It's been said that some like it hot, and it appears that group's numbers are growing.
"Customers are asking more for crushed red pepper now than I've ever seen," said Tony Palombino, founder and franchisor of Tony Boombozz Pizzeria in Louisville, Ky. "People will come in and ask, 'What's your spiciest pizza?' or 'Can you give me some hot sauce?'"
That's good news for Palombino, who launched a chicken fajita pizza several months ago. It since has become the top seller at the company's two units. The pizza combines a zesty chipotle sauce topped with pre-grilled and sliced chicken, green peppers, onions, fresh Roma tomatoes, Asiago and mozzarella cheeses. A garlic sour cream sauce comes on the side.
But he doesn't credit all of the fajita pizza's appeal to America's growing hankering for heat. The increased popularity of Asian and Latin American cuisines — especially Mexican — is helping drive the trend.
"There's no question people are demanding more spicy foods," he said, adding that offering stronger-flavored selections to his menu is boosting business. "It's attracting a customer who wants to try something unique. They want different flavor profiles and that usually means something spicier."
Like the slow-emerging burn of a hot pepper, America's love of Latino foods has grown steadily from nascent to red hot over the past two decades. Tacos and burritos have been meal-time mainstays seemingly forever, but the work of restaurant chefs digging deeper into the roots of Mexican foods has revealed the nuances of that country's cuisine.
The tastes of old Mexico, therefore, have migrated onto pizzas: first with taco meat, and now with fajita pizzas like Palombino's. Liz Hertz, marketing manager for Burke Corp., a Nevada, Iowa-based toppings manufacturer, said multiple factors are stirring desires for those flavors, not the least of which is growth in the number of Hispanics migrating to the United States.
"That increases the interest in Latino foods by increasing awareness in those cuisines within the (non-Latino) population," she said. "As people look for authentic Mexican or Hispanic foods, they inevitably take those flavor profiles and integrate them into other foods."
Burke has sold fully cooked taco meat toppings to pizzerias for years, as well as fully cooked, seasoned chicken strips for fajita-style pizzas. It recently added a chorizo-style pork topping, which Hertz said goes exceptionally well with roasted vegetable toppings.
"It really brightens up other toppings," she said. "It also lends itself well to different cheeses you don't always find on a pizza, like Monterey Jack. I think it would go really well with a smoked provolone."