Photos by Josh Keown
Seasonal produce has a lot going for it — it’s generally less expensive than out-of-season produce, it’s at peak flavor and freshness and it represents a desirable set of core values. Seasonal walks hand in hand with fresh. And with local. And with quality. Those values may sound abstract, but they can translate into dollars when diners use them as part of their moral compass, pointing them toward where they should eat. The challenge then is how to incorporate seasonal vegetables onto pizza menus without rewriting the playbook. Pizza Today talked to two operators taking distinct approaches to the seasonal-pizza strategy, but each with the same successful result.
Pitfire Pizza is a micro chain worth a second look. Currently with four units in Southern California and two more slated for later in the year, this successful fast-casual concept serves what it calls “artisan casual,” keying into a California-born DNA of rustic, fresh and local. Pitfire, specializing in thin-crusted, wood-fired pizza, offers 10 pies on its standard menu. Diners seek out regulars, like Greens, Egg & Ham, sporting braised rapini, natural prosciutto and a farm egg. The Pepperoni boasts natural pepperoni, fresh mozzarella and torn basil. But diners also look to the marquis-styled specials board, which changes four times a year. Typically, the seasonal-special board offers three pizzas, a salad, a farmer’s market plate, a soup and a pasta.
“One of the strongest pillars of this business is my relationship with farmers’ markets,” says Paul Hibler, co-owner and co-founder of Pitfire. “Sourcing sustainable, local ingredients is who we are, so we focus our resources on making it happen.” Indeed, produce accounts for Pitfire’s largest purchasing fulfillment — greater even than its cheese purchasing. Pitfire doesn’t use a national grocer; it sources produce from a local company, buying direct. “We’re a 12-year-old company,” says Hibler. “We don’t do coupons. We don’t do marketing. We put all of our dollars on the plate.”
And those plates proudly host a celebration of seasonality. In the spring, diners may see an artichoke pizza with braised baby purple artichokes, blistered cherry tomatoes, local ricotta cheese, sautéed spinach and olives. Summer is all about heirloom tomatoes. At Pitfire, they slice them paper thin, air dry them, collecting the liquid from the tomatoes and making it into a basil-scented syrup. Dough topped with ricotta, Parmesan and heavy cream is fired, then topped with the cold tomato slices and drizzled with the tomato syrup. “The heirloom
tomatoes are beautiful and so fresh tasting,” says Hibler. “We like presenting it raw because it showcases the simple, perfect flavors really well.” In the fall and winter, diners anticipate a pumpkin pizza: roasted chunks of kabocha squash (Japanese pumpkin), braised Swiss chard, fontina, fresh mozzarella, pepitas, pumpkin oil and chili flakes, with a finish of brown butter and fresh sage.
Savvy cross utilization is key to managing the food cost of seasonal produce, says Hibler. “You have to be smart about it,” he says. “You have to find at least two uses for whatever vegetable you’re bringing in fresh.” The seasonal special board helps Pitfire with that, so asparagus might be featured on a pizza, but it will also pop up on the farmers’ market plate, perhaps grilled and dusted with Parmesan and panko breadcrumbs. He also manages food cost by using state-of-the-art accounting software, employing a kitchen manager in each unit and training the staff really well. “Independents can incorporate seasonality, too, even if it isn’t part of their brand,” says Hibler. “Go to farmers’ markets. Pick one seasonal vegetable and build a pizza around that. It’s doable — and today’s customers will appreciate it.”
That’s exactly what Zocca Cuisine di Italia at the Westin Riverwalk Hotel in San Antonio, Texas, does. It runs a pizza del giorno, changing it out to reflect both seasonality and creativity, says Jeff Foresman, executive chef at the hotel. The restaurant’s core list of pizzas features the always-popular Margherita pizza, as well as an Italian sausage pie and a wild-mushroom one. “We’re a Northern Italian restaurant, so we serve simple, rustic, flavorful food.” Pizzas here are hand-tossed and free-formed, which fits in well with its rustic, artisan sensibility.
Foresman has an interesting way of highlighting the specialness of seasonal vegetables on pizza. “We try to do something unique to the vegetable, so it stands out,” he says. So, for instance, on a summer-season pie that sports summer vegetables, such as zucchini and bell peppers from the farmers’ market, he’ll grill them, then cut them into chunks, say, rather than slices. “It gives them a different look and mouthfeel, and really highlights them on the pizza,” he says.
Or he’ll add character and menu interest in how he prepares the seasonal vegetable. In winter, a daily special pizza may feature escarole or kale braised in Barolo, a robust Italian red wine. He’ll use fontina to match the heartier greens. Or diners may see a root-vegetable pizza in the fall or winter at Zocca. Foresman thinly slices and caramelizes red and yellow beets, parsnips and sweet potatoes. He lays them over a very thin layer of housemade pomodoro sauce and then bakes the pizza. As a crispy finish, he adds fried spinach.
For more delicate vegetables, he highlights them as a finish on the seasonal-vegetable pizzas. In the spring, diners might see a pizza topped with roasted eggplant, caramelized garlic and Asiago cheese with a very light tomato sauce (diced tomatoes sweated with garlic and olive oil). He finishes the pizza with farmers’ market arugula tossed in extra-virgin olive oil. In the fall, a duck confit and local goat cheese pizza gets a finish of fresh figs. “Showcasing the best of what the season has to offer isn’t difficult,” says Foresman. “Pick a few simple, fresh ingredients and let those guide you.”
Katie Ayoub is a frequent contributor to Pizza Today. She lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
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