Saturday, January 16, 2010

Dining: Today's Frozen Pizza

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I still vaguely remember the first time I had a frozen pizza when I was a kid. I don't remember the circumstances, and I don't remember the brand (though I suspect it was Totino's), but I do remember the taste and texture. Considering that the restaurant pizza I was used to at the time was Pizza and Pipes or Pizza Haven (Shakey's would have been premium to me then), I can't imagine how bad I would consider it today, as even then I thought it was awful. The crust was bland and a little tough, the sauce was borderline sour tasting, the cheese had a texture as if it had been beaten with a meat tenderizer, and the pepperoni topping was made up of eighth-inch cubical squares instead of slices. The concoction made Spaghetti-O's seem gourmet by comparison.

In the intervening decades, much has changed in frozen food. Food engineers didn't stop with the original frozen pizzas; they have worked to improve and surpass the best on the market. After sampling some still very sketchy frozen pizzas when I was a graduate student, I went years without having one, then was shocked when I tried one again while living in Boston. I knew it was going to be different when I looked at the crust and it actually looked like real dough. The crust came out much tastier--and much less greasy--than most corner-restaurant pizzas, the toppings were nearly indistinguishable from average pizza, and the sauce actually had a good taste.

Even more impressive, these new-generation frozen pizzas were less expensive than going to a pizza restaurant, even for carry-out. My tradition of ordering pizza for delivery soon became an emergency rarity. Why spend on the order of $20 to get a pizza delivered from a Pizza Hut or a Domino's when with minimal planning a $5 pizza could be kept in my freezer that tasted just as good, and other than preservatives was likely more healthy?

Today, there are a wide variety of what I call "quality" frozen pizzas--and surprisingly, many of them are store brands. I consider No Name frozen pizzas to be every bit the equal of Kraft Delissio, for example. President's Choice even makes a passable frozen Chicago-style pizza. The cheapest brand names may still be awful, but there are very edible options available.

People find it odd that someone who seems to like pizza as much I do almost never eats at cheaper pizza chains like Pizza Pizza or 241 Pizza (that's "two-for-one," in case you're as slow as I am). The reason comes down to the fact that I consider the best of the frozen pizzas to be better than these restaurants, or at least cheaper. If I'm going to eat pizza in a restaurant, I want it to be significantly better than what I can get out of the freezer, and thus I end up going to Italian restaurants or premium pizzerias like Hubby's or Bianco's that I have highlighted this year.

Of course, considering my current policy of not eating out unless I am traveling, I might not be eating much pizza for the foreseeable future.

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