There is pizza, and then there is pizza. There is the real stuff, savored at a little tavernetta overlooking the Bay of Naples. (The tavernetta is called Esco Pazzo; when you go there, tell Ennio that Cynthia says hello.) There is regional American pizzeria pizza, each having its own champions. (My husband swears undying loyalty to Lou Malnati's; I am an ardent admirer of Shakespeare's.) And then there is the pizza you scarf down on a Wednesday evening when you are too tired to cook and too frazzled to remember what Chinese place has the fewest health department violations this week.
That pizza—the It's-Wednesday-and-I-Refuse-To-Cook-Pizza—will probably come from your grocer's freezer or from a franchise. Every second, Americans eat 350 slices of pizza. That's 23 pounds per person, per year. At home, the pie is split almost 50-50, with frozen pizzas having a slight edge over delivery. And that raises a question: Do all of these pizzas suck, or just the ones I bring home from the store?
To answer that, I first tried to convince Slatethat a pizza refresher course (in Naples, naturally) was an absolute necessity. When that failed, I convened a tasting panel. This select group was chosen for their discriminating palates, their rapier wit, and their willingness to bring beer. One participant offered to make a green salad. We wound up with four girls, three guys, and seven pies.
When it comes to pizza, convenience counts as much as anything. Assuming it's already in your freezer, frozen is marginally quicker and much cheaper. It does require some effort: You have to preheat the oven, open the freezer, tear open the box, and finally, cut the pizza. Oh, the humanity. Bonus: From heat to eat, the entire process can be performed in the nude. (Watch out for those cheese burns!)
Delivery requires a phone call, putting on a robe, a 15- to 45-minute wait, and a brief interaction with the local musician who brings your pie (not to mention a little tip math). The non-cooks insisted that this was less trouble than the frozen; the cooks disagreed. We called it a draw and decided to make the rankings solely on quality.
To keep things as fair as possible, we ordered medium-sized, "hand-tossed" delivery pizzas, roughly the same size as most frozen ones. All pizzas were sausage—not my first choice but readily available from all brands. We removed identifying packaging from the respective pizzas. The tasting panel was given a score card with room for comments. They were asked to rank their favorites from one (gourmet) to seven (garbage) and to guess if the pizza was fresh or frozen. Beverages were served. The green salad was not.
Here, in reverse order of preference, are the contestants, with commentary.
Average Rank: 6.29
Comments: "The cardboard-like crust is by far the best part of this nasty excuse for a food product." "Crust is ... like toast. Cheese seems a little greasy." "Has a lot of cheese and sausage, but neither tastes very good." "Looks frozen but doesn't have 'frozen' taste. Oops, that's because it's flavorless." (After finding out what the brand was: "No wonder. Dead on delivery.")
Average Rank: 5.86
Comments: "Is this like a wine tasting? Can I spit this out?" "Don't make me eat it." "This is 2 a.m. pizza—when you'll eat anything." "Nice crust." "Can we go to Shakespeare's now?" "Icky, leathery crust." "Sausage had fennel ... which I mistook for a good sign. The crust hurts my teeth." "Is this sausage from an animal?" "It's not delivery; it's disgusting!"
Average Rank: 4.14
Comments: "Bland. I dislike thick crust anyway." "Lots of sauce, good crust ... mushy sausage." "The sauce ended too soon, but I liked the cheese hanging over the crust." "Good crust for frozen" (all testers were able to guess which the frozen ones were); "sauce tangy and sweet." "Bland sauce." "Sausage has a good spice balance." "Chewy crust, tasty sauce, decent cheese. But really bland and mushy sausage."
Average Rank: 3.57
Comments: "Lots of sausage and a fun, chewy crust." "Mushy, bland, yet gristly sausage. Lots o' sauce." "Doughy crust." "If I wanted cheesebread, I would have ordered cheesebread. Way too much crust; not enough toppings." "Kinda nasty." "Crust has a nice crispness. This is a good date pizza ... gives you something to talk about when the conversation lags." "Lots of sauce, but it's not all that tasty. Sausage is dull and flavorless."
Average Rank: 3.07
Price: $8.42 plus $2 tip
Comments: "Fennel seed! The crust is mediocre, but the sauce is nice and tangy." "Does this have a flavor? If so, what is it?" "Enough cheese, not enough sauce." "Is this Pizza Hut? Sloppily assembled, as usual." "Mmmm, whole fennel seeds ... but the crust is bad." "Spicy sausage, yay! Good cheese and tasty sauce. But the crust is airy."
Pizza Hut (delivery)
Average Rank: 2.79
Price: $14.14 plus $2 tip
Comments: "Toppings and cheese all the way out to the edge." (This from our neat-freak non-cook.) "Nice spicy sausage." "Sauce is bland. Sausage has no flavor." "OK crust, but flavorless otherwise." "Bad crust; sausage has an interesting kick." "Good crispy crust ... cheese tastes like plastic." "Great cheese, gross sausage."
Papa John's (delivery)
Average Rank: 2.29
Price: $11.84 plus $2 tip
Comments: "Pretty good." "Lots of cheese, but needs more sauce to compensate." "Is this breakfast sausage? It ain't Italian." "This is yummy. I'm sorry I got full on the other crap." "Mushy crust." "Good yeasty crust, but salty."
Some of the harshest reviews came from frequent pizza consumers. Papa John's was (on average) the favorite, although only two participants gave it a No. 1 ranking. The greatest vitriol was heaped on the Totino's, which came in slightly ahead of the Tombstone in the final rankings. It was dubbed the "kitty litter pizza" for its gray flecks of scattered sausage. One taster started singing the "one of these things just doesn't belong" song from Sesame Street.
The truth is, we didn't like any of them very much, so the answer to my original question is "yes," all frozen pizzas do suck. "None of these are 'gourmet,' " grumbled one taster. "We're choosing between levels of garbage here." (This from a guy so deep into the frozen pizza world that he was able to correctly identify every pizza's origin on sight.) The delivery pizzas were the clear winners: Every delivery pizza ranked higher than any of the frozen ones, and every participant correctly guessed which pizzas were frozen and which were delivery.
So how to protect ourselves from sucky pizza syndrome? Supporting local pizzerias is a good start. And when you're boondocks-ridden at 2 a.m.? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of Alka-Seltzer. Stash a Boboli and some jarred sauce in the pantry, a baggie of shredded mozzarella and parmesan in the freezer. Be strong. Back away from the Tombstone. Don't dial for Domino's. And whatever you do ... keep away from the kitty litter pizza.