Why is it hard to find good frozen pizza?
Since 1962, when the Minneapolis entrepreneur Pink socks introduced it to American shoppers, frozen pizza is an after-school snack, the quickest way to dinner, a midnight temptation at last.
But over the past five years, frozen pizza has become something entirely different: part of the culinary craft, an authentic taste of Italy, a connection to lively pizzerias like to Roberta in Bushwick, Brooklyn and pizza in Los Angeles and Dallas.
Sale of frozen foods jump during the pandemic, according to IRI and other market research firms promoting premium mass-produced brands such as Thalia of Naples and Table 87and pushing even the most traditional pizzaiolos to the freezer aisle.
The challenge of pizza is to cook each element to peak deliciousness all at once. When ice and shipping are added to the equation, it gets even more complicated. Fresh mozzarella gets lumpy, tomatoes dry out, crusts get soggy.
New freezing technology and affordable access to express delivery made it possible to fit more options into freezers. But they don’t come from frozen food factories owned by industry giants like Nestlé or Rich’s. These new pies are wood or coal fired, hand pulled and made with organic and Italian ingredients.
What they lack in the flamboyance of a Tombstone Roadhouse Loaded Double Down Deluxe pizza, they aim to compensate with simplicity and quality. Like the Starbucks Frappucino and double espresso, makers say, there’s a time and place for each.
Chris Bianco, chef and owner of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, it didn’t even offer takeout or delivery until the pandemic. He now freezes and ships pies directly from his restaurant through an online delivery service golden belly. “Survival is an interesting motivator for change,” said Mr. Bianco, a noted purist who uses flour made from regenerative grains, organic mozzarella and organic tomatoes.
“It’s pizza played at a different speed,” he said of his frozen pies. “I think we could be eating better things that are made for speed, comfort and taste.”
Anthony Mangieri, the founder of Neapolitan pizza in Manhattan, said he’s made every pizza dough ball he’s served in his 30 years in business. But in 2017, he took on a new mission: to create a frozen pizza that lived up to his standards—wood-fired, slow-rising, made with all-natural and all-Italian ingredients—but made almost entirely with automation.
In the United States, industrially produced pies from companies such as In the morning and Red Baron are designed for freezing using dough conditioners, additives and processed cheeses. The crusts are poured with sugar and oil, the dough is toasted, and the sauce and cheese are placed raw to be baked in your oven.
For bakers like Mr. Mangieri, this completely ignores the basic nature of pizza: the slow, natural rise of the dough and the high temperature of the oven to fuse the ingredients and char the crust.
Eventually, Mr. Mangieri found a plant in northern Italy with wood-fired ovens to produce his frozen pies, which he sells under the name Pizza genius. But the factory managers were irritated by his strict rules and sticky dough that stuck the work together. Mr Mangieri, a Formula 1 fan who knew the headquarters of Ferrari, the pride of the region, was nearby, asked the pizza maker to think of his pizza as a next-generation Ferrari engine.
“If we don’t strive to be better, why do we even get up in the morning?” he said.
Especially for products made with unprocessed ingredients, quick freezing is essential to preserve flavor, aroma, and texture. Once limited to factories, rapid cooling technology now has a much smaller footprint and is available to home pizza chains at relatively affordable prices.
When the pandemic temporarily closed the five popular Pizza Delfina restaurants in the Bay Area, the owners, Craig and Annie Stoll, began taking online orders for frozen pizza, making and freezing their own pies, and hauling a truck full of Igloo coolers to curbside delivery locations. What saved the business, Ms. Stoll said, was the $15,000 walk-in freezer.
It’s now possible to order frozen pizzas from some of the best pizzerias in the country, either directly or through Goldbelly.
But it ain’t cheap: Three frozen margherita pies from Pizzeria Delfina, a favorite among four New York Times Food and Cooking staffers in a recent blind pizza tasting, costs $104.95 including Goldbelly shipping. Four pies from Pizzeria Bianco cost $129.95, or about $32.50 per pie. (The same pizza costs $20 at the original Phoenix pizzeria and $24 at the Los Angeles location, which opened last year.)
But pizzas made specifically for grocery store freezers are more competitively priced. Table 87, Roberta’s, Talia di Napoli and Genio Della Pizza charge about $11 for a 14-inch pizza that theoretically serves three people, though two seems realistic and one entirely possible.
Mr. Mangieri said making his Genio Della Pizzas in Italy keeps prices low because heavy ingredients like buffalo mozzarella and canned plum tomatoes are available in bulk and don’t have to travel to the United States.
Ellie Truesdell, who advises and invests in small food companies through her venture capital fund New tariffwas director of new products at Whole Foods Market 10 years ago, during what she calls “the premiumization of the frozen trail.”
While premium frozen items remain more expensive than conventional counterparts like DiGiorno, she said, they provide a chef-driven experience that is less expensive than going to restaurants.
When Roberta’s and Table 87 entered the national market, the visual appeal of their pizzas, the restaurants’ heritage and raw ingredients were so distinguishable from their competitors that shoppers found the products irresistible, Ms. Truesdell said.
However, the whole point of frozen pizza is to go mainstream. Pizza takes up more space in supermarket freezers than any other product except ice cream, and introducing a new product into this space is difficult.
One way to gain ground is to stand out from the competition. Tom Cuco, a longtime Brooklyn restaurateur, started out with a very specific dream: to open a pizzeria that sold coal-fired pizza by the slice. (Old-school pizzerias in New York have been known to like of Totono and John of Bleecker Street makes only whole pies to order.) He opened Table 87 in Brooklyn in 2012 and gained a following for his margarita.
His son Robert said no one but his father thought it was a good idea to sell individually wrapped frozen slices. Although a transaction arising from it step in the show “Shark aquarium” ultimately took off, the slices caught on and are now sold at Walmart, Wegmans and Whole Foods—an enviable retail trifecta.
In addition to the demands of the pandemic, many manufacturers credit Joe Ariel, the founder of Goldbelly, with getting them through the latest hurdles to selling and delivering frozen pizza. The company, which handles orders and deliveries for nearly 1,000 food businesses in the United States, is sending members of its logistics and packaging science team to familiarize each supplier with freezing best practices.
Pizza is the fastest-growing segment on the site, even without the help of the Super Bowl on February 12. Depending on the draw, frozen tomato pies from Coropolese in Philadelphia or pizzas from the chain St of Imo they are likely to dominate.
“People are going to flock to the taste of home,” Mr. Ariel said. “Obviously it’s the experience of seeing Billy Joel in the garden, but you won’t turn down Spotify.”
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