Trendy toppings

 
Oct. 28, 2004

When Israel's King Solomon wrote his "been there, done that" memoirs 2,800 years ago, he was right: There is nothing new under the sun.

Though modern folk know the king truly hadn't seen it all - he never drove a car, surfed the Web or speed-dialed a cell phone (and with 700 wives and 300 concubines, he could have used several) -- he recognized an indefatigable pattern of life: repetition.

The pizza industry knows it well, too. The first-ever delivered pizza, the 125-year-old Pizza Margherita (tomato, buffalo mozzarella and basil) is fashionable again. Even patrons of "pile it high" pizza shops are enjoying its less-is-more austerity.

For nearly a half century, pepperoni and sausage have been the favorite toppings in America, and most pizza makers will tell you, they're not about to lose their rankings. In Australia,


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however, pineapple and ham are the favorites, followed by peppers and then pepperoni.

On the unique end of the toppings spectrum come flavors like one Brooklyn, N.Y., operator's kim chee (fermented cabbage) pizza, which is a hit with his neighborhood's Korean contingent. The Peanut Butter and Pepperoni pizza served at John's Incredible Pizza Co. in Bakersfield, Calif., definitely catches customers off guard - and then hooks them for life, its owners say. And after nearly 30 years, Wolfgang Puck continues to roll out high-dollar pies at Spago, where he spoils Hollywood friends like Molly Ringwald, who loves pizza topped with smoked salmon and piles of caviar.

Some call this a sign of true trendsetting in the pizza industry, while more conservative observers view it as a sign of the apocalypse brought on by lunatic-fringe pizzaiolos. However you look at it, the bottom line is this: While pizza eaters occasionally are trying new things, they are, by and large, sticking to their old favorites.

California creations

"People used to ask me if there's anything you can't put on pizza," said Ed LaDou, owner and operator of Caioti Pizza Café in Studio City, Calif. "My only answer is, 'Anything that doesn't taste good.' If the toppings are fresh and the base is fresh, then it's left up to subjective tastes. What some find horrible, others will find fantastic."

If fans of the basics - cheese, pepperoni, sausage and mushroom - don't find barbecue chicken, seafood, lamb and chili pepper toppings appetizing, then blame LaDou. By and large, he started the "gourmet" pizza topping movement around 1980, while cooking at Prego in San Francisco.

His flair with toppings was evident in his use of prosciutto and goat cheese, and his boss encouraged him to create experimental pizzas to give to patrons waiting for tables in the

restaurant's bar. On one evening LaDou sent a pizza brushed with mustard, ricotta cheese, pate de foie gras and roasted red pepper out to the bar, where Prego regulars Wolfgang Puck and then-girlfriend Barbara Lazaroff waited for a table.

A few months later, Puck asked LaDou to become the pizza chef at his soon-to-be opened Hollywood restaurant, Spago. Not a pizzaiolo himself, Puck wanted his far-out pizza ideas brought to life, and LaDou was happy to make his vision a reality. Puck's throw-tradition-to-the-wind spirit inspired LaDou to use ingredients such as duck sausage and shrimp.

"That's where I really unfurled my sails," said LaDou, harkening back to 1981. His assignment was simple: create pizzas using a broad range of international ingredients.

"Wolfgang brought in the most amazing things to cook with, like scallops with roe, baby zucchini flowers ... . It was like being an artist who'd worked with 10 colors all his life and then got to use 300."

Hoping to open his own restaurant, LaDou left Spago in 1984 with some 225 pizza recipes. Successful stints in catering and consulting led him to work with Larry Flax and Rick Rosenfield in 1985. The two lawyers wanted to start their own pizza company, but lacked the experience to operate it. The pair hired LaDou to develop the menu for what became the first California Pizza Kitchen. On it was the now-famous Barbecue Chicken Pizza (barbecue sauce, smoked Gouda, mozzarella, chicken, red onions and cilantro), the company's most popular pie.

"California Pizza Kitchen made (gourmet toppings) available to the masses," said LaDou, who left CPK in 1987 to open Caioti. "And the greatest proof of that is Barbecued Chicken Pizza. Putting it on a pizza told everyone that this is 'volkspizza,' pizza for the masses."

Some like it different

"Fifteen years ago, we couldn't give away green pizza," according to

What's Important

New toppings trends are proving the versatility of pizza.

Pizza makers are proving that a lot of foods go well on pizza. The only rule? It's got to taste good, regardless of how trendy or expensive.

Use of toppings from Asia and Latin America reflect not only broader American food trends, but highlight pizza's ability to take on many personalities.

Howard Olivier, owner of Flying Pie Pizzaria in Boise, Idaho. "But now you can find pesto or spinach on pizza just about anywhere."

Vegetable toppings today mean much more than olives, green peppers and onions, they include artichoke hearts, potatoes, hot peppers, eggplant - even dill pickles and sauerkraut.

The "Polotate" pizza at Tony Boombozz in Louisville, Ky., was created for a vegetarian pizza contest, said owner Tony Palombino, but it wound up such a strong seller at his two stores that it's a long-standing favorite on his gourmet menu.

"It's got a rustic flavor profile that people aren't expecting," said Palombino. "We get a lot of people to try it because potatoes aren't 'weird.' People know them, so they'll give it a chance."

Australians like veggies on their pizzas, too, but not ones many would expect. A best seller in the resort town of Hamilton Island is topped with diced pumpkin and zucchini set atop a sauce of tomato chutney. At Eagle Boys Pizza in Brisbane, Queensland, the Great Australian Bite starts off ordinary enough with bacon and onion, but it's finished with a few beaten raw eggs that cook as it creeps through the conveyor oven.

"Aussies love eggs on pizza, which is something Americans probably haven't seen before," said Eagle Boys founder and managing director Tom Potter. "It's not like breakfast pizza, either. You have to try it to understand it."

Mark Gold, owner of Milwaukee's Pizza Shuttle has worked multiple international influences into his pizzas, including the Thai Curry Pizza (mozzarella, grilled chicken or breaded eggplant, curry, garlic potatoes, red onions and tomatoes) and the Tomato Chutney Pizza (mozzarella, red onions and Asiago cheese, breaded eggplant or grilled chicken).

A desire to be different led Paul Conner to create a Greek Gyro Pizza for his Dubuque, Iowa, operation, Choo Choo Charlie's. Arriving at the desired end for the Peloponnesian pie took some effort, he said.

"I tried to make it with a red sauce, but that didn't work at all," said Conner, who uses Burke's Gyro-style beef topping on the pizza. "I needed a special sauce base to carry the Greek flavor through, and I found a pre-made classic white pizza sauce with oregano. I tried it, and it was dead on. The flavor of oregano in the sauce really matched well with the gyro topping."

Conner said one of the things he liked most about the gyro topping was its natural look.

"It comes in random pieces," he said. "It doesn't look machine made, in fact some of the pieces look like they are cut from the gyro cone. They have that little twist to them."

The Greek Gyro Pizza includes the white sauce base, mozzarella cheese, gyro topping and diced red onions. After it's baked, Conner garnishes it with a traditional tzatziki sauce (yogurt, cucumber, garlic and mint), diced Roma tomatoes and red onion, plus chopped lettuce. "The lettuce isn't true to a Greek gyro, but a Greek restaurant here in my market puts lettuce on their gyros, so we do it, too," said Conner. "The point is that it tastes really good, and it's different. I do pizzas like these to stand out from the 'Big Boys.' "

In Austin, Texas, a growing number of patrons of DoubleDave's Pizzaworks like their pizza hot - spicy hot, to be precise.

According to the 37-store chain's CEO, Chuck Thorp, the area's growing number of Mexican immigrants is helping drive demand for jalapeno-topped pies. To turn Latino customers into DoubleDave's loyalists, Thorp believes the company needs to devise products to meet their desires.

"I've read that the Hispanic population overtook the African-American population in the U.S. in 2002, and that over the next 20 years, Hispanics could become 25 percent of the entire U.S. population," said Thorp. "To me, that's a significant trend that can't be ignored."

Thorp also believes companies who want Hispanic customers must serve them products with bold flavors. Case in point: Taco Pizza.

Missing the taste target, Thorp warned, will increase the chance Latin American foodservice companies, now expanding to the U.S., will capture the hearts of Hispanic immigrants first. "The opportunity's there for them, no question about it."

Liz Hertz, marketing manager at Nevada, Iowa-based Burke Corp., said the toppings company is selling a lot of fully cooked and seasoned "taco meat" to pizzerias.

"It's different and it's convenient because it's fully cooked," Hertz said. "Just about every other ingredient for it is already used by most pizza places. It makes sense to extend your menu if it's that easy."

Mark Malsam, operations director for 43-unit Blackjack Pizza in Westminster, Colo., recently added two new pizzas designed to suit low-carb dieters: the Chicken Mediterranean (olive oil, chicken, tomatoes, black and green olives, feta and mozzarella); and the Chicken and Green Chile pie (Green chile sauce, green chiles, black olives, red onions, tomatoes, chicken, mozzarella and cheddar). The Green Chile also comes with a small package of 501-brand medium-hot sauce for some added sting.

"We knew we were coming in on the heels of the low-carb craze, so we wanted to do something that differentiated us," said Malsam. "Across the board, all our franchisees have been surprised how many of these sold right out of the gate. I know our food supplier had a hard time catching up."

Hertz said new toppings do stimulate new sales, but in the end, the tried-and-true flavors, like rock-and-roll classics, remain the most popular with customers.

"People do have more sophisticated tastes than ever, but they're also still looking for the old standbys," Hertz said. "Operators need to fulfill both roles."

Two new Burke toppings bridge the gap between daring and "done that": a gyro topping based on the classic Greek pita sandwich made of spicy, roasted minced lamb; and an andouille topping that mirrors the flavor and texture of the smoky classic Cajun sausage.

"Both are traditional flavor profiles that are pretty well recognized," Hertz said. "As pizza toppings, though, they can be used in a new way."

Peter Picurro, owner of six-unit Picurro Pizzeria in Tuscon, Ariz., is planning a specialty Cajun pizza using Burke's andouille topping. The company currently lists 50 toppings and five pizza sauces on its menu.

"We (tested) it and were really pleased with the way it performed," said Picurro. "What we're going to use is more like a crumble; it's small enough to heat all the way through from a frozen state."

Back when Picurro Pizzeria had a mere 40 toppings, a local mathematician figured the chain could produce 1.3 trillion sauce and toppings combinations. Managing so many toppings - both on the make line and in inventory - takes effort, Picurro said, but he believes it's worth it.

"That's a real point of differentiation for us," he said. "We wanted to offer something that nobody else has, and saying we have 50 has become our claim to fame. I think customers notice that."


Topics: Pizza Toppings


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