Topping Good Taste

June 2, 2002

If you think the nouveau pizza toppings trend has gotten out of hand in the U.S., have a look at what's happening overseas:

One Japanese pizza menu found on the Web sells a black squid-ink-sauce pizza with shrimp.

Another operation in Norway has a pie called "Pigs Knuckles."

And at India's Pizza Corner, the "Alfredo Veg" gets mushrooms, green peas, red paprika, baby corn and spinach.

Clearly, pizza toppings don't mean just pepperoni and sausage anymore, and that can be blamed on or credited to -- depending on how you look at it -- the 1980s, says Evelyne Slomon.

A pizza lover of admirable passion, Slomon wrote her Ph.D. thesis on the history of pizza, and that work became the foundation for The Pizza Book, published in 1984.

Slomon is somewhat bipolar when it comes to pizza topping preferences. The native of New York City is naturally a cheese and tomato sauce purist, but as a professional chef and restaurateur, she's also an encourager of eccentricities who likes unique flavors. When in doubt about what to use, she uses one rule: If it tastes good, do it.

"If you're going to get complex, just make sure it works," said Slomon, co-owner of Nizza La Bella restaurant in Berkeley, Calif. "I think one mistake people make is thinking that more is better. Too many seasonings and toppings cancel each other out."

Tasty Come Lately

In the scope of history, pizza toppings are a recent phenomenon. In her own studies, Slomon found that pizza began as ordinary focaccia topped with cold, thick tomato sauce and sold by street vendors in Italy. (It's still sold in many upper-East Coast bakeries as "tomato bread," and Slomon said "the real old-timers called the sauce gravy.")

Another probable pizza forerunner -- perhaps even the first white pizza -- was called "bianca," which was made from focaccia spread with lard and topped with crunchy-fried pork cracklings.

Luckily, and as legend has it, pizzaiolo Raphael Esposito changed the face of pizza when he created the first pizzeria-style pie in 1889. Atop a thin sheet of dough he placed a simple sauce of crushed tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and basil (to represent the colors of the Italian flag) and named it after Italy's Princess Margherita. Ever since, the Margherita has been regarded by "pizzaficionados" as the quintessential pizza.

As Italians immigrated to the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries, they brought their cuisine with them. In 1905 pizza made its commercial debut at Lombardi's Pizzeria in New York City, where, as in Italy, toppings amounted to little more than a few herbs. According to Slomon, sausage was the first meat topping, and that didn't enter the picture until the 1920s. And nearly 30 years would pass before sliced pepperoni was used.

"Anchovies came in with sausage, too," said Slomon. "That was very Italian, as were olives. But you didn't see too much more until about the '50s, when everything started to change."

Pizza American-style was most transformed by geography. As pizza makers migrated across the country, local foods commonly became toppings. In New Haven, Conn., clams topped pizzas brushed with olive oil, garlic and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese.

The abundance of beef in the Midwest drove ground beef and greater varieties of sausage on top of old doughy, and vegetables such as mushrooms, onions and peppers were added for texture.

Magic Markup

In the late '50s and early '60s names like Shakey's, Pizza Hut and Domino's became familiar as franchising caught on. Those chains and others spread rapidly, particularly in the Midwest, where many still were tasting pizza for the first time.

Operators also learned that toppings were not only tasty but profitable, and sought to upsell extra toppings that carried broad margins.

But while the '70s ushered in a golden age for chains, Slomon said it nearly halted the toppings evolution. Chains, which had begun to overtake independent pizzerias, sought to serve mainstream tastes by using set menus wherever they opened up, and pizza flavor nuances that were unique to so many regions and cities began to disappear.

"I told them I had about 150 recipes for pizza, and they said, 'What do you mean? Pizza comes with anchovy, or without, or with extra sausage or sausage and anchovies. That's all there is.' They were basically saying, 'This broad's crazy!' They had their idea about what was normal for pizza, and I knew that was changing."

Evelyne Slomon
Author, The Pizza Book.

But when Slomon caught wind of the fusion food movement afoot in California, she realized all hope wasn't lost. In the 1980s, emerging superstar chefs Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck were wrecking culinary conventions with abandon and drawing customers and imitators from everywhere. While giving rise to what later would be called California cuisine, the two created pizzas topped with seafood, greens, poultry and Asian ingredients. Waters even baked her pizzas at her Chez Panisse Café in a wood-fired oven.

"They were setting pizza on its ear," said Slomon. "Wolfgang Puck saw what Alice was doing ... in departing from the Italiante model (of traditional Italian cooking). He saw pizza as a blank canvass and started to apply his style of fusion cooking to it."

Slomon called those changes the break of "a huge logjam in terms of what you could put on pizza," and she headed West to check it out. When she returned to New York to pitch her book idea to a publisher, an executive and an editor she met with thought she was crazy.

"I told them I had about 150 recipes for pizza, and they said, 'What do you mean? Pizza comes with anchovy, or without, or with extra sausage or sausage and anchovies. That's all there is,' " Slomon recalled. "They were basically saying, 'This broad's crazy!' They had their idea about what was normal for pizza, and I knew that was changing."

History Repeats Itself

As much as Cal-cuisine changed pizza, today's topping choices remain dominated by the most-favored meats: pepperoni, pork sausage and ground beef, and in many areas, Canadian bacon.

Liz Hertz, marketing manager at Burke Corporation, a toppings manufacturer in Nevada, Iowa, said that 90 percent of that company's sales come from those meats alone.

She also estimates that 600 million pounds (cooked weight) of meat toppings are used annually on pizzas made in the U.S.

Despite growing consumer health concerns, consumption of meat toppings is growing, and particularly with chicken, said Hertz.

"I think there are two things driving that: a growing interest in health, and an interest in new and different tastes," said Hertz. "People are looking for variety, and chicken really lends itself well to other flavors."

And building on what they learned 40 years ago, operators are using premium toppings to widen margins even more. Where extra pepperoni might cost a customer a buck, if he wants shrimp and shiitakes, those will likely cost him double the cost for each.

"Shrimp's always a winner," said Slomon, who sells a few wood-fired pizzas at her restaurant. "You put shrimp on it, and it'll fly out the door."

Just as pizza changed when it moved to -- and then across -- America, it's evolving even further in its international travels. Japanese pizza makers are using fish flakes, eel and squid, while Southeast Asian pizzas take on tofu and prawns. Indian pies are pumped up with curry and baby corn, and several French and English pizzas found on the Web used savory flavors, such as capers, fresh peppercorns, spiced beef and gorgonzola. And perhaps it's not so ironic that in chilly, damp Vancouver, B.C., that one of the most popular pizzas at one chain is the Hawaiian.

"I think there are two things driving that (change): a growing interest in health, and an interest in new and different tastes. People are looking for variety, and chicken really lends itself well to other flavors."

Liz Hertz
Burke Corporation

"We have three versions of The Hawaiian: deluxe, standard, and tropical," which use a base of pineapple and Canadian bacon, said Sean DeGregorio, CEO of Panago, a 152-store delco chain based in Vancouver. "It's usually the kids buying the basics, like the Hawaiian, but the adults choose our more exotic pizzas, like our Chicken Club or Primo Pesto Chicken. ... We also have a soy-based pepperoni, but that's not quite as popular yet as some of the toppings."

Even the Italians are trying out some different toppings, Slomon said, but still on a limited basis.

"Mussels and clams go right on top of the pizza, still in the shell," she said. "That's very traditional in Italy, but people here get weirded out about that. They look at you like, 'What? Are we supposed to eat this?'

"You'll also see a lot of anchovies and shrimp, and preserved tuna ... which basically is like canned tuna."

And where, exactly, do the Italians draw the line at an over-the-top topping?

"If you put fruit on a pizza they'll go nuts," said Slomon. "There's no fusion of cuisines there like we have here in the U.S. We have Asian, French, American regional, Tex-Mex ... anything goes. But to the Italians that's disgusting."

For Slomon, as long as it tastes good, most any toppings combination is fine. But when she finds a new pizza place she wants to try, she doesn't ask for a house specialty or the most off-the-wall offering. She sees how well the shop executes the basics first.

"My favorite pizza is a sausage with extra garlic, or sometimes just a regular tomato and cheese pie," she said. "If a place can't get the basics right, then I don't bother trying the wild stuff."

Topics: Pizza Toppings

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