2010 October: Top of the Line

2010 October: Top of the LineToppings are to pizzas as clothes are to people, completing a profile and adding personality. And although the standard list of toppings—sausage, pepperoni, mushroom, green pepper, etc.,—has a solid fan base, today’s diner may expect a wider selection. But how many toppings are too many? How do operators control food costs while still offering a toppings menu that adds distinction and a delicious sense of place?

“I know restaurants that haven’t changed their menus in 35 years, but their customer base has changed,” says Dave Ostrander, restaurant consultant and Pizza Today’s own “pizza doctor” and frequent contributor. “Operators have to monitor their menus. There’s no such thing as too many pizza toppings — as long as they’re moving through the system and staying fresh.” Ostrander, who has penned numerous industry books, including Your Secret to a Successful Restaurant, recommends applying his four Rs when menu engineering a toppings list: rename, reposition, re-price or remove. “Read your POS reports,” he advises. “Which are the most popular? Which ones move through different parts of your menu? Get rid of the dogs and add new and exciting toppings.”

Tony Gemignani agrees. “Test your new topping on a pizza and run it as a special,” says this owner of the100-seat Tony’s Pizza Napoletana and of Tony Gemignani’s International School of Pizza, both in San Francisco. “Get feedback from your customers. If it looks like it’s moving and has support behind it, add it to the menu.”

His customer base seems to enjoy the more eclectic side of things, and Gemignani keeps them intrigued with pizzas such as his Lamb & Eucalyptus and his Salsiccia con Treviso. The latter sees rack of lamb glazed with eucalyptus syrup, cooked rare on a fl at top, shredded and cooled, along with fresh mozzarella. The thin crust pizza is finished with feta cheese, fresh marjoram and a bit more of the eucalyptus syrup. For the Salsiccia, he features housemade honey Calabrese sausage, mozzarella, treviso (an Italian radicchio), roasted garlic, caramelized onion and crema di Parmigiano.

Sitting on the cutting edge of the pizza world, this nine-time world pizza champion shares his insight into toppings operators should consider when expanding their repertoire. “They need to fit within an operation’s scope, but what I’m seeing is exotic mushrooms, like shiitake, lobster and crimini,” says Gemignani. “I’m also seeing piquante peppers gaining traction.” He also calls out mortadella and sopressata as two cured meats that can expand meat offerings beyond ground beef, sausage and pepperoni. “Another big trend is finishes,” he says. “Your finishing line should be as big, if not bigger, than your main line, with ingredients like fresh herbs, shaved Parm and fresh greens.”

At 20-seat Cavaleri Pizza in New York, the Chicken-Guacamole Pizza is popular with the more-adventurous clientele. The pizza features tomato, cheddar and grilled chicken seasoned with cumin and cayenne. After baking until crisp and bubbly, the pizza is finished with greens topped with prepared guacamole. “It rounds out our Southwestern offerings really nicely,” says John Cavaleri, owner and chief pizza maker. “We’ve got two kinds of customers, as do most pizzerias. We have those that want the familiar and those whoseek more daring toppings. It’s very popular among the more daring.” For cross utilization, the guacamole is also featured in a few sandwich offerings. He charges $14.20 for a 12-inch pizza, and runs a 30 percent food cost.

Another popular pie is the Tater Pizza, which does away with tomato sauce altogether. Cavaleri starts by spreading creamy mashed potatoes onto the dough, then topping that with a cheddar/mozzarella blend. “By putting the cheese on top of the mashed potatoes, we keep them moist,” he says. “If you don’t do that, the potatoes will dry out in the oven.” He finishes the pizza with crisp bacon and fresh chives. A 12-inch Tater Pizza is menued at $12.45, and runs a 30 percent food cost.

For cross utilization, both Ostrander and Gemignani reiterate the sound business practice of ensuring a fresh topping serves more than one dish on the menu. “Make sure it can play as both a topping, but also as an ingredient in a calzone or a salad, or maybe a specialty pizza or pasta,” says Ostrander. “You increase its contribution margin when you do that.” ?

Katie Ayoub is a frequent contributor to Pizza Today. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.