No Country For Old Pizzas
“The flow of the river is ceaseless; and its water is never the same.”
– Kamo no Chomei, 1212 AD
All of us in the independent restaurant world are in constant motion. We put our heads down day after day with hundreds of tasks of owning a restaurant. Sometimes, just getting through a day or week hunkered down as food and labor costs soar, is quite daunting. You’d think that the last thing on our minds would be to introduce a new pizza or slice. But to those of us surrounded by competitors, the opportunity to introduce a new pizza is what sets us aside from the bland corporate places and, is the most exciting part of this job. It’s what our loyal customers deserve and expect. Floating down this river of innovation starts with a spark — something that you know will bring new customers into your pizzeria and have loyal customers adding this pizza to their orders. It also takes a plan.
“You gotta be careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.”
Several aspects of introducing a new pizza or slice can be broken down to some core questions.
What is the food cost? Using your existing products is better for food cost and alleviates internal confusion, (i.e., delivery/storage/refrigeration.) Manipulating the existing toppings with a sauce/powder/technique/cheese can create new and exciting food profiles. You also can negotiate a better price on a new product with your food salesperson. If you don’t try, you won’t save.
What is the labor cost? You know your prep staff better than anyone. If they are flexible and excited to fabricate a dough, food or topping, then you must think how long it will take them to do this extra work and what it will cost you. Pre-prepared sauces, spices, frozen foods or smoked meats may save you.
What do my customers expect from me? Have you marketed your pizzeria as a cutting-edge place that has funky toppings and innovative specialties or is your place more traditionalist? This may lead you to keep your new specialty pizza and slices more in line with either marketing lane you are in. Remember, even traditions evolve. The first pizzeria opened in 1830, and it wasn’t until 1889 that Raphael Esposito created the classic mozzarella, tomato and basil pizza.
What is the timeline for this pizza, or slice? This is important because it keeps YOU and your staff in a lane to get serious about this project. Making a written plan to introduce this is optimal, and scheduling certain specialty dates on a visual calendar is a great idea. This can be posted on social media and as box toppers.
What will be my communication and marketing: Posters around your pizzeria, including recipes at the makeline, prep area and ovens are as important as explanations of the new pie at the phones. A staff tasting is a great idea. They won’t sell it if they aren’t motivated. Most POS systems have front page marketing pictures that can intentionally lead a customer to your new creation. Social media is another must. Boosting a post on Facebook has a tremendous reach, and rewarding customers for following your page is also a great tool.
To introduce a new creative pizza or slice, you will have to investigate what other independents are doing. Some of these are game changers like visiting the Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. From there the deep dive continues into the demonstrations from pros in the industry and competitions where you can hear, see and steal ideas and techniques from the best pizza makers in the world. You can also keep your eyes out for the new food trends that come out faster each year. Here are a few predictions for 2022.
Plant-based pizzas: Vegan cheese and cauliflower crust has turned into a “must have” in my pizzeria. Vegan chicken, shrimp, fish and sausage are predicted to be big this year as lifestyles are changing, as people get older.
Swice: Yes, this is the combination of sweet and spicy sauces. This may lean toward Asia like sweetened gochujang for Korean fried chicken, or spicy Latin flavors like chilies with agave or maple. Boneless chicken and swice-coated bacon are perfect pizza toppings with ricotta, mozzarella and even brie, but beware that some sweet sauces like teriyaki and even miso tends to burn in the oven.
Mushrooms: Wild mushrooms, portobello, cremini, shiitake and porcini are huge this year. In my pizzeria, we introduced a “Super Mushroom” pizza two years ago as a temporary special. It’s become so popular that we cannot take it off the menu or my customers will hunt me down.
Nostalgic pizzas: People are searching for comfort foods from their childhood like pimento cheese, sausages, cream cheese jalapeño poppers, cheddar cheese, crispy Parmigiana or Asiago chips, BBQ sauce, smoked pork and even stadium mustard.
Vegetables: Broccoli and cauliflower with cream, or vegan cream sauces, are big now. Spinach and artichokes paired with Parmigiano and ricotta, Kimchi and pickled cucumber with Hoisin sauces and pork belly are popular. These are paired with sharp cheeses like aged provolone or goat cheese. Fennel, either thin sliced and cured or roasted and paired with Parmigiano or Romano, sausage and cream is brilliant. Chickpea, Fava and mung beans will be popular in 2022 as well as sorghum and barley.
Fruit pizzas: Never underestimate the power of sweet, savory and salt with a textural crunch. Pears, apples, apricot, mango and plums paired with Stilton, feta, aged provolone or Gorgonzola with bacon, Prosciutto, spicy capicola, smoked pork or beef bacon are king. Other after-oven toppers like walnuts, almonds or pecans push these pizzas into the “must have” category on your menu.
Charcuterie: 2022 is predicted to be a real sliced meat year. Finishing off slices with Prosciutto di Parma, capicola, and mortadella. House cured and smoked meats like pork belly, duck breast and even smoked chicken are going to be big stars this year.
Oils: Finishing oils like chili, basil, cilantro and roasted sesame oils change a pizza from so-so to fabulous!
Gorgonzola Pear Pizza with Prosciutto di Parma
This is an all-time favorite in my pizzeria and exhibits what Italians call the “Agrodolce” or sweet-and-sour flavor profile. Some people cannot handle the strong flavor of gorgonzola, so I temper this with some shredded mozzarella. The Bosc pear is my favorite because it doesn’t get too soft and is baked without turning brown and mealy. The added touch of maple syrup and pecan creates a strong sweet foil for the sour cheese and a crunchy finish.
John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio.