I've always had a thing for frozen pizza. As a kid, I devoured box after box of Pizza Fours, individual snack-sized pies that unsurprisingly came four to a box. By the time I got to college, I had kicked the frozen pizza habit, mostly because we could buy pizza pretty late into the evening at Pagliai's and Ahrvano's. It wasn't the greatest pizza in the world, but I was in Grinnell, Iowa. I needed sustenance, and it was cheap and filling.
Frozen pizza has come a long way since my Pizza Four days. In fact, according to a May 2004 article in the New York Times Sunday business section, "In strictly frozen-pizza terms, the year 1995 was every bit as momentous as 1066 or 1492. Before that date, frozen pizza was a gourmand's worst nightmare: overly chewy crusts topped with bland sauce, rubbery cheese, and meat specks tougher than jerky." In 1995, Kraft Foods came out with the first DiGiorno pizza, featuring a rising crust.
According to Brendan I. Koerner in the aforementioned Times story, rising crust was a "food technology coup. Kraft's researchers were inspired in large part by three patents taken out in 1983 by General Foods of White Plains, which combined with Kraft in 1989. The patents covered the preparation and safe storage of frozen, yeast-leavened dough, a complex process involving the meticulous addition of hydrophilic colloids for stability and surfactants to 'facilitate flour hydration and initial dough development.' Kraft also developed modified atmospheric packaging, which keeps the pies bathed in inert gas rather than oxygen, which erodes the dough."
My son, Will, has introduced me to DiGiorno Rising Crust Pizzas (and their fierce competitor, Freschetta, which introduced a similar product a year later, in 1996) and while they are marginally better than the Pizza Fours of my youth, they are not as good as the slices I can get from any of a dozen pizzerias within three blocks of my Manhattan apartment. But, as someone who works at Freschetta told me, New York is the single worst frozen-pizza market in the country, because of the number of high-quality independently owned pizza shops in Gotham.
In 2004, Schwan's, which was sued by Kraft for allegedly obtaining vital pizza secrets by hiring a former Kraft contractor (the suit was settled in 2001), upped the ante in the frozen pizza category with the introduction of a line of "Brick Oven" pizzas made with a "fire-baked crust." DiGiorno has responded with "Thin Crispy Crust" pizza. It seems to me that both companies are hoping these pies will satisfy customers looking for a crisp-crusted, New Yorkstyle slice anywhere in the country.
In addition to these two new entries from the industry leaders, other companies are also coming out with upscale, gourmet pizza, some of which are made with supposedly more healthful ingredients. To sort out this Darwinian struggle for frozen pizza supremacy, I enlisted the aid of my friend and colleague Jeffrey Steingarten, Vogue magazine's food critic and the most relentlessly curious food person I know. Jeff and I (along with his assistants at the time, Jeanne Koenig and Elizabeth Alsop) endeavored to taste six brands of frozen pizza in his loft, which is filled, floor to ceiling, with every foodstuff, cooking gadget, and food book and periodical imaginable. Steingarten has a decidedly scientific bent when it comes to food, so I figured I could arouse his curiosity by alerting him to all the new technology going into frozen pizzas.
I arrived one beautiful late spring day, laden with six kinds of frozen pizza. Jeffrey was ravenously hungry (as usual) but was not looking forward to our lunch. "Ed," he said, "perhapsand I'm only speculating hereif I was in a spaceship on the way to Mars, and the only food at my disposal was a frozen pizza floating tantalizingly close to my nose, I mightjust mighteat one or two of them."
Elizabeth had preheated the oven and a pizza stone, so we immediately popped in the DiGiorno Thin Crispy Crust Four Cheese Pizza. When Elizabeth took it out of the oven, the crust was golden brown and the cheese was molten. Elizabeth cut the rectangular pizza into little pieces with scissors, which turns out to be the best way to cut a pizza. I was hungry and immediately took a bite of my piece. Big mistake. Not only did I get pizza burn on the roof of my mouth but I was also immediately admonished by Steingarten. "Ed, surely you must know it's far more accurate to taste things when they're closer to body temperature." I waited a minute, then took another bite. The crust was crisp, all right, but it didn't have much flavor. It was salty. It tasted like bad crackers.
Freschetta's 5 Italian Cheese Brick Oven Pizza was next. I liked the fact that there were discrete areas of sauce and cheese, and the crust was again crisp but completely lacking in flavor. Elizabeth said it tasted like Pizza Goldfish. She was right, but I kind of like Pizza Goldfish.
American Flatbread's Organic Tomato Sauce and Three Cheese Pizza, made in a stone-and-clay oven fired with wood in Waitsfield, Vermont, actually had a pliant and chewy crust that tasted good on its own, even though it was made with whole wheat. Its crust had hole structure the way a good crust should. The only slightly strange aspect of this pizza was its sweet smell. "It smells like French toast," Jeanne said. Sure enough, when we looked on the box for ingredients, there it was, pretty high up on the ingredient list: pure Vermont maple syrup.
Whole Foods Market's 365 Four Cheese was pretty awful. It was thick and unappetizing with a cheesy sludge on top. Jeanne said, "Even when really drunk I don't think I could eat this."
Amy's Cheese Pizza, made with organic tomatoes and flour, had a crisp crust and a vaguely sweet aftertaste, perhaps from the honey listed in the ingredients.
California Pizza Kitchen's Five Cheese & Tomato Pizza claimed it had a fresh-baked restaurant taste. The crust puffed up like a proud father's chest at his daughter's wedding, and the whole thing was quite tasty in a bad-food way. Elizabeth put her finger on it: "It tastes like cheese sticks or that cheesy bread you get at chain pizzerias." Jeffrey also liked the CPK pizza, which had chunks of tomato rather than tomato sauce, but he didn't understand Elizabeth's cheesy bread analogy, never having eaten at a pizza chain in his life. He said, "This isn't bad, but there's something about the cheese I don't like. It tastes like unripe cheese, which could mean something is wrong with the whey solids." Once again, Steingarten had me scrambling for old chemistry textbooks. But there they were, on the list of ingredients, whey solids.
I asked Steingarten if he was impressed with the new technology. He thought for a moment before giving me a most unscientific answer. "Ed," he announced, "there's an extremely technical term for the new frozen pizza technology: ca-ca.