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.
Like Five Guys, a burger name that meant virtually nothing to most of America a few years ago and then suddenly expanded into nationwide ubiquity, CiCi's is making a push for pizza buffet domination. With one of its 600 locations (a number that the company plans to nearly double in the next decade) open in East Rutherford, I had no excuse not to give it a whirl. Towing along my ever-helpful husband and his equally adventurous pizza appetite, we sallied forth to attack the 28 varieties of pizza on the menu.
CiCi's crust is a step above Domino's, at least, slightly pillowy in the grandma-style vein but without discernible yeastiness or flavor. It's pretty much what I expected; as fellow Slice contributor John M. Edwards noted in his California Pizza Kitchen review, "I don't think crust is the focus of pizza chains lately, unless filled with cheese."
Instead, sauces seem to be CiCi's focus, with mixed results. Tomato sauces are a letdown across the board; the pizza sauce suffered from dried oregano overload, lending it the simultaneously overspiced yet bland taste that afflicts many a generic frozen pizza. The marinara sauce coating corkscrew cavatappi pasta was a kissing cousin to Chef Boyardee or Ragu—kids might love its pureed sweetness, but this gal was raised on grandma's homemade marinara, not that jarred stuff.
Unsurprisingly, we preferred the tomato-free pizzas, especially the "zesty" variations: ham and cheddar or pepperoni atop "zesty Parmesan ranch sauce." Though the ranch aspects of the sauce weren't immediately identifiable, the salty swipe gave a little more backbone to the tabula rasa crust. And I'll probably catch hell for saying this, but the spinach alfredo slice not only tasted of actual spinach, but it had a better, fresher flavor than the puffy, gloppy Artichoke slices beloved by a certain contingent of the NYC hipster population.
The mac and cheese pizza (also sporting cavatappi) hit the buffet line the same time as the spinach alfredo pie, and I hoped for a one-two punch of goopy comfort food pizza, kind of a TGI Friday's greatest hits pizza lineup. Sadly, the mac and cheese could have used a drizzle of that zesty Parmesan ranch to perk it up, since it came across as watery Velveeta.
The clear winner on the buffet wasn't pizza at all: the breadsticks, a cross between Little Caesar's Crazy Bread and the oily, crunchy end crust edges of Pizza Hut's traditional pan crust, melded my two favorite childhood pizza memories under a layer of salty Parmesan cheese nubbins.
It became a challenge for the two of us to see how many different varieties we could plow through before hitting food coma status, and felt pretty pleased for making it through 11 of them plus pasta, salad, cinnamon buns, brownies, and more than one helping of breadsticks. (Full disclosure: we left a few bones behind.) Just as we were sliding out of the garish yellow booth, though, the white whale appeared: "Oh no, they brought out a Sicilian." We couldn't do it.
About the author: Casey Barber is the editor of Good. Food. Stories., a freelance food writer, and a transplanted Pittsburgher making the most of the Garden State. Find her on Twitter: @GoodFoodStories