Looking to upgrade your menu in a meaningful way? Look no further.
I think that every independent restaurateur is an artisan. Some of us stick to artistic traditionalism, while others veer off into new combinations, tastes and methods. While true food artisanship lies in the eyes of the beholder, balancing the realities of restaurant ownership while staying ahead of the culinary curve is where the real artists live. Any good chef can make artisan food, but the techniques to offer artisan ingredients while still holding on to the reigns of mounting food and labor costs is a study in both tenacity and foresight.
The good news of rising food costs is that the cost gap between the previous unattainable artisan toppings is no longer as wide as before. Artisan toppings’ availability coupled with the general public’s newfound knowledge of cuisine can make these toppings a game changer.
The best leverage over the large corporate pizza chains is to drive sales with artistry, innovation and speed. Introducing artisan ingredients fast with calculating boldness can make you a leader of the culinary curve in your town! We’re not talking tater tots here but real-world ingredients that are served at some of the best restaurants in the world.
Here are a few new topping suggestions (I have used all of these in my menu mix with surprisingly good results.):
Artisan Meats and Proteins
- Soppressata instead of pepperoni. This cured sausage comes in logs of either sweet or “picante” spicy. At 41 cents, thin slices offer-up a sexy, fatty melt as a finishing item for pizza or with sandwiches paired with shaved Parmesan and arugula.
- Fresh chorizo instead of sausage. Nothing beats the melting puddles of crimson paprika-fat that chorizo offers on any pizza. The Mexican is spicier and more aggressive and the Spanish style has more mild finesse.
- Ribs are the new wings. Baby back ribs are only 17 cents an ounce raw, (that’s 05 cents cheaper than wings!) and three ribs are 10 to 12 ounces of delicious, fatty meat handles — perfect for an appetizer slathered with barbecue and served with rolls or stuck in a crazy popular stromboli for a real shocking sales driver.
- Pork belly is the new bacon. A whole skin-on belly squeals in at .14 cents an ounce compared to 35 to 40 cents an ounce for precooked bacon crumbles. Skin it and cure overnight with salt, sugar rub, fennel and cumin seed and cook at 475 F for 30 minutes then at 300 F for another hour for a firm-cooked belly. Or cook less to slice thin and melt on a pie with barbecue, balsamic, teriyaki or even kimchi, cashew and finished with sprouts. I sell a lot of long “Schiacciata” with fresh spinach, blackberries, maple syrup and aged provolone.
- Serrano ham instead of Prosciutto di Parma. Now that Spanish charcuterie is allowed into the U.S., these luscious meats are in high demand. At 37 cents an ounce, this mountain-cured ham, sliced thin, has the same wonderful salty melt on any pie.
- Boquorones instead of salted anchovies. Also called alici marinati (from Southern Italy) or white anchovies, these have the beautiful silver skin still on them and taste more like pickled herring than the all-too-salty pizza anchovy. They are a real visual shocker on a pie as a finishing touch to garlic, tomato, onions, spice and capers.
Manchego instead of Cheddar. Spanish Manchego is 40 cents an ounce. This is expensive compared to white cheddar at 25 cents an ounce. But when I introduced a Spanish Coca (long Spanish pizza) to my customers, I’ve been able to add cheaper toppings that still have a Spanish flavor profile like potato, onion and spinach to chorizo and anchovy.
- Gruyere is the new Swiss. This is the cheese of fondue and is perfect with the crispy wheat crust of any pie. This bold cheese is great with onions, potato, salami, country ham, speck, artichoke and roasted garlic.
- Try chévre instead of ricotta.By whipping this creamy goat cheese with your favorite herb, spice or flavor, it can transform a pizza from boring to a creamy heaven in no time.
- Vegan mozzarella instead of mozzarella. Vegans spend money, too. So why only offer them tomato sauce in your wood-fired or high-heat pizza place? I have a great recipe for a vegan mozzarella with a melting profile to accommodate both vegans and high heat ovens.
- English Stilton is the new blue. Stilton is $7.63 a pound and packs that special creamy funk. I use it all the time with apples, Asian pears and walnuts.
- Brie. In my experience, nothing sells better than the word “brie”. That’s all I have to say. Small slices on a hot pizza melt perfectly or on a sandwich. Do not put brie on a pizza in the oven; it will disappear.
Artisan Spices and Vegetables
- Ghost chili honey. Customers love sweet and spice on pizza. The hottest of hot peppers can bring excitement to every hot fanatic. You must warn people in writing before they use.
- Gochujang is the new wing sauce. Gochujang is a Korean fermented pepper paste and is all the rage now. At 22 cents an ounce, it isn’t overwhelmingly spicy and chars very easily because of its sugar content, so diluting is recommended. Chicken is a wonder tossed with this sauce. Aged provolone, fontina, Gruyére, scallion, ham, bacon, steak, green peppers, ranch and teriyaki rock with this.
- Marinated artichoke instead of banana pepper. This typically expensive item in stores is only 17 cents an ounce when you buy quartered artichokes in #10 cans. Cut thinly with a little marinade using dried herbs, garlic powder, onion powder, lemon, salt, sugar and extra virgin. It sparkles, making customers want it more and more.
- Saffron onions instead of caramelized onions. Yes! Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world (I would always see my executive chefs locking saffron up in a safe) at $43.50 an ounce. Using only 1/8th of an ounce with onion, olive oil and water, you can blast a cheap saffron bombshell across any pizza creating a yellow brick road of flavor back to Kansas, Spain!
- Smoked tomato instead of marinara. I take my canned pear tomatoes and cold-smoke them in my smoker with Applewood chips for a tomato “confit” with extra-virgin olive oil. This is a great treat on any pizza with aged mozzarella, beef, roasted red peppers, Gorgonzola, Asiago or any spicy topping like jalapeño, chipotle or even with Serrano cured ham.
- Pine nuts instead of walnuts. At $1.12 an ounce, these are expensive — but the flavor profile of these toasted little orbs of wonder can send shock waves of pleasure, especially when paired with maple syrup or sugared for a crunchy brittle.
- Mandarin orange instead of pineapple. These are only $3.57 for a #10 can, that’s only 7 cents an ounce (the same as pineapple). I use them with every Asian pizza on my menu and they are very tasty with ham, provolone, pine nuts, feta and cream sauces as well as teriyaki, chicken and barbecue sauce.
- Persimmon jam instead of fig jam. Persimmons grow everywhere and their bright orange color stays strong even after freezing. In the fall, I just get a few quarts, take the seeds out while smashing the pulp, add water and stir into a wonderful jam. This enhances the “agra dolce” effect of any pizza when using Gorgonzola, Stilton, aged hard cheeses and is outstanding with nuts, arugula, prosciutto and tahini.
- Dried porcini mushrooms: Dried porcini’s can be obtained for $2 to $2.25 an ounce. I pour very hot water to just cover dried porcinis in a small lexan to rehydrate the mushroom. This liquid is pure umami/mushroom flavor and heightens the flavor and color of button mushrooms for a wild mushroom experience without the expense. By using a spice grinder and only ½ an ounce of this dust infused with soft cheeses, Parmesan and white truffle oil, it makes a magnificent finishing pudding and crumble.
Ghost Chili Honey
Using gloves, cut a ghost chili at the top. Remove the stem with scissors, then cut into six strips downward. Place three cups of honey into a small sauté pan and turn the burner on the lowest setting. Place the chili strips into the honey and heat to 120 F, checking frequently and stirring with a small spoon. Immediately turn off the heat and let set stirring again. Place the strips into a container with the honey to macerate. The heat will build over the next week as the oils leave the strips. (Note: Do not lean over the sink when washing equipment that has touched hot chilies. The steam will make you feel like dying.)
This is a fantastic finish to pizza because chévre stands up well to heat, just melting enough to fall in love with. Once you get the perfect flavor profile between herb, cheese and cooked pie, you are guaranteed a home run.
Cured Short Rib Stromboli
John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio and has a pizza blog called Pizza Goon. He is an award-winning pizzaiolo, baker, teacher, speaker and author.