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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Grazie mille!

Monday, October 4, 2010

Delivery Pizza -- The "Domino's" Have Fallen

It's a real shame to see a major pizza chain get so desperate for business that they give up their identity. But that's just what Domino's has done. Tired of battling Papa John's for dominance in the pizza delivery market, they just decided to throw in the towel and become Papa John's.

I've never much cared for Papa John's. In spite of “Better Ingredients, Better Pizza,” Papa John's has always been inferior in my estimation. Sorry, Papa, but “better ingredients” don't make “better pizzas” if they're not put together well.

Good pizza starts with good crust and Papa John's has never had good crust. Too thick to be thin and too thin to be thick, the consistency has always been a little tough and doughy. Papa John Schnatter tried to hide his mediocre crust under a layer of garlic flavoring, –  which I've never liked –  succeeding only in producing a garlicky mediocre crust. Top it with a too sweet sauce and you're two-thirds of the way to disaster. At least the cheese is good. But somebody apparently convinced Schnatter that sticking a few peppers in the corner of the box was a brilliant marketing idea or something. It wasn't. The steam from the hot pizza picks up the flavor of the peppers  and infuses it into the pizza itself, so you get a peppery taste, whether you want it or not. Personally, I don't. So I don't ever order Papa John's, and wouldn't, even if there was a store next door.

Domino's, on the other hand, has been a perennial favorite of mine. It's always been kind of a toss up between Domino's and Pizza Hut when it comes to delivery. Usually, Domino's wins the flip, because they have a much better delivery service. It's all they do, after all, so they naturally beat the more diverse Pizza Hut on delivery every time. So, unless I'm really craving something specific from Pizza Hut, Domino's gets the call. But not anymore.

Never mind having more than 8,000 successful stores worldwide. Forget about twice being named “Chain of the Year” by an industry magazine. In 2009, panicked executives in Ann Arbor reacted to a survey in which Domino's tied for last place with Chuck E. Cheeses in a taste test, and so they threw it all away. Tossed the baby with the bathwater. Sold the farm. Abandoned ship. Screwed the pooch. Augered in.

“Ooooh! People think we taste like Chuck E. Cheeses! We can't have that! Let's do something. Something different, something inspired. That's it! We'll call it our 'Inspired New Pizza!!' We'll screw up the crust with garlic and foul the sauce with sweetener, and instead of tasting like Chuck E. Cheeses, we'll taste just like Papa John's! That's inspired!!”

And if founder Tom Monaghan isn't spinning in his grave (because he's not dead), he must, at least, be stirring in his sauce. What a travesty. I've removed Domino's from my speed dial. And there is one almost next door.

So, I guess it's Pizza Hut, by default. Not that they're that much better than the competition. They're just not as bad. The least of several evils, as it were.

Now, there are a few Hungry Howie's outlets in my area. According to Wikipedia, Howie is the eleventh biggest dog in the pizza pack. And they're pretty good, actually. Their schtick is flavored crust, but, unlike Papa John's -- and now Domino's, -- Hungry Howie's at least gives you the choice of whether or not you want garlic in your crust. Points for Howie. They do deliver, but there are some restrictions in my area and there's a store near enough that I usually opt for carry-out.

Little Caesars, another pizza powerhouse, ranked fourth in sales by USA Today, is well represented around here, but they are strictly a carry-out operation. I used to like the “two for the price of one” deal implied by their “Pizza! Pizza!” slogan, but their current focus on “Hot-N-Ready” is okay, too. Except that there isn't a location convenient enough to me for the pizza to remain hot when I'm ready to go get it.

“Hi! Welcome to CiCi's!” The employees screech it every time the front door opens. I half expect to hear it when I emerge from the men's room. It even bleats from your computer's speakers when you access their website! That annoyance aside, the all-you-can-eat-for-next-to-nothing pizza chain is a great place to go if you're feeding a small (or a large) army. They're not going to win any taste tests – at the price's they charge, you expect real ingredients? – but they put out an adequate product for the price. In addition to their original buffet, CiCi's offers a carry-out menu, but, again, no delivery. I'm curious about one thing: in Italian, it would be pronounced “chee-chee's” rather than “see-see's,” but I suppose that's irrelevant.

Papa Murphy's is kicking pepperoni and taking names these days. According to Zagat, it's the fifth ranking pizza chain in the country and the leader in the emerging “take-and-bake” sector of the pizza industry. Like many of my thoughts and opinions, the pizzas from Papa Murphy's are about half-baked when you pick them up and you finish them off in the oven at home so they are nice and fresh. Don't have one close by, but there are a couple in a city not far from here, so I may give them a try someday, but they most definitely don't deliver – even if they weren't fifty miles away.

I used to love Pizza Inn. If there were a hundred Pizza Huts in my town and only one Pizza Inn, I'd go straight to Pizza Inn every time. Nobody did thin crust pizza better than Pizza Inn. But try finding one these days. They used to be thick as bugs on a bumper. Twenty years ago, there were three Pizza Inns just in my city. Now there are five in the entire state. Kind of like “the A-Team;” if you have a craving for pizza....if nothing else can satisfy you....and if you can find one....maybe you can eat at Pizza Inn.

So, it's back to the old standby. The place America – and the world – has gone for pizza since a couple of brothers in Wichita first opened their doors in 1958. Pizza Hut. (Sidebar: Do you know why it's called “Hut” – a decidedly un-Italian sounding name? Nine spaces on the sign at the original location. P-I-Z-Z-A (space) ?-?-? Well, it looked kinda like a hut, s-o-o-o......)

I'm a pizza purist, and there isn't anything at Pizza Hut that remotely resembles real Italian pizza. That said, if you're willing to accept America's dumbed-down idea of real Italian pizza, Pizza Hut is the place. (If you're not, we can talk about a hundred or so non-chain places I know about, but that's another article.) They have something for everyone; thin crust, hand-tossed, thick crust, stuffed crust, meat-lover's, cheese lover's, calzone, pasta, wings, breadsticks, desserts – something for every palate, no matter how dull. You can dine in, you can carry out, and, of course, they deliver. Most nights around here the wait time is in excess of an hour. Two hours on weekends. Gamedays during football season? Grow your own wheat and tomatoes and make your own cheese. It'll be faster. But they're the number one pizza chain on the planet, with 10,000 locations worldwide. (Funny thing; none of them are in Italy. McDonald's? Yes. KFC? You betcha! Burger King? Oh, yeah. Lots. Pizza Hut? Nope. Not a single one. Wonder why that is?)

As far as Domino's “Inspired New Pizza” is concerned? Shut the door, it's not Domino's anymore.

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