Kosher food has come a long way since the God of the Israelites planned a permanent menu for his people 3,000 years ago.

Many modern-day Jews still follow God's original instructions to avoid -- among many other things -- shellfish, flying insects and animals that don't chew the cud. Yet they've become creative within the bounds of what is commonly viewed, and perhaps mistakenly so, as a confining cuisine.

Kosher pizza is proof of that tasty transition and has become a popular variation on a divine theme. Those who make and sell it point out that Jews aren't the only kosher customers. Increasing numbers of Muslims, Seventh-Day Adventists and people searching for healthful, whole-foods alternatives seek kosher options.

Asked whether kosher pizzas are a sign of ancient traditions blending into the mainstream or proof the mainstream is now craving a taste of the ancient, Ronnie Rosenbluth said he believes it's both.

"There's no question that more people are eating kosher, and kosher food is moving out from traditional foods," said Rosenbluth, owner of Tov Pizza, a kosher pizzeria in Baltimore, Md. "Pizzas are just one example of that."

The menu at Ben Yahuda Café and Pizza reflects kosher food's amalgamation with other cuisines; its owner, Chaim Sitrin, describes the offerings there as "kosher Italian."

"In addition to pizza, we have baked ziti, lasagna and other pastas and sandwiches," said Sitrin, whose restaurant is in Silver Spring, Md., a suburb of Washington, D.C. "Kosher food is a whole lot more than it used to be."

And there's a whole lot of it being made, apparently. According to Jan Price, vice president of marketing at Empire Kosher Poultry, $5.9 billion worth of kosher foods are sold in the U.S. each year. The Mifflintown, Pa., company makes four types of cheese and vegetable bake-at-home kosher pizzas and entrees sold in grocery stores.

Purity and healthfulness of kosher foods, Price believes, play a key role in attracting an ever-broadening audience. To achieve such wholesome standards, kosher ingredients must pass rigorous inspections conducted by rabbis steeped not only in the law as laid down in the Book of Deuteronomy, but trained to grade those foods by stringent, unparalleled guidelines. (Kosher standards are most always higher than even the USDA's minimums.)

Once approved, it's up to the creativity of the cook as to what foods result -- as long as they're prepared within kosher guidelines (see sidebar, "What's Kosher?") as well.

"The kosher foods industry is expanding to make more value-added products that just weren't available before," said Price. "What we're trying to do is bring a convenience product to customers who traditionally do not have a lot of selections."

Not cheap, but still competitive

Steven Winn doesn't sell kosher pizzas, but the list of kosher items in his inventory at Calabria's Pizza in Fairfield, Iowa, might convince one otherwise. To please what he called a strong contingency of health-conscious customers, he regularly purchases kosher foods.

"Out of the 10,000 people in our town, 2,500 of them are transcendental meditators, and these people really care about what they eat," Winn said.

He admits his kosher purchases -- which include cheese made of milk from cows that haven't been injected with growth hormones -- cost him more, and that that narrows his profit margins slightly. But he said that purchasing those higher-priced products ensures his core customers return.

Winn courts the other 7,500 townsfolk by serving more traditional, non-kosher toppings, such as beef and pork pepperoni and a homemade turkey sausage.

What's Kosher?

Kosher food laws are based on dietary rules written in the Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 14. In the section, God tells Moses what the Israelites can and cannot eat, as well as how those foods should be prepared.
A summary:
All foods are divided into three categories: dairy, meat and pareve.
* No milk or milk derivatives (such as cheese or sour cream) can be mixed with meat products either during storage, cooking or in the finished product.
* Meat must come from a kosher animal approved by a rabbi. It is kosher if it has split hooves and chews its cud, such as cows, sheep, goats, etc. Certain birds are kosher, but no bird of prey kosher. Approved birds include chicken, turkey, duck, geese etc.
* Pareve foods are those that are neither milk nor meat. For example, eggs, fruits, and vegetables are pareve and may be eaten or cooked with either meat or dairy. Fish is pareve, but can't be eaten or cooked together with poultry. Additionally, all shellfish are not kosher.
* One quick way to figure out whether a food is kosher is to look for one of two kosher symbols -- either K or U inside a circle -- stamped on a food's label.

"I've got to have those customers, too, and I have to stay competitive with other pizza operations to keep them," he said.

Though he's not out in Iowa, Sitrin said his Maryland location is far enough from kosher epicenters like New York to make a challenge of sourcing the widest variety of kosher pizza ingredients. The price of his pizzas also reflect the added cost.

"We charge $13.95 for large a cheese pizza ... that's 18 inches," said Sitrin.

Tov's Rosenbluth, on the other hand, charges $11.66 for a 19-inch cheese pie, and $1.66 per slice.

His pizzas are made with kosher mozzarella, which costs $3 per pound, about a $1 to $1.25 more than for regular mozzarella.

"Average food cost, in the pizza industry, I believe, runs about 25 percent, and we run about a 36 percent food cost," said Rosenbluth. "So we're still pretty competitive with somebody like Domino's."

Empire Kosher's 9-inch frozen pies sell for an affordable $4.29 to $4.59, but Price said that their costs belie the expensive ingredients used to make them.

"We use Cholov Yisorel cheese, which is ultra, ultra kosher," she said. Empire's pizzas are sold mostly in supermarkets in cities with high Jewish populations. "Even the cows have been monitored very closely to make sure their milk is of the right quality to produce that cheese."

Another hidden cost included in running kosher pizzerias are store-level inspections. Conducted either by a rabbi or a mashgiach, the mandatory inspections, typically done semi-monthly, cost an operator from $3,000 to $10,000 a year, according to Rosenbluth. Not a fortune, he added, but an added expense nonetheless.

Broadening appeal

In New York City, which has one of the highest concentrations of Jews in the U.S., an all-Jewish clientele could sustain a kosher pizzeria, said Sitrin. That's not the case, he believes, outside the Big Apple.

"Jews are our core customers, and we cater to them," he said. "But you've got to have non-Jews as customers to stay open. ... I just think that we make good food, so non-Jews like it, too."

Rosenbluth agrees, and added that more health-minded customers may be the key to the sustained, long-term growth of kosher pizza as a niche-segment in the industry.

"We're starting to see more vegetarians and people who believe eating kosher is just healthier," said Rosenbluth, who has owned and operated Tov for 18 years. "What I know for sure is that kosher pizza is getting more popular. When we opened, we were the only kosher pizzeria in Baltimore, and there were only two in Maryland. Now there are three within five miles of us."

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