DURING THE 1990S, ARTISANAL PIZZA BECAME A TREND AMONG MANY NON-ITALIAN, NON-PIZZERIA RESTAURANTS.
This influx of pizza menu-additions has been interesting to witness, as many of residents of Orange County frequent these specific restaurants for their “boutique” pizza, especially when these very restaurants didn’t open with pizza being thematically in-mind. Restaurants, such as TAPS Fish House & Brewery, Claim Jumper, and Hof’s Bar & Grill, among others, pioneered pizza and flatbreads being sold at American casual diners. Because of this trend, pizza has become a safe addition to menus at a variety of restaurants including fine dining or even juxtaposed against the cuisine of Asian diners—when, otherwise, one might assume it to be too-heavily-contrasting in genre.
We interviewed Joe Manzella, owner of Manzella Restaurant Group, to further explore the history of this pizza trend on his menus.
What was the original menu concept when you opened TAPS Fish House & Brewery in 1999? “Celebration of Seafood.”
What prompted you to include pizza on your original menu at TAPS? We wanted to be many things to many people, so pizza was a natural fit. I also grew up eating my father’s homemade pizza so it was a natural. It’s also a tremendous lounge item.
Were many other (non-Italian) restaurants serving Pizza at the time? When we opened a few spots did pizza: Claim Jumper, Hof’s Bar & Grill, BJ’s, CPK.
How many and what variety of pizzas did you offer? The original menu featured six “Wood Grilled Pizzas,” priced from 7.95-8.95. Jambalaya pizza, grilled vegetable, swampfire, quattro formaggio, Little Sicily, and pepperoni. We had six at opening and they ran the gamut of simple cheese-and-veggie to meat and spicy pepperoni, although they have morphed into other presentations…the veggie is now a Margherita and Little Sicily became Maiale.
How has that pizza menu evolved? Artisan pies really exploded upon the American dining scene at about the same time as charcuterie exploded. Our menu evolved, but slowly. They were all very popular but there are so many different options that we weren’t doing. And we didn’t want to do the CPK “popular” ones like BBQ chicken, Thai, etc.
How does having Pizza on the menu benefit TAPS? It takes the “threat” out of our concept and makes us more comfortable to guests that see hardwood and white linen and freak out. And they do. Pizza is the king of comfort foods and we want our guests to always feel comfortable in our lounges.
Is the dough/crust house-made? Yes, and it has been a community effort amongst the culinary team to perfect it.
Why did you choose that style of crust? I wanted one that crisped up and got deep brown. Soft dough, even when cooked properly, is so unappealing. Floppy pizza gives the perception that it’s under cooked.
What is the average food cost percentage on a pizza? 25 percent, which is actually high, but we use very high quality ingredients; Artisan cheese, cured meat, egg, etc.
Why was Pizza such an essential part of the development of TAPS Irvine that it prompted you to include a dedicated pizza oven? We actually had a small WoodStone oven in Brea for the past 12 years because this is the only true way to do pizza right. It’s also an enormously powerful visual for the guests. For Irvine, we went with a larger oven because we felt the lounge and pizzas would be enormously popular, and it’s happened. These ovens also allow that area of the kitchen to do other foods besides pizzas: baked oysters, artichokes, olives, mom’s meatballs. Pizza was always going to be big in Irvine because of the market and the proximity to Newport Beach and pizza shops there (Mozza, Pizza Nova, etc).
Any advice for other restaurants that want to add pizza pie to their menus? Obsess about the dough and manage its consistency. It seems to take on a life of its own: flat one day, fluffy and airy the next. And never, ever take for granted that the pizza guy truly understands how to bake pizza properly. For whatever reason, so many cooks under cook the pizzas as if having a deep brown crust means it’s burnt. I have to constantly remind them to let the thing cook and that crispy crust is actually okay.