Pizzerias feeding the faithful
For the six-week period beginning Feb. 6, pizzeria owners may find pepperoni sales plummeting, sausage sales slacking and Canadian bacon sales bottoming out.
 
Feb. 6 is the Catholic holy day of Ash Wednesday. It's also the first day of Lent, the 40-day period before Easter where Catholics are supposed to fast and pray for the forgiveness of their sins.
 
Specifically, they're supposed to refrain from eating meat.
 
Lent definitely has an impact on the types of pizzas sold at Fox's Pizza Den in Punxsutawney, Pa., said owner Scott Anthony. However, Anthony takes steps to ensure sales don't suffer during the Lenten season.
 
"We have a strong Catholic population, so we try to promote pizzas that are faith-friendly," Anthony said. "After Ash Wednesday and every Friday through Lent, people definitely try to adhere to the rules."
 
To take advantage of the Lenten season, Fox's promotes two of its meat-free gourmet pizzas — White Pizza and Pierogie Pizza — to help boost sales. The Peirogie Pizza, a pie topped with buttery mashed potatoes, onions and cheddar cheese, is a particularly strong seller during Lent, he said.
 
"This year, we are introducing two new pizzas, a Spinach Alfredo Pizza and a Veggie Medley pizza," Anthony said. "We are hoping these will take off during Lent, as well."
 
Let the good times roll
 
This year, the Lenten season lasts until March 22, or Holy Saturday. In the Christian calendar, Holy Saturday is the day before Easter.
 
The beginning of Lent depends on Easter, which falls at some point between late March and late April each year, depending on the cycle of the moon. Lent can occur as early as Feb. 4 or as late as March 10.
 
Although there are actually 46 days between the beginning and end of Lent, the six Sundays don't count because each represents a "mini-Easter" in the Catholic tradition.
 
The traditions for observing the season have changed over the years. In the early days of Christianity, all animal products were forbidden; these days, those who observe Lent either give up eating red meat on Fridays only or for the entire 40-day period.
 
Few places around the country feel the impact of Lent more strongly than New Orleans. Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is the day before Ash Wednesday and marks the final day of celebration before Lent.
 
And Carnival, the official name of the party that ends on Mardi Gras, comes from the Latin expression "carne vale," or "farewell to meat."
 
"There is no question that in the two or three weeks following Ash Wednesday people swear off eating meat," said New Orleans food writer Tom Fitzmorris, who also hosts a daily three-hour radio show covering New Orleans restaurants, cooking, food and wine.
 
"I get calls every year from the steakhouses in particular, asking me to get the word out that they also have seafood on the menu," he said. "Some of them must add a fish dish or two for the occasion, and drop it back off the menu later."
 
Jeff Leach, co-founder of New Orleans pizzeria World's Healthiest Pizza, plans to highlight meat-free pizzas such as the restaurant's Veggie Combo, Mediterranean and others, he said. World's Healthiest Pizza also is introducing a four-cheese pizza in time for Lent.
 
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The pizza uses a range of American, Italian and French cheeses on different sections of the pie, matched to different vegetables. 
 
"We also, of course, will be asking our customers to abstain from (low-quality) pizza during this holy of holy periods to repent for their nutritional sins," Leach said.
 
Seizing the opportunity
 
To take advantage of the Lenten season, operators can promote chicken and vegetarian pizzas as a guilt-free alternative to pepperoni and sausage. Appetizers also are a good area to help maintain sales, experts say.
 
"Pizza operators should consider offering other items that are meatless to go with their pizza," said Maria Liberati, restaurant consultant and the author of "The Basic Art of Italian Cooking."
 
"Special combo packages can include veggie pizzas with meatless appetizers," she said. "Bruschetta is a great economical appetizer to offer for the pizza operator. It can be made from leftover bread or day-old bread and can include a variety of meatless toppings."
 
While people generally associate fish as a meat substitute for Catholics, don't expect to see fish pizzas in the Big Easy, Fitzmorris said. Although the most serious pizza places in New Orleans offer seafood toppings, seafood pizzas aren't a big seller.
 
If diners change their pizza habits, it's to ease off the pepperoni and sausage in favor of cheese pizza, spinach-artichoke pizza or similar offerings, he said.
 
"I think few people identify pizza as a medium for seafood," Fitzmorris said. "In Italy, the idea of eating cheese and seafood together is thought of as borderline insane."
 
And even though the national chains aren't promoting specific specials for Lent, they still have something to offer the faithful.
 
"That's the beauty of pizza," said Domino's spokesman Tim McIntyre. "Even if you give up meat for Lent, you still have a lot of terrific options when it comes to selecting toppings for your pizza."

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