-serve menu developers continue mining for intriguing and exciting new possibilities, it’d be nice to think that a range of healthier options could be forthcoming.
Stay tuned, pizza lovers. There are plenty more changes afoot, and the possibilities are exciting, indeed.