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R&IEditorial Archives2002 — October 15 — Food

Pizza Particulars
Building on customer favorites and taste preferences keeps the pie hot

Ask pizza geeks and the food obsessed where to go for pizza in Philadelphia and the answer likely will be Tacconelli’s Pizzeria. In Washington, D.C., it’s Pizzeria Paradiso. In Phoenix they’ll recommend Pizzeria Bianco.

The buzz is not because the restaurants are new or favored by the famous. Each has been open for many years, yet lines still form and hungry fans will happily endure an hour’s wait to get their fixes. Tacconelli’s is so popular that some diners call ahead to reserve pizza dough if they want a pie for the weekend. Devotees fit in another slice not to sate hunger but to extend the pleasure of the experience.

The secret to these long-running success stories? Popular pizza-dining destinations rely on top-notch ingredients and count consistency as a virtue. Their styles have built distinct and strong brands, and these operations stay focused, doing what they do best. And even though regular customers tend to order the same kind of pie time and again (cheese topped with pepperoni typically ranks No. 1), operators work to be innovative and play off food trends to develop new offerings.

“While we know what customers like and that they repeatedly order the same thing, we offer new items so they can try something original,” says Sarah Goldsmith-Grover, spokeswoman for Los Angeles-based California Pizza Kitchen. “You have to offer choices to be competitive in the marketplace. A menu with just two or three choices wouldn’t work.”

Yeast-risen dough, whether stretched thin or thick, has been a vehicle for about every imaginable sauce, cheese, vegetable and protein. Trends have embraced crisp, thin crusts with minimalist toppings to more-traditional, top-heavy pies. Such a treat is Walnut Creek, Calif.-based Round Table Pizza’s King Arthur Supreme, loaded with pepperoni, Italian sausage, salami, linguiça, cheese, sauce and other ingredients.

Modern-day renderings deviate far from pizza’s humble Italian roots with such creations as Wolfgang Puck’s version with smoked salmon, red onion, dill, sour cream and chives. Once regarded as novel, these approaches now are widely imitated in the industry.

Tacconelli’s Pizzeria has occupied the same location since the 1920s, when current owner Vincent Tacconelli’s great-grandfather, newly settled in Philadelphia from northern Italy, opened a bakery. After World War II, the family added pizza to the offerings, and the rest is Philly culinary history. The 96-seat restaurant, open Tuesday through Sunday, serves what Vincent Tacconelli calls “well-done pizza.”

“We cook our pies a little more than what comes out of a metal-deck oven,” he explains. “It’s thin and crispy on the outside but the crust is soft on the inside. The sauce is not overly sweet and maybe a touch garlicky. It has stayed the same over the years.”

The most popular toppings are pepperoni and sausage. “Everyone likes meat,” says Tacconelli, who runs the business with his wife, Doris. “We’ve tried other things but they don’t sell, and if they don’t move we won’t sell them.”

For instance, eggplant and chicken, ingredients that Tacconelli deems “yuppie toppings,” didn’t perform to his liking so they were removed.

Tacconelli attributes his pizzas’ popularity to consistency, simplicity and cooking technique. The pizzas are baked directly on brick in an oven heated once a day. By virtue of its sturdy construction, the oven maintains a steady 800F. “We get it to a certain temperature and it shuts down for the five or so hours that we are making pizza.”

At Pizzeria Bianco, owner Chris Bianco turns out pizza made with organic flour and mozzarella cheese he makes in house. Herbs that season the pies are grown in his garden. In Washington, D.C., Ruth Gresser, owner of Pizzeria Paradiso, pays similar attention to detail. Her high-quality mozzarella is not shredded but cut into large dice. The pepperoni has kick to it while salami has a rustic texture and rich depth of flavor. Special toppings feature seasonal ingredients.

“When we opened 10 years ago, what we were doing was considered unique in certain parts of the country,” Gresser says of her pizzas baked in a 700F wood-burning brick oven. “Today the cooking technique has become common, but our popularity continues because people come here specifically for the kind of pizza we offer.”

Though customers can build their own pizzas—pepperoni is a favorite topping—most customers order Gresser-created combinations. They include Atomica (salami, hot-pepper flakes and olives), di Mare (tomato, mussels, garlic, parsley and Parmesan) and Bosco (tomato, mushrooms, spinach, red onion and mozzarella).

Gresser understands that today’s diners are more sophisticated and know more about food thanks to travel and the growth of ethnic restaurants. It is her mission to keep their appetites and curiosity well fed. When she opened, an order for Bottarga pizza (bottarga is salted and dried fish roe), made with tomato, garlic, Parmesan and a sunny-side-up egg, might be placed once every few weeks. Today, it is ordered several times a week. “OK, so it’s not a huge seller,” she says, laughing. “But you get the point.”

California Pizza Kitchen entered the segment with a mind to be different. No surprise then that its most popular pizza is neither pepperoni- nor sausage-topped but a specialty the chain takes credit for creating: Original BBQ Chicken Pizza. Instead of pizza sauce, it begins with a layer of barbecue sauce that is topped with Gouda and mozzarella cheeses, chunks of barbecued chicken, red onions and cilantro. The sweet-sauced pizza has become one of the most copied in the country.

“When the pizza was introduced in 1985, [CPK] took a familiar taste and put it on pizza,” says Goldsmith-Grover. “It was new but had a familiar taste.”

That novel-but-familiar approach sets California Pizza Kitchen apart. Its Thai pizza, for example, consists of chicken marinated in spicy peanut, ginger and sesame sauce topped with mozzarella cheese, green onions, bean sprouts, julienned carrots and roasted peanuts. For the BLT, pizza dough is sprinkled with bacon, mozzarella and tomatoes. After it is baked, the pizza is topped with shredded lettuce tossed with mayonnaise.

Applying recognizable ingredients not commonly associated with pizza also has appeal at the Robert Bosch Corp., a maker of auto parts with a location in Farmington Hills, Mich. Its employee-dining facility, operated by Farmington Hills-based HDS Dining Services, daily offers pizzas such as vegetarian and classic pepperoni or sausage.

But Dave Christl, director of dining services, also hits the mark when he reaches for ingredients left over from the previous day’s pasta or Mexican entrée. For example, chicken and broccoli that accompanied pasta one day serve as pizza toppings the next, with Alfredo sauce replacing traditional tomato-based pizza sauce. For a Mexican twist, salsa is spread on the dough while cheese and taco-style beef is sprinkled on top.

“They become the most popular pizza of the day,” says Christl, who feeds about 350 workers at lunch. “But I don’t offer them all the time because part of the draw is the novelty.”

Operators rely on continual innovation to drive traffic and reinforce their brands. While data show that customers tend to order the same item, new additions and limited-time pizzas can entice and increase the number of regular visits.

At Round Table Pizza, the Mama Zella Pizza Pie was so successful (pepperoni, salami, linguiça, fire-roasted tomatoes, red onions and three kinds of cheese topped with strips of seasoned crust) that it became part of the regular menu and sired the Maui Mama, a limited-time pie that debuted last summer. Like Mama Zella, the Maui features strips of crust and three kinds of cheese but ingredients include ham, pineapple, bacon and green onions.

The P’Zone, Pizza Hut’s recent creation (which resembles a calzone), is technically not a pizza but the limited-time item performed so well that it may gain permanent menu status. The Dallas-based chain, which launched cheese-stuffed crust nine years ago, has several items in development.

Its next rollout, among the largest ever at Pizza Hut, is said to be Chicago-style deep-dish pizza. The product, which typically requires nearly 30 minutes of baking time, was years in development as the chain’s R&D team looked for a way to bake it in 10 minutes.

For Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Domino’s, hand-tossed crust continues to be the favorite and pepperoni the most popular topping.

“Innovation remains key to Domino’s research, development, product efforts and operations,” says company spokeswoman Holly Ryan. “It’s the kind of thinking that keeps the most-popular item popular and customers interested in the concept.”

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