New, innovative and diverse concepts run rampant on the American pizza landscape

New, innovative and diverse concepts run rampant on the American pizza landscape

The International Championship of Pizza Makers, held annually in Naples, Italy, is a strenuous and rigorous competition that pits the world’s best pizza professionals against one another. There was astonishment all around last June when the top prize was taken unexpectedly by an American, 33-year old Tony Gemignani of Pyzano’s Pizzeria [2] in Castro Valley, Calif.

The emotional win reportedly moved some in the crowd to tears and led others to proclaim Gemignani a true pizza hero. The purpose of the competition is to publicize and support genuine pizza and to stamp out what the Neapolitans view as rampant innovation and bastardization of their classic dish. Judging by the menus of leading chains, even with the aid of a true pizza hero, the Italians are going to have an uphill battle.

Creativity goes over the top. It’s not hard to imagine how the Margherita Regina Association, Naples’ organization of master pizza makers, might respond to what’s atop American pies. While there’s plenty of the requisite cheese and tomatoes, there also are fanciful ingredients that would never pass muster back home. Some appear to have migrated from the sandwich side of the menu, like Domino’s [3] Philly cheese steak or Papa John’s [4] barbecue chicken and bacon pizzas. Uno Chicago Grill [5] takes the homage a step further; the bacon cheeseburger is crowned with ketchup, mustard and dill pickle.

Other toppers are borrowed from the salad menu, like California Pizza Kitchen’s California club, in which lettuce and Roma tomatoes are tossed in mayo and finished with sliced avocado. By contrast, Pizza Inn [6] takes a global approach with its taco pizza, made with seasoned taco meat, Cheddar cheese, lettuce and diced tomatoes. Even more innovative is Cici’s Pizza, which offers a dish that blends pizza and pasta in a topsy-turvy combination. One of the most popular pies has a macaroniand-cheese topping, an Italian twofer that the buffet chain proclaims to be both unique and craveable.

Creativity is bottoms up. If the MRA were befuddled by our pizza toppings, they would be positively bamboozled by what lies beneath. For many operators, plain pizza crust has been supplanted by jazzier bases such as Pizza Hut’s Dippin’ Strips, in which the crust is precut into 16 hand-held strips ready for dipping in, among other things, ranch dressing. The chain is something of a dynamo of dough; along with signature hand-tossed, thin and thick varieties, there’s a stuffed crust that oozes cheese. Domino’s has ventured into the flavored-crust game with garlic-Parmesan and cheesy-Cheddar. But few can compete with Hungry Howie’s [7], which claims to be the originator of the enhanced-crust concept. The menu boasts eight flavors including buttered-cheese, garlic-herb, ranch and Cajun.

Some operators eschew the conventional altogether. At Breadeaux Pizza [8], dough is aged and double raised to create a chewy crust similar to French bread. Einstein Bros. Bagels [9] recently reintroduced pizza bagels, in which signature bagels are split and served open-faced.

Creativity rocks around the clock. For decades, the breakfast daypart seemed an unattainable objective for most pizza specialists. Now that the breakfast business has been breached by Iowa-based Happy Joe’s, which menus an omelet pizza, and California Pizza Kitchen’s fast-casual ASAP unit in Chicago, which offers such items as warm-apple-pie breakfast pizza, the lunch and dinner periods loom as the next competitive hotbeds.

Subway [10] is selling personal pizza at about 13,000 of its domestic locations. The pie has a thick crust, and patrons can choose from any of the stores’ meat or veggie sandwich toppings. Dunkin’ Donuts [11] has reportedly expanded a test of individual pizzas to 15 stores. Both chains lag behind Panera Bread [12], which entered the dinner-pizza sweepstakes in 2006 with the Crispani. Seven varieties made with fresh toppings on a flat-bread crust are available in-store after 4 p.m.

Not to be outdone in the dinnertime derby, pizza competitors are striking back with dessert items. Ohio-based East of Chicago Pizza [13] features a fun PB&J pie, and Uno Chicago Grill parlays Chicago-style expertise into a deep-dish sundae pizza. More recently, Domino’s jumped into the fray with an indulgent Oreo pizza drizzled with vanilla icing.

Looking ahead. Gemignani, on the heels of his triumph in Naples, reportedly will act as a U.S. ambassador for genuine Italian pizza. While there’s clearly a place for his authentic, artisanal creations, he’s likely to find that pizza has become a mighty innovative industry, of which authenticity is only one slice of a much larger pie.