The phrase "parbaked shell" may not ignite passion in the heart of an artisan pizza maker, but to Jim Fox's ears, it's the sound of success.

"I'd still be a bum slinging pizzas in Pitcarin (Pa.) if it wasn't for that shell," said Fox, president of 250-unit Fox's Pizza Den, in Pittsburgh. Fox said the challenge of making consistent fresh dough led him to build Fox's core product on a parbaked platform 34 years ago. "If you ask whether I prefer the shell to fresh dough, I still say I prefer the shell 100 percent."

Is it heresy to say that in an industry still dominated by fresh dough?

Not when that same industry struggles with dough management and handling issues, Fox said.

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Tomanetti's

"You could teach a monkey how to make pizza with these things; they're that simple and consistent," said Fox. "You're not worrying about making dough when you use these."

Eliminating dough production is the hook Chris Presutti dangles in front of traditional pizza operators when pitching parbaked products for Tomanetti's Pizza, an Oakmont, Pa.-based manufacturer.

"A lot of the guys I talk to are the owner-operator who has made the dough for 20 years," said Presutti, whose company operates a retail pizzeria by the same name. "I ask them, 'If I saved you four hours a day by convincing you to use a parbaked shell, do you think you could find something to do with those four hours?'"

Time savings always interest such owner-operators, Presutti said, but most think food cost will suffer if they purchase a premade product. "Once you consider the labor required to make that dough, an increase of 15 to 20 cents more (than the average dough ball) isn't much."

The use of parbaked pizza crusts have proven easy and effective when adding take-and-bake offerings to an existing pizzeria's menu. Parbaked dough is shelf-stable (though best kept refrigerated) and easy for customers to manage when they cook the pizza at home.

"The customer can take a parbaked crust and put it right on their oven rack," Presutti said. "That keeps the operator from having to use a paper baking tray."

The post-rise stability of a parbaked crust also makes up for inconsistencies in home oven temperatures, he added.

Tom Lehmann's only concern with parbaked crusts is the chance of drying them out if they're not rotated through inventory properly, or if they're not baked according to instructions.

"Any time you parbake a product, you're removing moisture from it," said Lehmann, a director at the American Institute of Baking in Manhattan, Kan. "When you heat it a second time, you're driving moisture away from that product again."

When handled correctly, though, Lehmann said a parbaked crust is hard to beat for take-and-bake.

"It makes it so easy that it's hard for me to imagine an operator not giving take-and-bake a try," he said. "The hard part is done, in my mind, when you've got the dough right."

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