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Pizza trends: Roman-style, Detroit, emerging ingredients

Pizzerias adapt to changing consumer preferences

Affordability and taste profile make pizza a top food choice in America. Pizza is heading in many directions right now. Traditional, independent pizzerias and chains are competing with modern, fast-casual concepts
that tout a more personalized and customized experience. Also, consumers are showing bifurcation as they embrace healthier eating, yet still view much of the pizza experience through the lens of indulgence. Two-thirds of restaurants feature pizza, but at specialized pizza restaurants it’s more popular, notes a Packaged Facts Pizza at Retail and Foodservice report.

Pizzerias and pizza chains well-positioned as consumers seek specialized pizza establishments

Sixty-one percent of consumers surveyed by Packaged Facts said they are interested in ordering pizza from QSRs specializing in pizza. And 62 percent are interested in ordering from a specialized, full-service restaurant chain. According to Packaged Facts’ Eating Trends: Restaurant Use report, 38 percent of consumers order from pizza-and-pasta restaurants, making them the fourth largest category.

Specialized pizza restaurants have unique positioning in the pizza category, but how can they leverage it? One significant way is to offer appetizers, pasta and salad dishes to draw incremental ordering and to cancel out non-pizza-eating veto votes. Another way is to offer both healthy and indulgent choices. As we’ve noted, Packaged Facts describes a dichotomy in the consumer usage of pizza. Some consumers are looking for healthier options; others are looking to escape the diet or routine involved in home cooking

Thirty-three percent of pizza restaurant users order salad, so having salad choices or createyour-own salad bars can boost sales and appeal to customers. Twenty-two percent of users order appetizers and 18 percent order pasta. At California Pizza Kitchen, the menu lists salads that offer abundant creativity and variety. The Thai Crunch Salad, for example, offers “crisp veggies and fresh cilantro with chicken and the crunch of peanuts, wontons and rice sticks,” and is tossed in a Thai peanut dressing. Beyond salads, CPK offers Protein Bowls. These skew toward functionality and include the Shanghai Bowl, a mix of seared shrimp with black heirloom rice, baby broccoli, cauliflower, zucchini, carrots and watermelon radish, served with housemade Shanghai sauce.

In conducting some research on the Gen Z consumer, Kara Nielsen, a well-respected trendologist who helps food and beverage companies understand trends to develop winning product development strategies, found that this generation is keen on customization. It would follow that fast casuals—even those that have struggled due to oversaturation—may still have a compelling value proposition. This lies in the ability to offer customized pies that can be personalized to the nth degree in real time.

Trending ingredients and styles

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At the heart of specialized pizzerias and pizza chains is a love of pizza and fresh ingredients. Packaged Facts notes that basil saw its rise in the mid-part of the century and that overall, pizza lovers enjoy it. Prosciutto has also seen a surge over the last few years. With the rise of fast-casual pizza chains offering customization and choice, traditional pizzerias have doubled down on their craft and creativity.

Neapolitan-style pizza is a trend that has taken hold, especially in urban markets. At Stellina Pizzeria, a popular, emerging pizzeria concept in Washington, D.C., the Carrettiera Pizza is made with Fiordilatte (semi-soft, fresh cheese), homemade sausage, friarielli (greens), roasted yellow tomato, Calabrian pepper, and provolone cheese. The Cacio & Pepe Pizza combines Cacio di Roma (sheep’s milk cheese from Rome), pecorino Romano, buffalo mozzarella, and toasted black pepper. Stellina was started by Antonio Matarazzo and Chef Matteo Venini.

One important facet of preparing an authentic Neapolitan-style pizza is the oven used to cook it. Stellina purchased a stunning handcrafted Italian brick oven by Marra Forni, a brick oven company owned by two native Italian brothers and based in Beltsville, Md. The oven can cook the pizzas in two minutes flat.

Calamari could be one of the next-generation ingredients on pizza. Photo by Nikita Tikhomirov.
Calamari could be one of the next-generation ingredients on pizza. Photo by Nikita Tikhomirov.

Another important aspect is the ingredients: the use of specialty cheeses and an attention to detail go a long way. One way to make pizza flavorful is a simple ingredient like cracked black pepper. Michael Watz, proprietor/executive chef, Watz Your Culinary Professor, says “Crusts in general I think could benefit from the addition of cracked, black pepper—simple and easy for added flavor.”

Different techniques and styles can make a pizza stand out. Watz recently traveled to Europe and observed how a few tweaks can produce a significant result. At a pizzeria in Puglia, Italy, he saw that using olive-oil infused wood can enhance the flavor profile and create a scent that draws customers in. It’s free marketing, he suggested. As he traveled Europe, Watz noted some uncommon ingredients that could have their moments on American pies in the near future. He suggests octopus, calamari and cuttlefish. And grilled vegetables, roasted garlic and tomato confit are garnish ingredients that never go out of style, and always make pizza more flavorful.

Roman-style and Detroit-style pizza

Nielsen notes that Pollara, a pizzeria in Berkeley, Calif., has been standing out from the crowd with its Roman-style pizza. These pizzas are made in a long pan and several styles can come from the same pan. Daily featured pizzas offer a rotating set of fresh, differentiated ingredients. Recently, Pollara featured a pizza with figs. The eclectic pizzeria has also offered anchovies, poached figs, copa, thinly-sliced prosciutto, and swiss chard. With its use of intriguing and unconventional ingredients, and its differentiated pizza style, Pollara scores big with customers.

Roman-style pizza featured at Pollara. Photo by Pollara.
Roman-style pizza featured at Pollara. Photo by Pollara.

There is still plenty of room for artist-like techniques and fresh, lesser-known ingredients. Nielsen noticed Detroit pizza a few years back when she stayed in Detroit for a project. A prime example is Buddy’s Pizza,
now a chain of pizzerias, that originated in Detroit in 1946, and is tied to the trend’s roots. Farther west, Leaning Tower in Oakland Calif. is an impressive example. It carries a Detroit pie that is quite popular. The Focaccia Dough is pressed, and feels airy and light. The cheese fries against the pan. It makes one think of fried cheese, “which is having a moment, right now,” she says. Consumers are looking for something different, and this style is also comforting.

Detroit-style pizza has also been trending in D.C. Two Detroit-style pizzerias offer a promising start, according to Washingtonian Magazine. In the Ivy City neighborhood, Della Barba offers customers takeout and delivery
pizza Motor City style. “Focaccia-like dough is pressed into steel pans. (Legend has it that the original pans were the blue steel sheets used to clean auto parts),” notes Washingtonian. The pizzas are then topped
with Wisconsin Brick Cheese and a red sauce.The result is a crisp crust on the bottom and a soft, cheese top, which is said to be delicious. New York’s Emmy Squared will also arrive soon in D.C. and add to the options in the nation’s capital.

Standing out from the crowd

“Something small can grow,” says Nielsen, but it needs to have roots. Right now, many artisans are working with food that has roots. At the core are very distinctive ingredients. Authenticity and an artisan story can make
a pizza stand out. Also, look to high quality ingredients. Is there something special about the cheese elements or even the milk? Most of these can be threaded into the pizza pie’s story. Consumers today are food-smart and curious. “They bring a better understanding of food,” she adds. Specialized pizza makers can keep things fresh and attract business, as long as they can tell their story. In a crowded market, “you have to stand out in some way.”

Photo credit: Hemant Latawa

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