March 1, 2018 |

Makeshift Makeline

By John Gutekanst

Many folks want to upgrade the perennial ‘fab five’ toppings

Some of the most popular toppings of all time are pepperoni, sausage, green peppers, mushrooms and olives. These top toppings top any sales list in most pizzerias and make a colorful and delicious pizza when they are all on board. But what if you’re “supremely” surprised to be out of a certain topping on a busy Friday night? We’ve all been there. Your purveyor mis-ships or just doesn’t deliver one of these important toppings, or you forgot to order enough. Are there any good alternatives to offer your customers? There are toppings that could help in an emergency or to expand your menu-mix to mimic the popularity of the top five. Here are some tremendous ideas for tapping into the top flavor and toothsome textural profiles of these top five toppings.

Let’s face it: some substitutes cost more than the topping you are replacing. But when you are in an emergency situation, all that matters are your customers’ satisfaction and tackling that sale like a linebacker!

Pepperoni. This topping is a winner both with its flavor and weight. Those thin slices pressed with paprika, garlic, onion, herbs and spice leach out enormous amounts of satisfying fat, which coats the mouth with bold flavor. Alternatives to pepperoni like thin-sliced Genoa salami, soppressata and the hard-to-find cured and aged Spanish chorizo sausage are good. These aren’t traditionally baked on a pizza like pepperoni because they tend to burn or turn dry. Some intrepid pizzaioli are now placing moist salumi like ‘nduja, capocollo, Finocchiona and mortadella under cheeses and other ingredients to flavorful effect.

mushroom varietiesMushrooms. Some mushroom pizza fanatics cannot pinpoint why they love these small umami bombs so much, but between the deep back-of-the-throat flavor and the meaty texture, there is plenty to love. Alternatives to the typical white button mushroom are shiitake, cremini (baby bella), oyster and Portobello. The smaller mushrooms like shiitake can be found in Asian markets dried for much less than the fresh ones sold by weight (they always add the inedible stem). My favorite is a combination I call “the stretch.” I roast Portobellos and button mushrooms with ¼ cup of rehydrated and chopped porcini and their great juice. This triad of mushroom flavor is intense and perfect with cream sauces, garlic, fontina, Parmigiano, rosemary, lemon, shallot and fresh mozzarella.

Sausage. If pepperoni is the king of pizza toppings, this has gotta be the queen. Sausage is perfect in every way; meaty texture, melting fat combined with the inescapable flavor of fennel (you must have fennel to call it Italian sausage), garlic, salt, oregano, basil and peppers of differing spice levels. Alternatives to sausage include the widely popular pork belly, shoulder and even pulled pork flavored with sausage spices. I love to make ground pork meatballs to populate a pizza with fennel, basil, roasted garlic, breadcrumbs and Calabrian chilies for a nice kick. There are other protein sausages like the spicy North African Merguez lamb sausage and the Polish kielbasa. The Nuremberger pork sausage from Germany or the spicy Hungarian csabai kolbaszok, which is a flavor bomb, are great as well, but fairly hard to find.

Olives. Olives are like anchovies: people either love them or hate them. It could be the texture or the fact that these folks were never introduced to real, cured olives instead of the insipidly bland black olives or the super-salty green cocktail olives with fake gelatin instead of real pimento. I love to use the mega flavor from Moroccan oil-cured olives in bread with rosemary and garlic or the bright and colorful Castelvetrano olives from Sicily. A great alternative on pizza is an olive tapenade, which contains chopped green and black olives, roasted garlic and anchovies. The biggest problem today for pizza people is the availability of pitted olives. Some purveyors are now offering pitted and sliced Kalamatas, and those are a big hit for me.

Green peppers. When I first opened my pizzeria in 2000, a lot of older folks referred to these as “mangos” and this tripped up many an order taker. I found later that because pizzerias never got fresh green peppers, they’d cut them and let them sit in the make line to get all gooey –– just like a mango. (Please excuse me while I roll my eyes in disgust.) These days, many peppers are available year-round. I love the wondrous attributes of the thin-walled shishito peppers for their mildness, edible seeds and depth of flavor when just grilled or sautéed in extra hot olive oil with sea salt. The poblano is my go-to stuffer because of the mildness (and occasional heat), but it’s also a great slicing pepper alternative. Some people make the mistake of calling it an ancho, which is a dried poblano. I’ve recently come to love Pimento, Corno di toro, sweet Italian reds, cubanelle, lipstick and cherry bombs that are not as hot as their name.

Country Rib “Pseudo Sausage”

This delicate and fatty cut is usually from the blade-end of the loin or from the shoulder itself. Usually the bone is removed and they are cut into a rib-style shape. The term “country ribs” is used because they can taste like ribs because of the fatty flesh. I make this chunky pork because it is fast, economical and a great alternative to super-ground commercial sausage. These tender chunks have fat, meat, sausage-flavor-herbs and soul, baby!

Get the Country Rib “Pseudo Sausage” recipe.


John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio.