It's not just mozzarella anymore.
From bold bleu to punchy pecorino to downright gamey goat, cheeses of multiple varieties are finding their way onto pies aplenty and into the mouths of the masses. Though the role of toppings as the strongest flavor makers seems secure for now — and perhaps forever — pizza makers are relying increasingly on more strongly flavored cheeses to broaden their pizzas' flavor dimensions.
Why? Because consumers want them.
According to a 2003 Market Facts study, more than 75 percent of consumers prefer at least two types of cheese on their pizzas. Their favorites are mozzarella, Parmesan, cheddar, provolone and Monterey Jack.
And what's unique about this growing cheese trend, operators say, is that it's not being driven by consumers requesting new offerings, such as happened with people trying to follow the Atkins diet. In this case, operators are experimenting with unique pizza cheeses and pizza lovers
Chris Moore, vice president of foodservice channel development for Dairy Management Inc., cites several drivers of this cheese evolution, including the Internet, the Food Network and the proliferation of food magazines. Consumers are not only better educated than ever about food, they also travel more and dine at a wider variety of restaurants where unique cheeses are menu regulars, said Mike Cannon, foodservice marketing manager at Sorrento Lactalis in Buffalo, N.Y. Cheese-accented dishes prepared by chefs at those restaurants, he said, have primed customers' palates for flavors more striking than mere mozzarella. When they see an Asiago- or Gouda-flavored pizza on the menu, they willingly give it a try.
"Since those kinds of flavor profiles are very much the norm in restaurants, an application in the pizza industry is a natural extension of that," said Cannon.
But before too much credit for the cheese boom goes to the tall toques, step back a couple of decades and peer into the pizza oven at Spago, Wolfgang Puck's acclaimed Los Angeles restaurant. There, pizzaiolo Ed LaDou (read also Who's Who: Ed LaDou) was blending Fontina and mozzarella to give Spago's pies their signature flavor.
"People would try it and say, 'This is really good. It's a little different from what I've had before, but I don't know what it is,'" said LaDou, now owner of Caioti Pizza Café in Studio City, Calif. Diners appreciate, trust and come to expect that such flavor flourishes will be served up by professionals, LaDou said. In other words, they'll follow where they're led. "They don't expect restaurants to give them what they can make for themselves. They like that little surprise, and their willingness to pay more for that is there."
Louis DeAngelo, founder and CEO of DeAngelo's Pizzeria, said that's exactly what happened when he started experimenting with new cheeses on his pizzas. He offered them and customers ordered them.
"It's not like anybody comes in here and asks for these things," said DeAngelo, whose 14-unit company is based on Baton Rouge, La. When it comes to using different cheeses, "we sort of create our own demand. They don't want it until we come up with it."
As the creative force behind his full-service restaurants, DeAngelo experimented with several cheeses in salads and pasta dishes before putting them on his pizzas. Now Asiago, feta and ricotta cheeses are sprinkled, shredded and layered onto the pies, and customers are gobbling them up. DeAngelo's signature cheese touch is a house-made "spicy Asiago," made from a blend of shredded Asiago and Pecorino-Romano, along with herbs and crushed pepper flakes. "We sprinkle that on a lot of things just to give it a cool flavor. People love it."
When Brad Randall started Aver's Pizza six years ago, he and co-owner Kris Kiser set about developing a signature pizza section on their menu. To differentiate their products from the mozzarella-only crowd, they turned to a blend of gorgonzola and cheddar cheeses to create their award-winning Cream and Crimson pizza. Another award winner, The Parthenon, uses feta, and the Beckon Desire uses ricotta. Aver's 10 specialty pizzas account for about 20 percent of its overall pizza sales. "But it's something that sets us apart. When you're in a college town like we are, you can imagine what our competition is like."
Chains are getting in on the action, too. In the recent past, both Pizza Hut and Domino's Pizza have
Expect more cheese blends and more aggressive cheese flavors to pop up on chain menus.
"We do a lot of work for chains that are seeking to differentiate themselves from their competitors by using cheese," said Moore, whose group does extensive dairy product research and development for nationwide and regional chains. "Whether they're using it in a cheese sauce, stuffing it into the crust or sprinkling it on top at the end, we're seeing a level of ubiquity we've never seen before."
Moore said chains are taking their pizza cheese cues from what's happening at the retail level. "The chains want to know what customers are buying at grocery stores. So when they have an idea which types of cheeses people are buying, they can offer consumers choices they find familiar."
Handle with care
Despite their broadening appeal, operators admit lesser-used pizza cheeses aren't liked by all — a lesson Randall and Kiser learned the hard way. During Aver's first two years in business, all its basic pizzas got a three-cheese blend of mozzarella, white cheddar and provolone. But when cheese as a percentage of their food cost got too high, they switched to straight mozzarella — "until our distributor started to jack up the price on us for changing. So when we went back to three-cheese blend, we couldn't believe the number of people who called and complained. They perceived the pure mozzarella as a higher-quality cheese and didn't want the blend."
DMI's Moore conceded that strongly flavored cheeses are potentially polarizing; some customers simply never will like the bitterness of gorgonzola or the barnyard aroma — an actual cheese taster's term — of goat's cheese.
The trick, operators say, is to experiment with new flavors carefully and introduce them in smaller, rather than larger, doses.
"Overall, it's all about balance," said Moore. "You've got a litany of other ingredients on a pizza that brings in their own flavors and attributes, and adding a strong cheese to that can complicate things."
LaDou claims unique cheeses added deftly have "a way of participating in the pizza as a topping" rather than dominating it the way an extra layer of mozzarella can. He recalled how finding the right cheese was a struggle when, as California Pizza Kitchen's first chef, he created its legendary barbecue chicken pizza. "The barbecue sauce was too sharp, and it needed something to soften that. Mozzarella wasn't right for that, so I thought about some others. When I tried smoked Gouda cheese, it worked because of the smoky flavor in the barbecue sauce. It was a 'Eureka' moment. I walked away from it and never touched it again."
Knowing what each ingredient on the pie tastes like by itself helps, too, LaDou added. Once everything is blended together, if anything is out of balance, it's simpler to determine which flavor is speaking too strongly, or not strongly enough.
Count the cost
Given the cost of simple mozzarella, the thought of adding a specialty cheese, such as Gouda or gruyere, to one's inventory can be intimidating. That's where strict portion control comes in, LaDou said. On Caioti's pizzas that call for fresh mozzarella, he specs ciligine (Italian for "little cherries," and pronounced "chee-lay-genie"). The small, one-third-ounce balls are easy to count and simple to break up by hand when placed on pizzas.
When struggling for a cost-effective, accurate and clean way to portion his ricotta cheese, Randall invested $100 on a sour cream dispensing gun.
"We tried pastry bags, but the employees didn't want to wash them," said Randall. "Then we tried a melon baller to make dots of ricotta, but that took too long. When we found the gun, we looked at the price and about fell over. But it's the most efficient way to put it on the pizza."
Sorrento's Cannon believes price shouldn't be too great a concern when it comes to adding new cheeses.
"If you understand consumers, you know they're far more time starved than cash starved," he began. "So it's safe to let your menu price reflect your food cost, because consumers will pay for it."
When cheese prices hit record levels this year, DeAngelo raised prices on cheese-dependent menu items between 50 cents and 75 cents each. He said his customers never complained.
"From a guest perception, people know we're a little more expensive, so they don't mind paying for high quality," he said. "I could have switched cheeses years ago to keep my costs down, but that's not what I wanted to do."