Chain Pizza Showdown
Every month, TEAM SPT gets together for an evening of intense pizza study. Past events have brought us to New Haven, canned tomato tastings and pizza making workshops. Last month we agreed it was time to get our hands dirty and do some serious trench work, so we ordered pizza from all the major chains within delivery distance of my Brooklyn apartment and conducted a not-so-scientific chain pizza showdown.
First up was Little Caesar’s. I thought they had gone out of business years ago, but it turns out they’re the third highest grossing pizza company in the country! Locations are scattered in NYC and really only in low-income neighborhoods in the outskirts of Brooklyn and the Bronx. I get it — they have a “large” pizza (it’s just 14” as opposed to the usual 16-18” large) for only $5 and there’s little to no wait time to get a pizza. It’s clearly going to be a low-quality pizza, but not everyone wants imported Neapolitan flour and San Marzano tomatoes. Fast food pizza is a necessary evil.
Truth be told, I had only had LC’s once before and I completely forgot about it until weeks after we tried it - so this felt like it was my first taste. It was the first pizza of our test because LC’s doesn’t deliver (they’re take-out only) so we picked up a HOT-N-READY® pie. I have to admit, I was pretty excited to finally try Little Caesar’s. It’s the closest pizza to my apartment and I felt guilty for walking past it every day. I was also pretty hungry, so they clearly had the best positioning of the night.
While I’d never eat this again on purpose, I thought it wasn’t the worst of the night. The CSR (cheese-to-sauce ratio) was pretty even. I might even say it was the sauciest of the night. Shredded low-moisture mozzarella has a tendency to slurp up sauce and I was surprised at LC’s moisture level. The crust was floppy and soft, as expected from the conveyor oven bake, and the cheese had a reasonable pull without getting in the way. The pie’s temperature upon arrival was 130 F, which (SPOILER ALERT) turned out to be the average for the night.
Overall, I’d call this a very solid desperation pizza, one you only fall back on when all else fails. You’ll feel guilty immediately upon taking the first bite, but you’ll move on with your life and pretend it never happened.
The second pie of the night was from Domino’s. We wanted to order the exact same pie from each place, but I think this one’s technically a specialty pie. I have a longer history with Domino’s than I do with the others we ordered for this test. My family never ate it when I was a kid. I remember the family mantra “Domino’s tastes like cardboard” and that alone prevented me from ever ordering it even in my darkest hour. Then Domino’s famously changed their recipe in 2009 and I felt it was my job — no, my responsibility — to give it a go. If the new version was an improvement, I’m glad I never had to deal with the old version. A couple years passed and decided it might be fun to get to know the pizza industry better by working some pizza jobs, one of which was as a delivery boy for my local Domino’s. I worked for about three weeks and made just over 100 deliveries.
It was really interesting to see that side of the business and it gave me a clearer vision of what Domino’s Pizza is all about — delivering things packed in cardboard boxes to your house. It just so happens that those things are pizzas, but that’s really their secondary product. Delivery is their first.
That being said, our pizza took well over an hour to arrive and its surface temp was only 128 F, approximately the same as LC’s HOT-N-READY® pizza. But the look and feel of the pizza was entirely different. As much as I hate to say it, this was the best pie of the night. I know I’m spoiling this entire rant by telling you the winner only halfway through, but that’s just the truth. It actually resembled real food, unlike these other things I choked down. If forced to decide, I’m reluctantly choosing Domino’s thin crust pizza above all the others we tried on this fateful night.
Last up was Papa John’s. I remember ordering this once when I was visiting a friend in college in Baltimore. All I remember is being intrigued by the mysterious pepper they throw into the box, but the rest of the experience has been lost over the years. After trying it again as a fully-formed human, I can see why I tried to wipe it from my memory.
The pizza arrived at 133 degrees F, the hottest of all the night’s pies, but it also took the longest. We ordered both Domino’s and Papa John’s using nifty online ordering systems from each company. They were very easy to use and I can see the allure of the system itself since you get to see your toppings assemble on a virtual pizza onscreen. But it’s all smoke and mirrors.
It’s not easy being the last pizza of the night but this one had “disaster” written all over it. I would complain about there being too much cheese, but at least the cheese covered up the disgusting sauce. I would complain about the gross sauce, but at least it added some complexity to the overall flavor. The crust has a familiar fold, but feels more like a novelty pizza pillow than something you eat.
Finally, I have to mention the garlic sauce. Some of my fellow pizza tour guides, who shall remain nameless, requested extra garlic sauce because they find it to be a delicious guilty pleasure. I hadn’t had it before so it was my pleasure to oblige. I wish I thought it through first, because this garlic goop made me question the true nature of humanity. I always think of people as being inherently good, open to shaping along the way. This sauce proves otherwise. Mankind is hell bent on destroying itself one cup of Papa John’s garlic dipping sauce at a time. It is liquid terror.
Pizza guide Miriam passed out on my floor after a chain pizza overload.
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