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.
Even at a place that knows its way around good meatballs, there's a lot that can wrong when you try to top a pizza with them. Adam addressed many of the issues in his "Hey Pizza Joints, Why You Gotta Bust My Meatballs?" post. But despite the textural atrocities, or the harrowing risk of sliced balls, I am a sucker for taking a gamble on a meatball pie.
Now one would think that more caution is required when ordering toppings that need extra care from a chain. As if mushrooms have not provided me with a lifetime of examples in the spectrum of slimy canned to dried and desiccated. But the meatball loving side of me is just too powerful for reason. Meatballs don't appear on a chain pizza just any old day. I've never even seen a big chain offer meatballs. This is a limited time offer and an opportunity not to be missed.
Papa John's is currently selling the pizza at the promotional price of $11 and it is billed as having a four cheese blend, savory meatballs, pepperoni, and Italian seasonings. The moment I got the box in my hands, I was struck by just how herb-y this pizza smelled. I've got nothing against herb seasonings, but my internal critic was already making a damning strike against the pie. However, once I got a good look at it, the pizza only seemed modestly dusted in the stuff. And then when I tasted it, I was almost perplexed by how disproportionate the smell and taste of herbs actually were.
Right from the point of peeling back the lid, I felt a surge of optimism with regard to both the ball form and size. Not only were these little suckers actually intact spheres (no slicing—phew!), but they were also well-balanced to the scale of the slice. (Note: I will not say anything about mouth-popping proportion.) To those pluses, I found the odd greenish hue a big fat minus. However, the first bite made it clear that the green was due to a ball packed full of Italian seasonings. While the herbs didn't really do the pie a service or disservice, when it came to the meatballs, the herbs really worked. And it helped to explain their unfortunate color. Herbs, combined with Romano and some garlic flavor made the meatball flavor pretty impressive, especially for a chain. The compressed, yet mushy texture, however, was right in line with what you'd expect from a chain and could still use a little work.
The pepperoni and meatball combo didn't seem like an obvious topping team-up, but they worked well together, particularly with the trademark sweetness of the Papa John's sauce and crust. The salty, mild heat of the pepperoni is key to evening out the sweet spikes and the crisping properties of the 'roni make up for some of the textural pitfalls of the meatballs.
As for the four cheese blend, it tasted pretty standard to me. It has the same creamy, gooey meltability of standard-issue, industry mozzarella. But the added salty factor of shakeable Romano was evident.
Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this chain meatball pie. All the pros and cons of a regular Papa John's pizza still come into play, but for all the specials of theirs that I have tried, this one is the definite standout.
This post may contain links to Amazon or other partners; your purchases via these links can benefit Serious Eats. Read more about our affiliate linking policy.