While we think mom-and-pop shops make the best pizza in the nation, we'd be remiss if we didn't keep abreast of what the chains are up to. Suit up, it's time for another Chain Reaction, folks.
When I was growing up in Massachusetts, the two dominant forces in chain pizza were Pizza Hut and beloved regional mediocrity Papa Gino's (more about Papa's odd charms at a later date). We got Papa Gino's when Mom was in charge, because it was in the same strip mall as the grocery store. When a scheduling quirk would leave my father running the food-with-kids errands, we'd fight our way to the Pizza Hut on the other side of the highway. This was a better deal for all parties, because Pizza Hut was licensed to sell Daddy's special soda and also had a Ms. Pac-Man machine. You could buy a lot of my silence for 25 cents in 1985.
I don't remember having a preference, because I was an easygoing sort of kid equally thrilled to eat from either version of heaven's menu. Even now, deep into chronological adulthood, I struggle to drum up the sort of pizza prejudices required by this profession. The truth is I like it all, and so do most people, and there you have your answer to: "How the hell is Pizza Hut still in business?"
Through the years Slice has been more than duly diligent in its coverage of Pizza Hut's frequent quarter-hearted attempts at improvement and innovation. We've dealt with Ultimate Cheese Lover's Pizza, Ultimate Stuffed Crust Pizza, Big Italy Pizza, and all manner of Big, Stuffed, and Ultimate offerings in between. Some of these stabs at adequacy have managed to improve upon the traditional Pizza Hut experience, but we've yet to come across a Hut trick that advanced the overall state of the pizza game.
In all our testing, we haven't been able to muster much more enthusiasm than the occasional, "Well, it's not bad for Pizza Hut," which is just our polite way of saying "It is, after all, pizza, and therefore it does not enrage me." But although chain pizza is a market in which past performance is very indicative of future results, we're not going to stop trying until Pizza Hut does, and one stone we've yet to turn is the almost parodically named P'Zone.
I don't want to depress you nice people, but it's worth noting that the guy who decided to call Pizza Hut's calzone the "P'Zone" almost certainly makes more money than you do. In his fantasy world, the apostrophe is a tidy and obvious stand-in for "izzaHut'sVersionOfACal," but to me it creates a pronunciation quandary that far outweighs its intended pith. TV commercials make it clear that we're supposed to call it a "pizz-own," but I keep reading it as "pee-zone," which sounds less like a foodstuff than it does a euphemism for the place we're not supposed to touch each other without explicit consent.
That doesn't matter if it's good eating, though, so let's get into it.
I ran the P'Zone gamut of Pepperoni, Supremo, and Meaty, which only set me back $15 (plus tax) for six people's worth of food. That's a reasonable deal, even if P'Zones suck.
They first problem this P'Zone p'zurchaser noticed is that they were undercooked. Calzones are pizza sandwiches, which means they should be just like pizza except better, because turning a thing into a sandwich is usually a surefire way to improve the thing. Calzones are usually not better than pizza, though, and it's because of the crust. It's tricky to get the interior cooked without burning the exterior, so calzone innards can be a little on the gummy side. These P'Zones all came out of the oven about five minutes too soon. The shells were pale and soft and greasy, and the interior was wet and doughy.
That uncooked dough is the defining characteristic of the stuffing, because P'Zones are curiously underfilled. You usually don't have to worry about being ripped off, quantitatively speaking, when it comes to chain pizza toppings: The toppings might not be good, but they tend to be abundant. Not so with the P'Zone. I wonder if it's because you can't actually see in there unless you tear it apart, so Pizza Hut figures they can get away with hiding the fact that they're being rather withholding with their sausage.
About the sausage: It's not good, though it was the best of the three meats on the Meaty. The ham and pepperoni were nearly translucently thin and very light on flavor. They were limp and damp and just blended right in with the soggy inner dough layer. The sausage was rubbery, but there was some herby flavor to it. It showed signs of being an adequate pizza topping if exposed to direct heat for long enough to crust up a bit.
P'Zones are sauceless, although a half-cup of marinara is included in every box. The lack of sauce and the spare stuffing give the cheese a bigger stage than it can handle. It's not offensive, but it's just cruddy commercial mozzarella and not easily distinguishable in flavor or texture from the dough. There's also a thin lattice of something dried and buttery-smelling melted on the exterior. I did not like it.
The Supremo is sausage with red onion and green pepper. The pepper was mushy and bland and irrelevant, but the onion was surprisingly crisp and bright. The presence of the humble onion managing to just sit there and do its job while all else falls to hell around it is enough to make the Supremo the best of this bad bunch.