November 1, 2013

Respecting the Craft: Trending and Traditional Pizza Toppings Can Co-exist

Q: Are traditional toppings a thing of the past or do they still have a place in our kitchens?

A: In the 1980s and 90s, the typical ingredients found in a kitchen would be pepperoni, sausage, bell peppers, onions, mushrooms and black olives. These classic ingredients are still found in most kitchens across the country, but the industry as we know it has evolved past these “basic” toppings and now include more complex items.

Trends often change and with the wider usage of wood, coal, electric and gas ovens, the toppings we use have changed as well. There is still a place for these toppings as most people across the U.S. have grown up with these ingredients. But with the advent of the artisan movement within our industry, most people are now more aware of the vast array of produce, cheeses, and charcuterie, including dry cured chorizo, varying salami, and linguica, that are at their disposal. Even the pepperoni has changed with the times. Natural casing and artisan pepperoni have made a resurgence and change the way we think about one of the most well-known ingredients in the history of American pizza.

Taking into account different heat sources and how fast or slow they cook has also changed the way we think about what we put on our pizza. For instance, finishing lines have now become just as large, if not larger, than most make lines because new toppings are better put on fresh so as to retain their quality. For example, arugula, mache, escarole and chicory are best put on fresh because they dry out and turn very bitter and flavorless when cooked long and slow. Another popular bitter green, dandelion greens, can be sautéed first and then put on halfway so as to retain their nice flavor but not lose their water content. Other finishing ingredients that have become popular are hard and soft cheeses, including Piave, Asiago, goat cheese, Fromage Blanc and aged Parmigiano Reggiano. Other new ingredients on the scene include fresh herbs, like rosemary and thyme. Pickled items like onions, banana peppers, Peppadews, etc. have become a trend. With the resurgence of the wood-fired oven, proteins like quail eggs and fresh farm eggs are now popular. Another item, jalapeños, were once the top choice of chili pepper for those who wanted to add a little spice to their pizzas. But with the increasing knowledge and desire to incorporate flavors from other cultures, like Serrano chilies from Latin America and Calabrese peppers from Italy, jalapenos have become a thing of the past. The black olives that were once a staple and one of the few choices of olives have now been surpassed by Greek Kalamata olives, green Cerignola and Castelvetrano olives from Italy, Black cured olives from Sicily and other European olives. In keeping with finishing ingredients that have become popular, fried items such as kale, onions, brussel sprouts, squash blossoms and even calamari have become toppings of interest.

Traditional toppings as we know them will forever have a place in our kitchens. But as trends change and the industry itself evolves, so will the toppings we use. Trends tend to ebb and flow with time, but ingredients that have become part of our culture will forever hold a place in our culinary history.

RESPECTING THE CRAFT features World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignani, owner of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco and Pizza Rock in Sacramento.  Tony compiles the column with the help of his trusty assistants, Laura Meyer and Thiago Vasconcelos. If you have questions on any kitchen topic ranging from prep to finish, Tony’s your guy. Send questions via Twitter @PizzaToday, Facebook (search: Pizza Today) or e-mail and we’ll pass the best ones on to Tony.