I fell in love with pizza during my college years.
Yes, I realize at first glance that this seems hardly a startling revelation. But my story digs deeper than late-night calls to Papa John’s.
Let me start at the beginning. I grew up in a home where my mother, a fantastic cook and baker, would start thinking about what to serve for dinner around mid-morning every day (if not earlier…). We ate well. Home-cooked meals, fresh-baked bread, scratch desserts most days of the week. I grew to accept this as the norm.
So imagine my horror when I was confronted with the meal options in my dorm dining hall upon arrival at Purdue University my freshman year. (Granted, this was many years back, in the dark days of university foodservice—mystery meat, brown sauce, and nebulous starch options one, two and three… Thankfully, today’s fare is much more enlightened…) So, I quickly found my favorite restaurant in town and hired on as a part-time line cook so I could eat well through my college years.
It was an Italian restaurant, first-generation Sicilian owners, and an entirely scratch kitchen—and it’s where the seed of culinary passion, lovingly planted and nurtured through the years by my wonderful mother, came to bloom. Through my years, tending the stoves, manning the ovens, I came to develop a deeply rooted, lifelong appreciation of food.
I also made A LOT of pizzas. This was a college town, after all. While Friday and Saturday nights we served many a delightful pasta dish to the packed the dining room, our deck ovens hummed throughout the week cranking out pizza after pizza destined for campus.
We crafted pies with countless permutations of ingredients. I learned of a new affinity for the seemingly audacious (but truly sublime) combination of anchovies and hot peppers from one of the restaurant’s owner (and my pizza mentor). Another favorite featured bacon, tomatoes, onions and a few fresh eggs cracked on top to help fuel morning prep shifts.
I grew to understand that pizza is perhaps the perfect food, touching potentially every food group depending on the pizzaiolo’s whim.
Today’s pizza market is quite possibly approaching its renaissance—a rebirth made possible through significant advancements in artisan dough craft, ingenious automation, oven advancements and a cross-cultural pivot of influence between foodservice and retail that is raising the quality bar in step with consumer expectations.
A great example of success at retail today is what we’ve been seeing at Palermo Villa, a highly diversified frozen pizza manufacturer that I just visited at their home base in Milwaukee, WI. Their premium and super-premium pizzas, like the Screamin’ Sicilian line, are performing well above the category average, finding strong resonance with folks looking for something new—and truly high-quality—in the freezer case. See this month’s Market Trends article covering the pizza category for more details—and watch for my Cover Story on Palermo’s running in our December issue.
Foodservice is the primary inspiration for all retail pizza product development, and we assembled a panel to provide some valuable input on prevailing pizza industry and dough/crust trends. An excerpt of that discussion is also part of this month’s Market Trends feature, and the full version is available on the website.
Pizza will always have a special spot in my professional food-industry pursuits, which conveniently—and deliciously—cross over into my personal life on a very regular basis. Living in the best of both worlds can be a truly wonderful thing.