Most everyone has an opinion on the perfect pizza slice and where precisely to find said triangular nirvana. In truth, the growing popularity of pizza has expanded the "where" factor exponentially as pizza has become a menu staple at many restaurants that aren't even pizza specialists. Its presence on food menus is fairly universal and consistent year after year, according to market research publisher Packaged Facts in the report Pizza Market in the U.S.: Foodservice and Retail, 2nd Edition. And while traditional pizza toppings, sauces, and cheese remain the most menued, trends suggest that operators are pushing the boundaries in attempt to challenge popular conceptions of pizza.
Indeed, the sky is the limit and innovation abounds. Menu developers are exploring ways to balance health versus indulgence, and convenience versus experience in terms of pizza types and procurement methods. Such changes come on the heels of increasing consumer demand for customization (in order to appeal to lifestyle and health needs) as well as shifts in perceptions of convenience.
According to Pizza Market in the U.S.: Foodservice and Retail, 2nd Edition, there are four key ingredient segments where menu developers are innovating with pizza: proteins, cheeses, vegetables, and sauces.
Sausage and pepperoni are the most popular pizza proteins across all restaurant segments, with representation on 73% of restaurant menus, respectively. Chicken and bacon are also widely available, with combination "meat" also represented on more than half of restaurant menus.
While little change is evident in pizza protein toppings, the bacon trend is giving this protein more play as a featured pizza topping, especially at midscale and casual operators.
The incidence of prosciutto as a pizza topping has increased 27% increase since 2010. Although pizza is less likely to be featured on fine dining menus, these operators are usually trend forward in ingredients and prosciutto represents a more refined alternative to bacon. This ingredient provides premium context, and as such, is found on fine dining restaurant menus.
Cheese is arguably the quintessential pizza topping, yet it often goes undefined on restaurant menus, with 88% simply citing "cheese." Mozzarella is the most common type of cheese utilized (71% penetration), with ricotta and parmesan following distantly with 35% and 32% usage respectively. Trends suggest growth in more unique cheese types as a pizza topping. Goat, gorgonzola, and fontina are represented more often on restaurant menus in recent years.
Utilizing more interesting cheeses is one way to denote premium positioning as well as to help differentiate menu items from traditional pizza variants.
With consumers more mindful of their nutrition, restaurants would be remiss to not capitalize on opportunities to innovate the selection of vegetables featured on their pies. Onion, tomato, mushroom, and peppers are the most prevalent veggie/other proteins across all restaurant segments, with representation on at least 73% of restaurant menus. Growth in usage of basil as a pizza ingredient is evident with a 20% increase since 2010. Similarly other herbs, cilantro and oregano are getting more play. These ingredients have strong alignment with authentic Italian flavors and communicate "fresh." As part of the fresh proposition and to create unique flavor profiles, operators are using herbs to create pesto-based pizzas.
Sauce is the base of most pizzas, and as noted in cheese pizza toppings, trends show that operators are looking to differentiate pizza by utilizing more unique sauce types. Pizza sauce often goes unspecified with 72% of all pizza menu items mentioning "sauce," yet tomato sauce, marinara, and red sauce are variants of traditional pizza sauce. Ranch, white sauce, and Alfredo are the counter to the traditional—both in flavor and appearance. Examples include Domino's Cali Chicken Bacon Ranch; CiCi's Pizza Spinach Alfredo Pizza; and Mellow Mushroom's Gourmet White Specialty Pizza features an olive oil and garlic base.