Gourmet toppings for pizza? Where do I begin? I suppose I could start by recounting something I read recently about a pizzeria in New York City that is big on seasonal gourmet toppings such as Brussels sprout leaves, shaved porcini, black truffles and exotic cheeses. If that’s not gourmet, I don’t know what is. I can safely say, however, that those gourmet toppings, all of which are a lot over the top, are only for a select few to even remotely consider (availability, food costs and popularity notwithstanding). On the other hand, the idea of gourmet toppings should not be overlooked. You have to stay ahead of the round (as in pizza).
Here’s the short list of toppings –– tomatoes, cheeses and beyond –– that I feel fall into the “gourmet” category:
- Tomatoes: San Marzano, fresh plum, roasted plum, any type of heirloom tomato
- Cheeses: Tallegio, burrata, smoked mozzarella, scamorza, provola, ricotta salata, gorgonzola
- And Beyond: exotic mushrooms (oyster, hen-of-the-woods, porcini, shiitake); fancy greens (arugula, radicchio, mesculn, rapini, spinach); vegetables (artichokes, zucchini, eggplant, cherry peppers, giardiniera, celery root); meats (speck, prosciutto, salami, capocollo, pancetta).
That’s quite a list, but it is a short list. The possibilities go even further, but I think you get the idea. What about fresh mozzarella and mozzarella di bufala? And what about fresh basil? I fi gure those toppings have already made it into the mainstream; they are all still “gourmet” in a sense, but none of them necessarily catch the eye or command the higher price of true gourmet toppings.
A lot of newer pizzerias have set up a separate menu section and are designating it as “gourmet pizza,” and that’s a good thing. First of all, it separates the gourmet idea from the rest of the pizza offerings. Also, that idea appeals to the foodie of the party. And, of course, with the “gourmet” designation, you can charge a higher price. I also see this on menus: “Gourmet Pizza of the Day.” That idea requires a lot more planning, and it might not go over as well as you might think. That approach is a bit dicey, because you might end up with a bunch of toppings that might go to waste; however, if the idea of getting extra creative on a daily basis is appealing, then go for it. Now, where can you go with this gourmet topping idea? It really depends on the market you are in and the clientele you serve. In Chicago, where I live, there is no shortage of pizzas with gourmet toppings.
At Sapore di Napoli, for example, a pizza called “Arucola” has these toppings: mozzarella, arugula, cherry tomatoes and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. And you can add Prosciutto di Parma for a slight upcharge. That’s gourmet to the max. At Quartino restaurant in Chicago, a pizza called “Trevisella” is topped with prosciutto, radicchio and balsamic syrup. And the “Valtellinese” has beef breasaola, wild arugula and grana. Both of those go gourmet and then some. Common sense needs to prevail when considering how far you should take the gourmet topping idea. Let’s face it: you can pile almost anything on top of a pizza crust. But you don’t want to wind up with a bunch of exotic toppings with nowhere to go. I like to think that you can add two or three gourmet toppings to your mix and still come up with several gourmet pizzas.
When it comes to exotic, some still consider seafood pizzas to fall into that category. I’m not sure I do, but I will say that seafood is the trickiest of toppings to deal with. Making a clam pie is a no-brainer provided you used canned chopped clams instead of fresh. Shrimp is another topping that is easy to work with as well. The problems and concerns with seafood as a topping are cross-contamination, spoilage and costs. If you can get a handle on those concerns, then give it a try. In one of my pizza cookbooks, The Ultimate Pizza, I reached far and wide to come up with some creative toppings. I am not sure I would label them “gourmet,” but many of them do have mass appeal. I picked one to give you an idea of where you might want to go.
Eggplant Parmigiana Pizza
There are a few things that I like about this pizza: it only requires (possibly) that you need to add one ingredient –– eggplant–– to your inventory of toppings. Also, eggplant is available year-round and is relatively low in cost. I do this pizza in a rectangular pan to give it a different look. By going to that shape, you will cut the pizza into squares, which in turn allows for a by-the-slice option.
Give it a try using this test recipe:
one 12- by 15-inch pizza (scale up in direct proportion)
1 14-15 ounce dough ball
1 eggplant (about 1 pound), washed, sliced into rounds about 1/8-inch thick
1½ cups all-purpose ground tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
½ pound shredded mozzarella or 50/50 blend mozzarella and provolone
Spread the dough into a lightly oiled 12- by 15-inch pan. With your palm and fi ngers, press and stretch the dough to fi t the pan, pushing it snugly up against the sides. Set aside. Place the slices of eggplant on a baking sheet and brush with olive oil. Put the pan under the broiler or run it through the oven until the eggplant just starts to take on some color. Set aside.
In a mixing bowl, combine the tomatoes, garlic, oregano and olive oil. Add salt and pepper to taste. Spread the tomatoes evenly over the pizza crust. Arrange the eggplant slices over the tomatoes. Drizzle the olive oil over the eggplant. Sprinkle on the Parmesan, followed by the mozzarella. Bake the pizza until the crust is golden and the cheese is bubbly and begins to take on color. Slice into squares.
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 food critic for the Chicago Sun-Times.