Serhan Ayhan shares his approach to unconventional pizza toppings
There’s no denying that the classics like pepperoni, mushroom, and sausage are tried and true. But earlier this year, New York Times Cooking called Brooklyn’s Cuts & Slices oxtail pie “New York’s Most Exciting Pizza”, and lines have been out the door. Featuring unique pizzas on your menu can turn heads – and customers into your shop. Here are a few roadmaps for unconventional toppings to get you started.
Bet The Farm
One place where I frequently discover new ingredients is at our local farmer’s market. If you have access to one, challenge yourself and pick out a fruit or vegetable or other ingredient that you have never seen or heard of and start connecting the dots to other ingredients.
An invaluable tool to make these connections is The Flavor Bible by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. The first time I encountered celery root, I did not have a CLUE what to do with it. Referencing The Flavor Bible for celery root, Gruyère (a nutty cheese) is noted as a flavorful pairing. From there, I flipped to the section for Gruyère pairings, with ham being one recommendation. While we did not have ham, we had a pancetta that complemented the Gruyère with its savory, salty, and slightly smoky flavor. The pancetta, in turn, reminded me of maple bacon, which led to the incorporation of a spicy maple syrup. Before I knew it, a beautiful and unique pizza with complex flavors was born.
Walk Down Memory Lane
Not every creative pizza needs a farm to table approach. Sometimes foods like a favorite childhood snack can revisit us in the form of a pizza. Think about bites that you or others grew up with that are remembered dearly. Is there a creative and tasteful (pun intended) way to make them work on a pizza?
Earlier this year, I was thinking about how despite its name and ham & pineapple toppings, Hawaiian pizza’s origins are not from the islands. This got me wondering – how could I put a true Hawaiian twist to this pizza? I hit the web to conduct my due diligence on nostalgic Hawaiian snacks and learned about furikake Chex Mix, a popular island treat that incorporates a buttery soy sauce glaze and furikake seasoning into Chex Cereal. I topped the snack onto a Hawaiian pizza on a bar style crust, and sure enough, it was a hit – I even had pineapple haters complimenting! Chex Cereal also shared it on their socials!
Tap into the Collective Consciousness
When I get stuck in a creative rut and the well of ideas run dry, I look to others for inspiration.
One day I was walking in our neighborhood and saw some stunning in-season tangerines, and just knew that I had to think of a way to showcase them on a pizza.
When I got home, I hit the web for recipes using citrus and came across Claire Saffitz’s blood orange olive oil cake and was astonished at how she beautifully incorporated the oranges. It looked wonderful – but I wasn’t making a cake! I went through my cookbooks and found Chris Bianco’s lemon and red onion focaccia. Taking the visual cues from Claire’s cake and the execution cues from Chris’s focaccia, I created something uniquely my own: an alluring round pan pizza with thinly sliced tangerines, red onion, mozzarella, fontina, pecorino Romano, and mint.
These are but a few roadmaps to lead you to your new and creative pizzas. Deconstruct an existing dish. Look to other people and cultures. Step out of your comfort zone and don’t be afraid to try a few new things when figuring out what resonates with your customers.
Serhan Ayhan is the pizza maker of Next Level Pizza in New York, focusing on pizza pop-ups, private events, and consulting.