The most exciting competition at Pizza Expo is always the Non-traditional division. Free from the limitations of other categories, it’s a showcase for experimentation that often inspires pizzeria menus for the following year. Without the benefit of a 2020 Expo, all eyes fall on social media posts and updates for a peek at burgeoning menu trends. Here we’ll investigate which items resonate at pizzerias, which are passing fads, and which are not worth your time.
Still Hot — Detroit-style Pizza
The thick, crispy cheese-edged squares from the Motor City may have been unknown to the general public for the vast majority of their existence, but they’re certainly making up for lost time. According to Google Trends, searches for “Detroit style pizza” increased nearly eight-fold in January 2021 over the 2020 average.
That might have something to do with the flood of new “Detroit style” products entering the mainstream market. Little Caesar’s has been serving Detroit style “Deep Deep Dish” pizza since 2013, but Pizza Hut’s January 2021 launch is making the style a household name. They even went so far as to call it “the hottest trend in pizza.”
Independent pizzerias are opening left and right featuring Detroit style as a main event, but existing pizzerias are also adding it as a new menu option. “We started in the summer with a few pans, offering a dozen a day. When demand grew, we converted the dining room, and by October we started offering them every day all day,” says Tom Grande of Grande Jr Pizza Express in Washington, Pennsylvania.
New Topping Trend — Pickles
The unexpected topping to watch this year threatens pineapple’s place on the throne of controversy. Pickles may seem like a questionable topping, but they work great with garlic, dill, bacon, sriracha and ranch dressing.
The Hungry Robot in Fairbanks, Alaska, introduced their “Dilly Dilly” pizza in 2017 but it really took off after being featured on Diners Drive-ins and Dives this January. “It’s always been in the top five for us but since DDD it’s on almost every ticket,” says owner Randy Bezdek. The pie begins with a roasted garlic cream sauce, then adds low moisture mozzarella and dill pickles (they hand slice 20 gallons per week). After the bake it gets a drizzle of garlic-dill ranch dressing and a sprinkle of grated Romano mixed with fresh dill.
Joe Riggio of New York Pizza Suprema in Manhattan landed on a similar recipe for his pickle pizza. “I’m the guy who if you went to the diner with me and left a pickle on your plate – I ate it,” he says. His inspiration came from a pickled turnip dish in a Middle Eastern restaurant in Brooklyn. The pizza hit Suprema’s menu at the end of 2020 and has become popular both by the slice and by the whole pie.
The latest diet craze doesn’t leave pizza lovers behind. Keto diets are all about decreasing carbohydrate intake and increasing fat consumption, which provides an interesting challenge for pizzerias. The solution is what’s known as a fathead dough, made with a mix of cheese, eggs and often some almond flour for structure.
Blaze was the first chain to launch a Keto crust pizza in 2019, but it’s taken a few years to reach independent pizzerias. Annabel Gonzalez, of Aaron’s Pizza in Poteet, Texas, is amazed by the success of her keto pizza. “We added them in December [and] I run out every day,” she says of the item.
Cauliflower crusts are also popular with Keto dieters, but its lower fat content makes it less appealing to keto followers and more attractive to those avoiding gluten. This variation relied on riced cauliflower held together with mozzarella to provide a base for standard pizza toppings.
The beauty of these alternative crusts is that they don’t contain yeast. Since fermentation time isn’t a concern, they can be made and baked within minutes.
Quantity and Quality Pizzerias have been the go-to alternative to cooking at home since COVID hit because they already understand the logistics of delivery. That’s why non-pizza items have blossomed over the past year, particularly family-sized meal packages.
Mike Androw of E&D Pizza Company in Avon, Connecticut, offers a special every Tuesday night, featuring a revolving series of entree options. Every family meal comes with several portions of the entree, salad and a loaf of bread. “We did them previously but there has been a gigantic spike since Covid,” he says of the newly popular menu item.
Worth the Investment — Frozen and Take and Bake
Consumers have been buying more frozen foods as a result of the pandemic and that spells big opportunity for frozen pizza. The Chicago Tribune reported that Home Run Inn’s production of frozen pizza increased to 80,000 units per day in May 2020 and experts don’t expect demand to fall anytime soon. The results of a survey by OnePoll show that 69 percent of people plan to continue buying comfort foods even after the pandemic ends, with pizza topping their lists.
Independent pizzerias with nationwide brand recognition, such as Pizzeria Bianco and Di Fara, now offer frozen pizza through Goldbelly. Others keep their frozen offerings in-house, like Zuppardi’s in New Haven.
Pizza Buzz in Fort Worth, Texas, added take-and-bake when COVID hit and it’s been a huge success. Juliana’s in Brooklyn also offers a take-and-bake version of their classic coal-fired pizza, but it’s par-baked so customers can take home some of their signature char.
Time’s Running Out for Pizza Making Kits
Food and Wine Magazine predicts that at-home restaurant experiences will be a leading trend in 2021, but pizzerias are seeing interest in pizza making kits fade. “The pizza kits soared when COVID first started but just seems like they’ve dropped off,” says Bill Carmine Cornell of Carmine’s Wood Fired Pizza in Joplin, Missouri. Kits provided a fun activity when we were all being urged to stay home, but that will likely change as restaurants reopen.
The exception to this downturn has been bulk pizza kit sales tied to online pizza making classes for corporate groups. Tony Boloney’s in New Jersey sells hundreds of kits per week, shipping them all over the country. Owner Mike Hauke leads live classes for kit recipients, which adds yet another revenue stream.
Menu trends for 2021 have undoubtedly been shaped by the pandemic and that means they’re likely to change along with government safety regulations. What works one month may not fly the next. This year, pizzerias across the country will continue to operate on high alert while catering to the changing needs of their customers.
SCOTT WIENER is the founder of Scott’s Pizza Tours in New York City and SliceOutHunger.org Instagram: @scottspizzatours