In the beginning — quite a while back, in fact –– it was pepperoni and sausage. Those were the two toppings most requested by patrons of modest, family-owned pizzerias and chain-operated pizza places as well. Here we are some 100 years later and guess what? Sausage and pepperoni are still the two most popular pizza toppings. Good things last. And good flavor has no expiration date.
Still, the landscape (or should I say the pizzascape?) has changed in the last 10 years or so. Pizza is gussied up in just about any way we can imagine now, and one of the hottest pizza trends in New York City at the moment happens to be a fried and baked pizza called the Montanara. The pizza shell is flash-fried, pulled out of the deep fryer, topped, and then baked in a wood-burning oven. Customers are eating it up with a swoon.
Therein lies the joy of pizza, the reason why pizza is one of the most important and most recognized foods in the culinary lexicon. It’s a bold-face-type fact that pizza never loses its wow factor. And that bodes well for all of us who are part of the wonderful world of pizza. And so we continue to tinker and tailor, try this and try that. If you start with a good foundation — the crust — then you can build on that (using common sense of course) and construct pizza after mouthwatering pizza that will bring a “yum!” and a smile every time. And be innovative. Recently, I have read a half-dozen write-ups in national and regional magazines and newspapers about that Montanara pizza. That’s the best advertising you can get.
Along those lines, I think it’s past time that we look into upscale meats. Why, you ask? Because menu expansion sets you apart from your competition. What do we consider upscale? My list would include a whole range of salumi (a.k.a. artisan cured meats). Quite a few of those meats are more commonly known as cold-cuts, which also opens you to a new line of sub sandwiches, hoagies or grinders. There are options galore.
To be honest, though, there is a big difference in texture and flavor between a well-made salumi such as a Tuscan finocchiona and a slice of regular salami, or a hot soppressata and its closest relative, a piece of pepperoni. Salumi (cured pork products), when made by skilled artisans, encompass a range of flavorings that include, for example, citrus, fennel seeds, garlic, paprika, ginger, nutmeg and more. And when salumi of that nature is used on a pizza, it brings out a depth of flavor that is unique, original and exciting.
Other cured meats include:
coppa (marbled pork shoulder)
culatello (cured pork prosciutto),
lomo (pork loin cured, flavor rubbed, air-dried)
pancetta (rolled pork belly)
The possibilities are limited only by how cutting edge you wish to get. Keep in mind, however, that these artisan meats will cost a bit more than your everyday cold cuts or sub sandwich meats. Not that I have anything against any of those –– throw a well-made Italian sub sandwich at me, and I am a happy chomper.
A few words of caution when using cured pork products and other variations. Some of these products throw off a good bit of fat when hit with heat. And though fat is where a lot of the good flavor is, you don’t want to send out a pizza that has a flood of it across the top. Testing is the best way to find out what effect salumi or other cured meats will have on the finished product vis-a-vis fat (grease) flavor.
Here are some more tricks of the trade:
Can a richly flavored soppressata take the place of pepperoni on a “designer” pizza? Most definitely. Make sure you slice the soppressata quite thin (about the same thickness as the pepperoni you use).
Using (when available) sandwich-style meats (pre-sliced, larger diameter) allows for easier prepping and more coverage (flavor in every bite once the pizza has been cut).
The alternative to sandwich-style meats is to do a rough chop as noted in my recipe (above) for a Spicy soppressata pizza.
Yield: Two 14-inch pizzas
2 pizza shells (crusts)
Extra-virgin olive oil
½ pound sliced provolone
2 ounces finely chopped spicy soppressata
2ounces finely chopped Genoa salami or
prosciutto or other cured spicy meat
½ (or to taste) cup hot giardiniera
½ cup grated Parmesan
Crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
Brush each pizza shell all over with the olive oil. Lay 4 ounces of the sliced provolone on each pizza up to ½-inch from the edge.
Combine the chopped soppressata and the salami. Add half of this mixture to each pizza, spreading it evenly over the pizza. Spread an equal amount of the giardiniera over each pizza. And do the same with the grated Parmesan. Bake. Add crushed red pepper flakes to taste.
Pat Bruno is Pizza Today’s resident chef and a regular contributor. He is the former owner and operator of a prominent Italian cooking school in Chicago and is a former food critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.