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.
Serious pizza people scoff at most national chains, and for good reason. I didn't come here to bash the big boys, and there's no need to list their many spongy, undercooked, and overprocessed shortcomings. I mention it simply to establish up front that I agree with the general Slice consensus that chain pizza tends not to be good pizza. But it's a category that can't be ignored by anyone with a TV, a lazy streak, and a love of online ordering.
I can spot a discerning pizza shopper by her general comportment, and when I see someone with the tell-tale confident strut and healthy bone structure clearly born of fresh toppings and real mozzarella, I'll stop her in the middle of the sidewalk to inquire as to her favorite national chain. The most common response is pepper spray, followed closely by some version of "I don't really like any of them, but I guess I'd go to Papa John's in a pinch." I respect this position but had never found myself appropriately pinched until last week when Head Slice sent me out for Papa John's new limited-edition Chicken Parmesan pizza.
Papa John's advocates often cite the sauce as the key distinction that separates PJ pie from the rest of the sloppy pile; the Internet's filthy with de- and reconstructed homemade versions, most of which seem based on the twin principles of adding sugar and cooking the hell out of it. The basic red sauce is indeed a smidge sweeter and better than the competition, but in the case of the Chicken Parm pie, it has to share the stage with an ill-advised "creamy garlic parmesan" liquid of medium viscosity, high salt, and low class.
The garlic-powdered white goop undermines the whole operation by taking a reasonable pizza concept—breaded chicken strips and Parmesan cheese—and turning it into a trashy dorm-room-style "everything but the kitchen sink, unless the kitchen sink is where all the gross white salad dressing is, in which case throw the sink on there too" fiasco. But fear not, or at least fear less, for the pizza is still edible no matter how much disdain you have for white goop: It's applied sparingly, so while it does undermine the pizza, it doesn't overwhelm it.
The crust is just your basic chain pizza topping-holder, with perhaps a little less fake butter and a little more sugar than the industry standard. It was unremarkable but inoffensive, which is an achievement in this category. If I were eating for pleasure rather than for science, I would have availed myself of the "well-done" option on Papa J's very user-friendly online order form; I went with the standard cook time, which left the crust predictably dirty blonde and spongy. (There's also a thin-crust option.)
The cheese needs to be a big factor in a specialty pizza with "Parmesan" in the name; it was hit and miss. The basic undercoating of mozzarella was typical—bred more for texture than for flavor—and the Parmesan-Romano mix shaken on top was appropriately tangy but scandalously gritty. My dinner seemed sandy.
The chicken was the best part of this pie. The breaded strips were crunchy on the outside and moist in the middle. The exterior crunch provided a crucial saving grace to a pizza that was otherwise marred by a monotonous squishiness from top to bottom. There was a lot of this good thing, too: The $10 large (14-inch) pizza was remarkably heavy, and it's to John's credit that he took the high road of loading it up on chicken rather than weighing it down with even more white goop. (Though they could have done a better job with chunk distribution; some slices were over-chickened and some under-.) The quantity and quality of the chicken are enough to keep my mind open about future Papa John's encounters, but I can't recommend any self-respecting face-stuffer order the Chicken Parmesan special.