If sausage is a top seller, why not maximize it?
In 2004, I competed in the Pizza Festiva Competition at the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas. Needless to say, I didn’t win because Doug Ferriman of Crazy Dough’s in Boston steamrolled over all competitors that year with a killer pesto pizza. I was also lucky enough to meet and commiserate with the legendary Pat Bruno who I knew from living in Chi-town. Every restaurateur and chef waited for his column in the Chicago Sun Times to come out each week because of Pat’s comprehensive knowledge of food and forthright reviews. At the end of the competition, we all gave quick pizza demonstrations and mine was scheduled after Pat talked to the crowd about the complexities of Italian sausage. While I waited in the wings, I looked at my toppings –– onion, green pepper, tomato and sausage –– all set to go as I listened to Pat talk to the packed crowd.
“The worst thing you can ever do on a pizza is to use those little balls that are shot out of a machine…” he said as he approached the audience and held up a plateful of beautiful, cooked bulk sausage for them to try.
“…unless you wanna be known as an amateur, rabbit-turd pizzeria, ‘cause that’s exactly what they look like…” he said in that gravelly Chicago tone.
I suddenly looked down at my sausage, which looked like little round rabbit poop sitting in a pile on my plate. I felt the blood rush up into my brain and in panic, I ran into the prep kitchen screaming, “I need some sausage…please, does anyone have some different sausage?”
This funny, yet terrifying moment taught me two things. Never follow Pat Bruno during demonstrations and always use excellent sausage because, when it comes right down to it, there’s nothing better suited to melt on a sea of mozzarella than juicy, fatty sausage. In the 14 years I’ve owned a pizzeria, sausage is the second best seller in my topping repertoire after pepperoni.
There are two types of sausage available to any pizzeria operator and, like all toppings, the decision of what sausage to use depends not only on taste, but upon cost, weight and distribution. Sausage can be a very heavy product. If you have an untrained make line person, it can cost you dearly.
Bulk sausage is “old school.” It doesn’t have any filler and is approximately between 78- and 83-percent lean pork from muscle cuts. Some is sold in links — but if you are taking the meat out of the link, it’s a waste of money. Besides when links are cooked, they are both hard to cut and the juices are left in the pan, not on the pizza. Usually bulk is either plain (which is cheapest) or mixed with salt, pepper and fennel. This raw meat sausage is best on pizza because the fat leaches out onto the pie when it cooks.
Formed sausage for pizza is more convenient because it is pre-cooked and can go from a freezer to a pizza with no pre-thawing at all. The good sausage companies make some that mimics the irregular shapes that a bulk sausage pinch would have. Watch for TVP –– or textured vegetable proteins –– as additives that add no flavor to the sausage. This sausage comes in large chunks all the way down to crumbles that have up to 120 little pieces per ounce and can cost you between .15 to .35 cents per ounce.
Fresh sausage has been used around the world in different ways. In the United States, most Italian sausage is sold either “sweet” or “spicy,” but both contain the fennel (or anise) seed flavor in it. Other Italian and European fresh sausages are similar in salt, fat and pepper recipes but the variations are awesome:
- Merguez. North African in origin and are made with cumin, nutmeg, clove, paprika, garlic and contain lamb and lamb fat.
- Chorizo. The great Spanish sausage — not to be confused by the cured kind — contains Pimenton, or paprika, garlic and lots of fatty pork belly. It is easy to make and I make meatballs out of this mix adding cilantro, egg and old cooked pizza crust to soak up the egg.
- Toulouse. The South of France has sun, beaches, Picasso and this fantastic, herby sausage with thyme, sage, garlic, nutmeg and red wine. It’s made with nice fatty pork belly.
- Cumberland. This is from the Northwest British Isles and is a classic that doesn’t contain garlic. The driving taste in this sausage is sage, marjoram, and nutmeg.
Over the years, I’ve experimented with lots of sausage products and have finally found a local source to provide me the quality and quantity I need. My staff mixes and cooks the sausage on sheet pans in my ovens then cuts it up into chunks for topping. Some of the best combinations with sausage that I’ve made available are as follows, (yes, they may be crazy — but they definitely are a kick in the flavor booty!):
- The Red Baron: Spread whole-grain or Dijon mustard on a pizza dough, then top with cheese, sausage, sauerkraut and then tomato filets for a pie that is an “Ace.”
- The Cassolet: Bacon, cannellini beans (or any white bean), sausage, onion on your proprietary tomato sauce and cheese mix. (See page 44.)
- The Swiss Guard: Based on the Swiss recipe called “Papet Vaudois,” this pizza has sausage with roasted leeks and potatoes atop a cream sauce with either Swiss cheese or Gruyere.
- The Avalanche Ranch: One of our favorites has diced chicken, pepperoni and sausage blanketed under an avalanche of ranch dressing. None better!
- Huevos Rancheros: Chorizo, poblano peppers, onion, tomato, oregano, cilantro…and if you are the risk taker, pop an egg or three atop the pizza halfway through the oven’s cook time!
John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio and has a pizza blog called Pizza Goon. He is an award-winning pizzaiolo, baker, teacher, speaker and author and has been featured in Gastronomica, Food Arts, National Geographic, Alimentum Food Journal, Food Network and Best Food Writing, 2012.