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Pie in  the Sky

Pie in the Sky

Pizza toppings don't have to end with cheese and pepperoni — even if prices spike.

There's no question: Americans love pizza. Each year, we each eat approximately 46 slices from nearly 70,000 pizzerias across the country, which collectively sell about $35 billion in pizza or about three billion pies, according to the National Association of Pizzeria Operators (NAPO). That's a lot of cheddar, er, mozzarella. With so many people eating pizza, how do you keep things interesting? Yes, cheese, pepperoni and sausage are the most common toppings. But why stop there? Especially when the price of cheese continues to rise, it’s more important than ever for large and small operators to experiment with toppings. After all, the more exotic the pie, the more leeway you have on charging a premium price.

Pizza chefs have experimented with different toppings for decades and some work better than others. No really, grilled octopus is not the next hot pizza trend — at least not yet. But you can take risks in the kitchen that may pay off, quite literally, too. Parlor Pizza, a relative newcomer to the Chicago pizza scene, offers a large selection of pizzas and a couple on their brunch menu — Eggs Benedict ($12) and the Salmon Cream Cheese ($14) pizzas — might make you scratch your head. But don't scratch too hard.

"The eggs Benedict … that one was kind of scary," said Colin Beauvais, executive sous chef of Parlor's wood fire division. "It was either going to be a raving success or a total failure, but it worked." Beauvais said they've also experimented with a mac and cheese pizza and even a duck prosciutto with blueberry sauce, but because the wood-fired oven temps hover around 800 degrees, the mac and cheese would get goopy and not stay on the crust and the sugar in the blueberry sauce "just burned black as night," he said. "Fine tuning comes along with seeing what does and doesn't work."

While more pizza joints experiment with different ingredients, one place many won't compromise on is cheese. Having the right cheese, whether that's mozzarella, parmesan or even creamy burrata, can make or break a pizza. "As a pizza restaurant, cheese is our main commodity from an ingredient perspective, so that will always be present on our menu," said Adam Cummins, president, Chicago and South Florida Blaze Pizza franchisee, which owns eight locations of the L.A.-based Blaze Fast-Fire'd Pizza chain.

As a commodity, sometimes cheese prices rise steadily, but as an operator, it’s critical to do your research to understand what cheese works best for your pies. "Blaze is uncompromising when it comes to quality so searching for a 'less expensive' cheese isn't an option," Cummins said. To get around rising costs, however, both Blaze and Parlor agree having a good relationship with vendors and farmers can help keep prices steady.

"A strong relationship with our suppliers enables us to look at creative ways to maintain quality, but manage costs when the opportunity rises," Cummins said.

Beauvais uses Italian-imported buffalo mozzarella on a couple of pizzas and would never want to compromise. But if prices soared to a point that made it unfeasible to buy, he said they could make an easy, short-term switch. "We might just use regular mozzarella instead of the buffalo," he said. "It's not inferior. It's just different."

When it comes to rising prices on your prime ingredients, get your creative juices flowing, experiment and never comprise on quality.

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