Where's the beef?

Dec. 27, 2004

It's the ever-present question in the pizza business: Should the toppings go above or below the cheese? Regardless of whom you talk to, operators — and their customers — have strong opinions on the assembly order of their pizzas.

When Tony Taylor was in operations with Godfather's Pizza in the 1970s, cheese blanketed the toppings because that's the way patrons preferred it.

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Burke Corporation

"We used to get 25 to 30 percent of our customers ordering extra cheese because they wanted more cheese flavor," said Taylor, now northwest regional sales manager for toppings manufacturer Burke Corp. He admits, however, that he didn't always think that was the best way to do it. Too thick a layer of cheese can insulate toppings from the oven's heat, he said, which can also reduce flavor development gained in browning.

Brad Randall, co-owner of Aver's Pizza agreed.

"If you put all the cheese on top, it's like a space shuttle heat shield," said Randall, whose two shops are in Bloomington, Ind. "The toppings don't cook as well because the cheese holds in all the moisture. Plus, you have to have a much longer bake time."

So is he a "toppings on top" guy? Not exactly.

"We put two-thirds of the cheese on the bottom, then layer on toppings and then put on the other third of the cheese," he said. "If you put all the cheese on the bottom, then it looks skimpy on cheese and the toppings look naked. People like to open the pizza box and see cheese on there. It's part of the whole visceral experience of eating pizza."

Placing some of the cheese on bottom, he added, makes the pizza neater to eat.

"When the order (of assembly) is sauce, toppings and cheese, there's no real anchoring of the toppings when you take that first bite," he said. "It's like magma sliding off and hitting in you the chin."

A call to order

Taylor said that in the past many toppings were kept below the cheese because of their unappetizing appearance.

"Forty years ago, meat toppings were raw, and the grease run-off was what you saw," he said. When fully cooked toppings entered the market, they were only marginally better. "At first they looked like pellets, so then they were turned into little balls, which didn't look much better."

Burke's creation of Hand-Pinched Style toppings, he said, resulted in toppings that customers perceived as homemade. "It's something you'd want to put on top of the pizza. It looks right."

Regardless of operator preference, customer desires still reign supreme, Taylor said. Californians like toppings on top, but Washingtonians like to see cheese, he said. And New Yorkers like to see a blend of both, said Bob Vittoria, owner of John's Pizza in New York.

"A little cheese here, a few toppings there, never too much of either," said Vittoria. "That allows both to bake well, and it allows the flavor of the crust and sauce to come through."

Topics: Cheese , Pizza Toppings

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