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.
Have I mentioned before that I grew up in a town that only had chain restaurants? (Um, yep, I have right here.) In seventh grade I knew that if you wanted a cheeseburger for breakfast you had to go to the DQ. Possibly because you couldn't get pizza for breakfast, I was never loyal to any particular chain pizza place. BUT, if there had been a Papa Gino's in town growing up, I would have been loyal to them.
Of course there wouldn't have been a Papa Gino's in my town because they are a regional chain in New England (about 175 stores strong making it one of the largest US pizza chains) and I didn't grow up there. Michael and Helen Valerio opened the original location in 1961 as a family pizzeria in East Boston under the name Piece O' Pizza. Six years later they made the name change to Papa Gino's. While the corporate site does say a little about tracing the origins of the recipe back to Italy, they don't say whose Papa Gino was or if he ever existed. There also isn't a lot of information if their chain expansion happened along with the heavy hitters (Domino's, Pizza Hut, Little Caesars) in the 60s or if it was more gradual. But regardless they have managed to grow and hold their own in a part of the country where small chains and independent pizzerias make up 75 percent of the pizza landscape. So what's the secret to their success?
Here's a look at the original Gino's:
Gino's is not representative of the class of pizza that mostly dominates the Boston scene, namely New England Greek which rises in the pan and has an oil fried texture and a crust that is on the thick side. No, their pies most closely approximate a hand-tossed pie. In national chain terms, they're like Sbarros, but thinner.
In terms of flavor, the crusts are nothing to write home about. But unlike the big chains, they don't make the dreadful mistake of feeding sugar into the dough. However, texturally, they excel beyond any of the chain pies in this class that I've ever eaten. The bottoms are well crisped, browned, and get a dusting of fine-cut corn meal on bottom. They even manage to work a little chew into their bread. Maybe it's that the corn meal gets concentrated along the outer rim of the pies, but the crusts there give the jaw more of a workout. But overall, their crusts surpass a lot of mom and pop pizzerias and for an operation that is making and distributing dough at the volume necessary to support 175 stores, that's pretty impressive.
Like the dough, the sauce is more Italian than typical New England. Lots of pizzerias in the region are after a deep, rich tomato flavor that can only come from long cooking and the use of tomato paste. Gino's sauce is bright and acidic, with curls of tomato peel throughout. The ingredient list only lists tomatoes, salt, black pepper, oregano, garlic powder, citric acid. The fact that there are tomato peels in a chain pizza sauce impresses me.
While the pizzas don't follow the New England mold in terms of sauce and crust, they are true to their regional roots in the cheese department. See, in the Northeastern most part of the country people like to mix in a little cheddar with the mozz. Gino's does just that with the addition of Romano. As a result the pies can be a little, well, greasier and the elasticity of the cheese goes from snappy to gooey. But the proportion of cheese to sauce is in good measure. If you mostly eat pizza with all mozzarella you might find yourself trying to pinpoint just what it is about the cheese that is different. Now you know it's the cheddar.
Going beyond the basics of the cheese, sauce, and crust, like any chain pizza place Gino's has a steady flow of specialty pies, such as this Spicy Sausage ($13.79, large):
The banana pepper and sausage combo is pretty great in my book. Their sausage actually benefits from the vinegary spice of the banana pepper because on its own it's a little anemic tasting. I don't think banana peppers really vary much from place to place, so there is no real room for error there. The hunks of crumbled sausage are certainly generously sized and abundant, adding a good bit of weight to the equation. But the corn meal reinforced crust keeps it all together.
Papa Gino's serves one of the better chain-produced pies, but it's still a regional chain. If they could manage to take what has been a regional success to a national level, they would be doing a real service to the chain-only parts of the country.