Pizza trends of 2012 (so far)

Without a doubt (and despite a bit of controversy), Domino's Pizza's launch of a gluten-free crust in early May thrust the diet into the mainstream.

The rollout was aimed toward the estimated 18 million Americans who suffer from gluten sensitivity. And while Domino's is certainly not the only pizza brand to offer a gluten-free option, it is, by far, the largest.

Domino's is just one of many brands launching gluten-free offerings in the first part of 2012. Others include Detroit Style Pizza Co., Gatti's, Chuck E. Cheese's (testing in Minnesota units), Boston's (gluten-free dessert) and Russo's (grocery line).

Additionally, Naked Pizza sponsored the inaugural Foggy Awards, honoring leaders in the celiac disease and gluten-free communities.

The gluten-free market continues to grow exponentially, as reflected not just in the pizza segment, but across the entire restaurant industry. Gluten-free menu claims have grown 114 percent throughout the last three years.

The specialized diet is hardly the only culinary trend to emerge thus far in 2012. Some other trends include:

1. Chicken.

New data from Mintel Menu Insights shows the number of U.S. menu items with poultry as an ingredient has climbed an average of 12 percent in the past three years as beef prices continue to spike.

The pizza segment specifically has experienced a 26 percent increase of chicken as a topping.

Papa John's rolled out a Buffalo Chicken Pizza in March. Jet's Pizza, Hunt Brothers, Snappy Tomato Pizza and Pizza 73 also recently introduced Buffalo chicken-topped pies.

Domino's and Papa Gino's include chicken in their artisan and specialty lines, respectively. And the Pie Five Pizza Co. introduced a new Sweet Thai Pie, with sweet chili sauce (instead of marinara sauce), basil, diced chicken and a pepper medley.

2. Spicy.

"Spicy items" was listed as No. 7 in the NRA's 2012 trend forecast released in the early part of the year.

Plenty of pizza chains are embracing this trend. Last month, Pizza Inn added two new Spicy Sicilian Pizzas to its menu. Available as limited-time-offers, the Pepperoni Diablo and Spicy Roman offer a twist on authentic Italian flavors.

Hungry Howie's Pizza added Spicy Sesame as a new crust flavor for a limited time through June.

In March, Snappy Tomato Pizza ran a "Fiery Four" promotion, giving away a free 5-ounce bottle of Frank's RedHot Sauce to guests who ordered either the 20 hot wings, a large Buffalo chicken pizza, a new Buffalo chicken hoagie or a large spicy chicken ranch pizza.

In March, Papa John's unveiled its new Buffalo Chicken pizza – a combination of creamy ranch sauce, all-white sliced chicken strips, crispy bacon, fresh-sliced onions and 100-percent real cheese made from mozzarella, all topped with a spicy buffalo sauce. In February, the Louisville, Ky.-based chain added a limited-time Five Sausage Pizza, featuring its new Chorizo sausage topping, as well as real pork sausage, mild and spicy sausage and Mozzarrella cheese.

Top That! also recently added spicy chorizo sausage to its new Mexican Pizza.

Finally, Pizza Ranch added the heat in February with its Brushfire Pizza, made with large slices of smoked, peppery sausage, and topped with Cajun seasoning and a splash of Tabasco sauce.

3. Bites.

The QSR burger segment has particularly embraced the bite-sized trend as the post-lunch, pre-dinner "snack" daypart grows, but some pizza brands are taking advantage as well.

In February, Domino's rolled out its new Parmesan Bread Bites, the brainchild of a longtime operator in Findlay, Ohio. The permanent menu item features baked bread topped with garlic and parmesan and is ideal for sharing.

Across the Atlantic, Domino's UK introduced bite-sized spicy Boneless Ribs in February.

Pizza Hut announced the return of its popular Cheesy Bites Pizza in April. The pizza features 28 cheese-filled morsels that can be pulled off and dipped in a marinara sauce. The item was brought back due to consumer demand.

Hunt Brothers Pizza launched new breaded, boneless WingBites in Buffalo and Home-Style flavors in March. The wings are made with 100-percent all-white breast meat and are bite-sized for snacking.

"Chicken and snack foods continue to be hot sellers in the food industry, so it only made sense to expand the popularity of Hunt Brothers Pizza's Wings with our new boneless WingBites," said Keith Solsvig, vice president of marketing for Hunt Brothers Pizza. "WingBites did extremely well in our test markets, particularly among women and kids looking for an easy, flavorful snack option, so we're excited to make this great product available to all of our consumers."

4. Specialty/Artisan.

According to market research firm Datamonitor, more than 800 new food products were labeled "artisan" from 2006 to 2011.

And, as it did with gluten-free, Domino's pushed the term into the mainstream in the fall of 2011 when it rolled out its own line, with Spinach & Feta, Italian Sausage & Pepper Trio and Tuscan Salami & Roasted Veggie options. The chain also introduced Chicken and Bacon Carbonara in April, adding to its artisan menu.

The trend likely isn't going anywhere as smaller, growing chains such as Pizza Fusion and Mod Pizza have offered "artisan-style" since their beginnings.

Pizzerias are also touting "specialty" options as a way to showcase non-core pizzas.

In the fall, Papa Gino's rolled out a specialty line that included sweet tomato & ricotta, sausage & banana pepper, chicken & broccoli Alfredo and sausage & ricotta.

Flippers Pizzeria's new specialty pizzas include the Vesuvio Pizza, which features new fresh oregano topping, and the Margherita Pizza, offered on either traditional, Neapolitan, or seasoned thick crust. The new Margherita Pizza includes fresh Mozzarella cheese, extra virgin olive oil, fresh chopped basil and San Marzano tomatoes.

5. Unique.

They're not available on U.S. soil currently, but Pizza Hut's hot dog-stuffed crust pizza (launched in the United Kingdom) and cheeseburger-stuffed crust or chicken strip-stuffed crust pizzas (in the Middle East) certainly got people talking.

Stateside, there were a few unique ideas that came to fruition as well. Papa Murphy's launched a Bacon Cheeseburger Pizza in February, complete with a "Burger Sauce" – a blend of ketchup and mustard – 100 percent real mozzarella cheese, ground beef, crispy bacon, onions, Roma tomatoes, a layer of dill pickle chips and a sprinkle of freshly grated cheddar.

Rosati's Pizza embraced its Chicago roots with the recent introduction of a Chili Cheese Dog Pizza in regular or "Some Like it Hot" versions. The regular includes a special chili mix with Rosati's Pizza Sauce as the base, a two cheese mixture of mozzarella and cheddar, specialty Vienna Beef sausage, and grilled onions.The Some Like It Hot includes jalapeno cheddar sausage and jalapenos.

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