I recently witnessed a serious crime at my local corner pizzeria. Upon receiving his slice, a customer proceeded to mindlessly dump the contents of every spice shaker within reach onto its glistening surface. Ever since pizza infiltrated American soil in the 1900’s folks have been customizing their slices with an array of powders and flakes, which I refer to as toppers. Unlike toppings, toppers are consumer-controlled. The ritual of topper application is as much a part of eating a slice as the paper plate upon which it is served, but my traumatic experience made me question why pizzerias are allowing themselves to lose control of their carefully designed flavor profiles at the hands of topper abuse.
Eating a slice without the option of dried oregano and crushed pepper flakes would feel incomplete, but there are some pizzerias going beyond the norm in their topper selections. Pizzerias like Fornino and the modestly titled Best Pizza in Brooklyn both offer infused olive oil. It’s as simple as adding peppers, herbs, seeds or any other spices to a bottle of oil. (Just be careful with roots like garlic, which must be pre-treated to limit risk of botulism.) I’ve also seen unusual pizza toppers such as marjoram and sesame seeds. Brooklyn’s Pete Zaaz even created their own exclusive topper called “Cheesy-Herby-Spicy Goodness,” which contains a mix of pickled jalapeños, dried Thai basil, Parmigiano-Reggiano and crushed Cheez-Its. Unique toppers are a great way to extend your shop’s personality while maintaining control after handing a pizza over to your customer.
Even if you stick to the usual suspects (grated cheese, garlic powder, pepper flakes and oregano), you can maintain quality by carefully choosing ingredients. I was horrified last week when I tasted some grated cheese only to find it was one step above pure salt. Anyone who makes the mistake of dumping it onto his or her slice is probably going to blame you. Good ingredients aren’t cheap, but there are ways to protect your investment. John’s and Lombardi’s in Manhattan keep their Parmesan in the back kitchen to prevent people from overusing it. Pizza Box, also in Manhattan, chains their cheese shakers to the wall to prevent theft. Don’t forget that even though they are on the customer’s side of the counter, these are still your ingredients.
Now that you have unique and/or high quality ingredients on your tables, consider the shakers themselves. I’m amazed every time I see generic supermarket containers of garlic powder at pizzerias. It sends a clear message that this ingredient is not a priority. You don’t have to get too fancy; I love it when pizzerias use baby food jars and Snapple bottles with holes poked in the lids in place of store-bought shakers. If it works for your room, go with it. Just as toppers are ingredients, the shakers themselves are part of your décor.
You have the power to maintain control of your food even after it crosses the boundary of your slice counter. Think of those spice shakers as your pizza’s final ingredient and you’ll limit the risks of topper abuse.
Scott Wiener owns and operates Scott’s Pizza Tours in New York City.