Nothing makes you feel creepier than walking into a Chuck E. Cheese, as a single adult male, with an SLR camera. I've been in some awkward situations, such as eating every cheesecake at the Cheesecake Factory as patrons looked on in horror; though I have to say, this was a new low. The things I do so that you folks can have an honest opinion about fast casual pizza.
Moving along, Chuck E. Cheese's recently unveiled a new, revamped pizza on its menu. So what's new? Quite a few things, actually. They're now making their dough in-restaurant, instead of having it arrive in a freezer truck. The dough-making and pizza-baking processes are improved to lend themselves to a crisper pie than before. Finally, they have abandoned their frozen blend of cheeses for mozzarella shredded in-store. If you go on their site, or watch their promotional video, the two key words are: cheesier and crisper.
So how does it taste? Quite interesting, actually. I noticed how thin the outer crust was almost immediately. The cheese was taller than the crust. Frankly, it looked more like a flatbread pizza than a Papa John's-style thick crust. From a business perspective that makes good sense: kids always hate crust, so why waste dough making it if they only throw it away?
Putting on my fast food hat, I quite enjoyed the pie. Starting with the dough, it was very bread-like: light, airy, and spongy. The bottom was cracker-like with an even crisp throughout; however, it's the type of crisp that only comes from mechanized baking in an institutional oven. (If you watch their promo video, it's a Quizno's-style rolling oven.) They also dusted the underside and top crust with cornmeal, which gave it an interesting texture.
The cheese and sauce reminded me immediately of Pizza Hut, both in look, taste, and texture. The brown spots on white cheese definitely brought the Hut to mind. The cheese wasn't smooth, stringy mozzarella, but rather thick, Americanized mozzarella. I'm not sure that frozen or shredded in-store makes much of a difference with that type of americarella. The similarities extended to the "zesty" sauce; it had a hint of spice, and a bit more than a hint of sugar. Their pepperoni? Slightly spicy, very salty, cooked and crisped like bacon, just like Pizza Hut. If it weren't for the crispy dough, I wouldn't have known I was at Chuck E. Cheese's.
By the time I got to Chuck E. Cheese, I had already eaten pizza for brunch, so I wasn't that hungry. I cruised through four slices (two cheese and two pepperoni), when I really only needed half a slice of each to decide what I thought. I actually enjoyed it. On top of that, Chuck E. Cheese was not the worst pie I had that day. The brunch place was.
Chuck E. Cheese's was a little on the expensive side, but then again, so was the brunch place. If I were a parent, I'd eat their pizza. If I were a kid, I'd eat their pizza. The point of Chuck E Cheese isn't the pizza. It's the fun.
About the Author: John M. Edwards, the fast-food bureau chief at Serious Eats, also writes about fast food and regional chains at fastfoodr.com. His day job relates to personal training and nutrition. (Seriously.) Follow him at @johnmedwards.