Over the past century, Americans have developed a special craving for certain foods, both at home and in restaurants—items like burgers and fries, sandwiches and fried chicken.
And then there’s pizza. One of the nation’s most beloved meals, pizza is the sum of varied parts: crust, sauce, cheese, meat or other proteins, vegetables, and the baking style. All are important, but the toppings are the real ingredient that gives customers and operators alike room to play around with new flavors.
“Toppings are where people can have fun and interact with the concept,” says Anthony Carron, chef and creator of Los Angeles–based 800 Degrees Neapolitan Pizzeria. “Toppings are beautiful, they’re colorful, and the ‘wow’ point for guests.”
Operators today are opting for more high-quality topping options, especially as a result of the soaring growth of new fast-casual pizza concepts that let customers choose from dozens of ingredients to build their own pies.
“Consumers really do still like the traditional options in terms of pizza toppings, but they also want something different,” says Kelly Weikel, senior consumer research manager for market research and consulting firm Technomic Inc.
Pizza has always been a build-your-own meal, and that has expanded with new, upscale ingredients, she adds. At the same time, diners look to restaurants to help them experience new flavors.
“That’s why we see interest in theme pizzas, like Hawaiian, or with various meat combinations, or even ones with regional or ethnic flavors,” Weikel says. “Pizza is such an established platform that we are continually looking for something new.”
Many restaurants are also catering to smaller customer segments, like with gluten-free crusts or milk-free cheese that gives vegans a fuller pizza experience.
The most popular toppings are no surprise. A Culinary Visions Panel survey this year found that 79 percent of Americans wanted Mozzarella on their “dream pizza,” with pepperoni (55 percent) and mushrooms (50 percent) as the top meat and vegetable, respectively. Parmesan cheese was also popular, at 57 percent, followed by sausage (48 percent), onions and bacon (both 46 percent), green peppers (43 percent), and tomatoes (42 percent).
“One interesting thing we saw is that some of the different cheese types are becoming top of mind with consumers,” says Rachel Tracy, managing director of the Chicago-based panel, which explores culinary topics with food industry professionals and consumers.
More than 70 percent of those surveyed said they would definitely or probably order a four-cheese pizza with Mozzarella, Parmesan, Gorgonzola, and goat cheese. Only a four-meat specialty pizza scored higher.
The survey also found some growth in those who might choose breakfast or dessert pizzas. A breakfast pizza usually adds eggs to traditional pizzeria toppings like bacon, ham, and sausage. Dessert pizzas typically include chocolate, caramel, or fruit.
The Culinary Visions survey found that some topping choices differ widely among demographic groups. Mushrooms and sausage were popular with more than half of people ages 55 and over, but with fewer than 40 percent of Millennials.
Large pizza chains controlled about 52 percent of the quick-service pizza market last year, an increase from 47 percent in 2009, according to consumer market research firm NPD Group. These concepts include Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, and Domino’s. For the most part, these players have a couple dozen toppings, with most being familiar to customers: meats such as pepperoni, sausage, and bacon; vegetables like mushrooms, onions, and green peppers; a couple of sauces; and a few cheese choices.
But with the creation and growth of fast-casual pizzerias that feature high-quality toppings and creative signature pizzas, the major chains have looked to limited-time offers to feature new or different topping options.
Technomic found that consumers want to see more variety and additional toppings on pizza menus. They are also looking for quality and freshness, another reason for the success of fast-casual pizza places that so far account for only a small fraction of the industry.
Artisan pizzerias boast toppings that are fresh, sometimes organic or imported, and often cooked in the store. Several make their own meat items, while others get them from providers using the company’s proprietary recipes.
Many bake their thin-crust pizzas quickly in ovens at temperatures of around 800 degrees.
“It’s not so much that we’re seeing growth of pizza’s market share, but instead, it’s the quality moving to the forefront,” Weikel says. “It’s similar to others showing growth in fast casual—sandwiches, burgers, Mexican—upping the quality and the experience.”
Atlanta-based Uncle Maddio’s Pizza Joint, one of the oldest and largest of the fast-casual pizza enterprises, offers three crusts and 48 ingredient selections: six homemade sauces, 27 vegetables, and 15 meats. That means there are about 50 million possible
“That fits into our strategy of gourmet pizza for the masses,” says Matt Andrew, founder of the 19-unit-and-growing chain. “You can be a foodie and want chicken apple sausage and more gourmet toppings, or someone looking for our meat-lovers pizza, the Big Max.”
Uncle Maddio’s cooks its chicken and steak toppings twice a day on a flattop in the restaurants. The jerk chicken is made with a proprietary seasoning.
“We set the bar fairly high,” Andrew says. “We are a made-from-scratch, fast-casual pizza joint, and we are not compromising. We are making homemade food.”
Pizza Cucinova, a high-end, two-unit concept from New York–style pizza chain Sbarro, cooks a number of its ingredients in the stores. This includes roasting chicken and beets and caramelizing onions and eggplant.
“We have plenty of protein choices, and tons of veggies. We use a balsamic glaze on our Bruschetta” pizza, along with pesto, Mozzarella, grape tomatoes, Romano, and arugula, says Gerard Lewis, chief concept officer of the Columbus, Ohio–based company.
Roast sirloin steak, Fontina, Gorgonzola, caramelized onions, and roasted garlic top the popular Steak & Gorgonzola pie. The menu is full of other upscale toppings, like clams, shrimp, prosciutto and soppressata, peppadews, and artichoke hearts.
“People are now expecting gourmet toppings, because they are more familiar with them,” says Brad Kent, executive chef of Pasadena, California–based Blaze Pizza. Consumers even know the difference between a finishing salt and a topping like sea
salt, Kent adds.
Diners are also seeking healthier proteins, such as pepperoni, sausage, and bacon free of preservatives, nitrites, and sulfites, he says. Creatively prepared chicken is growing in popularity and is Blaze’s top-selling protein on a per-pound basis.
Sauces are also getting more creative—Blaze has a spicy sauce that includes jalapeños and cayenne—and cheese is more than the bland, stretchy variety.
“We are even using fresh arugula as a finish. In the past, you’d probably not see cold things on a pizza,” Kent says. “And fresh basil, not just something dry added to the sauce.”
The basil can’t get much fresher than it is at Live Basil Pizza. The herb is grown hydroponically in the one-year-old Denver-based chain’s units and is picked fresh.
“There’s a lot of innovation going on in pizza,” says cofounder Tom Ryan, who previously launched the successful Smashburger enterprise. “Ingredients are defining the pizza, and we are no different.”
Live Basil makes its own herb Ricotta cheese and features one pizza with wild arugula, a wild mushroom blend, and imported truffle oil. The dry cheeses, San Marzano tomatoes, and Spanish chorizo are imported.
“We still have pepperoni, sausage, ham—all the traditional things but with a very high quality,” Ryan says. Like Smashburger, restaurants located in a particular region offer a pizza special to that area, and in Denver, it’s a pie with Hatch green chilies.
Blaze also does some pizzas with regional toppings, like giardiniera in Chicago and green olives in Michigan.
Pizza Patrón features a more ethnic touch, since the chain is geared toward the Hispanic market.
“Historically, we’ve tried to use traditional toppings and combinations that mimic recipes and flavor profiles of Mexico,” says brand director Andy Gamm.
The Dallas-based chain recently added a pepperoni embedded with jalapeños. “We wanted the pepperoni to have green flecks in it, but during the curing process, we couldn’t keep it green,” he says. “So we’re dicing fresh jalapeño and sprinkling it on.”
Not all pepperoni is alike, says James Markham, founder and CEO of the two-unit Project Pie, based in San Diego.
“If the pizza’s greasy and the pepperoni just lays there and looks red, it’s not high quality,” because it’s filled with nitrates and paprika, he says. “Ours is sliced very thin, and the edges crisp up. The smell and the taste are amazing.”
Prosciutto provides a flavor that traditional pizza parlors don’t often feature, he adds. When the thin-shaved pork product is baked, it has a slightly crispy edge to bring out that salty flavor. It’s then mixed with caramelized onions made with extra virgin olive oil.
Using high-quality items, including all-natural meats without fillers, fresh vegetables, and better-tasting cheese, is not always easy.
“We want to use premium, high-level ingredients, because it goes to the value proposition,” Markham says. “We are bringing in some new, sustainable ingredients, but we are trying to do it thoughtfully so we don’t have to charge our customers more.”
Elevating quality is key at PizzaRev, too. The chain uses buffalo Mozzarella for its Roman-style pizza, and other toppings include capers that bring a bit of salty balance and fennel seeds that feature a peppery licorice flavor when baked.
“Pizza is usually savory in its basic form, so we look to bring some other tastes,” says Nicholas Eckerman, chief operating officer and culinary leader. “We try to design our toppings so they all pretty much go together. You can’t mess up.”
Regular 11-inch pizzas at PizzaRev are $7.99, no matter how many toppings. The 11-store, Westlake Village, California–based chain also has specialty pizzas and seasonal offerings like a barbecue pulled pork version or one with herb-roasted potatoes and capers.
Having more of one topping or adding more toppings overall doesn’t necessarily make for a better pizza, says 800 Degrees’ Carron, whose background is in the fine-dining world and as a corporate chef for noted restaurateur Michael Mina.
“We do encourage guests to have no more than two or three toppings for the best effect,” he says. “I’ve had people come in and put 12 on, and it’s a mess. A great pizza is a balance, and you are changing the way it’s cooked with too many toppings.”
Instead, the focus should be on quality, particularly in the ingredients, such as 800 Degrees’ meatballs made with beef from grass-fed cattle and imported Italian Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Pie Five has added a number of new toppings, including several requested by its customers, like Ricotta, meatballs, and sun-dried tomatoes. This year, the chain made a limited-time specialty pizza with avocados.
“We run six limited-time offers a year, and if we feature a topping that’s not usually on the menu, it becomes a topping you can add to any pizza,” says Andy Wittman, culinary operations manager for Pie Five and its parent, Pizza Inn, based in suburban Dallas.
The toppings at Pie Five, including marinated artichoke hearts and a spicy marinara sauce with sriracha, differ significantly from Pizza Inn, which is more traditional.
“They are definitely different customer bases, but with either, people are looking for better-quality, interesting toppings,” he says.