No other food says takeout and profitability more than pizza – especially at a time when to-go is the only certainty in uncertain times.
But winning pizza means far more than ordinary crust and toppings. Pizza has gone from comfort-food staple to shutdown star during the pandemic, upping the stakes.
“The respect level of pizza has gone up, and really incredible chefs are pushing boundaries,” says Thomas Garnick, chef/owner of Denver’s Brava! Pizza. “People are taking the time to respect the craft, the science behind the dough and where good quality ingredients come from.”
From the flour in the dough to the tomatoes in the sauce, choice of California cheese, types of toppings, and the method of baking, a great pizza is the sum of its parts. It all starts with the crust, which
is why most chefs perfect theirs before considering other elements.
For some, that means a proprietary flour blend. For instance, Garnick likes the nuttiness that Colorado hard wheat gives his dough. In Texas, Jersey Pies owner Buffy Wimmer uses three flours, including whole wheat and “00” for her thin, New York-style crust. The moisture in the dough and the length of fermentation also plays a role.
“The texture and flavor of the dough can make or break a great pizza,” says Wimmer. “Our crust is crisp on the outside, chewy on the inside, and firm enough to stand up to all manner of toppings. Toppings, sauce and cheese help individualize pizza and provide great flavor, but the crust is the foundation.” Chefs can blend shredded cheese, from mozzarella and stracciatella to caciocavallo and even cheddar for specific flavor blends and textures.
In New York, Ribalta’s Pasquale Cozzolino started using more domestic cheeses to supplement the imported Buffalo mozzarella and fior di latte that make his Neapolitan-style pizza stand out at his Greenwich Village spot. It was a cost-cutting effort, but he also appreciates the flavor nuances that domestic cheese brings.
In Los Angeles, Ronan chef Daniel Cutler sources most of his ingredients from California, the country’s second-largest producer of cheese. From pea tendrils to the cheese made in nearby El Monte, everything from mozzarella and ricotta to stracciatella and caciocavallo, his pizzas can be flavor bombs. Consider his riff on Buffalo chicken wings in pie form, made with housemade ‘nduja, lacto-fermented celery and a Gorgonzola cream sauce. However, he still aims for nuance and harmony. Too many toppings and the pie could be soggy – already a challenge for takeout pizza.
“You can’t go overboard,” Cutler adds. “It’s about the layering of flavors, but also how you layer the ingredients. You move this style of pizza in very abrupt ways to get from the counter to the oven. If the toppings aren’t properly affixed to the pizza, it will get caught. If it’s too heavy, it won’t cook right.”
To deal with shutdown ennui, customers want to escape dining ruts. For pizza, that means choose your own adventure. Customization is the crux of Wimmer’s McKinney, Texas-based pizza catering business. She usually creates pizza on-site via mobile kitchens and ovens that allow for a sky’s-the-limit take with toppings, but cheese – from her California “workhorse” mozzarella to queso fresco – plays a vital role. Consider her cheesy bechamel with a splash of Guinness, house-cured bacon, crispy potatoes and mozzarella; and another that united pulled pork, bacon, pepperoni, barbecue sauce and cheddar cheese.
“Whenever we design a pizza, we try to ensure each bite is a total experience,” she adds.
HOW TO STAY ON TOP WITH PIZZA
With a universally beloved food like pizza, and a scenario where takeout is the only constant for operators, learning how to stay ahead of the competition is more important than ever.
“Doesn’t matter if it’s classic Neapolitan, Detroit squares or Chicago deep dish, you can tell a story with any good pizza,” says Thomas Garnick, chef/owner of Denver’s Brava! Pizza.
Here are some takeout considerations, especially for those who believe a wood-fired pizza should be eaten right out of the oven:
» Include instructions on reheating.
» Leave the pie unsliced to help keep its integrity.
» Sell pizza kits so customers can enjoy the entertainment value and right-out-of-the-oven experience.
» Consider frozen pizza, but watch for moisture, the rate of freezing the dough and how the cheese melts, both the first and the second time. “When I bite into that reheated pizza, I don’t want it to be a similar experience to a grocery store pizza,” says Garnick.