A Slice of Heaven: Chain Pizza

Chain Pizza

Reviews of pizza at chain restaurants.

I wrote earlier today on Serious Eats about chain restaurants, and that prompted Serious Eater leilacohan to mention Bertucci's, a small pizzeria chain I sampled for my book Pizza: A Slice of Heaven. I figured I'd excerpt information from the book's chapter on chain pizza, starting with Bertucci's, for publication on Slice.

Read all Slice of Heaven excerpts on SliceIs chain pizza as bad as serious food people say it is? I was determined to find out—and determined to give chain pizza a fair shake. So, as part of my research for Pizza: A Slice of Heaven, I resolved to eat only chain pizza for dinner for a period of one week. I would limit myself to one chain pizza a day (though I was sorely tempted to get all the chain pizza eating out of the way in an afternoon). My wife, son, and friends were horrified by this regimen and reminded me of the fate of Morgan Spurlock, who famously ate nothing but McDonald's for a month. But if I wasn't willing to die for my art, at the very least I was willing to get a little sick for it. What did I find? Chain pizza is, for the most part, awful stuff. No news here. How is it awful? Why is it awful? What does it mean for pizza-eating people everywhere that it's awful? These are the essential questions that must be answered in any thorough examination of pizza.

First things first. As a discerning eater, I found all elements of chain pizza wanting. The crust is characterless, tasteless, and lacks even the merest trace of salt and yeast. Chain pizza sauce invariably tastes of tomato paste and sugar. Chain pizza cheese is inferior-quality mozzarella that resembles a yellow blob of melted goop. Toppings are made of inferior ingredients, typically watery canned mushrooms or porklike sausage pellets overwhelmed by the awful dried herbs and spices that go into them.

Why is chain pizza so awful? Many, many reasons. The pizza chains were all started by business people, as opposed to individuals interested in food. Go to the website of Little Caesar's or Pizza Hut or Papa John's. You'll find heartwarming stories of young people who overcame their modest circumstances to achieve great wealth and build big, successful businesses. You won't find the stories of passionate pizza makers determined to bring their fabulous pizza to every corner of the world.

All "quick service restaurant" businesses are built on the same fundamental tenets:

  • Standardize your product. Make sure the pizza tastes the same in Omaha as it does in Anchorage. For pizza, this means that the dough, sauce, cheese, and toppings are made in central locations for maximum shelf life and then distributed to the franchisees. Even if a Pizza Hut franchisee decided to use fresh mozzarella on even one pizza, company rules would prohibit it. Freshness is an obvious casualty of this approach.
  • Control costs and minimize waste. Chain pizzas make pizza a commodity. That means the major chains compete on price, because the market for commodities is by definition price driven. That's why I can buy a large sausage pizza at Little Caesar's for $7.99. Low prices mean low food costs, and low food costs mean low-quality ingredients.
  • Minimize labor costs. Pizza-making is labor intensive, so pizza chains find the lowest-cost labor they can. These poorly paid workers are given scant training, and what training they are given is not geared to the overall quality of the pizza they're making. After all, the managers themselves have never been shown how to make great pizza.

The result is that most pizza chains are staffed with poorly trained and paid pizza-makers supervised by people more concerned with the bottom line than the bottom crust. This is not the stuff of great pizza.

What's particularly disturbing about all this is that pizza is made with relatively inexpensive ingredients: water, flour, canned tomatoes, yeast, salt, mozzarella cheese, and olive oil. Even the costliest ingredients on that list are not absurdly expensive. Good fresh mozzarella is three dollars a pound, good Italian packaged tomatoes are a couple of bucks a can, and you can find good-quality extra-virgin olive oil for eight dollars a liter. So it should be possible to make a better-tasting pizza using good ingredients without spending an exorbitant amount. A pizza at Pizzeria Bianco is less than 15 dollars. But the crucial ingredients Chris Bianco adds to his pizza are sadly lacking at the chains: skill, passion, and pride.

Those come from the top, and until someone starts a pizza chain with those ingredients, we are all going to have to go elsewhere for great pizza.

Over the next six days on Slice, I'll be posting the relevant exerpts from Slice of Heaven that give my thoughts on the six chain places I ate from for the book--Bertucci's, California Pizza Kitchen, Domino's, Little Caesar's, Papa John's, and Pizza Hut.

My post on Bertucci's will appear on the site shortly, but let me just say this now: Bertucci's is a chain with close to a hundred locations. It uses good ovens and fresh mozzarella in its pizza and, as I discovered, the results are promising. A large Margherita at Bertucci's costs $17.99. That's a lot more than at the other chains, but Bertucci's pizza is exponentially superior. So if chains are your only option, and you can afford it, head there.