Friday, August 14, 2015

The Pizzas of Summer 2015!

A whirlwind tour of the best, worst and weirdest pies of the season!

By: Jimbo X

After a long, sweltering, racially contentious summer, I for one am looking forward to autumn. Halloween! Football! Pumpkin Spice Lattes! Random "Friday the 13th" movies on cable TV at 2 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon! Man, fall sure is great, ain't it?

Alas, that's not to say that summer 2015 didn't have some standout moments of its own. Dunkin' Donuts gave us some really yummy Nabisco-branded treats, there was at least one or two good movies that came out at cineplexes, and of course, who could ever forget all of these limited-time-only fast food hamburgers? That said, the thing I remember most about the season that will soon be departing were the pizzas. Hey, when you can't afford to go on vacation, you might as well gorge yourself on carbohydrates, no? With September and chillier weather nearing, I reckoned it was worth our collective whiles to revisit some of the limited-time-only pizza offerings served up by the nation's premiere fast food pizzerias. Consider this your last taste of saucy, cheesy ephemera for summer 2015 -- before you know it, these things are going to be nothing but foggy, semi-nostalgic musings of what once was ...

Uncle Maddio's Pizza Joint's Peachy Keen Pizza!

I am shocked, appalled and saddened by the fact that this is the first time I've brought up Uncle Maddio's Pizza Joint on this blog. Never heard of the chain? Well, they are these quasi-regional pizzeria that specializes in personal pan pizzas that are super-duper customizable. You want a whole wheat pie with blue ranch dressing sauce, goat cheese, sardines and mandarin oranges? At most pizza places, they'd just scoff at you, but at Maddio's, such inventive culinary mayhem is not only gleefully encouraged, but wholeheartedly championed.

The hell is a "Peachy Keen" pizza, you're probably wondering? Well, it's a really delicious white cheese pizza, topped by prosciutto ham and shriveled up chunks of peaches ... with herbs and a nice balsamic vinaigrette swirl for good measure. It may sound gross at first, but folks, this is one of the best damn strip mall chain pizzas I've ever tasted.

Initially, I was sort of turned off by the peaches, but to my jubilant surprise, they actually gelled incredibly well with the rest of the pie. In hindsight, I'm not really sure why that shocked me so much, seeings as how pineapple is easily my favorite pizza topping. It's a bit thin, but it is incredibly flavorful; frankly, I consider this to be more succulent and robust than ANYTHING you can grab at Wolfgang Puck's. If you never tried this one -- a seasonal item part of the chain's Italian Summer -- you might still be able to pick one up at your local retailer, if you're lucky. For the rest of us? This one is definitely one to file away in "The Best of Summer 2015" compartment within our respective memory banks.

Papa John's Greek Pizza!

For some reason, I've just never been able to hop aboard the Papa John's train. I know, I know -- a company that has the audacity to release something called a Frito's Chili Pie Pizza, and my kooky foodstuff-loving ass still doesn't enjoy 'em.

The seasonal "Greek Pie" (what a creative name there, eh?) exemplifies why I've never been a big fan. At best, it's just a moderately enjoyable -- and painfully uninspired -- pie that doesn't attempt anything new whatsoever. It's edible, but beyond that? Yeah, there's practically nothing to write home about here at all.

The crazier thing? I actually like Greek-style pizzas. Feta, black olives and banana peppers? How about hell yeah? Alas, this one just doesn't have that necessary Mediterranean spark. It isn't spicy, it isn't tangy and it's way too salty -- all elements that really kill an otherwise good pizza. Sorry, Papa, but when it comes to "special edition" pies, you really dropped the proverbial ball this summer.

Pizza Hut's Hot Dog Bites Pizza!

Well, you HAD to expect to see this one. A large pizza, flanked by pigs-in-a-blanket like a pro 'rassling "lumberjack match?" That thing is so Internet Is In America, they might as well have just called this damn thing Internet Is In America: The Pizza. 

The basic concept of the pizza is ... well, it ought to be self-explanatory, I suppose. It's a "normal" pizza, for the most part, only instead of a traditional crust, the pizza is engulfed in a circle of kolaches -- in short, a churched up name for "a slice of hot dog wrapped up in bread dough."

It's obvious that Pizza Hut was trying to capitalize on the "weirdo Hipster post-food" bandwagon that's pretty much been run into the dirt by Nabisco and their never-ending line of intentionally bizarre Oreos variations. If Pizza Hut wanted to succeed at being "weird," I'd say they passed the test with flying colors. Shit, this thing looks less like a real-world food than it does something from a nightmare sequence in a David Cronenberg movie.

The pizza, of course, still tastes like a pizza, but the eponymous "Hot Dog Bites" taste like ... well, really, really salty pigs-in-a-blanket. The wieners themselves tasted a little plastic (but then again, that's a hallmark of even the really good hot dogs), but the thing that really kills this one is the "crust." You see, traditional pigs-in-a-blanket work because croissants are typically both fluffy and floury. They usually cushion the wiener, and the sweeter grain taste sort of absorbs the plastic hot dog taste, so in the end, you're pretty much just tasting a dinner roll with a chewy hot dog-like texture. As with Papa John's Greek misfire, the problem here is that the bread is just TOO dadgum salty. In fact, it was so salty, I was convinced the sodium was beginning to roll off the "bites" and onto the actual pizza like beads of sweat ... not exactly the kinds of things you want when tackling a pepperoni pie, naturally.

Keeping with the All-American theme, instead of a Marinara sauce, the pizza came with a plastic cup of mustard. The idea, of course, was for the consumer to dip the "bites" into the yellow gunk, but I decided to take a walk on the wild side and deep the whole freaking pizza in the condiment. Folks, all I can say is this: mustard, by Supreme Court decree, should not be allowed 40 miles near a pizza, any damn where in the country.

As a novelty "event" food, I guess it lived up to the hype. The first few slices were OK, but as the dish got colder, the thing become more of a chore to wolf down. The final few pieces, it was almost too gross to eat, with our without the mustard bath. We all knew what Pizza Hut was trying to accomplish here, but unlike the REAL publicity stunt fast food item of summer 2015, there really wasn't much beyond the corporate-brewed hullabaloo going on here, I am afraid. 

Totino's Buffalo Style Party Pizza!

Why let pizza chains have all the fun? Seeing as how Totino's is no stranger to seasonal frozen pies themselves, how could I possibly do a recollection piece on the summer's pizzas without mentioning their offering to the grand collective this summer?

I don't know why, but I love how the pizza is a "Buffalo Style Chicken" pizza, with the word "style" almost suspiciously sub-scripted out of the box. I mean, does the term "style" really have that much of a negative marketing connotation these days? Also, I was greatly amused by the "Ranch Blasted Crust" Pizza Rolls ad on the back of the box. Shit, that thing is more "wannabe' edgy '90s advertising" than most authentic "wannabe edgy" advertisements from the '90s.

As for the pizza itself, it wasn't bad. Believe it or not, it actually was kind of spicy, which is something that's normally hard for any frozen foodstuff to pull off. Basically the entire pie was coated in a pool of buffalo sauce, but strangely, I didn't feel either a prickly, flaky spice texture or an oily pepper juice texture. So, how did the guys at Totino's manage such a miracle? Eh, it's probably through some sort of "artificial flavoring" witchcraft we really don't want to know about...

A lot of people bake Totino's pies in an oven, but I've always preferred to nuke these bad boys. Inexplicably, I've immensely enjoyed eating these things with uneven melted cheese, so that some parts of the pizza are still kind of unthawed. There's just something about that alternating "mouth-burning hot" and "teeth-chattering cold" dynamic that has always attracted me. Needless to say, we ALL know what one Sigmund Freud would think about that.

So, yeah, I will give this one a mild thumbs up for the buffalo sauce zestiness, but the "chicken" chunks? These were basically just microscopic clumps of processed poultry, really nothing more exciting than the random chunks you'd find floating in your average can of chicken noodle soup. At the end of the day, you're really just paying for a regular white cheese pizza that'll make your mouth water. Then again, at less than two dollars a box, who would be against such a prospect, regardless of the underwhelming meat content?

Uncle Maddio's Pizza Joint's Sunnyside Pizza!

And we return to Maddio's for their other seasonal specialty, the Sunnyside Pizza. And as good as their Peachy Keen permutation was -- and I assure you, that one was fan-freaking-tastic, this one might actually be even better.

Conceptually, this one is even simpler than the peach pizza. It's white cheese (more or less, the same sauce and dairy base as Maddio's other LTO offering this summer,) with crispy prosciutto, garlic, olive oil, arugula and -- this is the clincher -- a whole fried egg. The unimaginative sort I am, I never really though about placing an egg on top of a pizza; thankfully, the artisans/mad geniuses at Maddio's have the kind of brilliant foresight an unlearned commoner like me won't ever be afforded.

This is just a pure flavor-driven pizza. It's extraordinarily tasty, but at the same time, it has a certain lightness to it. It's filling, but it doesn't put you in a carbohydrate coma as do the fattest deep dishes. Every ingredient in the pie just comes together in a unique harmony, and no one taste overpowers any of them. Crispy, savory and creamy at the same time, this was definitely a crowd-pleaser, no matter how finicky or quirky your preferred pizza tastes are. If Maddio's doesn't make this one a PSL-like annual flavor, I plan on rioting in several major American cities -- including the one you live in, or live kinda' close to, but not really.

Pizza Hut's Primo Meat Pizza!

And the last stop on our whirlwind tour of summer 2015's short-time-only mass marketed pizzas? Well, it's only natural, I suppose to return to Pizza Hut, and their (compared to the "Hot Dog Bites Pizza," anyway) suprisingly subdued Primo Meat Pizza.

Long-time IIIA readers know I recently gave up vegetarianism after a good seven years of going meatless. I suppose eating this pizza is kinda like a dude who's been off heroin for a decade falling off the wagon and shooting smack through both his eyeballs. I mean, if you're going to go back into the ball, might as well cannonball as hard as you can into the deepest end of the pool, right?

If the "Hot Dog Bites Pizza" was Pizza Hut trying way too hard to be postmodern, this is the company's meager attempt to pay homage to the old guard. Gimmick-wise, there's not much to mess around with here. It's a basic greasy pan pizza, slightly burnt, and absolutely loaded with dead animal flesh. There's three kinds of pig cadaver splayed out on this thing; had it included bacon, it pretty much would've contained EVERY single kind of pork product you can think of. Hearty, artery-clogging and gleefully traditional, this is the way pizza used to be. It may not have had the glitz or the glamour or the WTF factor like some of the other pies discussed today, but when it comes to classic, fatty and starchy pizza goodness? Few pizzas anywhere can match the unrefined, unpretentious satisfaction you'll get out of this carb-laden sumbitch.

What a road trip, huh kids? We chowed down on pizzas topped with dehydrated fruits, nommed on pies encircled by Oscar Meyer rejects and downed so much damn pepperoni, we may have accidentally mummified our pancreases. 

Sure, one can rightfully argue that these foodstuffs played utter infinitesimal roles in the greater cultural experience of summer 2015, but at the same time, it's pretty hard to not relish the simple ephemera they represented, as well. We can always go back 10 years from now and read news articles and watch videos about the more important things that happened over the last three months, but we'll never be able to experience the experiences provided by these pizzas ever again. Four months from now, you won't be able to walk into a Pizza Hut and order hot dogs. Four years from now, you won't be able to eat buffalo sauce flavored microwave frozen pizzas from Totinos. Forty years from now, we probably won't even have a Papa John's to speak of, let alone his long-forgotten crappy Greek pizzas. You can archive and digitalize ephemera like TV commercials and print ads and even in-store displays, but you can't download what a long-discontinued fast food item tasted like. Scoff if you want, but with these pies, we experienced something as a group that no other peoples in human history ever will.

How unfathomably lucky we all were to have been around for such. Likewise, how unfathomably oblivious a majority of us are to the carbohydrate-doused utopia we will soon be greeting farewell, for all of eternity.


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